Lenny “The Rage” LaPaglia sat down at the post-fight conference looking like a man who was missing an important limb, though he didn’t know which one. It had been six rounds and countless number of punches to the head since he had stepped into he ring at the Felt Forum. At the time, the expression on his battered and pock-marked face, complete with a mushy and nearly boneless nose, was making a strong case for his nickname. His skin had the hue of a suntan acquired by sitting on stoops. A one-eyed pirate was tattooed onto his left shoulder, a knife clenched in his mouth.
“The Rage” was the hometown favorite, a 28-year-old light heavyweight from Levittown with a record of 31-5. All but two of his wins were by knockout. He was there to meet a 24-year-old named Art “Zorro” Jimmerson, a good-looking black man from St. Louis whose demeanor, even while throwing quick hooks and upper-cuts, was reminiscent of a bank teller. On paper, with a record of 9-2, he looked like a gimme.
The scene at the Felt Forum, like all boxing contests outside of the narrow shaft of glamorous light thrown by the big money fights, was salty and raw. In the absence of big money, of “Tyson Money,” the stakes of a prizefight narrow to boxing’s essential ingredients. For the fighters it is ego and glory. For the fans, fear and pity.
Floyd Patterson once said that he could never look at his opponent’s face before a fight. He was worried that he might like the guy, or perhaps not hate him enough. One look at LaPaglia’s pre-fight face, its expression and its structure, and it was clear he didn’t have that kind of problem. LaPaglia seemed like a man who had anger on reserve, who could come at an opponent for 10 rounds wanting only to play a furious drum solo over the leather skin of his face until he dropped.
The crowd of a little over 1000 smelled the intensity and when the bell rang at the beginning of the first round, it nearly erupted.
After the bell, Jimmerson’s face still looked conciliatory, but his body was another story. LaPaglia came right at Jimmerson and Jimmerson met him in the middle of the ring. They immediately leaned into one another and began exchanging fierce punches to the body and head. And landing them. Hard ones. In the beginning LaPaglia was earning his nickname like there was no second round. He came at Jimmerson as if he were trying to get to the light at the end of a very short tunnel.
Jimmerson was absorbing a large number of punches, but counterpunching well, scoring with jabs to the head. By the start of the second round, however, his mouth was bloody and his counterpunches less crisp. LaPaglia looked like he might prevail but somehow Jimmerson hung in there. This seemed to frustrate LaPaglia and when the bell sounded at the end of the round, he snuck in a late punch, which prompted a substantial number of boos in the crowd whose interest could not have been more piqued.
As the third round got under way there was a perceptible change in the chemistry of the fight. LaPaglia was no longer imposing his will on Jimmerson. The legwork changed with Jimmerson slowly advancing into LaPaglia’s barrage of punches which, in turn, were punctuated by longer and longer clinches. Jimmerson later explained that this shift was precipitated by a change of strategy on his part. “I started going to the body. My manager told me to try and hit him in his heart,” he said. “I was trying to make his heart beat different.”
By the middle of the fourth round, LaPaglia’s heart was probably beating about as fast as it ever had. He was still landing punishing blows but they were coming in brief flurries. His nose was not the vehicle for air that it once may have been and he was gulping for it as if he were biting into an invisible hero sandwich.
At this point the crowd was going wild. Like all boxing crowds, they were hungry for carnage and they were hungry for intensity. In this case they were getting both. “Tattoo his face, ‘Rage’,” a man yelled above the din. “Make things come out!” It wasn’t until the fifth round, however, that the fight went from ugly to the bizarre. Jimmerson was gaining in momentum, landing combinations while blocking a number of LaPaglia’s shots. LaPaglia, for his part, was looking completely unfazed by the head shots that Jimmerson was landing, and seemed to be mainly battling his own fatigue.
Finally fatigue won and what followed was one of the more macabre moments in recent boxing. LaPaglia dropped his gloves. Jimmerson proceeded to go off on LaPaglia like he was the heavy bag in the gym. LaPaglia impassively took several wide-open shots to the head and the body before getting down on one knee with the urgency of a man about to tie his shoelaces. While taking an eight count, however, he winked to the press corps. “I was trying to sucker him,” he later said.
And he did. Jimmerson, thinking he was coming in for the kill, walked into a hard right that sent him wobbling. He survived though, and seconds later LaPaglia dropped his gloves again in exhaustion. Jimmerson laid into LaPaglia with barrage that sent him to his knee for another eight count.
The display gave new meaning to the former WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver’s comment, “There’s nothing to love about being hit in the head.”
The Rage made it through the fifth round, but in the sixth he could barely put together punches and he dropped his gloves again. This time Jimmerson sent him through the ropes for good with three consecutive punches to the body. When the referee started counting Lenny LaPaglia mumbled something. If it were in Spanish it would’ve been “No mas.” The fight was called at 1:12 of the sixth.
Floyd Patterson also said, “It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself.” LaPaglia walked into the press conference flanked by his cornerman and manager. Most of the ringside press was already there. The murmuring quieted as soon as he came in. LaPaglia’s face, which in spite of the incredible brute pounding it had just received, looked comparatively intact, but was wearing an expression that was almost shocking. He looked like he was on the verge of tears.
Post-fight press conferences at he Felt Forum are held in a fluorescent-lit back room where a table with a microphone is set on a platform. The walls are the cold grey of anvils cemented together. The first words out his mouth were, “I’m sorry.” He attributed his loss to his lack of proper training. “I was out of shape, I underestimated my opponent,” LaPaglia explained. “I kept having to move from house to house,” he said at one point.
The loss has interrupted what was a small-scale comeback attempt. Before the fight, LaPaglia was ranked #28 by the WBC and #8 by the IBF. Suddenly his career may be over.
One of the few ringside veterans who managed any kind of words when LaPaglia turned into a heavybag said, “If this doesn’t kill him now it will kill him later.” Nobody gets to the highest echelons of boxing who shows that little respect for his own head. But less than ten minutes later, he was vowing his ring days were not over.
“I’ve been down before and I’ve been back. I’m down now and I’ll be back,” he said and then quickly continued his mantra. “I’m sorry. I’d like to apologize to all my fans.” He seemed to be apologizing to himself as he repeated this, as if perplexed as to how to approach his next task in the absence of rage.