The Niki Hoeky Boys
The fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was scheduled for the spring of my sophomore year. Promoters dubbed their match the “Fight of the Century” because neither fighter had lost. Ali was a great promoter. He called Frazier an Uncle Tom and predicted the KO round. Life and Look featured the upcoming battle, including photos from their Olympic moments, roadwork, and sparring sessions. There was a picture of Ali confronting his opponent in Frazier’s gym. Many fans felt Ali should still be champion.
My father believed Ali was hiding behind religion. “Funny,” he said, “Ali wasn’t a Muslim before Vietnam.” Dadio despised draft dodgers. He’d volunteered for World War II and didn’t think men should wait to be called up.
I wanted Frazier to win. I identified with him because being an underdog was something I understood. I admired Joe’s courage going up against a bigger man and wished I were more like him. I’d been pushed around by bullies in the boys’ locker room but lacked the courage to raise my fists.
Dadio came home early the day of the big fight. He flashed three tickets. He said “the three men in the family” were going to the Honolulu International Center, where the Fight of the Century would be broadcast. He’d made dinner reservations at the Ranch House.
My mother put on her fake smile. She told us she’d make do with a TV dinner while Jenny, my kid sister, ate canned spaghetti. Being excluded from the Ranch House bugged her.
Troy followed me out to the Olds. I flipped the passenger seat forward and climbed in. My brother put the seat back and flopped down. Dadio backed out of the driveway while Troy fiddled with the radio. My mother wasn’t in the doorway giving her customary wave. The door was closed.
Dadio showed Troy our ticket stubs. My brother tiptoed, scouting the auditorium. The HIC was oval-shaped with a cement floor and hydraulic steel doors. I smelled popcorn, cigarettes, and pakalolo. Smoke fogged the ceiling. Boxers fought a prelim on a jumbo screen in the rafters.
My brother found our seats and I sat between him and Dadio. The odor of my father’s hair pomade made me remember pain. I felt funny being at a fight with the man who’d first beat me when I was a three-year-old, for clogging up his toilet. His uncles had beaten him as a boy, yet he somehow failed to comprehend he was repeating the cycle. He felt, through the power of belt and fists, he could mold my character.
The HIC buzzed with gossip. The men looked blue-collar. A contingency with orange Terminix shirts guzzled beer from cups. Boys gobbled hotdogs and popcorn. A chant of “Ali, Ali, Ali” echoed through the arena. I felt part of something bigger, as if our country’s future hung in the balance.
“Can Frazier win?” I asked.
“If he takes the fight to Ali,” Dadio replied, itching his nose. “But he’s gotta get inside that reach. Frazier’s the slugger and Ali’s the boxer.”
“Were you a slugger?”
“I was a boxer.”
“Yes. But I didn’t dance.”
“I wanna hotdog,” Troy said.
“No,” Dadio shot back. “I want you saving your appetite. Remember, we’re going to the Ranch House.”
“Even if Ali wins?” I asked.
“Even if he wins.”
“How ‘bout popcorn?” Troy pressed.
Our father gave him a dirty look. “That crap fills you up more than a hotdog.”
It was time for the main event. Ali, dressed in a blood-red robe, made his way through the Garden crowd. The HIC fans stood. So did we. Ali ducked through the ropes and threw jabs. Angelo Dundee, his trainer, removed Ali’s robe. Ali wore red trunks with white trim.
Dadio stuck a hand in his pocket and jiggled coins. “Here we go,” he said, “here we go.”
I jogged in place to ease my excitement. I fired a jab over the head of the man in front of me and faked a hook to Dadio’s belly. He grunted. Sometimes we did fake boxing at home, where I threw a slow left and my father countered with a lazy right. I was two inches shorter than my hapa haole father. My brother was three inches taller than Dadio—he didn’t seem related to us because he took after our Irish mother. Troy resented me. I was getting better grades, and he despised the scraps of praise our father tossed my way. Despite not liking me, Troy feigned brotherly love in Dadio’s presence. This made me think that he might become a great actor.
My brother blamed me for things I had little control over. I wasn’t alone. He’d demoted Chuck Marsland from best friend to acquaintance for making the volleyball team. With my brother, you started out with 100 points. Deductions soon followed, until the subtractions turned you into a rival. I’d entered his League of Enemies before junior high. The straw that had snapped the camel’s back was the Christmas our father gave me a microscope. Whenever “big money” figured into the presents given to Jenny or me, Troy compared our gift values to his own. Financial discrepancies not favoring him brought grudges. Money was love to my brother, a belief he’d learned from my parents. I was worried about the man my brother might become.
Fans booed Joe Frazier as he made his way to the ring. He slipped through the ropes, sporting green trunks with yellow trim. His thighs were heavy with muscle and his biceps popped as he hurled practice hooks. Frazier had a defiant look. Both fighters wore white boxing shoes, but Ali had red laces. They met in the middle of the ring for pre-fight instructions. Ali glared down. Frazier’s eyes said he’d speak with his fists. The ref warned about mandatory eight counts and neutral corners.
Troy elbowed me. “Ali,” he said, “in six.”
“Wrong,” I said.
The bell rang. Ali danced and flicked out his long left. Frazier bobbed and weaved. Ali quit dancing in the red corner and connected with a lead left and an overhand right. Joe kept coming. A right uppercut struck Frazier’s jaw. He wobbled. I prayed my fighter would last. Even if he lost, I’d still consider it a victory if he hurt Ali. The fighters made me think of Rock’em Sock’em Robots, the toy robots that knock off each other’s heads. A left bounced off Frazier’s head. Ali followed that up with a brutal right to the cheekbone. Frazier smiled through his mouthpiece. The bell rang, ending the round. I sat back down with my father and brother. Burt Lancaster and Archie Moore were our ringside commentators. Highlights played. An overhand right snapped back Frazier’s head. A Frazier hook slammed into Ali’s belly. “Frazier is really unrelenting,” Lancaster said.
“How can Frazier keep coming like that?” I asked my father.
“Determination,” he answered.
Determination had shaped my father as a boy. His drive to excel in school was motivated by the fear of turning out like his uncles. They were a trio of failed boxers earning meager wages training boxers at CYO Gym. At first my father planned to fight his way out of the slums and begged his uncles to train him. After training for two weeks, Uncle Sharkey put him in the ring with a pro. Fearless Frankie beat my father mercilessly for three rounds, shattering two ribs and cutting both eyes. But it had taken courage for a kid to hang in there with a ranked middleweight, and I’m sure my father considered surviving as something to build on in the future.
The bell for Round 2 sounded. Frazier took five shots before landing a left hook. But it was a good hook and it backed Ali up. Life had battered my father the way Frazier was getting hit in the ring.
“Frazier’s got guts,” I said.
Troy smirked. “More guts than brains.”
Frazier didn’t go down after a flurry of brutal combinations. He even dominated Round 6, the round Ali predicted his KO. “Joe’s just murder in there,” raved Burt Lancaster, “he’s one of the toughest men you’ll ever see.” Ali stood flatfooted against the ropes. The Fight of the Century was a grueling display of punishment, an epic battle waged between two black men born and raised in the South. Ali looked like a big brother toying with his sibling when he extended his left and squished the glove against his opponent’s face. An “Ali, Ali, Ali” chant resonated through the Garden and Round 7 ended. Ali raised his arms like a gladiator acknowledging the mob.
Ali covered up during Round 8 and leaned against the ropes. Joe hammered away with body shots. A rare HIC chant of “Joe, Joe, Joe” started.
I popped up. “Joe, Joe, Joe!”
My father got up too.
Troy remained seated. I could tell he didn’t like us standing together rooting for the same fighter. There was a hurt look in his eyes, as if he suddenly recognized I was the favorite.
We stayed on our feet after the bell sounded.
“Frazier’s a little man,” Lancaster said, “but he’s like a Sherman tank.”
Seven rounds remained. Dadio seemed to shrink beside me, as if the air keeping him inflated had been let out. He sunk into a slouch—he seemed old and vulnerable. I wanted to shield him from danger at the auditorium and in the world beyond its steel doors.
Round 9 began. Ali smashed Frazier with left-right combos and vicious uppercuts. Frazier’s face was a mess of welts, but his legs looked as strong as iron. His skin gleamed like an engine running on premium. A pulverizing right to Frazier’s head stalled his advance, and a collective “ugh” resonated through the HIC.
Dadio shook his head. “Frazier’s pau.”
But Frazier made it through Rounds 9 and 10 by dodging punches. In Round 11, he cornered Ali and nailed him with a left hook to the jaw. The Garden crowd went nuts. Ali stumbled around the ring with Frazier in hot pursuit. Ali’s eyes looked glassy and his hands were down.
“KO!” Dadio called out.
Frazier threw a wild left. The boxers clinched. The bell rang and Ali staggered back to his corner. “Frazier really clobbered his man,” said Lancaster, “he hit him with everything in the book.” Dundee screamed at Ali but there was a resigned look in his fighter’s face.
“Round 12 is it,” my father predicted.
“It’ll go the distance,” Troy said.
Dadio cleared his throat. “Ali’s dead on his feet.”
Ali surprised my father by making it through Round 12. The closing rounds were filled with clinches and neither fighter got into trouble. In Round 15, Joe unleashed a wicked hook that found Ali’s jaw. His opponent dropped. I hugged my father and he hugged me back. Ali took the mandatory eight. I’d wanted him to lose but I felt bad seeing him fail. He was human after all and could get hurt like any one of us. Frazier couldn’t finish him. When the final bell rang, everyone knew Joe had pulled the upset. On the screen, policemen struggled to restore order in a ring mobbed with sportswriters, fans, and the boxers’ entourages. Burt Lancaster said Frazier was slumped in his corner. Dundee unlaced his fighter’s gloves. Ali lowered his eyes when the announcer read scores, giving Frazier a unanimous decision.
It was nine when we arrived at the Ranch House, a family restaurant halfway between Kahala and Koko Head Crater. The Wild West theme featured a life-size wooden Apache with a hatchet guarding the register. Waitresses in petticoats zipped by, carrying trays of grilled meats, ranch fries, and baked potatoes. The aroma made me hungry. Murals of cowboys were painted on the beige stucco walls, everything from cowpokes driving cattle over the Rio Grande to broncobusters getting tossed into the sky by wild mustangs. Cowhides, bridles, and stirrups hung off wooden support posts and overhead beams. The décor included round tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, candles flickering in kerosene lanterns, and leather vases crammed with breadsticks. The head of a longhorn bull was mounted above the saloon doors to the bar. The only thing not Wild West was a huge fish tank opposite the Apache.
Mr. Spencer, the blond manager, led us to a table beneath a mural of a cowboy holding a steaming branding iron over a calf. My father called the manager “Spence.” Spence enjoyed flirting with my mother and was disappointed she wasn’t with us. My father said we’d come from “the big fight.” Spence chuckled. He told my father riding Brahma bulls was “far more macho than boxing with pillowy gloves.” I sat between my father and brother. Troy and I gushed about the fight like kids whose football team had defeated a favored rival. But I knew my brother was sore. I think he saw himself as Ali and me as Frazier. He probably identified with the rebel in Ali and considered me an Uncle Tom who’d waste my life trying to please our father.
Troy did his “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” impersonation. Dadio said he sounded exactly like Ali. I threw a slow motion punch that found my brother’s jaw and he slumped over the table. Our father seemed happy in the warm surroundings of the Ranch House, and I knew Frazier’s victory had restored order to his universe. A blonde cocktail waitress in a buckskin mini served my father his martini. We all checked out her legs as she sauntered back to the saloon doors. A buxom redhead arrived to take our orders. Dadio insisted we all have porterhouse steaks, instead of him ordering his usual plank steak and dividing it up. “You know,” he told us, “when you were little boys and your mother and I took you here, we had to reserve that table next to that tank so you could watch the fish. Otherwise, you’d be running outside and chasing each other all over the restaurant.”
“Saint Vitus Dance,” I joked.
“We called you ‘The Niki Hoeky Boys,’” our father chuckled. “What one didn’t think of, the other one did.”
“Did we get invited back to parties?” I baited him.
“Never. I remember you drowning the birthday boy while Troy hurled himself off the Foytich’s roof into the pool.”
“Just goin’ it,” my brother laughed.
“After dinner,” Dadio continued, “we’d stroll to that big park where McDonald’s is now and you’d both go, ‘Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah,’ teasing me to chase you.”
“Did you catch us?” I asked.
“Most of the time. But remember, that was after a big meal and a coupla drinks and there were no lights in that park. It’s a good thing I never fell into a hole and busted an ankle.”
I liked it when our father told us the old stories. It grounded the night in happy moments. Even though we’d heard them countless times, we still smiled.
Troy snapped off the tip of a breadstick. “Remember the monkeys?”
“Yes,” Dadio said, “in that big cage out back. The owner got rid of them after that big male bit him.”
“Did he get rabies?” I asked.
“No. I don’t remember any rabies. Monkeys are by nature very aggressive. They’ll bite for no reason at all.”
“Bet he teased it,” Troy said, munching his breadstick.
Our father gulped his martini and smacked his lips. “Well,” he replied, “if he did tease that monkey, he got what he deserved.”
It felt good being with my father. His mind wasn’t churning over legal problems, and he wasn’t hunting for broken things to fix in the house. The Fight of the Century had jolted him back to a joyful present. His sons had become, if only for this one night, the closest thing to friends he had. He praised our waitress for her courteous nature. He told Spence on the way out to give his compliments to the chef. I understood what my mother had seen in him all those years ago in Boston. He was the dashing major from the World War who could dance circles around her other suitors. He was the only one offering a lifetime in paradise.
Troy and I walked out of the Ranch House with our father between us. Our strides matched as we marched the blacktop. A half-moon lit up the white canvas top of a covered wagon in the parking lot.
“Chase us,” I said, “for old time’s sake.”
“Still a little strip of that park left,” said Troy.
Dadio unlocked the passenger door. “You’re both too fast for me now.”
I climbed in back. Troy rode shotgun. I sensed our father’s pleasure palling around with us. He’d admitted to me he had no time for friends because of the demands of his job. I suspected another reason. He’d developed a deep suspicion of people and their motives, one rooted in his hanai days. It must have been agony knowing his mother had refused to raise him. We headed up Kalanianaole Highway and passed Star of the Sea. I gazed through the rear windshield—the moon followed along. We were minutes from Dadio’s old stomping grounds in Kaimuki, a town that had left an indelible mark on his soul with its doses of cruelty and shame. I wished on the moon, praying for a way to keep the good feelings between my father and me alive just one more day.
hanai: raised not by parents but by extended family, usually the grandparents
hapa haole: part Hawaiian and part white
Kirby Wright was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is a graduate of Punahou School in Honolulu and the University of California at San Diego. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Wright is the author of the companion novels PUNAHOU BLUES and MOLOKA’I NUI AHINA, both set in Hawaii. He was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of Hawaii.