THE MESS FROM THE WEST
Posted September 16, 2016
It’s a bad habit I started years ago: writing my story before I was done researching it. Before I had finished all the interviews. I still listened and took notes as people spoke, but somewhere a part of my brain was already typing out the lead.
If you saw Mess today, you would never guess he used to be a heavyweight contender. His famous smile still comes fast and easy, but his fists no longer do. The hands that fell “The Beast from the East” in just six rounds can now barely lift a cup of coffee. Instead they tremble as the cup rattles against the saucer and half his drink spills across the floor before ever reaching his lips.
His house is a reminder that one big fight can only pay the bills for so long. The building is a few bedrooms wide and a single story tall, with cracks running through the walls and armies of ants marching across the linoleum.
“Did Lou ever tell you,” Mess breathed heavy in the pauses between his words, but spoke with the excitement of someone still young, “about the time I fought Will Harrrison for a flock of chickens?”
“No,” I answered. “What happened?”
“No?! Well what the hell did Lou tell you about me?”
“He said you’d hit on me.”
“Well that’s true,” came the teasing voice of Mess’ wife, Cynthia, from the kitchen.
He called back at her, “It’s okay honey, I’ve already turned her down. Told her it wouldn’t be proper for a reporter to date her subject, and that she should just stop begging. It’s embarrassing.” Then he smiled that famous Mess smile. The one that said 'don’t worry, I’m just teasing a dear friend.'
What Lou had actually told me was maybe I should let someone else do this interview. That Mess was beloved in my house growing up, and no one should watch the marble crumble on their heroes. But I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to meet “The Mess from the West.” Besides, rumor had it he might be gone by the next time our magazine did a “Where Are They Now?” issue.
As Mess told the story—one about how a mistranslated conversation between his manager Danny and the man representing Harrison had resulted in four months of training for a fight that paid out eight prime chickens from one of the top cock-fighting families in Louisiana—I kept writing.
His real name is Andy Hawkins, though that name vanished at the weigh-in in a small ballroom before a fight in Newark. He was about to fight Drew Layton, or as the media called him, the Beast from the East, and Hawkins had the flu. He staggered around the podium, spoke incoherently, and even nodded off during an interview question. Problem was, if the Boxing Commission found out he was running a fever the day before the fight, they would have canceled the bout, so his manager, Danny Levinson, leaked a rumor that Hawkins was drunk. Someone in the press ran with it, and started calling him the Mess from the West.
The moniker caught on. The Beast from the East versus the Mess from the West. Hawkins, a boy who grew up poor and never went to college, fit people’s easy paradigm for the kind of guy who couldn’t turn down a drink, even the day before a big fight. When Hawkins, a 10-1 underdog, beat Layton on a sixth round knockout, he became a hero to the working man and a downright god in his home state of Kansas. A relatable, blue collar guy who could whoop Drew Layton’s butt even while battling a hangover. So Hawkins played the game. He became the Mess. Slurred his words during interviews and said stupid things during press conferences, an attitude that somehow felt endearing when accompanied by his famous grin.
20 years later, in an interview with TIME magazine, he spilled the beans that he’d never had a single sip. His dad was an alcoholic. His brother was an alcoholic. His uncle was an alcoholic. So he steered clear of the brown stuff. He was stone cold sober for every “drunken” interview he ever did.
“It worked out okay though,” his story came to a close. “Seeing me go to all that work to win a flock of chickens really cemented the idea that I was just a goofy idiot.”
“Do you ever think you should have let fans know the real you back when you were fighting?”
“Nah. People liked calling me Mess. Mess sold T-shirts. Besides, Danny always said people didn’t root for contradictions.”
“What do you mean?”
Cynthia walked into the living room, “Okay big boy, time for your walk.”
Mess smiled at me, “Gotta listen to the boss.” Mess tried to get up, but collapsed back into his seat. I stood up to help him, but he waved me off. His body strained as he pressed his hands against the arms of his chair and he slowly rose to his feet. Then he reached for his nearby walker, rested his bodyweight on its frame, and exhaled heavily from the exertion. “Come on, we’ll see if you can keep up with me.”
“What were we talking about?”
“Right. Thing is: Fans love rooting for good guys. And they’ll also root for bad guys. But what they can’t stand is a bad guy pretending to be a good guy. So once they’ve got one image in their heads, it’s best not to mess with that.”
“You might be right.”
“Wasn’t me who said it. That was Danny.” He brought his shaking hand to the doorknob, but couldn’t turn it. “Doors always give me trouble,” he smiled like he was laughing it off, but I could see the embarrassment running across his face. After he turned down my attempts to help him out of his chair, I resisted the urge to do something here too. I just stood there for 15 seconds as my childhood hero did battle with a doorknob, before eventually gripping it between his wrists, then slowly rotating them clockwise.
“Make sure you don’t prove old Lou Phelps right,” Cynthia called as we walked out the door.
“Don’t worry babe,” he shouted back. “I’ll keep turning her down.”
“You ever talk to Danny?” I asked as we walked up the road.
The neighborhood feels thick with poverty, crime and desperation. The buildings are run down, and the people stand idly on the sidewalks. 2:00 on a Wednesday afternoon with nowhere to be.
“Don’t worry I’ll protect you,” Mess smiled as the walker pulled him slowly up the road.
“You ever talk to Danny?” I asked again. Louder.
“Haven’t seen him in awhile. But he’s busy. I hear he’s started working with Kris Hoff in Southern California. That’s a handful right there. With me he only had to pretend I was an alcoholic.”
All fighters eventually go down. But managers stay in the ring.
It used to be you couldn’t see a photo of Mess without Danny. He was with him at the clubs, beside him at the press conferences, and in his corner at the fights.
Danny was both Mess’ cornerman and his manager. For most fighters, those were separate jobs. The guy who talked strategy in the ring and the one who talked strategy outside of it. But Danny was both. Even if he wasn’t all that good at the in-the-ring part. Most of his work consisted of shouting, in his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, “Dig deep Champ! DIG DEEP!” You’d watch a fight on TV and you’d just hear that over and over in the background. One time a ref came over and told him to shut up.
Danny was good at convincing people of things. And he convinced most of his fighters that it would be better for everyone if he handled both jobs. And for that they paid him double.
“‘Win it for mama’ he used to tell me,” Mess said after I asked him a few more questions about Danny. “She’s wondering how she’s gonna pay the bills, so what’re you gonna do? She’s counting on you, and now this sonofabitch wants to take it from her. You gonna let that happen?” He spoke with Danny’s famous rasp as he talked.
“She’s wondering how she’s gonna pay the bills? That was his pep talk?”
Again, the trademark Mess smile. “Yeah, he had a weird way of putting it. But that was a trigger for me, and he knew that. My mom and the fact that she was broke and counting on me to make ends meet. That she’d have more if I won than if I lost. So he went there, over and over. When I fell to the ground and my body didn’t want to get up anymore, he went there.”
“Was your mom really that bad off?”
“There was never enough money to make it to the end of the month. But you know, after paying everyone’s fees, handling taxes, my medical bills, there was only so much left to send her.”
“Plus money for yourself,” I added.
The sound he made was half laugh, half phlegm-loaded cough. “Well there was never much of that,” again with a heavy breath between thoughts. “But when you’re in a fight, and everything’s happening, you don’t care about what’s true, you only care about what gets you off the mat. Helps you hang in there. Makes you outlast the other guy. That’s what got me through my fight with Beast.”
And so we come to his famous bout. The Beast from the East against the Mess from the West. Mess had about a 10-month window of fame. There was the moment he beat Layton, followed by a decisive win against some guy from Amarillo. Suddenly he was on track to fight for the heavyweight title. Maybe four matches away. But then he lost to someone he shouldn’t have. Giancarlo Alvarez. A guy who was just supposed to be a tuneup on his way to a bigger matchup. A giant thumper who couldn’t move very well. But for some reason, instead of trying to dance around him, Mess just stayed on top of the guy. Kept taking hits. And there was Danny, in the corner, shouting “Dig deep Champ! DIG DEEP.” Mess needed a cornerman who knew what the hell he was doing, but the only thing he had was Danny. Just some idiot who kept shouting at him to get back up, as Mess took hellacious hit after hellacious hit. Danny should have thrown in the towel, but he knew what all of America knew, that Mess might not get another shot at the heavyweight title. That if he gave up, we would all go back to not knowing who “Mess” Hawkins was. But if he could hang in there and knock this guy out, then his run could continue.
That never happened. The punches kept coming, Mess kept getting back up, and by the end of the night his career was over.
It wasn’t over over, Mess would keep on boxing for another four years, though he probably should have stopped right then. He was never the same. But right now, we aren’t talking about the end of his time in the spotlight, we’re talking about the beginning. The time he fought Beast.
“Fighting Beast,” Mess told me, “was just about taking punishment. Hit after hit after hit. The more that guy punched, the more he left himself exposed, the more he wore himself out. We knew if he kept coming and coming, there’d be an opening. So I just needed Danny to help me stay upright. And in the fifth round we got it. And luckily for me, I still had fuel in the tank. I just fired and fired and fired, and down he went. He got up, we went to round six, but the whole stadium could tell it was over. He was done.” Mess was standing a bit straighter as he spoke, not even holding his walker. But as he finished, his hands went back to the support and he quieted.
The strategy against Beast was basically the same as it was against Alvarez. In Danny’s eyes, the two were the same fighter who required the same approach. But they were different. Against Beast it was savvy, against Alvarez it was stupid. But Danny didn’t know how to adjust. He only knew how to tell his guy to keep taking punches.
“You say ‘we.’ You feel that was you and Danny who beat Beast, not just you?”
“I never could have done it without him. He was smart about it. I mean, he was a character, don’t get me wrong. Lou ever tell you about the time he accidentally had me fight Will Harrison for a flock of chickens?”
“Yeah I think he did.”
This is the second time he’s repeated himself since I got here earlier today.
Mess chuckled at the memory, then nodded at the building behind me. “This is me.”
I turned my head to see a gym with a sign reading “The Mess Hall” “Can we go in?” I asked.
He smiled his biggest smile of the day. “Sure. I’ve got a lifetime pass.”
The building has crumbled as much as the man. You get the impression this failing business would have been pushed off the grounds years ago, if there was anything coming to force it out. But nothing had, so here it stands.
Mess proudly pushes open the door to let me in. “Doors are easy when they’re a push. It’s the pulls that give me trouble,” he tells me. He says he hasn’t come inside in years, though he walks by here every day on his afternoon constitutional. Some businessman approached Danny not long after Mess won his big fight and said he’d pay a handsome sum to put Mess’ name on a gym.
They said yes, though Mess never saw much of the money he heard about. But Mess didn’t care. It was a place with his name on it in his hometown. A town where every kid was watching him on TV and dreaming of becoming a boxer. The place was packed for the first few months, there were three or four fights going at any time in the rings and dozens more people working the speed bags all around.
“Hey man, you need to swipe to go in,” said the seventeen-year-old, leaning back in the rolly chair behind the desk.
Mess smiled, “Oh it’s okay. I have a lifetime pass. I’m Mess.”
“You’re who?” said the boy, almost spitting in disgust as he said the word “who.”
“I’m Mess, that’s my name on the building.”
“Yeah and I’m John Hall, that’s my name on the building too. You can’t come in without a pass.”
Mess kept on smiling, but you could see the embarrassment. I interjected, “This is Andy ‘Mess’ Hawkins. This is literally his gym.”
The kid sighed. You could tell he had really been planning on not standing up for at least a few more hours. He went to a back room to get a manager.
“It’s changed owners since they first built it,” Mess tried to explain.
After a few minutes, a slightly more official-looking man walked out. “You’re Andy ‘Mess’ Hawkins?” His voice boomed.
“Yes,” Mess’ face lit up. A fan.
“Well it’s an honor to have you here sir, I’m sorry about this. Come in, use the gym all you want. And is this your girlfriend?” He nodded at me.
“Nah, some reporter. You know how it is. Can’t get away from the press.”
“Still houndin’ ya after all these years, huh? Well yeah, head on in, you’re both free to come in any time you want.”
We both walked in, Mess’ spirits clearly lifted. “Nice guy,” Mess whispered to me. “I like him.”
Then I heard a voice behind us. The seventeen-year-old kid who thought we were out of earshot. “Who the fuck is Mess Hawkins?”
“Used to be a fighter here years ago. I Googled him when I started this job.” said the manager. “Don't worry, I'm sure that guy’s workout won't last more than ten minutes.”
There are no posters of Mess beating the Beast. No newspaper clippings. No patrons who sit around calling him “Champ.” Soon after Mess lost to Alvarez, everyone remembered that they liked football and baseball a whole lot more than boxing. Four rings turned into two turned into one turned into none. Replaced by treadmills and weight machines. Now all that remains of the original Mess Hall are two heavy bags in the corner of the room and a rack of boxing gloves that sits beside them.
“Wanna lace ‘em up?” I asked, only meaning it as a joke.
“Hell yeah,” he said. So I helped him get ready.
“How’s your mom now?” I asked as I slid the gloves onto his hands.
“The pep talks came true. She got thrown out of her house when I couldn’t pay the bills.”
Mess’ mom was as much an appendage of Mess in his heyday as Danny. She loved coming to fights with him. It was always a part of the match, wondering what kind of outrageous outfit she would wear. And multiple times she was caught on camera celebrating and drinking way harder than people thought a woman in her fifties should be. She helped fuel the "Mess from the West" image, though with her it wasn’t an act. There was even a rumor that she and Danny fooled around a few times.
“Did Danny do anything to help her out?”
“He was gone by then. Working with another fighter. He’s a good cornerman. Good manager. It didn’t make sense for him to stay in Kansas with a guy who couldn’t take a punch anymore.”
“You two stay in touch?”
“Nah, I’ve reached out to him a couple of times, but he’s busy. I hear he’s working with Kris Hoff now. That’ll keep ya busy. With me he only had to pretend I was an alcoholic.”
“Does that make you feel bad? That this guy who made so much off of the punishment you took can’t even return a phone call?”
“Nah. I was a boxer, he was a cornerman. He helped me fight when I could, but now I can’t so he doesn’t. When a CEO leaves a company, he doesn’t get offended if his secretary doesn’t visit him at his new job and keep laughing at his bad jokes.”
“Where’s your mom now?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t heard from her in awhile. She met some guy in Tampa. I think she likes him. He can afford her lifestyle.”
I finished tying his gloves and stood behind the punching bag, holding it in place. “Wanna take a few swings?” I asked.
“Hell yeah,” he repeated.
He slid his walker to the side, and stood up as straight as he could. He tossed a punch that landed softly and limply against the bag. Then another.
“Does that bother you?” I asked. “That you stop making money and your mom disappears?”
“Now you sound like Cynthia,” he said.
He punched the bag a bit harder, and I worried that he was overexerting himself. His body staggered a bit, but he stayed standing.
“So it bothers Cynthia?” I pressed on.
“Everything bothers Cynthia. She thinks Danny treated me wrong, thinks my mom treated me wrong, if she had seen how that kid at the front desk acted, she would have nailed him in the teeth. Me? I don’t know. I think it’s just people being people.”
Mess crushed his left fist into the bag. A strong left hook that didn’t feel like it was thrown by a guy with a walker. Then came the right just as hard. And suddenly he was standing a bit taller, holding his gloves up high, slamming his fists into the leather.
I stopped asking questions. Just held the bag which all of a sudden needed my reinforcement. And in came the hits. Left, right. Left, left, left. Jab, jab, jab, hook. For five minutes, the hits rained down on a continuous loop. The bag was the Beast from the East and before me stood the Mess from the West. It was round five, he had his opening and in came the thunder.
He brought his left up like he was going to jab, but then rocked back his right and fired it through the bag, a hit that would have laid out a prizefighter.
The bag flew backwards, nearly knocking me over.
Then Mess smiled his smile, his hands went back to shaking and he returned them to his walker. “That felt good,” he told me.
Over the last handful of years, we’ve learned a lot about what sports do to our nation’s most gifted athletes. We’ve seen the baseball players who wreck their bodies with steroids, the football players who still get headaches from concussions suffered long ago, and the boxers diagnosed with things like “Parkinson’s Disease” because there needs to be some medical explanation for why they won’t stop shaking.
It’s sad to watch what’s happened to the Muhammad Alis and the Johnny Unitases, the one-time goliaths of primetime sports. But it’s a different kind of pity you feel for men like Mess. Men for whom the spotlight burned out only moments after it went on. Men who never really cashed in and now sit in dilapidated homes in bad neighborhoods where no one knows their name. Surely they, if they had it all to do over again, would have chosen a different career. The math of it all doesn’t seem worth it: ten months of fame, a lifetime of disability.
But watch him fight a heavybag for five minutes and you start to wonder if you’ve got it wrong. You notice things like the fact that he can’t verbalize the anger he feels, but when he talks about Danny and his mom, he suddenly finds a way to hit the bag a whole lot harder. And you wonder if boxing is the one place where he can really process the pain.
Or just watch the way he stands when he throws a punch, watch the way he lights up when he talks about a big fight, or smiles when he’s recognized by a fan.
Maybe he doesn’t regret a second. Maybe the ring is the only place the world ever felt right, and it was all worth it for those fleeting moments when he was king of the world and everyone knew the Mess from the West.
Mess reached for the door and tried to open it. The same one we’d entered from, except on the way out, it was a pull and not a push. He couldn’t do it.
“I’ve got it Mess,” I told him.
And then the pride from moments ago, when he’d destroyed the heavybag, was gone. He was frail and he was sheepish. “Can you believe I’m only 52?” He said, hoping his smile would mask the shame.
Or maybe not.
I never knew the pain of taking a beating in a boxing ring, but I did once do something almost as agonizing: I was a substitute teacher. You can read more about the experience as well as the time I was a professional balloon twister, a crazy couponer, and a bikini model in my book Odd Jobs by clicking here.
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