Part II – Looking Back: My Few Days
On the way back to my hotel room, Vaseline still smeared behind my ears, I stroll though the casino of the Sands Hotel carrying a duffel bag. Instead of walking behind my manager and trainer, as I did on the way to the fight – I’m now ahead of them….head held high as I nod and mouth thank-you’s to all those who recognize and congratulate me. Many of the same guests and workers were the ones who shouted “good luck” as I was being led to the arena. But it’s suddenly a different world, I’m not afraid to be ‘out front’ or ‘standing tall’.
Just hours ago, there were two who were met with smiles and hopeful nods, now there’s only one.
As we reach the end of the casino and spill into the lobby, I’m touched by a whisper of sadness….my first walk through the casino after the win… ‘you only make that walk once’, I thought. Why didn’t I slow down, why was I in such a hurry? There was air back there just for me, but I didn’t breathe it. There were handshakes and hugs, high fives and congratulations that were worked for, bled for – that were never given a chance to be recorded on my life’s calendar, and now I’m in an elevator…soft music playing… It’s strange but I sense a ‘countdown’ of sorts has begun, to a time when this incredible win is ‘old news’.
For some reason, I think of the Cicada, an insect that lives most of its life, then after seventeen years, emerges for few days of flying and mating. These are my few days…
When we arrive at the room, it’s suddenly packed with “winners.” I escape into the bathroom filled with steam. As I undress, I notice the marks over my eyes, on my shoulders…the swelling on my face, all while hearing laughter through the door – the opium of victory. They yell from outside “We’re ordering Room Service! What do you want?” I think, ‘I just got what I wanted’. “No, I’m good” I reply. It’s hard to explain the joy as hot water rolls over your skin after a good win. A hot shower is thee pampered, a controlled, self-regulated and protected moment of our lives. We’re alone, behind a locked door, naked without being self-conscious…in complete control of our environment. The exact opposite of where I just came from, and that contrast is never more welcome. My ‘few days’ have begun…
I’m looking in the bathroom mirror – feel the soreness in my body. Before the fight, my face was everywhere, in the hotel restaurants, in every elevator, on the check-in counter in the lobby. What’s the saying? ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ Rarely is anything ‘more’ ventured… You get the call: “We’re fighting Ray Adams on the 22nd at Harrah’s in Atlantic City”. You see the printed card in the Newspapers: McPherson vs Adams…commercials on TV…calls from the press…and the evening before, as you make the dark drive down the Atlantic City Expressway, you see yourself in lights over the hotel: McPherson vs Adams… yeah, I ‘ventured’ (def. ‘Dare to do something or go somewhere that may be dangerous or unpleasant’). I would be lying if I said the next few days were the ‘gain’… not at all… 25 years later there’s still gain.
I have to say…above all, the greatest gift of those ‘few days’ was the elimination of what I called, the ‘Boulder’. It’s often helpful to identify and name that obstacle that’s proven to be a ‘thorn’ in your life. I named my thorn, the ‘Boulder’… Because, it was a weight, like a backpack filled with concrete; it was suffocating, like two hands clasped permanently around my throat; it could, and often did, leech the light out of a room and render beautiful music silent. The existence of a professional boxer is difficult to imagine. I traveled to a location six days a week to climb over a bloody canvas and face those who were seeking to render me unconscious. It’s a reality you can’t appreciate until you live it – day after day, week after week, year after year. In that forum (training and sparring in New York City gyms), I suffered four broken noses, an orbital bone fracture, six cut eyes, dozens of bruised ribs and suffered three ‘knock outs’ … and I was known as “One of the best Gym Fighters in NYC” (Al Bernstein, ESPN)!!! The way I responded to that reality was lived out internally in my struggles against the weight on my psyche – I called that weight the “Boulder”.
Gene McPherson (my Dad), Jimmy Glenn (my manager) and Donald Hayes (my corner man) – or Team ‘River’ – my fight name, leaves the hotel room and heads down to the casino’s main restaurant. River? It wasn’t a nickname that I earned, or one given to me because of some cool ‘thing’ I did. No, I gave it to myself…from a Joni Mitchell song on her Blue album. In the song she laments of ‘wishing to have a river to skate away on.’ To make a lot of money, and ‘quit this crazy scene…with a river to skate away on.’ Those sentiments appealed to me greatly. ‘River’ was on the back of my black velvet robe. It was what Michael Buffer screamed with a guttural roll when I defeated Jeff McCracken in my first ten rounder. It was on the license plates of my 280ZX – it was a reality I hoped and worked for, and sadly, never saw.
I notice a waterfall at the entrance to the casino restaurant. “Was that always there?” I wonder. The ceiling is way higher than I remember, the carpet softer, the colors intensely brighter. Everyone is smiling… ‘Is this the same place? We walk a few steps “Congratulations, Champ!”, another few steps, “Great fight, Mark!” We get seated and the table across from ours recognizes us, chants “River! River! River!” gives us smiles and thumbs up. ‘Breathe it in Mark…, breathe it in…’
Training for anything is about routine, routine, routine…and superstition. Boxing is no different. Where I parked at the train station, the side of the train I sat on, the side of seventh avenue I walked on, the socks for the night of the fight, – you name it. I even had a ritual for every entrance and departure from the ring – I’d duck under the middle rope, duck back outside, then come into the ring. Once in, two full bouncing squats – now I’m good, still do it to this day. My transportation to the fight was the 11:06 am train from Rockville Centre. The conductors knew I was a fighter, knew my fight schedule, and watched the fights on ESPN. So after a good win, I looked forward to riding that same train to New York. The conductors would yell: “Great fight, champ!” like they were yelling “All aboard!” and it drew as much attention. I won, but we were ALL winners! Victory’s opium ran rampart there… Their loud speech brought attention to themselves and to me, and we all celebrated, but it was a nervous celebration. Eventually, I’d be seated, then pen in hand, open my journal and gaze through the murky window attempting to capture in ink, this that stirred within:
The arena was pitch black, and the masses of people were arrayed in a circle around a center from which came the only light. It was loud and electric…the center was the focus. Underneath the light was a table covered with a white cloth, and on either side two chairs. The crowd hushed as another light illuminated a solitary figure walking through the crowd towards the center – he sat at the table. Then, from the dark came another with a revolver in one hand, a bullet in the other. He held the gun high above his head and called for silence. Placed the single bullet into the six-bullet cylinder, spun it, put the gun on the table, and sat down in the opposite chair.
I picked up the gun… I put it to my temple… I pulled the trigger…
I fell backwards into the crowd – and the celebration began!
Next episode – A WALK IN THE CITY