Watching “Assault In The Ring” on HBO, the documentary about boxing’s infamous Resto-Collins scandal, filled me with icky, icky feelings. The scandal itself is plenty icky: Luis Resto gets caught with tampered gloves after beating up Billy Collins Jr. in 1983, Collins dies not long after in an apparent suicide. But the ickiness doesn’t end there.
The least of the offenses comes from the documentarian, Eric Drath, himself. I’m not sure why it needed to be told in first person; it made the thing feel a little “look at me,” especially when he later holds a press conference about the film and uses himself as a narrator to say things that could have been said in omniscient third person. For example, “I found out that Resto was born in Puerto Rico” doesn’t need to be a sentence that begins “I found out that.” I’m not sure why he started off, as he said, believing Resto was an unwitting accomplice to trainer Panama Lewis and wanting to make a film that proved his innocence. There was plenty of evidence — enough for a court of law, enough for a state commission, enough for common sense — to suggest Resto was likely involved. Drath didn’t really even “catch” Resto lying, because an old newspaper article tipped him to the fact that an undercover police officer had already caught Resto admitting he knew something went wrong that night.
That said, he’s made a powerful film, and he prompted Resto to publicly cop to knowing what was up and cop to other things that had never been revealed, like Resto’s claim that his hand wraps were tampered with, too. And by getting Resto to have face-to-face meetings with people like Resto’s wife and Lewis himself, Drath forced a lot of interesting and telling exchanges (although I’m not sure I would have dropped Resto on the doorstep of Collins, Sr., after he indicated several times he wanted nothing to do with the documentary).
I was familiar with the scandal going in, but not some of the details, and many of them were shocking. Like that line about the iconic photograph of Collins’ face after the Resto fight. “Too bad you couldn’t get the kid to open his eyes,” one of the film’s interviewees said to the photographer. “They were open,” answered the photographer. I also wasn’t aware of the litigious streak of Collins, Sr.’s father, and how that may have led to him — in the eyes of his widow, among others — preventing his son from taking any more fights (plausible though it may be that father was looking out for his son, who’d been advised not to fight again).
Resto is the subject of the film, and he behaves dishonestly for long stretches. Before he revises his story, he goes to Lewis and acts like he’s confused about how his gloves got tampered with. Later, he acknowledges he knew about the tampered wraps and using an illegal drink that Lewis mixed. I’d be more willing to chalk some of Resto’s behavior to youthfulness and his being taken advantage of by his handlers, as he’d have us believe was the case, if he hadn’t lied for 25 years or so about the whole thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t more actively involved in the scandal than even he’s telling us. The lifetime ban from boxing is perfectly reasonable — yes, when one goes to jail and gets back out one can resume one’s life, but those who abuse the rules of their profession, like, say, lawyers, often lose their right to practice their profession forever.
But Lewis is the truest villain of the film. The man just oozes sleaze, sometimes within one sentence. “I love him like a son,” he says of Resto, “and I hope wherever he is, he’s doing well.” Nothing says “love” like “I don’t know where he is or how he’s doing.” Lewis says that once he gets some “success,” he’ll help out Resto, then Drath drolly films Lewis removing jewelry from every inch of his body and handing it to some assistant or the other. Lewis consoles Resto in person, then, when at a bar, mocks him. In the bar, he recounts his conversation with Resto completely differently than it happened, and he more or less acknowledges that if he DID know what happened to Resto’s gloves, he wouldn’t tell Resto, because, he says questioningly, “I wouldn’t look out for myself?” He’s such an instinctive liar and cheater that he doesn’t even recognize how horrible he is. (And if he did, he doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who’d feel too bad about it.) Watching him in action, I just seethed. Considering that he probably gave Aaron Pryor an illegally mixed drink for the Alexis Arguello fight where Pryor effectively ended Arguello’s run as an elite fighter, and considering that Resto has said since that Lewis tampered with his gloves multiple times, who knows how many careers he’s helped ruin over the years that we don’t even know about? And this guy still makes money training top fighters, like Zab Judah? That’s as damning a thing as I’ve ever heard of in boxing — that Lewis not only CAN, theoretically, make money in this sport still, but that he even has the OPPORTUNITY, because this man should be shunned like a pariah.
The film is ultimately a success. Even if watching it made my skin crawl.