A few days before his Knockout Party on October 14, David Leslie stood near the punching bags at the new Box Opera space at 353 Broadway, explaining that, yes, he would be giving all comers a chance to deck him during the performance. And not only that. Anyone who could actually knock him out would win $1000, paid out of Leslie’s own pocket. “I lose a month’s rent,” he said, as if energized by the thought. “That makes it more interesting to me.”
It seemed like a good idea to clarify whether he intended to defend himself. “I will,” Leslie assured me. “I’ll be covering up, but people will have, like, 15 uninterrupted shots at me. Somebody who really needs the money will be going nuts trying to hit me in the right spot and might make me fall. It’ll be cool.”
So it would be for the artist who developed a career for himself as the Impact Addict in the ’80s. He used to say back then that while no one wants to be in a serious accident, “you wouldn’t mind a little fender bender just to get that jolt.” During his days as the resident East Village daredevil, he once leaped from a second-story roof onto a steel plate, swathed in bubble wrap and white Christmas tree lights. And in an early boxing piece, he went three rounds with heavyweight Riddick Bowe on the Staten Island ferry, urging Bowe to knock him out. (Bowe declined.)
In November 1988, announcing that it would be his final stunt before “retirement,” Leslie jumped off the roof of P.S. 122, five stories tall, onto what seemed a very small cushion. Looking back on it, he says it was the closest he ever came to death. He had a knot on his chest from a bent rib for three months.
“I’d hoped that I had it out of my system,” Leslie says. But of course, there’s no escaping yourself. Eleven years of leading what Leslie calls a “provincial lifestyle” led to one disappointment after another, and “I just thought, I’ve got to go run back to me, and the only thing that really was there, the core of me, is that Impact Addict guy. Getting hit by a boxing glove or getting hit when you land off a building—those real impacts, they’re just so unique to me. I don’t want to kill myself, but I love getting close to that kind of peril. I just love surviving it.”
He doesn’t spend a lot of time asking himself why. Maybe the “difficulties” he went through as a kid. “My dad was very rough with me.” But Leslie doesn’t think it’s a matter of physical abuse: more a matter of “surviving a relatively unloving atmosphere.” And “I’m going to survive whatever you throw at me.”
The catalyst for the Impact Addict’s return was an encounter with writer-storyteller Jonathan Ames, who, according to Leslie, challenged him to box. Of course, according to Ames, Leslie brought it up first and all Ames said was “Can I spar with you sometime?” It’s part of their long-standing—well, not exactly a feud, but at least a bicker.
After two years, Leslie decided to accept the challenge Ames says he never issued. And so began the Box Operas. Last November, Leslie and Ames fought a serious bout at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, after both spent months training at Gleason’s Gym. The fight looked pretty even to me, but Leslie came out the winner. And in the second round, he accidentally rebroke Ames’s nose, hurt during training just nine days earlier.
Both claimed they’d been at a disadvantage. Leslie said that Ames was seven years younger, had trained harder, and “he has that winner mentality. I feel soft compared to him.” Ames said that Leslie was “a better fighter,” friends with the ref, and outweighed him by 20 pounds. He’d also promised not to re-break Ames’s nose.
“I had a huge chip on my shoulder for a long time,” Ames admits. He was going to host the Knockout Party.
The night of October 14, Ames stood at center ring, telling his side of this story, waving Leslie’s money in the air, then cramming it into a suit pocket. “If you knock out this motherfucker, you’ll win $1000! If you really hurt him, I’ll slip you 40!”
Leslie entered thering in yellow trunks, blue boxing gloves, headgear, a Box Opera T-shirt with the words “Want Some?” on the back. By way of taunting Ames, he had the sound people play Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
First opponent into the ring was another performance artist, the Mangina (Patrick Bucklew), wearing his trademark prosthetic genitals—female in front, male in back.
The cord holding them up was about all he had on his skinny frame except for a hat made of a gold glove holding a video camera. He wasn’t exactly George Foreman. During their second round, Leslie didn’t even put his gloves up, just did the old bob-and-weave.
He did this with some others as well. Each contender got two 15-second rounds to hit Leslie. Meanwhile, a naked woman had wandered in from the street, looking dazed. (She turned out to be an artist who presents herself naked in public as art.) A male spectator kept screaming, “Naked!” He’d also rushed the ring to attack the master of ceremonies, clearly a goof or something staged. But it all added to the confusion later on.
When Ames invited the naked woman to take a punch at Leslie, she got into the ring and lit a cigarette. Someone tied a glove onto her nonsmoking hand, and Leslie stepped forward to offer a target. She kept backing away. “I thought that was very passive-aggressive,” Ames commented at the end of round one. In round two, she punched Leslie in the nose.
“Come up here, and David will give you a blow job,” Ames announced. A man later described to me as a Hanger On jumped into the ring and pulled his pants down. Leslie pushed him away and out of the ring. It seemed staged, but as it turned out, it wasn’t.
A few contenders—including two women—got some good pummeling in, as Ames kept trying to solicit “professional hockey players” and other “Canadians” from the audience.
What can happen with violence is that the “performance” cracks open.
The 11th contender looked about 15. As that fight got under way, the Hanger On rushed back in, swinging a chair at Leslie’s head—and erasing any doubts about his realness.
“Security!” called Ames. “Do we have any security?” Well, no. But several spectators jumped in to subdue the Hanger On as others chanted, “Go home!” They got him to the contender’s corner, but when they let go of him, he turned and punched the man behind him: David’s brother. Then even more people jumped into the ring. Now it had the uncontrollable lurch of real fighting. The Hanger On kicked furiously as a whole crowd tried to hold him down. Finally five or six carried him out bodily.
Leslie removed his headgear and took the mike. “The show’s going to be over,” he declared. “We were here to have a little friendly horseplay, and it just switched over into something that was not intended.”
Box Opera bouts are scheduled for October 28, November 11, and December 9 (when Leslie will fight Harry Keitt, Muhammad Ali’s old sparring partner). Reservations recommended: 212-219-3053.