The Rumble in DUMBO


It was a beautiful night for a knockout—that is, for reality to set in. House packed, energy high, humidity almost low. There’d be nothing really sticky but the blood.

David Leslie—performance artist, downtown daredevil, Impact Addict—went into Box Opera 3 hoping to lose big. He’d been staging these spectacle matches since 1999, and according to his own self-imposed rules, he could not stop the Operas until somebody beat him. On July 11, as a long line filed toward the ticket tables at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, that somebody stood chatting out in the street: Gerry Cooney, the former professional heavyweight who fought champions like Larry Holmes before retiring in 1990 with a record of 28-3.

Cooney, clad in Bermudas and a madras shirt, looked more affable than menacing. But he knew his role. “Nice to be here,” he told the announcer ringside, before snarling, “He is going down.” The ex-fighter had his own agenda—to publicize and hopefully raise some money for F.I.S.T. (Fighter’s Initiative for Support and Training), an organization Cooney founded in 1998 to help boxers make the transition “from the ring to the real world.”

Leslie hadn’t yet told Cooney that he hoped the ex-fighter would knock him out.

Leslie is a boxing fan, but when he gets into the ring himself, he isn’t as interested in the fight as he is in the peril.

He began his performance career with a series of dangerous, if not death-defying, stunts. When he jumped from the roof of P.S.122 in 1988 (a fall of five stories) onto what seemed a very small cushion, he actually cracked the wooden stage under the padding. “I loved getting up after hitting the stage that hard,” Leslie said. “It’s my own private victory, where I get to meet death, and then escape it.”

He began his boxing career in 1987 in a performance called Mismatch. He went three rounds with Riddick Bowe, asking the professional to knock him out. Bowe declined.

And he hasn’t only asked the professionals. Back in October 2000, Leslie took on all comers one night, promising $1000 to anyone who could knock him cold. He would not hit back, just protect himself. He was facing his 11th opponent when someone rushed into the ring, swinging a chair at Leslie’s head. The basher didn’t connect any more than the gloved ones had, but the real violence ended the evening.

With Box Opera 3, Leslie says he just thought that a KO—”at least getting helped out of the ring”—would make a good finale, while ending the thing standing up would be “weird.”

As for his fascination with the KO, Leslie says that when he asks to get knocked out, he intends to keep it from happening. “I just want to get pushed to the point where I’m truly tested. I want the audience to see someone hanging on.”

Sport often has an element of pathos, the pathos of great effort that comes to naught. But when pathos is more important than a win—that’s art.

All the box operas mimicked and magnified the rituals of the ring. The hype and hyperbole, the fighter’s glorious entrance, the stirring music, the robe with a name on it, the satin shorts, the leather gloves, the entourage, the Jumbotron, the bouncing in place, the buckets and stools in the corners, the MC in black tie.

Then came the Opera part. There to witness the rummmble in Dummmbo was, oddly enough, the Great Emancipator. As emcee Tom Murrin put it, “Give it up for Abe Lincoln and his lovely wife, Mary Todd.” Their presence explained the sinister-looking “Secret Service agents” in dark suits, shades, and ear mics who’d been casing the crowd. Unfortunately, they overlooked the only other people in 19th-century garb, John Wilkes Booth and his brother, Edmund, seated ringside with their dates. As “Hail to the Chief” played and spectators cheered, the Lincolns made their way to a presidential box overlooking the ring, where they would sit unmolested through a series of colorful undercards.

First up was an unlikely match between Domenico Monaco, once fifth in the world as a Junior Lightweight, and Anthony Haden-Guest, author and man about town. Leslie explains that the two of them got into the ring together at a party once, and somehow Page Six ended up reporting that Haden-Guest had scored a knockout. This was the rematch. Leslie tried to compliment the author, who’d been training seriously, by describing him as “spry.” Indeed, Haden-Guest was declared the winner, though Monaco was clearly playing. “I feel like I’m watching a catfight in the Hamptons,” said a ringside announcer.

The Galinsky-Mangina fight, “the most anticipated rematch in boxing history,” was preceded by another ancient ritual of the sport, bad-mouthing the opponent, this time on film. “I’m a painter and that’s one step up from a poet,” bragged The Mangina, while Galinsky inferred that a KO here would clear the way for him to challenge Lennox Lewis. The Mangina (Patrick Bucklew) appeared in his trademark prosthetic genitals, female in front and male in back, held up by a cord. He wore no shorts. The Mangina also has a prosthetic leg. He lost.

But the most intense fight of the evening, the only one that drew blood, was between two women, Tiffany “Make ‘Em” Peay and Janet “Don’t Get Me Started” Clancy. Peay won, but as our announcer said, “There are no losers.” The Lincolns gave them a standing ovation.

As for that Lincoln-Booth rematch, Leslie explains that he regards Booth, an actor, as an early exemplar of terrorism as performance. “It’s like 9-11. It’s public. It’s done in front of an audience.” This time Booth (Will Keenan) shot Lincoln (Zero Boy) and leaped into the ring. Then Mary Todd (Karen Finley) tried to bandage the president’s head, sirens sounded, and in rushed real firefighters to loud cheers. Ladder 12. Ladder 79. Engine 266. The President could be extracted, but not saved.

Gerry Cooney was the only boxer who climbed into his corner that night unadorned. No robe. Just black shorts and a F.I.S.T. T-shirt. The back of Leslie’s splendid blue robe said “Addict.”

Leslie reported later that he took the most brutal shots in the first round. “He kind of put me in my place right from the get-go. I was on Queer Street.” Leslie thought he had a concussion. Still, he asked Cooney to knock him out—while they were in a clinch, he said. For $500.

There weren’t many clinches. Cooney appeared to be toying with the artist. He was six inches taller, 75 pounds heavier, with 13 years as a professional. “Five hundred dollars to knock him out. Can you believe that?” Cooney marveled a couple of days later. “I thought, ‘Whoa, what is that about?’ That’s dangerous.” Cooney loved the show. He couldn’t believe some of the undercards. The Mangina? “Well, whatever floats your boat.”

Cooney described Leslie as an amateur with a big heart. “I have too many skills for that kind of a guy,” said the ex-fighter. “But it was very nice to be there with all those people and see a show like that. I want to be a part of that crowd.”