Steve Lopez | The Philadelphia Inquirer | July 1987
GREG TUTT IS WALKING through a neighborhood that is going nowhere and taking everybody with it.
He walks past a corner house with broken windows, where four dudes sit on a porch in front of an open door. Inside the house, trash is ankle-deep. A car rounds the corner recklessly enough to have nailed anybody who might have been crossing, and one of the occupants makes a contribution to the collection of trash on the streets. Even after the car is out of sight, the trash is still skidding along on the pavement, looking for a pothole the way a golf ball looks for the cup.
Greg Tutt plans to leave one day for Jersey, as soon as he becomes a millionaire. As he walks through the streets, everyone who sees him either waves, calls his name or comes up and shakes his hand.
Tutt is 20 years old. His thighs and forearms don’t go with the rest of his body, looking like spare parts from a tank that were slapped onto a Rabbit. His gaptoothed smile works a conspiracy with butterscotch eyes to make you feel like you know him. You probably never heard of him, but in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia, he is Greg “King” Tutt, a celebrity.
Some days, Tutt gets one of those radios the size of a kitchen appliance and walks two blocks to 33d and Berks, a frayed edge of Fairmount Park. The kids start coming when they see that. Two kids, five kids, seven.
“Tutt’s in the park,” they say.
Tutt puts the radio on a concrete bench, pipes it up, and the song from Rocky echoes down the street, bouncing off the walls of shells and boarded-up homes in a neighborhood where the music isn’t a corny cliche, but the theme song of a recurring dream. It echoes all the way into Augie’s Gym in South Philadelphia, into Champ’s Camp in North Philadelphia, and Jimmy Toppi’s Blue Horizon on Broad Street, where boxing is what it was before it got all glitzed up in casinos – a dogfight in a dark and dingy pocket of a hard city.
Now there are 10 kids, 15, 20 watching “King” Tutt. He starts shadowboxing in time with the music, and 30 kids are watching the 155-pound junior middleweight – who averages about $750 a match and fights maybe eight times a year – on his way to becoming a millionaire.
Greg Tutt has won 12 fights and lost three. He is one of between 100 and 200 kids fighting professionally in Philadelphia, and every one wants to be the next Sugar Ray Leonard. They all have two things in common. Each knows the odds are one in a million. And each thinks he’s the one.
It’s not a bad time to take a shot at it in Philadelphia. Local promoter Russell Peltz says live boxing shows are making something of a comeback. A lot of the action had been sucked away by the casino cities, but the sport is suffering from overexposure in those places now. Peltz says Atlantic City had 153 fight shows in 1985, 80 in 1986 and, at the current rate, will have 60 this year.
Peltz has a contract with USA Cable Network to televise one fight card each month from the Blue Horizon. Kids like Tutt, some of whom live in ramshackle houses and work side jobs to cover boxing expenses – Tutt works in manager Ray Murphy’s men’s clothing store – are seen in as many as 400,000 or 500,000 living rooms.
Peltz says maybe 10 percent of Philadelphia’s fighters earn $15,000 a year. Tutt is just one of the rabbits nibbling at the pot, although boxing people think he’s above-average. He may make it, he may not.
From the comfort of a middle-class couch, you can find something socially repugnant about a kid thinking that his ticket out of hard times is to refine the art of pummeling another man. Greg Tutt and his colleagues don’t usually sit in the comfort of a middle-class couch.
“Have you ever been to the houses?” Peltz asks. “I’ve been in their living rooms and seen holes in the floor so you can see the basements. . . . Even if it gets them out of the ghetto for only two or three years, it’s still better as far as I’m concerned than not ever having the chance. . . . Are you going to tell me we have an equal education system? That kids at Ben Franklin High get the same education as the kids at Lower Merion High School?”
Elmer Smith, boxing writer for the Daily News and a local fight fan for 30 years, says you can’t generalize about boxers and where they come from.
“A lot fewer of the successful fighters these days come from backgrounds of abject poverty, and there’s little to suggest that abject poverty is a good spawning ground for athletic excellence,” Smith says. “But I agree with Russell that there is still a chance to make money. They fought for free (as amateurs), so why not” fight for money?
To hear Tutt explain his career choice, coming out of North Philly and going into professional boxing is like a kid coming out of Silicon Valley and going into computer science. “You double-park your car in this neighborhood, hot as it is these days, somebody’ll jump out and want to fight you,” Tutt says.
His family moved from the other side of Broad Street about six years ago, and Tutt, a scrawny 14, got into some fights.
“They used to punch him, and he’d come in here to tell me, and I’d send him back out there,” says his mother, Carolyn Tutt. “I told him if you don’t learn to hit back, they’ll always pick on you. ” It was the same for Tutt’s younger sister, Latonya. “She had to fight just about every girl on the block before they accepted her,” Mom says.
Carolyn Tutt was in Kiddie City one day and saw some Sugar Ray boxing gloves. She brought them home to Greg, who went to work on a punching bag in his basement. One day a neighbor saw Greg running through the streets throwing punches at the wind.
“You want to be a boxer? ” Monte Carter asked.
“Sure,” Tutt said.
“Be at Augie’s Gym this afternoon.”
“All the way cross town?”
“You want to be a fighter, be there at 3.”
Carter, a longtime respected trainer who has been Tutt’s mentor from that first day, figures that in a year or so, all the training – several hours a day – is going to pay off. Tutt had his first professional fight three years ago, but is still considered young. His father, James, would rather Greg find a job in which nobody swings at you. But he goes to his fights along with Carolyn, who holds Greg’s 3-year-old daughter, Temperance, in her lap at ringside.
Last fall there was a classic bout at the Blue Horizon, a 1,200-seat arena in which the canvas is like a microscope slide, and spectators examine the sparring specimens from a balcony that circles the ring. You can hear the punches, see the jet streams of sweat. On the first floor, you can feel the thunder of a heavy punch. On Nov. 11, the ring corralled Greg “King” Tutt and Sidney “Sinbad” Outlaw, also of North Philly. Street-wagering had gone on for weeks and continued into the arena. Tutt and Outlaw themselves had sold tickets to friends, and the house was packed with fans who were on one side or the other, nobody in the middle.
It was a brawl that put screaming spectators on their feet, shaking termites out of the rafters. When it was over, Temperance was hoisted into the ring, and Tutt strutted around with her on his shoulders. The ring announcer called them two great sportsmen and said it was the fight of the year. Everyone awaited the call.
In a close but unanimous decision – Tutt. He called his grandmother right away because he knows she doesn’t approve of this and sits at home every time he fights, praying he doesn’t get hurt.
Tutt won another unanimous decision in June, a $1,000 payday. After fees, splits for manager Ray Murphy, trainer Monte Carter and cut man Billy Haywood, Tutt cleared $650. He gave $100 to his mother, bought summer clothes for Temperance, bought himself some tennis shoes and shorts, and put the rest, what was left of it, in the bank.
There was a time when he would take money and try to double it in a street- corner game of craps. Back when he was young. “Now, I would never gamble money I got hit in the head for.”
If he makes it, Tutt wants a house in Jersey, a boxing gym in his name and a sporting goods store. Temperance would go to private school.
“I would say quite frankly that I don’t see Greg moving into the highest echelons of boxing on the strength of what I’ve seen so far,” says Elmer Smith, who thinks Tutt has good boxing skills but lacks a big punch. “But he is no different than several fighters who did not look any more promising in early stages of their careers, and later became very big.”
Tutt sees the opening. It gets wider when he drops onto the craggy pavement at the break of day for pushups, Philadelphia crumbling all around him, sunlight angling in from someplace else.
Writer bio: Steve Lopez was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1986 to 1997. Lopez, generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history, joined the Los Angeles Times as a columnist in 2001. He was awarded the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in 2004, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2011.