Here was a champion before he closed his hand into a fist. The boy's gumption was like the full steam of a locomotive. Plus he was a born liar.
In flat Indiana his father told him, "Falsity's in your blood"-with a voice deep and dark like a thief's pocket. "Go and make yourself someone finer." Before too long the boy made himself several someones finer.
When we pick up his story, he liked to think he'd never been Virgil Selby, and he certainly wasn't yet St. Corkscrew LeFist, or the other empty title he'd come to call himself. In December 1899, on the happy morning he earned lasting fame, this top-notch fibber, "scientific" brawler, future political hopeful, sometime poet, jewel thief and movie star was just about always McCoy.
McCoy had a wooer's slicked-up brown hair and the sweet temper of a lucky man. But even using that celebrated name the kid was slight, a cousin to the ribbed washboards women had in those days: not an ideal case for a guy intent on the welterweight crown. O, ambition!
"It's the hour for Kid McCoy," he was laughing, and the look he gave the mirror weighed more than he did. "What he's been expecting all these years and here I am to delight in it." This was one of the last mornings of that century, and who'd have dared say the twenty year-old flimflammer couldn't have taken the world before sunset?
Picture our milieu: Ronny and Ray's Sports Club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan felt about a hundred sticky degrees any season of the year, more or less suffocating, sweat heavy in its dead air. This was the gym the zealous went to-unpleasant enough to worry your skin and the one place in all New York McCoy felt relaxed. He had his own latchkey, and since six a.m. the battler had been waiting inside for the welterweight champ Tommy Ryan, the sort of pug whose head echoed if you tapped it.
By seven, the gym was still mostly empty. A bunch of us straggled in and out, though, trainers and towel boys and the fighter himself, and it was all of us who were responsible for spreading this story, even if accounts fail to mention that. Does the bible tell you about the beetle who took note from the manger?
"You know something, fellows?" McCoy was shirtless and scrawny and all keyed up as he boxed shadows in the ring. Most people still knew him only as the sparring partner Ryan had given a humiliating lesson in boxing a few years earlier. "Come ten minutes' time," he said, "I'm going to start gathering the bricks to build my American Dream."
One of the towel boys said he didn't know lying was part of the American Dream.
"Where you been?" And McCoy gave the littlest of smiles, which a stranger might have mistaken for cynical, or an expression of menace. I recognized it as McCoy's self-possession getting the better of his giant enthusiasm, and I fell in love with the man for the thousandth, the ten thousandth time.
The champ Tommy Ryan finally turned up with his pretty if plump new wife Eleanor on his arm. "'Zounds, McCoy," was the brawny Champ's hello, his voice mild and innocent as the look on his guilefree face. His hair was a haystack. "Jab high," he said.
"Rabbit-punch low," answered McCoy-this was some dead language from a brotherhood long gone.
"What's all that to-do in your telegram? You get me here for a little of the old..." Without letting Eleanor's hand out of his, Ryan pantomimed the act of sparring. (Tommy Ryan was the finest welterweight breathing and floored by the soft of one woman's hand.) Over and again the champ blinked his left eye; at thirty, he had a crushed duct. A tear waddled down his shaven cheek.
"Hello, Mrs. Ryan." McCoy could show a lot of warmth toward anyone. "I didn't expect to see you"-although of course he had expected her. "Now, Tommy," he said, "I have a big proposition, champ, that's why I asked for you." McCoy made sure not to look at Ryan's terrible huge fisted hand.
"Ooh, a proposition!" Eleanor Ryan gazed at her husband even when he wasn't looking her way. "It sounds an absolute pip, Thomas." Eleanor was a twenty-six-year-old schoolteacher who read poetry, and was therefore in a state of high romance all the time. (Don't tisk tisk. In my century an old pug could insult a girl and not have every female from Seattle to Miami take it personally.)
"'Zounds, McCoy," said Ryan again, climbing into the ring in his street clothes, his smile a show of nothing more genial than some muscles in his cheeks.
"What're we talking here, McCoy?" Ryan began to circle McCoy absent-mindedly, cutting off the space between the skinny kid and the ropes, dukes up. Even wearing buffalo-hide ankle boots and an overcoat with chinchilla lining, the champ was at all times a fighter. Ryan's punching knuckles were clearly thinking: Let me at that skinny McCoy.
"A benefit exhibition," McCoy said, himself a source of energy bouncing on its toes. Imagine a whirlwind coiling this way then that across the canvas. "For charity and it wouldn't count. We'd stage the whole thing."
The champ stopped to stare into McCoy's bobbing face. "Hey, you got a black eye or some such?"
McCoy didn't quit dancing; more life in him than a congress of Ryans. "Who would be fast enough to tag me, Champ?"
"You got like rings around your eyes, McCoy. Maybe it's you're so skinny."
"Skinny enough to give you a run for your..." Sometimes for effect McCoy didn't finish his sentences. He'd borrowed the affectation from the great Chinese flimflammer Johnnie Gold. "I've gotten better than you know, Tommy," he said.
Other undersized pugs would find a lesson in McCoy's shuffle, his spindle legs, in the spiral of his trademark coil punch. If every ounce of the kid weren't in constant motion, pent-up energy might have jiggled his insides off their tendons.
"If that's your say so," Ryan was sighing, and from his voice it was plain the champ still saw Kid McCoy as the sparring youngster who caved at the hint of punishment. Ryan had earned immortal renown with his 76th-round knockout of Mysterious Billy Smith in 1895.
"Now, for real, Kid," Ryan was saying, "what benefit?"
The champ'd remained undefeated in forty-six fights over ten years. (He too had taken a ring name: Ryan was born Joseph O'Youngs, and for a short time he'd gone by "Nonpareil Andrew Chiariglione." Now some called him "The Stinging Bee.")
McCoy said, "Raise money for immigrant literacy or some other bilk. It's some show next week." The boy's cheeks had gone shiny with the exercise. "A pretend fight, these guys are proposing for this charity set-up. 'Figure a little magnanimity on your part could make the newspapers quit hating you. The ones who call you 'The Mick.'"
"'The Mick who's none too quick.' Ain't that what it is?" Ryan looked around the dusky gym as if hunting for unfriendly journalists. He saw only his schoolteacher of a wife and a few towel boys in unlit recesses. "Ah, what'a penny-a-liners know about the ring game, huh?"
Eleanor, rising on tiptoes, cut in: "A fight with no pay day, Mr. McCoy?" She scrunched her little nose as if calling to mind something gone to rot. "I hope you'll take no offense, but I wouldn't imagine 'free of charge' is your cup of tea." Her blouse-sleeves showed a peek of her bare forearms, and the skin was awful pimpled.
"Mrs. Ryan, it's not really a fight, and it doesn't have to be free." McCoy bowed his head at her, as if at any time she might start treating him with respect. "'Way I figure, we arrange it about as violent as a ballet. But that's not all." He now stood still enough to put his arm around Ryan, but his fingers still tapped a pulse on the Champ's shoulder. "The guys who want to organize this fuss are due here any minute, a Mr. Hill and a Mr. Overton," McCoy said. "They're talking a thousand for you, Tom, and five hundred for me. 'Figure together we could squeeze them for a lot more; scheme out a way to up their ante. Of course, Champ"-here McCoy smiled his widest of the morning, showing a set of surprisingly gray teeth-"it's up to you. But I heard Tommy Ryan could flimflam a little in the old days, and it'd be good press against those who say marriage has changed you."
Eleanor squinted at her husband. She chewed on her lip as if it were bubble gum.
All the while McCoy eyed her. He had such acute sensitivity to the changeable ambitions of men-and women-it wouldn't have surprised me if he was of the same cloth as those balloons that tell specialists which way the wind's blowing in China.
Right before Eleanor next spoke she inhaled as if she were about to walk through smoke and didn't want to waste air. "Thomas," she said, "maybe you and Mr. McCoy should fight, even if it's for free."
"Free?" McCoy said. "Oh no, ma'am, I don't fight boredom for free. I just reckoned there was some angle-"
"Eleanor," said the Champ, "darling." Another teardrop tiptoed the length of his cheek. "I haven't trained a whit since the honeymoon. I could barely spar out my own grandma next week."
"You're modest, Thomas, lovelily so," said Eleanor, the easy-grader part of her nature showing. "But it shan't be a real fight, isn't that so, Mr. McCoy? Play acting, so to speak. And for charity." She made sure she'd caught her husband's good eye. "Charity looks quite good, especially if there's no chance of anyone getting hurt."
McCoy saw his opening. "I suppose that's right, Mrs. Ryan." He scratched at his chin to look contemplative. "Like a theatrical production, we could do it. At any rate, this pair of malooks Hill and Overton wants to pay us real money. If it's for a right cause anyhow-"
"Who'd put up a thousand dollars to see me fight you?" The champ's voice crept on tolerant contempt. His genius for wearing down rivals in the ring had been unequaled in the budding history of this mad sport.
Here, I thought, McCoy would mention that he'd had his own big victories of late. Knocked out Honeyblast in six. Dago Frank in two. But his smile stayed relaxed-if a curious relaxed. Still, his light eyes clouded just a bit. The smallest reaction.
As McCoy turned again to Eleanor, the shadow had passed from his face. Mrs. Ryan still looked to be in favor of this "charity event"; the key to the whole flimflam was getting her approval.
"I can hardly fathom it myself," McCoy said. "The money's as good as the cause." (Later, when real success came, he would delight in a life Selby had only dreamt of: Selby had squirreled away cash, but as Kid McCoy he kept enough on his person after one joyous streak to add up his pockets and find $40,000.)
"Doesn't it sound too good, though?" Ryan said.
"Well, Tommy," McCoy winking, "maybe I mistook you for someone else. If you've still got that champion's belt of yours, check it. See if you aren't the winner I took you for."
"Listen," the champ growing heated, "I think I know who I am, McCoy."
"It's tricky, though. Could be today you find yourself a different guy?" And next, gently, "Tommy, you've forgotten more boxing than I ever knew, but here's a chance for us both to get the cash without breaking a..."
Ryan tilted his head. He breathed in through his nose and out again-his big eyes trained on McCoy. The champ held stock still; then he started into the faintest of smiles. There it was: the Sucker's Smirk. It often turns up in the eye first, a flicky show of happiness. Next it skates down the jaw, wavering near the mouth like a bee around a hive, and soon it riffles under the flesh to shiver the chin. In a good flimflam the sucker's whole face will burst like a potato when it's cooked.
"Darin Strauss is one of America's handful of young, great novelists...If his debut was a carnival, this is a World's Fair. It's that ambitious, that fun." —The Austin Chronicle