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Story pick: The fighting lady

By Brigid Schulte

I know, I know. Boxing. Again. So now you see I'm in that particular writing hell where I feel stuck, and so I keep looking for inspiration.

So - this week's third and final boxing pick of the week: David Remnick's bizarre and wonderful 1987 profile of boxing promoter Josephine Abercrombie.

Remnick presents Abercrombie, who inherited millions from her parents' oil and gas fortune, as nothing if not a study in contrasts. Here she is, in silk, fur and pearls, ringside, watching a bantamweight match.

One of them is her fighter Orlando Canizales, and Abercrombie notices a Nixonian shadow on his cheeks. Not adorable. "I do wish he'd shave before his fights, but I guess they'd drum me out of the corps if I suggested it," she says. Such is her sensibility. She has all the delicate reflexes of a Texas gentlewoman and all the savvy of a ring rat. She is, in spirit, a benevolent feudal lord, Tolstoyan in that regard. When she takes her fighters to charity balls, as she sometimes does, she lets them wear the dinner jackets of their choice, "but I won't let them wear blue ruffled shirts." She once brought four of her fighters to a fancy resort in Florida on her private plane. Five miles above sea level she taught "the boys" the intricacies of etiquette: napkin on the lap, this is the fish fork, this is the grapefruit spoon, don't drink from the finger bowl, etc. "I didn't want them to be embarrassed or uncomfortable," she says. "I'd say' 'No! That's wrong!' They were cute about it. They want to be better."

Remnick goes on to tell the story not only of her charmed and headstrong life - running through four or five husbands before she turned 30 - but how dirty the boxing business is and how Abercrombie hoped to change it by taking care of her boxers both physically and financially.

In one particularly powerful yet quiet scene, aboard her private jet, Remnick captures the larger-than-life Abercrombie, recounting her last husband's affair and the subsequent bitter divorce - which propelled her into the boxing world.

In 1975, the same year that both her father and mother died, Abercrombie discovered her husband was having an affair with Pam Sakowitz. the wife of retailer Robert Sakowitz. Bryan wanted out. The press coverage was bitchy, and the divorce was worse, with the attendant nastiness over Abercrombie's $100 million fortune. Abercrombie tells this story while flying on her plane from Houston to New York for the Tim Witherspoon-Bonecrusher Smith WBA heavyweight title fight. Partly to make her guest feel comfortable, partly to keep herself composed, she tries to brush it all off with that precious sort of irony she has.

"That was not a wonderful time of my life, I must say."

Not wonderful? Not wonderful? After a few moments of letting the jet engines fill in the silence, she lets the facade fall away. "I'd raised his kids for 13 years and my own children, too, so there were five of us. He'd become a vice-president of Monsanto's international division. I was perfectly happy as a corporate wife. That's what I was.

In the end, Abercrombie wants what we all want. Something big. Something to remember. Something to make us feel truly alive. She's just looking for it in the boxing ring.

In Houston she is still watching bouts between, say, a kid fresh out of a trailer park and a weak puncher known as the Fighting Hairdresser. In Atlantic City, she waits patiently as the ring announcer boasts that "Joe Frazier's nephew is here tonight! They call him Tyrone (Puff of Smoke) Frazier!"

So why does she persist? She has skied down mountains, ridden the fastest horses, flashed through marriages, happy and not. She has been just about every place she could ever want to go. What she wants now is the concentrated, thrilling night that, once in a long while, boxing can provide. She wants to be at the center of a night like the one when Joe Louis decked his man before Miss Lillie could settle her skirts, a night when every eye is turned toward two men in a crucible of violence and will. She wants the knowledge that she has done right by her fighters and right by the sport. She wants the Big Night.

"I love the fighters and the competition," she says. "I love fur coats on a hot day, funny hats on strange people, purple dresses, big, gold jewelry, the whole weird, strange life of the boxing world. I love it all. It's adorable."

The story itself is adorable. Even if you're not into boxing. Like me.

By Brigid Schulte  | September 24, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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