NEW YORK -- The Times Square gym overlooks the shady side of 42nd Street, but the Old Man was oblivious to the dangers of the outside world as he worked alone.
He doubled the jab, spinning first to the left, then to the right. They tell him he's 43, too old for this kind of thing, but Saoul Mamby just laughs. The world's oldest active boxer does not laugh at time, though a professional career in its 22nd year has left him largely unmarked except for the swelling above the left eye. There are no gray hairs, no wrinkles, no crow's feet, just the badge from his last fight, Aug. 23.
What he laughs about is this notion that taking punches to the head is dangerous. Danger? The Old Man has been shot at in Vietnam and hacked a cab for years in the Bronx. This was before he became a world champion and boxing was going to make things cushy.
He'll tell you he's still fighting because, "This is the only thing I am extremely good at."
"I've been doing it all my life, and I can still do it," he said. "I can
do the same things I did when I was in my 20s, most of them. Maybe I've lost speed, but I've gained power, and you find shortcuts."
It beats hacking through the Bronx, where he was born, bred and Bar Mitzvahed.
"Drive a cab again? You crazy? That's dangerous," he says. "You see 'em killin' 'em like that? Especially in the Bronx? They're shootin' 'em in the head."
Truth is, he wanted to leave the ring, but then his life went sour. Boxing is tough? Try divorce. Or the IRS. In the ring, the Old Man can defend himself, even when the legs and reflexes go a bit. That's what makes it so tough outside the ring.
"When you're not a winner, you get abandoned by those you thought loved you," Mamby says. "It really taught me a lesson. Some people I gave thousands of dollars when I was on top, but when I was a little hungry, I couldn't get a loaf of bread. Me becoming champion again, or just fighting for it, is telling them all, 'Kiss my behind, and I'm going to make it.' "
Ex-wife Yolande got a lot of the money, then the tax boys asked for $52,000 more. So he continues to fight, continues to look for the last shot, the big payday.
He finished chasing shadows and climbed down from the ring and found Emile Griffith, who had fought until 39, to help him on with his gloves to hit the heavy bag.
Mamby dates back to Stillman's and Gleason's, when he had a little genius named Al Smith teaching him how to slip punches before the opponent even knew he was going to throw them. He was Sweet Saoul then. Now Smith is blind, living in a New Jersey old-age home, and Mamby trains himself because who else knows more about the game than the Old Man? The game has changed. The old days, Mamby couldn't jump rope without attracting a crowd in the gym. Fighters would stop working to study the Professional.
Teddy Brenner, the great matchmaker, once dubbed him a "hot-dog fighter," not meaning Mamby was a showoff but that his defensive style sent fans to the concession stands. Maybe the fans didn't appreciate him, but his peers did.
"See this man," said Griffith, a five-time world champion. "This man is history."
History is full of Old Men. Archie Moore was maybe 51 when he finally quit, and now he trains George Foreman. Bob FitzSimmons was 52, and such former champions from Kid Chocolate and Willie Pep and Joe Brown, Old Bones himself, to Max Schmeling and Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson all went on at least into their 40s.
The best of them all, Sugar Ray Robinson, kept fighting until 44 and died with Alzheimer's. But then the great Stanley Ketchel died at 24 from the bullet of a jealous husband. Life is dangerous.
"I have the body of a 22-year-old," the Old Man insisted. "I look about 27. I can outbox most of the young guys in the gym. Why shouldn't I do it? I'm happy. How many people are happy in what they're doing? People tell me to retire. What for? Because they would?"
Randy Gordon, chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, said he had no trouble licensing the Old Man.
"The doctors tell me his brain waves are absolutely regular, that his cardiovascular system is like a guy 20 years younger," Gordon says. "You see him jump rope. He's as good as anybody you've ever see [Roberto] Duran, [Ray] Leonard, Eusebio Pedroza. The docs tell me he's a physical phenomenon. Dr. Bill Latham said Mamby is the exception to all the rules."
And Thursday, Mamby signed with Dave Wolf, the man who managed Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, so he could concentrate even more on the fighting and less on the finances.
The eyes still sparkle, although the Old Man has seen just about every seamy side of boxing, "the lowest of the low." He's done it all. He remembers it all.
There are only 19 KOs on the 42-23-6 record, but even back when, before he won his World Boxing Council junior welterweight championship belt more than 10 years ago, he figured he had accomplished everything there was when he scored a one-punch knockout, a right hand over a lazy jab.
"Jan. 12, 1980, Tom Tarantino, Atlantic City," Mamby recites. "Fight lasted 18 seconds."
The memory is amazing. He remembers dates, places, purses.
"Some guys don't ever fight and they can't remember bleep like that," he said. "Ain't nothin' wrong with me."
His best fight? His first crack at a title, when he lost to Saensak Muangsurin. "Oct. 22, 1972. In Thailand. They called it a unanimous decision. I won 12 of 15 rounds. Hey, they weren't going to let me win the title."
He finally won it with a 14th-round knockout of Sang-Hyun Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 23, 1980. He was a long way from the Bronx in those days. That's where he began fighting from necessity. It happens when you're black and you're coming home from Hebrew school. Mamby would ask the bullies to at least wait until he went upstairs and changed out of his good clothes before obliging them.
He traveled everywhere, fought everyone. Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Canada, Miami, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Curacao, Nigeria, Indonesia. Lost the title in Cleveland 2 1/2 years after winning it. He never did make the big money.
Came close once. Harold Smith offered him $1 million in 1980 for a showdown with the World Boxing Association's 140-pound champion, Aaron Pryor. Before Mamby could cash in, Pryor got shot in the arm by his woman. By the time Pryor healed, Smith was running from the FBI for embezzling money from Wells Fargo. Mamby had no choice but to crawl back to Don and Carl King, his previous promoter and manager. He had left calling father and son names, but the Kings took the champion back.
He controls his tongue better now, just laughs at the memory of losing his title to Leroy Haley and then watching Carl King leave the ring with Haley whom he also managed.
Aug. 23, 1980. The Old Man had fought everyone on the way up; now he was a faded trophy for the new generation, a former champion to beat and impress the networks. He was an underdog to Larry Barnes, an undefeated welterweight with the energy of a 24-year-old dynamo. Barnes was the home team at the White Plains (N.Y.) Arena, but Mamby busted him up in the seventh, 43 stitches' worth, knocked him down in the ninth and won a split decision.
The Old Man had to take punches, too. Ten years ago, Barnes wouldn't have touched him. But the chin is still there, the chin that withstood a personal hall of fame without being knocked off his feet Duran, Antonio (Kid Pambele) Cervantes, Esteban DeJesus, Harold Weston Jr., Edwin Viruet, Billy Costello, Buddy McGirt.
There was a knockdown ruled against Rene Arredondo, another former junior welterweight champion, but it was a push and Mamby will show you the videotape any time you want to argue.
"I'm a safe opponent," he says, not forgetting for a moment that in 1988 he handed Glenwood Brown, a bona fide welterweight contender, his only pro loss. "I'm not a power puncher."
Almost on cue, Billy Giles and Larry (Tumbler) Davis walked into the gym. They are the co-handlers of the Tumbler's son, Aaron, who knocked out Mark Breland for the WBA welterweight title.
"How about a title shot?" Mamby asks.
"Money, money, money," says Giles, knowing the Old Man was never a draw and, besides, he was counting on a half-million for Davis to defend against Meldrick Taylor in January. "Why don't ++ you fight Simon Brown [the International Boxing Federation champion]?"
"Spoke to him the other day," the Old Man replies. "I think he's going to fight Glenwood Brown."
The third 147-pound champion, Maurice Blocker of the WBC, had won a 10-round tuneup against Mamby in his last fight before dethroning Marlon Starling last month.
"Busted him up, too," Mamby says.
The Old Man says he didn't think the Davis camp would ever accept him.
"They know I can beat Aaron," he says. "The Tumbler was my sparring partner before I fought Duran. May 4, 1976. He knows what I can do."
He says he was "obsessed" with fighting again for the title at 43.
"Tell you the truth, I don't want to fight Simon Brown," he says. "He's the best. Simon is very strong. But he can be outboxed. I don't have speed, but I can outthink him. If I had to fight him I would.
"Can't understand it. No young fighter will admit some 43-year-old guy can whup his butt."
He said the IBF was going to return him to the ratings for the first time since 1985.
"I never dreamed I'd still be fighting at 43. The guys who came up with me have long since disappeared," he says. "Guys who came after me, they're gone, too. I don't try to question it. I just enjoy it."
He has been working as a combination sparring partner and assistant trainer with Charles Murray, a promising 140-pounder, over in Newark, N.J. Says he feels obliged "to pass on my knowledge."
But he's not ready for full-time work as a trainer. The Old Man is still a fighter.
"I won't say it's my job," he says. "It's my enjoyment."