Volume 31, Number 4

The Midas Punch

Richard Harkness

Jeff knocked down his opponent for the second time in the third and final round of an amateur middleweight boxing match. Though he was back on his feet quickly, he was wobbly, and the referee stopped the fight, awarding the decision to Jeff on a TKO. His coach congratulated him, but Jeff was dissatisfied.

It was his 40th tournament win since he had begun boxing four years before. He had lost only twice in his last 20 bouts, both by decision to highly regarded boxers, and he was touted as a possible member of the USA boxing team for the 1964 summer Olympic Games, less than a year away.

"I need more strength," he told his coach, hitting on a recurring theme. "The extra work on the heavy bag has helped, like you said, but I've reached a sticking point. I won't get any stronger using the bag."

The coach frowned. "Still set on returning to the weights, huh?"

Jeff knew he opposed weight training. Like most other boxing trainers, he felt that exercises with barbells or dumbbells would diminish the muscle flexibility a boxer needed. Jeff had worked out with weights during high school but was convinced to quit after becoming an amateur boxer. He'd caught the coach's eye with his quick reflexes and natural instinct to punch straight, rather than to swat as most beginners did. The coach had taken him under wing, bringing him along steadily.

"You saw I couldn't put that guy away." Jeff nodded back at the ring. "I hit him with a clean shot, and he bounced right back up."

"You won, didn't you? Like you usually do. Because of your reflexes and speed. I'd hate to see you diminish your natural ability by fooling around with weights."

"What about Ruiz last month, from the Houston boxing team? He manhandled me in close." He gestured with his hand before the coach could speak. "Yeah, I know I beat him too, but the road between here and an Olympic gold medal is paved with good boxers and stronger than me on top of it. I can't always depend on winning by decision."

"You're thinking about Machado, aren't you?"

Machado was an experienced Cuban boxer and the defending Olympic middleweight champion. At the top of his prime, he was considered a heavy favorite to repeat. He was a tough, powerfully-built boxer-puncher.

"Everybody sees him as the one to beat," Jeff said.

"By the time the Olympics are here, you'll be able to take him—if you keep training hard and if you make Team USA."

"Coach, I need a kayo punch to get to the next level. What if this idea about boxing and weight training being a bad mix was just a myth?"

His coach looked as if he had spoken heresy, then shook his head. "Okay Jeff. I can see you're stubborn as a barnacle about this. But I won't be responsible if you ruin your chances for a shot at an Olympic medal." He ran his fingers through close-cropped gray hair. "Just promise me that if things don't work out, if you start slowing up, you'll drop this weights bit once and for all."

He shrugged and nodded.

Jeff was sure that weight training would give him the strength he wanted. But what if it turned out to be detrimental in other ways, as his coach said? Boxing experts didn't feel this way without a reason. But the key, he thought, might be in determining the right type of exercises. Maybe a weight program could be worked out that wouldn't interfere with his reflexes and skills. He did feel sure that he needed added strength and power to be the best, a contender for the Olympic gold medal. And he wanted that bad enough to gamble on the weights.

He was a college sophomore, still undecided on a major to pursue. To pay for college—and his rickety old Chevy—he worked as a route driver for the local Coca-Cola bottling plant in the summer, and during the school year scrubbed pans and bussed tables in the college cafeteria. He had lost his mother to illness that past October, the month before President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. His dad had left them when Jeff was in the eighth grade, and he and his mom moved in with his grandmother at her house, in the small Mississippi town that was his birthplace.

It was a tumultuous era. Besides the assassination, the civil rights movement had southern folks stirred up. The brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till back in 1955 kept the national spotlight on Mississippi. Jeff could not fathom the hatred he saw directed at dark-skinned people who sought fair treatment, equal opportunity. He didn't care what color his work partner was when they were hefting cases of glass-bottled sixteen-ounce soft drinks in the sweltering summer heat.

After classes on Friday, he made the 150-mile trip back to his hometown to seek the advice of Charley, the friend who had introduced him to the benefits of weight training when Jeff was still in high school. It had been a couple of years since he had seen his mentor.

He wheeled by the barbershop on Powell street. A barber said Charley was out and would return soon. Jeff climbed into one of the two elevated chairs for shoeshine customers. He noticed a brown paper bag that contained raw peanuts. He smiled, remembering that Charley munched on peanuts to get extra protein for muscle-building. They had first met at the barbershop. Jeff had complimented his muscular build and Charley, several years older, fell easily into his role as spokesman for the benefits of bodybuilding. When Jeff expressed interest in starting a weight-training program himself, Charley invited him over to his house to pick up some lumber and helped him build a workout bench. Then he explained some of the principles of weight training and suggested an exercise routine for him. When Jeff offered to pay for the bench, Charley refused, saying that he always liked to help a young man starting out in bodybuilding.

Before long Charley returned. With a congenital limp, he made his way down the aisle between the three barber chairs and the chairs lined up against the wall for waiting customers. He grinned when he recognized Jeff. What development Charley lacked in his legs, his upper torso made up for. His white cotton T-shirt rippled with muscles.

"You still got that wood workout bench?" Charley asked as they shook hands.

"That's why I came to see the expert," Jeff said. "To see if you can help me again."

Charley was immediately receptive when Jeff explained his need to develop extra strength to become a better boxer. He listened intently, asking a question here and there to be sure he understood. He praised Jeff's determination to reach his goals, something he firmly believed in. He said he thought he could help Jeff and asked him to stop by his house the next afternoon.

The next day, Jeff found Charley in his backyard working out. His muscles were flushed and glistened with sweat. They sat on the front steps, and Charlie went over the workout routine he had drawn up.

He told Jeff to avoid a system of high-repetition, light-weight exercises, which could be detrimental, since he already did so many movements with his arms on the light and heavy punching bags. Charley prescribed the opposite: a routine of low-repetition, heavy-weight exercises, which would flush the muscles with blood for less time, causing less fatigue, he said, and lead to greater gains in strength and power. Charley referred to power as "explosiveness," or the ability to generate strength quickly, as in a knockout punch. Jeff was pleased that Charley understood so well what he wanted.

These exercises were to be done every other day with Jeff concentrating on his usual boxing workouts on the off days. This routine was solely for the upper body, Charlie said, since Jeff's boxing conditioning and road work would keep his legs in shape. But between exercises, while Jeff was still gripping the weights, he could do knee bends and toe raises, which would further build his leg strength. Each session should take less than an hour once he got conditioned back to the weights. He was to add extra weight plates as he got stronger but keep the number of repetitions the same. "That's the most important principle, Jeff."

He pointed to a pair of power racks he had built for Jeff. These would hold the barbell in a high position, so he would not have to risk straining his back by lifting it from ground level. Charley had made them from material he had on hand, including wood, threaded metal pipes, horseshoe bolts and floor flanges.

As they were stowing the barbell racks in Jeff's car, Charley began to wheeze and cough.

"You okay?" Jeff asked.

Charley nodded. "Yeah. Just the heat. I been working out."

Charley wished him luck and said he wanted to read about him in the newspaper at the barber shop when the Olympics came around.

"If I make it to the finals, it will be on TV," Jeff said with a wink.

Charley smiled. "Ain't got no TV."

Jeff followed the prescribed routine faithfully, feeling his body gain extra power weekly. His muscles grew, became more defined. Three months later he won the Southern AAU middleweight championship and a spot in the Olympic trials. He heard through the boxing grapevine that Machado, the feared Cuban fighter, was marching relentlessly toward another berth on the Cuban Olympic team, knocking out all his opponents.

No matter who he stepped in the ring with, Jeff mused, he could no longer be pushed around.

By the time of the Olympic trials in Miami in April, Jeff had gained four solid pounds and was near the upper weight limit for the middleweight class. He was clearly much stronger, and his coach's skepticism had wilted. He confirmed what Jeff felt: If anything, his reflexes and quickness and stamina were enhanced. The coach was so impressed he was thinking about trying the weight program for his other boxers.

In the finals of the Olympic trials, Jeff fought the all-army champion. The winner of this bout would be the Team USA Olympic representative in his weight class. It turned out to be a tough fight from the first round. The army boxer, Jeff reflected as the bout progressed, reminded him of himself before he began weight training. His opponent was perhaps an inch taller and talented, but Jeff now had a decided strength advantage. The fight progressed fairly evenly, but toward the end of the second round, Jeff's crisper punches had taken much of the starch out of his opponent. Once he grimaced and fell to the canvas, clutching his abdomen as if to indicate a low blow—a foul. Jeff knew the punch had been legal, but would the referee see it correctly or subtract points? The ref was a good one and called no foul. After a brief examination, he motioned for the bout to continue. Soon Jeff had him in trouble again in a corner. His opponent's mouthpiece popped out and fell to the canvas. Jeff was sure he spit it out on purpose, a common ploy some boxers used when in trouble. The valuable seconds gained while the mouthpiece was retrieved by the referee, rinsed, and reinserted often enabled a dazed or hurt boxer to recuperate sufficiently to avoid a knockout. It worked this time, and the army champion weathered through to the end of the round.

At the start of the third round, Jeff caught his opponent with a stiff punch to the gut and out came the mouthpiece again. This time the ref was not fooled. He issued a formal warning to the boxer: Next time, the judges would deduct points from his score.

Jeff knew this match was the key to his Olympics dream. He couldn't risk leaving the outcome to the scorecards. Only a knockout would ensure victory.

Less than half a round remained so Jeff pressed forward, looking for an opening. The guy was good, managing to catch Jeff with a quick right lead to the head as he came in. Though the punch lacked the power to hurt, it would impress the judges, coming near the end of the fight. Then his opponent clinched, trying to pin down Jeff's arms and coast for the rest of the round. But Jeff, with his superior upper body strength, broke free. It was then that his opponent made a fatal mistake, lowering his guard slightly. With remarkable quickness it was over. Jeff swished a left hook over his glove, catching him at ear level on the right jaw. He crumpled, sliding slowly down the ropes, eyes glazed over. It was evident there was no need to hit his opponent again. Jeff raised his arms in victory and graciously stepped back to let the referee in.

The glitter of gold had ensnared his dreams and he would grant no such reprieve to his adversary in Tokyo.


Jeff sat at ringside in the domed boxing arena at the Olympic Games watching Machado, the Cuban champion, methodically destroy his opponent, the French champion. 

The end came by way of a knockout from a crushing right uppercut near the end of the first round. The Frenchman was game but ineffective against Machado's aggressive and relentless punching power. And the Cuban had an elusive bobbing and weaving style. He appeared to have intimidated his opponent, casting a malevolent glare before the opening bell. Machado was good and very strong and durable. But now, Jeff knew, so was he.

Both he and Machado won their preliminary bouts and advanced to the quarterfinals. Each fighter had to win twice more to reach the finals.

Next Jeff fought the British champion in, as it turned out, a very tough fight with a lot of blood drawn, all belonging to the Brit. He won by unanimous decision.

In the semifinals he fought an experienced Russian, who, like the Cuban, was more a professional than an amateur. The first round was even, Jeff being overly cautious as he approached his goal. In the second round he had adjusted to the southpaw style of his opponent and quickly dazed him with a hard right lead, then kayoed him with a crashing left hook to the temple. As Jeff returned to his corner he noticed Machado at ringside. Seemingly unimpressed, the Cuban sneered at him and laughed, making a sweeping gesture as if squatting a fly.

Machado had knocked out his quarterfinal’s opponent, and, as it turned out, advanced to the finals without lifting a glove. His scheduled semifinals opponent, an East German, forfeited due to an injured hand.

The stage was set. In the middleweight boxing finals, for the Olympic gold medal, it would be the USA versus Cuba.

The tension was felt in Jeff's camp. Only one other American boxer, a heavyweight with a smashing left hook named Joe Frazier, had advanced to the finals. Adding to the concern was the fact that some of the judges' decisions were clearly biased. Word was out that the only way to be sure was to win by a knockout.

It was fight time. ABC was televising Jeff's Olympic championship match back to the states. The lights beamed down on the 18-by-18 foot ring as both fighters stood face-to-face at ring center perfunctorily taking in the referee's instructions. Machado, an inch shorter and stockier, glared balefully at Jeff's impassive face.

At the opening bell, Machado rushed out of his corner, and Jeff put his glove forward for the traditional touch before beginning. Instead, the Cuban pushed him violently backward, and he fell to the canvas on the seat of his trunks. From the audience came a loud chorus of boos; cheers, also, from the Cuban contingent. Jeff jumped up quickly as the referee admonished Machado. Then Jeff realized: He wants me to lose control and rush in carelessly. He controlled his anger and merely shrugged and smiled at the Cuban. He reached out once again to touch gloves. The puzzled look Machado shot back told him this bit of reverse psychology had worked. A lightning quick left jab, snapping the Cuban's head back off the light touch of gloves, quickly evened up the respect in everyone's eyes. It also had the effect of completely reversing the tables—the Cuban lost his temper and lunged forward awkwardly. Jeff deftly sidestepped so that Machado's powerful right cross caught only air. A murmur swept across the crowd. The seasoned Cuban realized his mistake and quickly settled down to business. He threw powerful, bruising punches, but Jeff either avoided them or partially nullified their effect with his arms and gloves. Near the end of the round, Machado was finessed into throwing an off-balanced hook that missed, causing him to fall into the ropes. He regained his footing with an embarrassed look as the bell sounded ending round one.

The coach told Jeff that the first round had been even, though Jeff's defense was better. They knew that, theoretically, defense counted as much as offense in amateur boxing, but that offense impressed the judges' scoring more.

"You've got to carry the fight to him, Jeff. But don't get careless."

The bell rang starting round two. Jeff slowed his movement down to face Machado toe-to-toe. He caught a left hook from Machado with his glove protecting the side of his head and threw two quick left jabs to keep the Cuban's timing off. Then he released a straight right, a left hook to the body, followed by a left hook to the head, all power punches. The last two found their marks, with the head shot skimming off the right temple. Jeff, staying in close, got caught with a hard right hook to the body and shortly after with a stiff right to the head, but the punishment he absorbed paid off. He discovered that Machado was a beat slow in defending his lower body, preferring instead to keep his gloves high to protect his head. For the duration of round two Jeff's superior defense enabled him to avoid absorbing any telling blows, while he concentrated his attack on the Cuban's body, rarely throwing a head punch. His strategy was to lull his foe into a false sense of routine while at the same time diminishing his stamina and strength with the low attack. In round three he would head-hunt.

Between rounds, in the Cuban's corner, the handlers looked concerned. One was gesturing and speaking at a non-stop clip to his ward, who sweated profusely and stared grimly ahead, tight-jawed. On his stool diagonally across the ring, Jeff, breathing deeply and having his shoulders massaged, bled slightly from the mouth. He realized that the next round, just three brutal minutes, would determine whether all those years of training and self-discipline would culminate in an impossible dream realized or a dream shattered. The buzzing of the crowd faded, became distant, as if he were in a dream right now. But Jeff's mind wasn't drifting. Quite the opposite, he knew, it was his ability to concentrate fully and block out the extraneous. It would come when he needed it most, when the outcome of a fight was in doubt and the time was short, indicating the melding of his mind and body, the ultimate union sought by every athlete.

The bell clanged: round three, the final round.

Jeff bounced out, feeling strong and confident. Machado rushed out and they clashed at ring center, trading blows furiously, each landing effective punches. He realized the Cuban still had his knockout punch, that he had better not get careless. Jeff found a sudden opening and shot a straight right counterpunch over a listless left jab. The Cuban looked dazed, a spurt of red welling under a nostril. The referee quickly stepped between the fighters to give a standing eight-count, mandatory in an amateur bout when a boxer has been hurt. Jeff turned to move to a neutral corner. Then the unpredictable happened. The Cuban broke away from the referee and rushed toward Jeff. As the American turned back, unknowing and with his guard down, Machado rocked him with a savage right to the side of the head. The referee caught up with the Cuban and wrapped his arms around him. Jeff crumpled to the canvas, eyes glassy. At ringside there was pandemonium. The clock was stopped while Jeff's seconds padded into the ring and helped him back to his stool. While they worked over him frenetically, the Cuban corner attributed their fighter's actions to a lack of understanding the referee. They argued also that Machado wasn't hurt enough by Jeff's punch to warrant a count. The Americans demanded that the Cuban be immediately disqualified on a foul. After a heated debate, it was decided to continue the bout with no foul being called, only a warning given. The Americans were outraged but had no choice except to send out their fighter or lose on a disqualification themselves. Jeff, still groggy, broke away from his handlers. The referee signaled the time to start again. Machado rushed forward, driving Jeff backward into the ropes. Jeff raised his gloves, catching the first rain of blows from the Cuban, then clinched him in desperation. He needed more time for his head to clear. The Cuban tried to manhandle him, to shove him back against the ropes again where he could end it. But Jeff was too strong. The weight training was paying off at the most crucial time. Nearly clear-headed again, he pushed the Cuban back roughly, threw a hook to the body, then went back to the head in a combination. Machado stopped in his tracks and blinked rapidly. Jeff threw an explosive flurry of half a dozen punches, all to the head, suddenly vulnerable. The Cuban was dazed, clearly perplexed at this turn of events. With time ticking away, he lost his cool and begin throwing wild, telegraphed swings. It was the worst thing he could have done against a boxer of Jeff's skills, and he deftly avoided being hit as he weaved backward across the ring, waiting for an opening. It came as he felt the ropes against his back. He counter-punched with a blindingly quick left-right combination, snapping the Cuban's head back, causing his arms to drop a bit. Then his signature power punch, a left hook, found Machado's right jaw and his legs buckled. With an incredulous look that quickly turned blank, the Cuban fell heavily to the canvas. At 2:34 of the third round, Machado was counted out for the first time in his boxing career.

The impact of what Jeff had accomplished did not hit him fully until he stood on the podium in the auditorium with an Olympic gold medal draped around his neck. Beside him, lower and on either side, were the Cuban, the silver medal winner, and the two bronze medalists, the Russian and East German. The band played the U.S. national anthem as the American flag was raised grandly above the others. It was then he knew he had accomplished his impossible dream.


Jeff returned home to glory and adulation as head-spinning as the gold medal around his neck. A Jeff Mason Day was planned, with a parade down Main Street and presentation by the mayor of the key to the city. Someone mentioned a possible appearance on the Johnny Carson Show along with other Team USA gold medal winners.

But the person Jeff really wanted to celebrate his victory with was Charley. Without him, it would not have been possible. He planned to drive over to Charley's house Sunday afternoon, his best chance of catching him at home. He spent Saturday night at his grandmother's house.

When he stepped outside the next day, patches of amber and gold leaves covered the lawn, having released their final hold on autumn. The inevitable change of seasons, he mused. Nothing ever stayed the same. He got into his car and turned over the ignition. The response was a grinding sound. He realized glumly that the battery had gone dead. Odd that he'd missed any warning hiccups, though his mind had been on other things. The next door neighbor gave him a jump start.

He headed to the other side of town. The car bumping across the railroad tracks brought a flashback of that day at the gym, before the Olympic Games, when the news broke: The bodies of three murdered civil rights workers had been discovered in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Young men in their prime, one black, two white—Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner. He maneuvered along the deeply rutted dirt road, lost in thought, wondering ruefully whether things would ever truly change in the South. He found himself coming to a stop beside Charley's house, a fading white wood-frame.

As he got out, a dog barked at the next house over, past an empty lot. When he turned that way, it tucked its tail and slinked away. A woman's head, old and white-haired, appeared from behind the screen door and surveyed him critically.

"Hello," he said. "I came to see Charley." He stepped up on the porch.

Her gaze fell, and then she looked back with a puzzled expression. Jeff smiled and knocked on the door.

"Charley, he done died," the woman said.

Jeff stiffened, gut-punched, unable to get his breath. On the porch was an old barbell and several rusted weight plates scattered about.

"Pneumonia," she said bleakly. "Yes sir, died of virus pneumonia. 'Bout, lessee, three or four days ago, in his sleep, they said. He been sick a long time. Ain't got no family. Was you a friend of poor Charley's?

It struck Jeff that he didn't know Charley's last name.

He stopped by the barber shop the next morning. A barber said he brought a TV set to work on the day of the Olympic boxing finals, and he and Charley stayed after closing time to watch Jeff's gold medal match against the Cuban fighter. Charley was so proud he beamed. He didn't make it in to work the next day. He had no phone. His shoeshine customers asked about him. After three days, the barber called the police. They were the ones who found him.

Jeff visited the gravesite. He brought flowers and arranged for a headstone. He remembered the gentle, soft-voiced man who had little yet gave so selflessly. Charley had possessed a special quality. A simple integrity. He was a good man. Jeff wondered how far he, if stripped of his adornments, would fall short of this man's character. Maybe he could have helped Charley if he hadn't been so caught up in his own interests.

He realized that Charley himself embodied the true spirit of the Olympic Games: The important thing was the challenge—to participate, to struggle to the limits of one's ability, and not necessarily to win. The key difference between them, as best he could reckon, was opportunity. It couldn't knock on a door that wasn't there.

Often in the years since, admirers of his Olympic gold medal would notice the other name engraved beside his own. Inevitably, they would ask, "Who is Charley Freeman?”

And the good man would live on in what Jeff told them.