It would be twelve more years before my father quit smoking. While he was no longer at his college fighting weight, a featherweight boxing for the University of Wisconsin, he had little body fat and was in fairly good condition. This came in handy when he attended SMU in order to earn an MBA.
I was in Kindergarten, and I remember vaguely how he was gone for most of the year. He came home a few times, his suitcase stuffed with Coors beer, a hot commodity, to share with my uncles and aunties. For my mother there was See’s Candy, another rare treat for people in Hawai‘i at the time.
This was the year jets first came to O‘ahu from the US continent, but it was still a mixed bag in terms of whether you actually flew on a jet or were stuck with a prop job and a much longer flight. Once he took a jet, he was spoiled for the new mode of transportation, so I also vaguely remember him complaining about having the bad luck of still dealing with the propellor plane travel when he would sit drinking beer with his brothers and sisters.
At SMU my dad got into fistfights. Not surprisingly these happened because my dad was Asian, a Korean, and SMU was located in a city, Dallas, where all Asians were still viewed by some as Japs. I don’t know how much this has changed. A lawyer friend of mine, Chinese, earned his JD at Texas Christian in the late 70s, and he used to tell my students that being there was scary, how sometimes he felt like he was running from telephone poll to telephone poll, a Gook in their eyes, trying to hide from the rednecks whom he sensed were always trying to hunt him down. He too had his fair share of fights while he was there.
One night my dad was out with some of his Caucasian MBA cohort friends eating dinner at a diner near the SMU campus. As luck too often had it from my dad’s perspective, they’d paid their bill and were exiting the place, when a group of Caucasian un-friendlies confronted them in the parking lot.
As my dad described it, these were big, big boys, like Wisconsin farm boys, all somewhere in their twenties. My dad, two years shy of 40, was, as I say, in pretty good shape, and if it happened, this was not his first fight that year.
Specifically, these Texas boys were there to call out the Jap, my dad, and told the rest they had no quarrel with them. My dad said he could hear some of his buddies chuckling. They’d seen my dad fight already, and they had a strong suspicion that unless these red-necks were trained boxers as well, they were going to regret this moment.
My dad liked to set up the story this way. When more than one bastard is coming for you, you nail the biggest one first. If you’re lucky, this avoids any more fighting, the others seeing you kick the ass of their largest buddy.
Lippy, my dad called the guy doing the talking. He was in fact the biggest of the lot, and without much warning my dad stepped up to him – he guesstimated him to be 6’2”, my dad 5’9” – and with one punch put him down on the ground writhing around.
My dad always said the guy went down like a ton of bricks. I pictured a brick wall falling over, which I guess is as good an interpretation as any.
My dad’s friends all laughed and hooted at this, and the gang of Texan twenty-somethings picked up their fallen comrade and took off in their trucks.
As the others were congratulating my father, a man came over to him from the parking lot.
“That was some punch,” he said, sticking out his hand.
He introduced himself as Julius, was of Mexican ancestry. He asked where my dad where he’d learned to punch like that, and my dad told him about his boxing career at Wisconsin.
Julius told him he was training a team of boxers at a gym in downtown Dallas, and he asked my dad if he’d like to come see them working out. My dad was intrigued by the offer and went to the gym the following evening after his classes. What he saw, he says, was a sight unlike any he’d ever witnessed in his boxing days.
“More than half these guys were Black, Lan, and they were in the best shape I’ve ever seen, even when I was fighting the best boxers in my college days.”
He described them as mostly young, very young, and he was most impressed by one who looked younger than the rest.
“That kid,” my dad had said to Julius, “he’s amazing.”
Julius had laughed. He said, “Yeah, he’s only a teenager, but he’ll be heavyweight champion of the world before you know it. I expect him to win a gold medal at the Olympics in Rome.”
My dad had been wowed by this. “Who are these guys?” he’d asked.
“They’re the boys I’m training for the Rome Olympics.”
“Who’s the kid?” my dad had asked Julius.
“His name’s Cassius Clay. He’s all of 17 years old. He’s the best we got, the best I’ve trained in my entire career.”
Apparently Julius had invited my dad for a specific reason. He gave him a pair of trunks and told him he wanted him to work out with the team. Initially my dad flat out said no, but Julius convinced him, just barely, that it would be fun, and good exercise as well.
When my dad emerged from the locker room, Julius had called all the boxers together. He introduced them to my dad, and told them how he’d seen the brief interaction with the rednecks the night before.
He’d said he meant no offense to the Caucasian team members, but he wanted to celebrate a non-White person standing up to those who hate non-White people.
He had my dad tell them about his boxing experience at Wisconsin. My dad said he was embarrassed to do this in front on a bunch of boxers who could probably eat him and his Badger teammates for breakfast.
The kid, Cassius Clay, spoke up. He said to my dad, “Mr. Lee, I’d consider it an honor if you’d spar a bit with me.”
Clay was taller and heavier. “Are you kidding?” my dad had said to him. “I’m twice your age. And you’re too good for me. I don’t want to die tonight.”
Clay had laughed, promised my dad he’d go easy, and then again said it would be an honor to go a couple rounds with him.
With some reluctance, my dad had stepped into the ring. All the other boxers gathered around. My dad was nervous, but he was determined not to die before being punched at least once, so he got into it. Clay was way too fast for him, but he did, my dad could tell, hold back on the power.
My dad says he discovered he still had some moves, but most of his fights at Wisconsin, in the Army, and in the streets of Dallas, and been short. Dancing with Clay, he said, was tiring, the smoking, he could tell, hurt his wind.
They did three three-minute rounds. By the end, my dad said, he could barely hold up his arms. At the end, Clay took off his glove, shook my dad’s hand, and again told him it was an honor to spar with him.
Julius told my dad he was welcome to come back anytime, but my dad never did. He said he was too embarrassed by his lack of stamina and the fact that he was just too old and too overmatched given the level of talent he’d seen
Anyway, that’s the night that my dad boxed with Cassius Clay. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time he actually felt this, but Julius and Clay had made him feel, he said, that he was, in his way, finally seeing himself as a model for Asians to assert themselves as equal to anyone.
“You can do it in ways other than fighting,” he told me. “I don’t advocate fighting by any means. It’s always best to walk away. But if you know it’s coming, then it’s coming. It’s too late to walk away. There’s not a damn thing you can do about that.”