The boxer sits in an aged recliner, behind a make-shift curtain roughly four-foot square, his hands taped awaiting the familiar pressure of sweaty 12-ounce boxing gloves, knowing that this is his last fight.
"I think the only regret I have," Al "Mean Machine" Valentine reflects, "Is that I exchanged boxing for education. If I could go back I might have done some boxing but I would have got educated."
Earlier he made his way amid the throng of patrons at Marlintini's Lounge. He gave firm handshakes to inebriated fight fans, greeted old opponents who now throw their sons into the ring against him, well-wished the announcer and bell ringer and cornermen. The walls were bright with television screens showing his best fights. Those who remembered his time in the ring shook his hand and were hugged in return.
No one peeks behind his curtain. Shut off from undercards, pool games, passersby journeying to the restroom, bar floozies of both sexes, the rounds start to flash past. It is just Valentine and his career.
His alcoholic mother runs from California to Ketchikan when he is just 2 years old to escape his abusive father. A relationship moves them to Petersburg. He grows up black and Tlingit in a Norwegian town. He grows up angry, moving through the streets of Petersburg, through the school system. His friends are classmates he protects from upperclassmen. They are little league all stars. He hits the only run against Juneau, a line drive home run.
On sports trips on the state ferry they hold fights on the back deck against the toughest passengers on board. Valentine uses moves learned from studying Bruce Lee movies. There isn't a father figure in his life, just a series of his mom's boyfriends that like to show how tough they are by throwing punches. There is prejudice against blacks on the streets, and prejudice against natives. He can't go home to express his feelings.
"What there was were a lot of alcoholic figures," Valentine said. "I was raised around them and picked that up. My anger just festered inside me. I grew up real angry. I had to learn to step out of that and it was rough. That was where boxing helped me the most. It gave me something to go towards the positive and stay away from the alcoholism."
He takes his GED at 17 and flees from trouble for Juneau.
"It wasn't Petersburg that was the problem," Valentine said. "It was me that was the problem."
At 19 years old he starts to box in amateur fights in Juneau. He will amass roughly 80 wins and 30 losses. He then starts a 12-year Roughhouse professional boxing record in rings from Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, and Washington earning 65 wins 15 losses; four Southeast Heavyweight Boxing titles; two State Heavyweight Championships; and one state Toughman Championship which earns him a shot at the World Title fight and $50,000. He is disqualified for the world fight due to professional bouts.
His first professional fight in Pennsylvania. The fight promoters say they found him in the Alaska woods, living by a campfire, eating raw fish. They print that in the newspapers. They said he doesn't speak any English and ask Valentine not to talk at the press conference.
"They wanted me to be a Neanderthal," Valentine laughs. "I was eloquent and charming and I won."
He is in Atlantic City in 1987, the third fight on an undercard bout in which Virgil "Quicksilver" Hill will defeat Leslie Stewart for the World Boxing Association light heavyweight title. Donald Trump is the promoter. Limos pick Valentine up at the airport, suits and ties and evening gowns impatiently surround his fight. ABC Wide World of Sports, Ring Side magazine, ESPN, they all want his answers.
"I froze," Valentine said. "It was too much for me to handle."
Valentine is winning and ahead on the cards, but his opponent is the champion of Chicago and twice his size.
"Until I got hit," Valentine said. "I went down once, I went down twice. If I knew what I knew now. That's the furthest I got, but I've been all over."
The crowd groaned when the leather struck him and cheered when he stood back up. That wasn't the hardest he has been hit though, not even close.
That was a 6'5" Irish steelworker named Joe Dogherty at the Alaska State Championships in Anchorage.
"He hit me and I didn't know I went into a full circle until I saw it on tape," Valentine said. "I thought I just went straight backwards. I went into a 360."
He is in Cleveland, Ohio in 1988 fighting James Ashton. Ashton's last fight was his lone loss to world heavyweight champ Tommy Morrison. Ashton had 10 wins, all by knockout. Valentine knocks him out in the second round.
"That was a real highlight for me," Valentine said. "It stepped me up in the boxing world. It felt amazing. I was supposed to lose, this guy was getting ready to fight for the world championship. I was a tune up. I knocked him silly and everyone was flabbergasted."
Now he has a 19-year-old son in college in Arizona. The son has visited Juneau three times and has Valentine's state championship belts and his boxing gloves above his bed, as well as video of the bouts. Valentine has a 10-year-old daughter too; he raises her himself from what he earns working at Valley Lumber. He wants to train fighters now, not be a fighter. He wants to work with kids.
"I am retiring mainly because I have a daughter," Valentine said. "This getting hit in the head, I'll tell you straight up, I never did really like it. It hurts. The older you get the slower you heal."
The Marlintini's Lounge crowd chants his name. The bouts go by. He is the main event. His opponent is the best fighter from Ketchikan. Gabe "Steel" Duckworth is 40 pounds heavier, 6 inches taller, and 23 years younger. His brother Tyson wins an early fight, then his father Jack. The Duckworth family came to fight.
"I am on my way out," Valentine says. "They want somebody to step into my spot. My plan is to straight up attack him. I've got to go at him and hopefully he'll get tired before me."
Gabe Duckworth says "Valentine is a bad, bad man... anyone who can do this sport for this long is special. I have a lot of respect for Al."
Ringside bouncer Cody Mahle says Valentine is "the best fighter we have had here, not only is he a great fighter but he knows a lot about the fight game."
Marlintini's owner Ethan Billings tells the crowd, "There would be no Rousehouse boxing without Al Valentine."
The crowd goes wild. The ring girls start to parade inside the ropes. The Duckworths enter the ring. Valentine comes last.
He has been in the ropes when Michael Buffer, the king of boxing ring announcers, encited MGM Grand fans with "lets get ready to rumble..." and Vogue chorus line girls with bodys as perfect as Greek myths paraded the Round 1 placard. The rounds disappear, five years, 10, 20, 31 years of bells clamoring the end of his anger. And now there are just these three rounds on a Friday night in Marlintini's Lounge... Juneauite Bob Haag describes a ring girl as 'a single mother of two working for the state of Alaska' and asks bar patrons "are you ready to see a fight?"
Round 1. Leather and vaseline and sweat. Aromas that make you salivate if they have been the foundation of your life. Tiny flash bulbs wink out in the darkness, a far cry from the popping papparazi of Cesars Palace. Valentine is looming under the shadow of the first city giant, staying inside the behemoths reach. He has fought bigger and absorbs heavy body blows with ease. He jabs and unloads a roundhouse right, breaking his hand on Duckworth's head.
Round 2. Valentine said later he would have stopped if he thought his hand was broken, but it was just hurting so he swung on. Ringside faces from fights in Vegas, New Jersey, Anchorage and more appeared ghost-like in the Capital City fans. A punch is a punch no matter what venue it is thrown in. Valentine throws and ducks and each impact from decades of fighting are reborn on this tiny square of canvas ring.
Round 3. It is all a countdown know. Only Valentine knows how many blows remain. 15, 14... he moves and jabs... 13, 12... a powerful upper cut and Duckworth clinches... leather on flesh seems louder than a bar full of screaming fight fans. The blows are all important. They are a road map of a life traveled. And now they are gone.
A win or a loss doesn't matter anymore. Never has a small bar been more alive. Ringside voyears reach through the ropes to touch what they can only live vicariously through.
The Duckworths mug with Valentine. Opponents whose years of turmoil now humble with respect. They all raise Al "Mean Machine" Valentine's gloved and taped hands. The sweat will dry on his body long before he can escape the clutches of fans and boxing purists.
"I feel good. It was a close fight," Valentine said. "Now I can start being a full-time father. I want to be remembered as someone who did good in boxing but did better at being a father. I think that is more important, to pass down a positive to another generation."
Contact Klas Stolpe at email@example.com.
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