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This story takes place in the far-gone days of the sweet science, when sports revolved around the three Bs: boxing, baseball, and horseback riding.
Boxing, often condemned as barbaric, is all that and so much more. It is the purest of athletic achievement; lone fighters pitted against each other, using only their physical acumen and oft-concussed wits to knock the bejeezus out of their dance partners.
On September 22, 1927, in Chicago, Illinois, welterweight champion Johnny Fingers and former champion Tony the Butcher faced off in the most anticipated rematch since the War of 1812. Tony the Butcher had lost his wallet on the train and the belt to Johnny Fingers the previous September in a 10-round unanimous decision. Word had it both boxers were out for blood. The fight took in over two million dollars, even with the ticket takers skimming like mad off the top.
Many believed that Johnny Fingers acquired his nickname for the sheer number of times he had broken said fingers in the act of punching other fine gentlemen in the nose. He and his entourage propagated these rumors, as the truth was a source of embarrassment for the fighter. In actuality, he had been called Johnny Fingers since the age of fourteen, when he was caught in a compromising position behind the one-room schoolhouse with Prudence Hanley. When Johnny Fingers said his prayers every Easter, he thanked the Lord that the schoolmarm had caught them when she did and not five minutes later, for he knew there were less flattering nicknames than Johnny Fingers.
Tony the Butcher earned his nickname by working in his uncle’s butcher shop for three nonconsecutive days in 1919.
The two boxers sneered at each another from their respective corners. Johnny Fingers turned and winked at the Prudence Hanleys of the audience, resulting in a sudden swooning epidemic. In turn, Tony the Butcher flexed his pectorals, the mere sight of which, one young woman claimed, caused an unexpected pregnancy.
A microphone lowered from the rafters, and the ring announcer began what was soon to be a legendary radio broadcast. His voice carried the apocalyptic passion of a revivalist preacher and the shameless bravado of a carnival barker. “In this corner, in the red trunks, weighing in at 141 pounds, Johnny Fingers!” The crowd cheered as the limber Johnny danced from one foot to the other and followed it up with the patented Johnny Finger Backstep. The move would go on to be called The Buzz before going down in history as the moonwalk. His fancy footwork created so much friction on the old canvas that it started to smoke. It looked as if Johnny danced in the clouds.
“And in this corner, in the white trunks, weighing in at 146-and-a-half pounds, Tony the Butcher!” Tony made several quick jabs for the crowd, ending with a violent uppercut. The punch’s wave of force shattered a light bulb hanging 30 feet above him, showering his bulging muscles in dramatic sparks.
The fighters walked across the rough canvas and faced one another. The referee told them he wanted a clean fight with no kissing, and the boxers begrudgingly bumped their gloves together. The crowd held its collective breath, and a tiny man rang the bell with a tiny hammer.
Nothing happened. Neither boxer moved an inch.
The crowd waited as long as it could before taking another breath and held that one, too.
“The bell is rung,” the announcer bellowed, “and Johnny Fingers and Tony the Butcher are still giving each other the stink eye! These two mid-sized athletes are so intent on clobbering their opponent that they have yet to move! You could cut through the intensity with a knife!”
But the announcer could not be more wrong. Neither fighter had any intention on knocking out the other.
Johnny Fingers and Tony the Butcher had each been approached by the Chicago mob. A disastrous miscommunication led to both boxers being told to take a dive. For fulfilling their part of the bargain, each was promised enough money to make a nun swear. The two boxers, proud men that they were, initially refused; but they were informed, should they want to see another Christmas, it was in their best interests to lose the match.
Neither man was a coward, but a heady cocktail of greed and self-preservation provided adequate motivation to throw the championship bout.
The crowd started turning blue, so Johnny Fingers danced toward Tony the Butcher and gave him a light bump in the cheek. At the same moment, Tony the Butcher delivered a soft tap to Johnny Finger’s solar plexus.
Both boxers then fell to the ground, flat on their backs.
Half the crowd gasped and half the crowd continued to hold its breath, which confused them all and resulted in hiccups for many.
“One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi,” the referee counted as searched for the appropriate page for such a situation in his pocket rulebook. He counted to the number four before the two boxers lifted an eyelid to peek.
Realizing what had happened, each cursed their magnificent boxing ability.
I should have known better than to lay a glove on the ruffian! thought Tony the Butcher.
Curse these magical hands! Johnny thought. I probably killed the rat bastard!
The boxers each risked opening a squinty eye to admire their handiwork. Surprise popped each boxers’ one eye wide open.
In an effort to cure their hiccups, the crowd began to boo and hiss.
The referee reached the count of six, shrugged, and tossed his rulebook out of the ring.
Tony the Butcher rolled to his stomach and Johnny Fingers did likewise. Each tried to stand up slower than the other, but the referee stopped the count at eight, and yelled “Fight!” before either one could pretend to fall back down.
It is a little known fact that boxers are able to communicate through their punches. By the time a fighter is ready for the championship, he can speak better with a hit than with a lip. In this matter, the sweet science of boxing is comparable to the sweet pseudoscience of telepathy.
Johnny Fingers threw a right hook, easily dodged by Tony the Butcher. The right hook translated as, “The win is yours, good sir.” Johnny added in a feint with his left, which said, “I’ll make it look good.”
Tony shook his head, and telegraphed a roundhouse so badly that people in the back row knew it was coming. It said, “No can do, Johnny. I hate to inconvenience you, but it is you that must win this altercation.”
Johnny jabbed with his right. “No, you.”
Tony jabbed with his left. “No, you.”
A left hook landed, through which Johnny said, “You’re winning this fight if I have to kill you!”
“I’ll see you in hell first, you scalawag!” Tony said with a one-two combination.
They continued to argue in this fashion, and the crowd cheered on the debate.
The bell rang, signaling the end of round one, and the boxers retreated to their corners.
“What an amazing first round!” the announcer bellowed. “The intensity hasn’t let up! Even on their stools, the boxers are staring holes into each other!”
Tony the Butcher had his muscles re-greased as Johnny Fingers got a final hit with the powder puff. The bell rang to begin the second round.
The referee yelled “Fight!” and Tony the Butcher rushed forward and bit Johnny on the ear.
“No biting!” the referee yelled.
“He didn’t bite me!” Johnny said, covering the teeth marks with his glove.
“Yes, he did!” the referee screamed.
“Yes, I did!” Tony said.
“You certainly did not!” Johnny Fingers said, and punched Tony in the groin.
“Stop that!” the referee yelled. “Keep it above the belt!”
“He never touched me,” Tony said, his face green.
“I punched him right in the baby maker, ref, you saw it!” Johnny yelled.
But the referee had climbed out of the ring to retrieve his rulebook.
Johnny prepared to deliver another neutering strike when he saw the five gangsters who had spoken to him. Dressed to the nines, they occupied a front row, each one holding a box of untouched popcorn and wearing a lethal expression. The five men shook their heads in unison, and the message was clear: disqualification was not an option.
Tony cradled the possibility of future Butchers in his glove as he saw his own five gangsters. They each held an unbitten hot dog. In one motion, the five men lifted the hot dogs and mimed slitting their own throats. Tony frantically nodded his understanding.
The referee climbed back under the ropes of the ring, rulebook in hand, but by this point the boxers were again conversing through fisticuffs.
“Something went askew,” Tony said with a right feint, his face still green. With a left jab, he said, “We must ask our comrades to sort it out.”
“How do you propose we do that?” Johnny asked with a half-step and a jab to Tony’s gut. A kidney punch asked, “By carrier pigeon?”
Tony turned his body and used a left cross to say, “Send your corner man.”
“So he can find out I was throwing a fight? And without cutting him in?” Johnny said with a hard tap to Tony’s chin. He boxed Tony’s ear to say, “He’d hang me out to dry.”
“F point,” Tony said, nailing Johnny right in the nose.
The bell rang, and the boxers retreated to their corners.
Tony’s corner man started to reapply more grease to Tony’s bicep. “This is one weird-o fight,” the corner man said. “Something you wanna tell me, Tony?”
Looking up at the hot dog gangsters, Tony said, “Nope.”
The bell rang, and Johnny Fingers surprised Tony the Butcher with a waterfall of punches.
“What are you doing?” Tony said with a dodge of his head.
“I’ve been going at this all wrong,” Johnny said with a flurry of fists. “None of these idiots would believe you could take back the belt.”
“Wait one min—“ Tony began to say with a right hook, but Johnny countered it with a triple combination to Tony’s midsection.
Through the combination, Johnny said, “I’m better off letting nature take its course. You need the money more than me anyway. Or at least your momma does.”
“Leave Mother out of this,” Tony said with a grunt and an emotional punch that Johnny easily dodged. Tony covered his face with his gloves. Johnny was moving so fast, he became a blur and the canvas started to smoke.
“I heard your mother doesn’t like to be left out of anything,” Johnny said, punching Tony in the shoulders again and again. “In fact, I heard from the boys downtown that…”
At this point Johnny’s punches described a scene so lewd, so depraved, so downright obscene, your humble author refuses to write it down.
“MY MOTHER IS A SAINT!” Tony screamed out loud in plain English. The referee, the announcer, and everyone in earshot exchanged uncomfortable looks as Tony pulled back his right fist like he was cocking the hammer of a gun.
Johnny Fingers timed it perfectly. The instant the last syllable left Tony’s lips, Johnny froze in his tracks at the exact spot Tony’s fist expected him to be. The force of the blow shook the coliseum and the needle jumped on every seismograph for a hundred miles. The uppercut lifted Johnny a good three feet off the ground, and he dropped to the mat like a stone, smiling and unconscious.
It was a good three seconds before the referee remembered to start counting, and another two before Tony realized what had happened. His first impulse was to fall down as well, but not only would no one buy it, Johnny already had a two-second head start.
So Tony got down on his hands and knees and tried to wake his unconscious opponent.
“Johnny, wake up!” Tony yelled. He slapped the boxer twice. “It’s me, Tony. Your friend! Get up, old buddy, old pal! You and me, we got a fight to finish!”
“Hey, ref, you gonna stop this?” the announcer bellowed, but the referee was in tears. He just shook his head and tore pages out of his rulebook by the handful.
Tony had gotten an arm under Johnny. Johnny’s feet dangled under him like a puppet with his strings cut, that peaceful smile still on his face. Tony shook him, saying, “Come on, you old faker! Put up your dukes!”
Seeing that the referee was no help, the announcer bellowed, “Folks, I don’t know what to tell you! Tony the Butcher is either the most gracious sportsman I have had the good pleasure of witnessing, or he is so punch drunk that he needs to be cut off!”
Johnny came to just as the bell rang, ending round three.
In the corners, their faithful corner men shouted at the boxers.
“You’re makin’ a monkey outta me!” said Johnny’s trainer.
“I’ve got him right where I want him.”
“Where? Standing over your unconscious body?”
Tony the Butcher and Johnny Fingers simply glared at each other, grinding their teeth.
Two men in white coats escorted the referee out of the ring and to a peaceful location where he would not be a danger to himself or to others. A replacement referee was sedated and thrown over the ropes.
Before the fourth round started, the referee said, “I don’t know what kind of funny business you two yahoos are trying to pull, but it ends now. I want a clean fight.”
“Go suck an egg,” Tony and Johnny said in unison.
The referee rolled his eyes and yelled, “Fight!”
“I wish you hadn’t woken me up,” Johnny said with a feint and a jab. “I was having the most fanciful dream about your sainted mother.”
“Shut up, you nitwit,” Tony said with a right cross to Johnny’s temple. “I’m not falling for your shenanigans again. I’ve got a plan to get us both out of this predicament.”
“Alive?” Johnny asked with a thumb to his own nose.
Tony nodded. “Follow my lead,” he said with a punch under Johnny’s ribs.
Johnny lunged to one side as Tony threw an unintelligible uppercut. Another uppercut nearly took off Johnny’s ear. Sparks fell from above as the shock waves knocked out one light bulb after another. The uppercuts came so quickly that it was all Johnny could do to dance out of the way. The canvas started to smoke again.
As the ring started to darken, the two boxers locked eyes. Johnny nodded his understanding a millisecond before dodging another swift uppercut.
Soon Johnny’s feet were moving so fast that the smoke started to reach the first rows of the crowd. Tony gave Johnny a wink as his elemental power destroyed the final spotlight over the center of the boxing ring. The sheer power of the punch not only shattered the glass bulb, but blew the fuse box as well. The coliseum went dark.
By the time the lights came back on and the smoke cleared, the crowd was in an uproar and the ring was empty. The popcorn mobsters and the hot dog mobsters raced to the exits, but Johnny Fingers and Tony the Butcher were long gone.
Even months later, after the mob sorted out the problem and gave the word that all was forgiven, they never heard from either boxer. The only one to have any indication they were still alive was Tony’s mother, who continued to receive a postcard on Mother’s Day, right up until the year she died. She stopped reading them after the third year, because they all said the same thing:
‘I don’t care what Tony says, I know you’re a whore. Love always, Johnny Fingers.’