A PUGILISTIC PILGRIMAGE Poet brings new hook to boxing worship Candlelight ritual precedes matches


The red candle stands for blood.

The yellow candle is to eliminate cowardice.

For purity, a white candle burns between the other two.

Poet David Franks is readying himself for a night at the fights.

"He does this every time there's a boxing match," says his girlfriend, Bonnie Bonnell. "Even when it's on TV."

Under the red candle rests a plastic lamb, an iron spike through its head, representing the wounded. A pound of chicken skin is piled beneath the yellow candle's glow. And at the center of Mr. Franks' altar to altercation is a heart-shaped pan filled with raw ground beef.

This, says Mr. Franks as he softly drums the meat with a mallet, represents mercy to the vanquished: "To tenderize the victors' hearts and so the losers aren't turned into hamburger."

The setting in the old Bank Street barber shop where he lives is complete with a long red flower and a pair of boxing gloves. The ritual continues with the playing of music described as spiritual -- Root Boy Slim's "Left for Dead" -- before Mr. Franks recites a Jewish prayer of mourning, and begins a babbling incantation based on a mish-mash of syllables taken from the phrase: "May the best man win . . ."

All of this just to go see hometown favorite Vincent Pettway battle it out with San Diego's Gilbert Baptist for a junior welterweight championship this week at the Pikesville Armory.

Ducking out into the rain with a writer buddy named Glenn Moomau to seek ringside "blood seats" at the armory, Mr. Franks' says of his pugilistic rite: "This is a meditation upon my relationship with physical violence. I don't exalt in violence even though my fondest dreams are for knockouts. This is the only sport I know where the main point is to give the other guy a concussion."

The ceremony at his home across from St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church had its start before he learned to talk. "My father taught me this," he says. "My dad had a brief career as a fighter in the '30s as Maurice 'The Fightin' Physician' Franks. He fought out of Lowell, Mass., when he was going to Harvard medical school. When I was little I'd watch boxing on TV with him -- the Gillette Blue Blade matches -- and that was really the only time I ever spent with him. When you're a little kid, you get thrilled by it, yet I detest violence. That's what I try to think about when I go to the fights -- how you can be so attracted to something you detest."

A lifelong fight fan, Mr. Franks boxed for trophies in Washington boys' clubs as a teen-ager. In the '60s and '70s, he followed Muhammad Ali to the great one's training camps in Florida and Pennsylvania.

And now, at age 44, he lives in Baltimore on his pen and his wits. A book of his poetry has been published by Johns Hopkins Press, and others have been anthologized in literary journals around the country.

On this Wednesday night he arrives at the armory dressed all in funeral black -- except for a blood red tie with a picture of Ali traced into the fabric. Mr. Moomau, a 32-year-old novelist trying to publish his first book, is along for the ride. "David might be a mystic, but I'm just going to watch guys beat each other's heads in," he says.

Neither man leaves the packed armory disappointed after a full card of boxing, ending with Pettway's decision over Baptist for the United States Boxing Association's junior middleweight crown. "It's appalling, but I love it," says Mr. Moomau, sitting close enough to hear the hard right hand of local boy Eddie Van Kirk pound Connecticut's Jose Torres in the gut. "What a spectacle!"

When the evening has passed to the other side of midnight, David Franks searches the crowd for Hall-of-Famer Archie "The Old Mongoose" Moore. Mr. Franks makes his way to the champ and gets his autograph, a treasure he plans to give to his old man, Maurice Franks, the Fightin' Physician.

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