Theater

“Don’t Make Me Seem Too Nice”: Remembering the Late Don Rickles

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Don Rickles died on Thursday, April 6. It was the thirtieth anniversary, to the day, of the Sugar Ray Leonard–Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight, the most hyped boxing match since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila” twelve years earlier.

Just the announcement that Leonard and Hagler would fight set off a buzz, and the contest was immediately dubbed the “Superfight.” Sugar Ray was returning to boxing after a self-imposed three-year layoff, trying to do what everyone said was impossible: take the middleweight title against the seemingly invincible Marvelous (that was his legal name) Hagler, who was 63-2-2. The odds, depending where you put down your bet, were 3½ to 1 to 4½ to 1, in favor of Hagler.

These days, with attention divided between boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s impossible for most younger fans to appreciate the excitement these big fights stirred up in the general populace. In the Eighties and early Nineties, though, big fights drew attention not just from the sports media but from the mainstream news outlets, attracting movie idols, rock stars, and politicians to ringside.

At the Hagler-Leonard fight, my Voice credentials got me into the V.I.P. section of the outside arena at Caesars Palace, which was packed with celebrities. I sat next to someone I assumed was a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him until the fourth round.

The bout moved with what seemed to me the pace of a Beckett play. Perhaps this was because every time Hagler seemed close to nailing Leonard against the ropes, I held my breath. After the third round, I said out loud, to no one in particular, “Well, damn, I don’t know how to score that one.” The gentleman to my left replied, “The flurry Leonard threw in the last ten seconds impressed the judges. Watch, he’ll do it again this round.”

And, by God, he did. Later on, when Leonard heard the ten-second buzzer, he unleashed an eight-punch combination that had the crowd in a frenzy. I began to feel a little better about my bet.

I also realized that my savvy neighbor sounded familiar. Up to that point I had been too absorbed to look at his face; during a lull in the action I turned to him and said, “You’re Don Rickles.”

He flashed that lopsided grin. “Yes, I am.”

“Boy,” I said, “you really know your boxing.”

“I’ve been picking winners for forty years, but I’ve never had the guts to put money down. I’m guessing, though, that you have a sizable bet on this one.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if Leonard doesn’t win this. I’ll have to call my wife back in Brooklyn and get her to wire me car fare to the airport.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured me with a pat on my arm. “Sugar Ray is tying Hagler up in knots.”

This fight, he told me, reminded him of Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta: The stronger fighter kept plodding forward trying to corner the faster one. The faster fighter kept moving in and out and counterpunching.

“Watch,” he said, “Sugar Ray’s moving counterclockwise. Not many fighters can do that. Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, but not many others. That way, when Hagler throws a right hook” — Hagler was ambidextrous but fought left-handed most of the time — “Leonard is already moving away from the punch.”

This guy, I thought, knows more about boxing than I do.

As it turned out, Mr. Rickles — that’s what I called him even after he told me to call him Don — knew not only more than I knew, but at least as much as the officials did. After twelve fast rounds, I waited for the decision with my heart pounding as never before or since.

“Don’t worry,” he told me, shaking his head. “Ray will get a split decision.”

“Did you score it for Leonard?”

“Eh,” he shrugged. “I don’t know who really won. A draw would be fair. But this is Vegas, and people expect a show. And Ray put on a show — those big flurries at the end of the rounds got him a lot of points. He looked like he won, and that’s what matters.”

Mr. Rickles was indeed correct — a split decision for Sugar Ray — and after the fight I bought him a drink.

“All the notes you took,” he asked, “are you writing this up for someone?”

“Yeah, the Village Voice. It’s a weekly paper in New York.”

“Oh, yeah, I know the Voice. I started reading it when Norman Mailer was there” — Mailer was one of the founders, in 1955. “You’re writing about boxing for the Voice, huh?

“To the Village Voice,” he said, raising his JD in a toast, “where boxing is the sport of queens.” Then he stopped. “If you write about this, don’t use that. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

“Don Rickles doesn’t want to offend anybody?”

“Only when I do my act. And don’t make me seem too nice — you’ll ruin my image.”

I don’t want to hurt his image, but Don Rickles was a heck of a guy to sit next to at a fight.

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