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White Collar, Red Blood

And in this corner, Dr. Lawrence Feldman...



By Josh Noel

The Doc is on the third floor at the East Bank Club, ready to box, but his sparring partner can't be found. That leaves his trainer, a former amateur named Glen Freedman, to fill in. He and the Doc have sparred close to 3,000 rounds during the last three years, so Freedman can handle five more, but he's tired of the Doc's sparring partners disappearing. "You can't get more than one or two guys to spar with him, even the other boxing trainers," says Freedman, methodically wrapping the Doc's hands--around the thumb, over the wrist a dozen times, once between each finger, back over the wrist. "He's no walk through the roses. Not your typical senior citizen if you know what I mean."

At 56, the Doc is no senior citizen, but he is a doctor: Laurence Feldman, DDS. His dental practice is in a converted mansion near Roscoe and Broadway, and though he says he feels more at home in the office than in the ring, he's 1-1 going into his third amateur match. In the first a trader knocked him out in the opening round. In the second the dentist faced off against an architect who battled him evenly for a while but then lost his footing, giving the Doc the few seconds he needed to unload on him and end the fight. Next week the Doc faces Manny Navarro, a beefy sheet-metal worker 20 years his junior.

Freedman slips a plastic guard into the Doc's mouth, pulls padded protective gear over his head, and wrestles a blue glove onto each hand. While Freedman prepares himself the Doc steps back, throwing a few punches at the wall. Freedman calls him over, and they begin sparring. The trainer takes most of the abuse, letting his student have at him, but when he sees an opening he grabs it, battering the Doc with a series of jabs to the head. He does this once, twice, but the third time he gets popped himself and seems a bit surprised. Freedman manages to keep an eye on the clock and after two minutes declares the first round over. The two tap gloves and drift in opposite directions.

"He drops his hands," says Freedman. "Bad habit he's got. Doesn't care about gettin' hit. Some guys feel rewarded when they get hit, they like it. He's one of 'em. Unfortunately."

They run through four more rounds, both of them focusing on the Doc's fight with Navarro. They'll be fighting at a bar on Clybourn called Liquid, while several hundred guys with cigars and martinis hoot and holler at every punch. There are nine amateur fights on the card, but the Doc's will be first--he has to be at work by quarter to six the next morning. "I've seen this guy," says Freedman of Navarro. "The Doc will beat him. But if he makes mistakes he'll lose." Pretty simple.

The Doc's passion for boxing stretches all the way back to childhood, when he and his father watched Friday Night Fights on TV every week. It was an era of boxing that everyone admits is long gone, when the Mafia might have fixed a few fights but most boxers left the ring with their ears intact. Larry Feldman began boxing as a teen, and by the time he graduated from Morgan Park High School in 1960 he was considering a career in the ring. With his parents' lukewarm blessing he went to Miami Beach that June to train at the Fifth Street Gym. He once saw Cassius Clay, who was training to fight Archie Moore.

Feldman lived out of a hotel, where he "met some guys and some girls and partied with them." But really he was there to see how far he could take his boxing, and the answer was not very far. "I sparred with some fighters who were extremely good," he says, "and I didn't stand a chance." Maybe just as important, he realized he wasn't cut out for the boxing life. "The quality of people there wasn't the best. I didn't want to associate with those low-class, animalistic kinds of guys."

So he came home, went to college, and graduated from dental school. In 1967 he began practicing near 79th and Yates, not far from where he grew up. He moved to his current location in 1973. But he does knock people out, working with phobic patients--"extreme gaggers"--who need intravenous sedation before someone can dig around in their mouths. Feldman married, moved to the suburbs, and raised two children. In the mid-80s he rediscovered boxing and began sparring when he had the chance, but he still lacked any formal training. Three years ago his wife suggested he join the East Bank Club, which had a boxing program.

Among its staff was 31-year-old Glen Freedman, a native of Skokie who'd retired in 1990 from a career as "The Jewish Nightmare," during which he earned a 51-18 record and twice won the city's light heavyweight title. A few professional offers came along, but he never bit. "I wouldn't have been much as a pro," he says. "Boxing is a sport where the first three guys are big, and if you're the number four guy, you're a piece of shit." He'd been working as a wedding DJ when a coworker told him that health clubs were looking for people like him: smart, articulate, and experienced in boxing. Health clubs? Freedman laughed, picturing himself at the head of a boxing-aerobics class of 40 people. But the coworker persisted, and eventually Freedman found himself interviewing with the East Bank Club. During the conversation he was told that the club already had one boxing trainer. "I said, 'What's his name?' They said, 'It's not a he, it's a she.' I said, 'I don't want to make any remarks, but I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing here.'"

But they were: training one-on-one with gloves and a bag and moves and the whole bit. He was hired that day. He considers his mix of blue-collar and white-collar sensibilities perfect for the job; he knows how to fight, but he also knows how to communicate. (Or as he puts it, "I can shit with the best of 'em.") Now Freedman is one of three boxing trainers at East Bank. Over the last three years he's given 2,200 lessons, about 40 per week. Half of his clients are women. "There are some tough broads," he says. "And the ones who aren't tough yet, I'll make tough broads out of them." Most come for the workout, though a significant number come just to socialize. One woman he's worked with for two years hasn't thrown a punch in the last year. She brings her gloves but always suggests that they walk on the treadmill. So for 45 minutes, they do--and talk. "It's all about giving people what they want," says Freedman. "A lot of trainers couldn't handle that. They think they have to be the two-time city light heavyweight champ all the time. Well, some people don't give a shit."

When Feldman wanted to train for real, Freedman gladly took him up on it. Last summer, after two years of training, Freedman was impressed enough with Feldman to approach Johnny Bellino, the local promoter who books the amateur cards at Liquid.

After seeing the Doc spar a couple of times, Bellino agreed that he was ready to fight and matched him with the trader. Usually a trainer will scout his fighter's opponent before the pairing to make sure things won't get too bloody. Freedman was scheduled to see the trader spar, but somehow things didn't work out. Bellino assured Freedman of an even match, so the fight was scheduled. The trader was almost six inches taller, 40 pounds heavier, and 20 years younger. He knocked out the Doc in the first round.

"But I don't think he shitted us," says Freedman. "Had I seen the kid fight, I still would have made the match. He wasn't a world-beater. The Doc made a mistake, got hit with a combo, a big right hand and--bam--that was it. If those guys fight ten times, the Doc wins five of them."

The Doc's bout is scheduled for 8:30, but I show up at 6:30. A man standing outside the bar turns out to be Bellino's partner, Howard Frum. He's a jeweler, the "Wanna Buy a Watch" guy who's advertised on TV for years. "You know: 'Wanna buy a watch?' You know those commercials? That's me." Apparently people often recognize him from this explanation, but I don't. He doesn't seem too concerned as he offers me a plastic cigar cutter decorated with the words "Wanna Buy a Watch!!"

I tell him I'm looking for Johnny Bellino. Frum leads me around the bar, hollering Bellino's name. He says he and Bellino have been friends for more than 30 years; they began these boxing events at Liquid to give people a place to drink, smoke, and watch fights. On fight night Frum is responsible for securing the ring and tables and chairs. "Johnny is the boxing guy," he says.

We head back toward the entrance and finally locate Bellino. He wears dark slacks, a white dress shirt, and a green sports jacket, an unlit cigar in his mouth.

"You gotta look like you know what you're doing, and that you don't need any money," says Bellino as he beckons me to follow. For the next half hour he glides from room to room, greeting fighters and kissing women's cheeks. He never slows down, yet a crowd always seems to gather around him. The unlit cigar never leaves his hand except to sit in his mouth for a moment. Bellino is the kind of guy you wish were your uncle, full of stories and insights. He seems to have done a little of everything: he was a naval public affairs officer stationed in London when the Achille Lauro was hijacked in 1985; he wrote sports for the Hammond Times and news for the City News Bureau; he ran for a seat in the Indiana legislature in 1968 as a Democrat, but now he's a Republican. "After you get a position of responsibility, you change your tune a little bit," he explains.

Bellino booked his first fight in 1977, a card full of amateurs at a church hall. He claims that just before the fight, faced with a last-minute hole, he hailed a cab and asked the driver, "How'd you like to make a night's fare in nine minutes?" Since then he's promoted about 70 fights, all amateur, and several of the fighters have gone on to bigger things. Before they were picked for the 1996 Olympic boxing team, David Diaz and Nate Jones both fought on Bellino cards. Many of his fights have been charity fund-raisers, some silly (he paired Danny Bonaduce with Donny Osmond) and some sobering (after seeing a newspaper photo of a gulf war soldier coming home in a casket, he organized a fight to benefit the soldier's widow and children).

In 1981 a New York Times article about Wall Street boxers first gave him the idea to put guys like the Doc in the ring, but he didn't try it for close to ten years. When he matched an orthopedic surgeon with a criminal court judge, the unlikely pairing "packed the house." Bellino paired traders from the Mercantile Exchange with traders from the Board of Trade; people loved it. Now he's decided that this is the way to sell boxing in Chicago: "When we get these businessmen in there, there's a novelty to it. They're exhausted, and it's all they can do to swing a right hand, but the crowd loves it. It fits the modern-day attention span."

Most of Bellino's white-collar fighters climb into the ring once or twice for charity. The Doc is among the first to fight for the love of the sport. "He doesn't have a lot of style," says Bellino. "But he's in shape and he keeps coming. They say he hits hard."

For the last hour boxers have been trickling into the dining room at the rear of Liquid, which has been converted into a dressing room. Most of them are young black or Hispanic men; some are huge, but most aren't. Outside this room they wouldn't look terribly imposing. Everyone here hopes to fight, but except for the Doc and his opponent, the boxers are paired only an hour or so before the first bell.

Bellino sits in the next room with a bathroom scale at his feet. One by one the fighters go to him, strip to their underwear, and step on the scale. When he's recorded the weights of all two dozen fighters, Bellino slips on a pair of reading glasses and begins matching the fighters by weight while the trainers gather around him. During this process the politics of amateur boxing emerges: most of these fighters have dreams of taking this somewhere, so the more fights they can get, the better. One trainer has brought four fighters, and when only three of them get matched he threatens to pull them all. Bellino isn't happy. "George," he says, spreading his arms, "there's no playing around here. We're trying to get these guys fights." Another trainer vetoes a match because he thinks his guy will get pounded and he doesn't want to answer to the kid's father. Of the two dozen fighters, 16 wind up on the card. At a small table in the middle of the room a doctor will examine each of them.

A half hour before the fights are scheduled to begin, the Doc and his trainer enter the room. The Doc looks more like the fight doctor than like any of the fighters, yet he's here in his shorts and tank top, ready to box. A few heads turn. The Doc seems indifferent, though he later admits to being quite aware of them: "I like walking in there when they're all thinking, 'Who is that old fart?' I enjoy that moment in time, the masculinity of the whole room, the macho image, the combative air, the excitement leading up to it."

The fight doctor examines him more thoroughly than any of the other fighters, taking his blood pressure, dragging a stethoscope across his upper torso. Freedman leans in and says quietly, "He's looking for something wrong. If he gets hurt, it's on him. They don't think this is a place for a guy in his 50s."

But the Doc passes and heads out of the dressing room to a table at the back of the bar. Team Doc--Freedman, East Bank weight trainer Brian McCabe, and a few well-wishers--take turns attending to the fighter. Freedman wraps his hands while McCabe, a former fullback at the University of Illinois, stretches him. Freedman barks out instructions he's given a hundred times already. "Make him work....Get him to stand straight up....Within the first 20 seconds, let this guy know he's gonna get hit...." The Doc paces back and forth; he swears this is the worst part of the fight--the waiting. He starts throwing punches into the air, and Freedman is right next to him doing the same thing, but with the grace and speed of an experienced fighter. "You get in a room like this, it brings back the old days," he says.

At 8:30 Bellino gets in the ring, the unlit cigar still in his hand. He warms up the the crowd. "Some guys are Golden Gloves champions," he says, "and some are champions in their hearts." Led by Freedman and backed up by McCabe, the Doc ambles up to the ring. People seem impressed by his age, but during the introductions the crowd favors Navarro, whose home gym is one of the evening's sponsors. The bell rings.

Navarro lands the first good series of punches, an attack to the head that makes the crowd cheer and gasp. Already the Doc seems to be forgetting Freedman's instructions: he's not hitting Navarro very hard, and he's fallen into his old habit of dropping his hands. After taking more abuse than he's giving, he rebounds with a few series of shots to the head. I ask one of the guys fighting later that night who should get the round. "The guy in the red trunks," he says, meaning Navarro. "He hit him more." I ask another fighter. "The old guy," he says. "He was more aggressive."

The second round looks a lot like the first. Navarro dominates early, but halfway through the Doc surges back. At the beginning of the third round he comes out strong. For just a moment, he'll later admit, he thinks he might take Navarro down, if not out. But it's Navarro all the way. He consistently lands solid blows while the Doc's grow weaker. The Doc never goes down, but by the end of the fight the outcome is clear.

Bellino is back in the center of the ring. "I remind you," he says, "Fifty-six years old and 33 years old." There's no official decision, so he asks the crowd to choose a winner. The Doc gets a nice hand, but the crowd wants Navarro.

The Doc strides back to his table, looking none too dazed for someone who's taken so many blows to the head. A small crowd has gathered. "I feel good," he tells them, but then he adds knowingly, "I feel terrible." He shakes his head. "I think he won." A well-wisher responds, "Hey, let's see him pull a tooth," but it's little consolation for anyone on Team Doc, especially Freedman. He stands by the bar, sucking down a bottle of beer, and mutters, "He coulda beat the fuck out of him."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J. Douglas Johnson; Glen Freedman, Laurence Feldman, Johnny Bellino photo by Drew Reynolds.

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