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‘Thrilla in Manila’ not such a thrill at all

This quotation from a column in the Sept. 1 LDN will bring us up to speed on today’s tale:

“Coach Sanders decided that this day would be a fine time for him to ruin my life,” writes one of LaGrange’s native sons, “To do so, he would have me strap on the boxing gloves and fight one of my peers. The first problem with that was that there weren’t any of my peers that I could beat up.”

Those few lines tell it all. I use them, even though there has to be some type of journalistic rule against quoting your own self. But with what happened back in the seventh grade, I might have an excuse for an occasional lapse.

Friends, I want to tell you that I shall never forget that fateful day. Coach Sanders, right out of the blue, grabbed me and Mike Cosper one day in P.E. class and told us to put the gloves on. I don’t know why coach did that and, as far as I know, he never did it again. But, as my luck would have it, I won the lottery that day – me and Mike.

Besides the fact that I couldn’t beat up anybody in all the seventh grade — as you just read from our fine, upstanding columnist — there was another problem with this impromptu “Thrilla in Manilla.”

The problem was Mike Cosper.

Mike Cosper was a problem for a litany of reasons.

One, he was smaller than me. That may not sound like such a bad thing to you now; but, you see, for a seventh grader, the key thing is pride. It’s dignity. It’s being able to hold your head up when you walk into the science lab or the lunch room. It’s walking into class without Anya Bledsoe, Sandy Lindsey, Ruth Newman, or Tony Pippen snickering at you — well, those girls were nice and probably wouldn’t have done that. But don’t think for a second that Pippen, Steve Sawyer, Buster Lovell, Phil Langford (do I need to go on?) and any number of other seventh-grade hoodlums were even a hair above carrying on that way.

Mike Cosper was a problem because if you get beat up by somebody littler than you, then you have to go through the entire seventh grade with your head bowed low, maybe even through the rest of junior high school. You can’t hold your head up in biology or English or the lunchroom or the hallway or the playground or homeroom.  Nowhere.  So, excuse me if I have this little chip on my shoulder toward Coach Sanders.

Coach, why did you do it? Why Mike Cosper? Anybody but Mike. (Read with a whiny voice.)

Here’s another thing bad about Mike: While Mike was little, he was also tough. Unlike me, he didn’t have an ounce of body fat. He was just like a little ball of string: wound tight and tough. There were a lot of guys bigger than me that I would much rather have fought, because at least then I could’ve responded to the snickers with a “Yeah, I gave ‘em a good fight.”

And here’s the worst part about Mike Cosper: Mike was actually a nice guy. He was fairly quiet, didn’t bother anybody and didn’t get into too much trouble. Because he was so nice, I knew I wouldn’t have that added uummpt in my punch that would occur naturally if I were fighting any of those previously-mentioned smart-alecks walking the seventh-grade hall.

Oh, I would’ve loved to have reared those red pair of boxing gloves back and punched any number of those fellas right in the nose and knocked them all the way back to Mrs. Goforth’s third grade class. But those guys were circled around Mike and me to hoot and holler and carry on and cheer for one or the other of us — more than likely for Mike since he was a guy everybody liked, and I was kind of a wise-guy myself, they say.

The seventh grade gathered around and made their bets as Mike and I strapped on the gloves.  We stepped into the ring right there in the West Side Junior High gym, touched gloves and began the best fight 1969.  We fought like we were bitter enemies. We swung with the vigor of a jealous boyfriend. We fought with determination. We jabbed and we swung.  We threw hooks and upper cuts and body punches and nose punches and — by the end — just blind punches until both of our little seventh-grade arms felt like they were going to fall slap off.

But there was no quit in us, not these two seventh-grade champions. I thought Coach Sanders would never blow the whistle.  My arms weighed a hundred pounds, but I kept on swinging — and so did Cosper — until finally the whistle sounded and Coach mercifully put us out of our misery. I’ll never forget what happened next.  Coach put the rest of the class — I use that word loosely — through a grueling physical exercise workout called the “Wheelbarrow,” and he told Mike and me to sit on the bleachers and watch. There we sat, side by side — two lightweight boxers, two seventh-grade gladiators, two champions. Sweat dripping down our faces and rubber arms draped around each other. Ali and Frazier, sitting with heads held high and pride intact that could live to fight another day. I wish I could tell you that I beat my friend Mike to a pulp. I even wish I could say he plummeted me into merciless submission.

That way I could at least play on your sympathies. But the fact is that the fight was pretty much a draw. And that shocked me and the seventh grade more than a couple of Mike’s punches to my left ear.