The fighters in the ring, the crowd amped up, and Dick Johnson pulls out a saxophone to play the national anthem. He starts in, getting jazzy, dirty. The people at the Civic Center in Providence throw on a backing track for him, a more classic rendition with a big, sweeping orchestra. He’s supposed to be playing to it, but he doesn’t. He either can’t, or chooses not to. And it makes for this weird, dissonant mess. It’s creepy, makes you feel wrong just hearing it.
The music gets into Wilford Scypion’s head, disturbs him. The two melodies, he’s trying to jam them together, make a singular anthem, make it fit right. Born in the projects of Port Arthur, Texas, to a huge family, Scypion had always been trying to get things to fit right. He dreamed of getting out and turned to boxing as his ticket. He had a long, successful amateur career and when he turned pro, went on a twelve fight tear, knocking everybody out. Scypion knocked out his thirteenth opponent too, but wishes, with all his being, he had not.
November 23, 1979. Scypion fought Willie Classen in New York. Knocked Classen unconscious, and Classen died in hospital five days later. It’s the dark boxing nightmare that looms above every fighter. The black crow perched in the rafters of every stadium on fight night. Scypion almost retires. And as the saxophone battles against the prerecorded version of the anthem, the memory of Classen superimposes itself over the ring where standing across from Scypion is the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Hagler also grew up in poverty, in the projects of Newark, New Jersey. Like Scypion, he had looked desperately for a way out. As a child he witnessed the riots of 1967 that destroyed entire blocks of Newark. Holed up in a small apartment, neighbors coming by to tell his family who got killed, who got robbed. The tenement he lived in was destroyed, and Hagler’s family moved to Brockton, Massachusetts where he started boxing in 1969.
Both men from the projects, both with the same drive and the same dream, both the same size. So why does Scypion look so uncomfortable in the ring? Why does Hagler look so perfect? What is it that makes a champ like that? It can’t be just the circumstances of his life, or his will, his desire. Most fighters share similar hard luck tales. Why do some make it and others don’t?
It should be mentioned that Hagler was particularly sharp that night, his unique combination of smooth boxing and wicked aggression as potent as ever. Champ for almost three years, the best middleweight in the world for at least five, and he looked like he hadn’t lost a step, was only getting better. Quick, accurate, deadly. Starting fast, he nails Scypion with a counter left hand at the end of the first round that sends the challenger staggering backwards halfway across the ring. And just like that the fight is decided.
A lucky punch? Not likely.
Scypion on the other hand needs to get lucky. It can happen. A hard shot connecting at just the right moment on just the right spot on an opponent’s chin or temple. Or a fluke injury, a broken hand, a pulled muscle, a bad cut. Luck can always strike, can always end up, unexpectedly, taking a hand in things. In training camp and in the ring, it’s all about doing everything you can to prevent the other guy from getting lucky. The top pros understand this.
But if luck had ever been on Wilford Scypion’s side someone else would have been in the ring with Willie Classen that night in 1979. Or someone would have recognized Classen was in bad shape and stopped the fight. That black bird in the rafters would have flown away. And someone might have thought to check if Dick Johnson’s saxophone was in tune with the backing track.
Give Scypion credit: he never stops trying. In the fourth he takes the fight to Hagler, slinging Texas-sized punches at the champion, the kind that are easy to slip, easy to counter. The kind you throw with your eyes closed, hoping for a little bit of magic. He even lands a couple, but nothing happens. Near the end of the round Hagler catches him with a jolting one-two combination, a left lead with the right behind it. Scypion tries to stay on his feet but Hagler refuses to let him off the hook, lands a big left, another one-two and Scypion goes down and stays there for ten seconds. It’s all over.
See Hagler after the fight, smiling, chanting “Champion! Champion!” Perfect. Beautiful. And very rare.
After his career was finished, Hagler became an action movie star in Italy, married a beautiful Italian lady, every morning watched the sun come up from the porch of his villa, lived a life of luxury right up to the end. And he’ll rightfully be always remembered as one of the best middleweights of all time. His dreams came true, and for years he lived new dreams he never even imagined back in the ghetto of Newark, until his untimely passing earlier this year.
Scypion on the other hand, went full circle. He lost a slew of fights before quietly retiring and then returning to Port Arthur. Little was known about his post-boxing life, except that he suffered disabilities directly related to his career. His health declined and in February of 2014 Wilford Scypion died. Both men dreamed of getting out, but only Hagler kept rising. It’s work, it’s training, it’s dedication. Of course it is. But some guys just seem to have all the luck. — David Como