The three of us entered the Tulane University field house where their basketball team played. The bleachers of a not large old wooden building were full on that night in the early eighties. However, it wasn’t basketball we had come to see. It was a boxing match.
Odd as changing one’s mind sounds nowadays, I would later do so concerning the legitimacy of boxing as sport. Back then I hadn’t quite committed to passing up the fun of watching sweat and blood spray from a good blow to the head. Call me a liberal.
The occasion was a challenge match between our own New Orleans hero Melvin Paul and somebody that he was going to beat the hell out of.
It was hot and the field house had those big tall windows instead of air conditioning. But, that just made the beer better and the crowed more boisterous.
The fans were roughly half black locals and half white Tulane preppies. We were all there for Melvin Paul – our Sugar Ray Leonard – fast, handsome, confident, black. We had a local hero and he was good.
I don’t know how this event had arrived on the Tulane campus, but it did and it brought bulk irony to the situation. One of our threesome was something of a newbie in New Orleans. He didn’t yet have his swamp legs and was a little concerned with the strange mix and circumstances evident that evening.
About ten minutes before the match was to start, a strange strong rumbling began down close to the floor at one end of the building. It slowly grew louder as feet began to pound bleacher seats in a rhythm that was as old as dirt and grew from the soul. Boom-dah, boom-dah, boom-dah boom-dah boom-dah-dah. The rumbling was deep and the bleachers carried the vibrations through the bodies of the rest of the crowed. It grew at such a slow rate. Like it was sneaking up on you from the opening earth somewhere below.
Our new friend seemed to sense that he might consider where the exits were located. I wasn’t too sure we weren’t in for some fight I had not come for. The excitement rippled through the steamy air to this sweaty crowd wanting to see some good, old-fashioned violence – from a safe distance.
Soon we all had joined in. You could not stand apart from the crowd. There might as easily have been a bonfire in the center of this large circle of people rather than a boxing ring. White preppies knew in their rumbling innards that this was a sensation filtered up to frat dances from the flat planes of Africa without having a professor explain it.
A chant began to top the pounding rhythm. “Who dat, who dat, who dat say gone beat Mel Paul. Who dat, who dat, who dat say gone beat Mel Paul.” Yeah, that’s right. Years before it became a phrase to be copyrighted by someone, it was already growing out of the soil and heat and soul into those who came for an evening of violent entertainment in the most preposterous mix of cultures I could have imagined.
I had been in New Orleans for a few years by then, but that night I felt something that I can’t imagine finding anywhere else. I felt like I was home. I felt like I could legitimately join in a ritual that I had only sensed before when a friend and I sat on the steps of black churches in my Alabama hometown to listen to the music. It had surfaced when a few members of the white high school band snuck in to watch and listen to the half-time shows at the all black high school football games.
Now “Who Dat” is a stencil on a tourist jersey. When Mel Paul jabbed his way through the crowd to the ring that night, everyone had the same hero and shared a piece of human history without sighs of race or symbols of otherness. We chanted and stomped a rhythm that rumbled through thousands of footsteps out of our collective African origins.