From Fights To Fiction

Posted on February 09, 2009

John Coiley's Life Story Proves The Pen Can Be Mightier Than The Fist

By Krystina Lucido

Behind the desk at Brick Bodies Fitness Club in Cockeysville, he is tall and inviting. Members pass by, offering a greeting to the front desk employee they have seen occupy that same spot for 14 years. He knows almost all of them by heart, and his hat tips as he leans down to type in their names.

It is Friday, which in John Coiley's world means Crazy Hat Day, just one of the many things he does to put a smile on members' faces. He stands up and rights the giant, floppy straw sombrero atop his head to greet the next member with a smile that is electric and intoxicating.

Few would guess that Coiley, this 58-year-old artistic soul who now captures words on a page, used to be a boxer, taking on the best of the best and "knockin' 'em out" left and right. His self-designation, "fighter turned writer," encapsulates it all.

Coiley began his career in 1967 at age 17. He was living in the Boston projects with nine brothers and sisters, an abusive father and a complacent mother. He boxed at the amateur level for two years before becoming a pro at age 19. Coiley won the 1968 New England Diamond Belt Title in the 147-pound class. He also competed in the finals of both the Golden Gloves and the Amateur Athletic Union. He lost both fights in controversial decisions that are still debated today.

All told, Coiley fought 64 times (amateur and pro) with a combined record of 51-11-2, enough to earn him a spot in Ring 4 of the Veteran Boxers Hall of Fame earlier this year.

"Johnny never really had any easy fights," said Mickey Finn, a New England boxing historian and longtime fan of Coiley. "The first five or six fights, they give you some encouragement to go on, but Johnny never really had an easy fight. He was a real crowd-pleaser. A lot of people wanted to see him because he was a great boxer, great footwork and hand speed. Johnny stayed busy the way he moved. I don't know how he didn't run out of gas by the end of the third round."

But the energy that kept Coiley going was more than just a drive to compete or to win. In fact, the dream to fight was never his own, but his father's.

****

An old picture of Coiley tells it all. He stands next to a punching bag, his fate decided for him at age 4.

Coiley's father, John T. Coiley Jr., entered the Navy at age 17. Coiley believes something traumatic happened during his time there. This would be one explanation for why, after producing nine children, he would go on to rape them all.

Coiley Jr. was a veteran boxer with a long-lost dream of becoming a world champion. His son believes Coiley Jr.'s resentment of his family for ruining that dream led him to project it in the worst way -- sodomizing the boys and raping the girls with a bitter fury. His drinking habits didn't help his behavior and Coiley's passive mother compartmentalized the whole experience, claiming she didn't know what was happening.

Living vicariously through his oldest son, his namesake, Coiley Jr. pushed young Coiley into boxing.

"He said I was going to be champion of the world," Coiley said in his soft Boston accent. "He was a boxer, he had been a boxer. I was his first-born. He said he didn't become a champion, so I'm going to be champion of the world, so I had no choice. Basically, I had no choice."

The lanky youngster who was terrified of getting hurt was anything but a natural boxer.

"I'd go home and I'd have a bloody nose or cuts and my father would know that I didn't fight back and he would drag me back down and make me fight the guy again and then I would beat him," Coiley said. "Basically, what he would do, he would take me down and grab me by the arm and [SMACK], 'Do it the way I said to,' and then I would fight and I would win because I did it the right way."

His father's method may have worked, and it bred a fighting machine. Fight after fight ensued as Coiley grew cockier with his abilities and slowly gained a reputation as a street fighter.

Family members said Coiley's fighting gave him confidence and vindication that he wasn't getting in a nurturing home environment. Mike Dalelio, Coiley's uncle and pseudo-father, felt fighting made Coiley surer of himself.

"He didn't question his own abilities," said Dalelio.

Now that Coiley has grown and seen his life unfold, he is able to look at the good things that resulted from events early on.

"He left me the good part of him, the fighter who became a writer, because that's who I am and I'm no longer a fighter," Coiley said of his father, who passed away six years ago. "I haven't had a street fight since I was 17 years old."

"John's anger could very well have been the catalyst for his boxing," said Pat Coiley-Zikmund, Coiley's sister. "Truthfully, I wish I had done something as incredible as he did. What we went through as kids, I think his ability to put that in the ring and in his writing has helped him a great deal."

***

Coiley was accustomed to letting out pent-up aggression in street fights, but when he began training professionally, that aggression was brought out in a controlled environment, in a gym with professional trainers who saw something in his rawness.

After winning his first 23 professional fights, 16 by knockout, Coiley suffered his first loss on Dec. 11, 1971, to Tony Licata.

Licata had entered professional boxing in 1969 and did not experience a loss until 1975. During that time, he went undefeated in 52 fights. Licata finished with a 61-7-4 record.

Two of those 61 wins were against Coiley, whose trainers rushed him to fight seasoned boxers, opponents with outstanding records, because they simply thought he was that good. Looking back years later, everyone -- Coiley included -- knew he wasn't ready.

"He came up in an era of tremendous middleweights," historian Finn said. "Tony Licata, Carlos Monzon and a few others. Johnny got rushed into fighting. But Licata -- I've always said if they had waited a year to match the two of them up, the fight would have been different. It would have been a very close fight. I think Johnny could have beaten him, but he was rushed into it. It was a devastating loss for him."

Following the defeat, Coiley took some time off. It wasn't long, however, before he was back in the ring. He won one fight, then got knocked out. He took a year off, then got knocked out twice.

After another year off, he decided to go to Seattle. Coiley had married his high school sweetheart, Linda, at age 19, but they divorced before his move to the Pacific Northwest. Coiley realizes now they didn't really know each other.

Coiley's plan was to go to California, known as the Mecca of boxing, but when he met his friend in Seattle who introduced him to the woman that would become his second wife -- "Linda II," as he calls her -- that was that. He decided to stay there and immediately found a gym. He just couldn't stay away.

"I just felt like that was my destiny," he said. "I was supposed to be champion of the world and I thought I hadn't fulfilled my destiny yet, so that's what I had to do. So I tried to do it again."

Coiley gets so excited talking about his fights that he removes his square glasses from his nose and folds them neatly on the table before he begins.

"I fought this guy [in Seattle] and I beat him up for seven rounds," he said. "He had 45 stitches in his face after the fight. His name was Iron Mike Lancaster; he had 18 wins, 18 knockouts. He knocked out everybody he fought and so they match me against him and I'm freaked, you know, but I'm thinking, 'Why not? If they think I can do it, I can do it.'

"I beat him for seven rounds. In the eighth round … I dropped my left hand -- BANG, he hit me. I got back up, he banged me around again. I got up and the referee just said, 'You don't want to do it,' and that was it."

However, the fighter didn't see it as a loss.

"The next day I call my friends in Boston," said Coiley. "I call my parents in Boston. I said, 'Oh, man, I beat this guy, I beat this guy!'

"They said, 'Oh my God, oh my God, that's great.' "

"I said, 'Yeah, but he knocked me out. But I beat him. He hit me and everybody gets knocked out, but I beat him and I'm ready.' "

Nick Peoples would be Coiley's final fight, a knockout in the fourth round. Fighting Peoples was intended to build Coiley's confidence. Peoples' record to that point had been an unimpressive six wins and 19 losses but he brought his victory total to seven with the match against Coiley.

***

Coiley fell into a deep depression following the loss. His new wife was now pregnant and he was feeling overwhelmed. The hasty marriage was, Coiley realized, another mistake. He didn't know her either. Not fighting anymore and being in a marriage based on lust left him with an empty feeling and pent-up aggression that he didn't know how to handle. Coiley moved back to Boston. He entered therapy and started up his own program at a gym.

The program was held in the recreation department of a dark, dingy public gym in Cambridge. The New Garden Gym was decorated with old fight pictures on the wall -- black and white, chipped and dusty. The run-down appearance didn't dissuade teenagers from gravitating to the gym. In fact, there was nothing Chris Calnan and Bill Sullivan would have rather done on those Friday nights than box with the great Irish Johnny Coiley.

"I was about 10 or 12 years old and he was my teacher," said Calnan, a student of Coiley's and now a writer in Austin, Texas. "John, at that time he was, I think, in his early 20s. He was a person that could talk to us and he was someone we looked up to and we wanted to emulate him and he was a gentleman. He was this young guy who was just a complete gentleman. We didn't have any of those role models growing up so to have him, it was just really valuable and he had a huge influence on me after that."

"Chris and I would often talk of John and wonder what he was up to," said Sullivan, another former student. "One day, about 25 years later, Chris was able to come up with John's address. We flew to Baltimore and met up with him. I think John was flattered that we remembered him and we assured John that we could never forget him because he always treated us kindly."

"I could talk to you for hours about the influence that John had on me," Calnan said. "The first full-time editor that I ever had told me after I had been working there for about a week or two, 'It is obvious you were a former athlete because of your discipline,' and that's from Johnny Coiley. He taught me that discipline and that's something that I've carried over into everything -- into my work, into how I treat people, everything."

***

After Coiley left the gym and stopped training youngsters, he began working in a restaurant, where he met a woman from Baltimore. After attempting a long-distance relationship, Coiley decided to move here. Even though the couple split soon after, Coiley decided to stay.

Since Coiley has moved to Baltimore, he has rediscovered a lot about himself, and he believes everything happens the way it is supposed to. What he was forced to use as an outlet for his emotion led to a better outlet, his writing.

Country music singers now belt out Coiley's beautifully written words throughout Nashville. His newest endeavor is movie scripts -- four to date, that have not yet been picked up by directors. Coiley does not lose hope and is content that his time will come.

"You win some, you lose some and when it's your time, you'll do it," Coiley said. "You just have to work your ass off until it's time for you to be where you're supposed to be and that's what life is and that's what I have learned. You just got to keep on working and working and working and when it's your time, maybe you'll get lucky, maybe you won't. But, if you are doing what you love, what difference does it make?

"Basically, I'm happy and I'm healthy. I can still walk and talk after all those fights."

Issue 134: February 2009

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