Someone who knows me as well as anyone in the world–someone I’ve known since the playground–once told me he didn’t think I was someone who “had his back.” In a difficult time, I was not a guy he would turn to for help. The context of his comments is forgotten. Maybe it was just a mean thing someone says during an argument to get the last word. Maybe he was recalling a specific incident when he said it, although I can’t imagine what. The comments hit me like a jab to the temple. I believe this guy would always have my back. Whatever the context, when someone says something like that, you have to soul-search, you have to contemplate who you really are. Are you brave? Loyal? If a friend is in need, are you there?
Here’s another thing the same guy said, although not to me. He said it to an aging hulk of a man he saw in a bar one night. He said to the man, “The name’s Smalls. Leonard Smalls. My friends call me Lenny…but I got no friends.” The hulk of a man just smiled and nodded. Samuel Jackson once complained he was sick of people seeing him and yelling, “Royale with Cheese.” Maybe this hulk was hearing his own “Royale with Cheese,” but he had the grace to smile about it. The man at the bar was Randall “Tex” Cobb, former boxer, actor, Philly celebrity and, several years ago, he was Leonard Smalls in “Raising Arizona.”
For many years, you could run into Cobb if you hung around the Philly social scene enough. (Or so I heard. You could never really find ME if you hung around any social scene, so I can’t be sure.) He’s been a presence in the city for decades. He made his name as a boxer who once had a title shot, who lost to Larry Holmes in the early 80’s. He was an accomplished kick-boxer in the mid 70’s who turned to boxing in ’77, and besides Holmes, he fought Leon Spinks, Ken Norton and Ernie Shavers, among others. There is apparently no article about Cobb which doesn’t mention his chin, “one of the best in the business,” according to former columnist and friend Pete Dexter.
He’s a witty interview. When asked whether he would fight Holmes again, he said no, Holmes’ hands couldn’t take it. When he was accused of talking to Holmes during the fight, he said, “Every time I wanted to say something, I found it hard because he kept putting his left hand in my mouth.” Comparing Holmes to Shavers, he said, “No one hits like Shavers. If anybody hit as hard as Shavers, I’d shoot him.” And when an ugly fight of his caused Howard Cossell to quit announcing boxing matches, he allegedly offered to join the NFL as well to make Cossell quit announcing football.
Cobb appeared in many movies, most often as the silent, mean presence he was in Raising Arizona. He was in Ace Venture: Pet Detective; Uncommon Valor; Liar Liar; Fletch Lives and several tv shows.
Pete Dexter reluctantly tells a story about how Tex Cobb had his back. Dexter is a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and other papers who became a successful author, screenwriter and National Book Award Winner. He wrote this story in a blog piece called “The Night Tex Cobb Saved My Life.” The events in this story allegedly caused Dexter to quit writing columns and started writing fiction. It was the night he was nearly beaten to death.
On a December night in the early 80’s, Dexter went to a Philly bar to talk to the bartender, the brother of a recent homicide victim. He had written about a Philly neighborhood known as Greys Ferry, and he mentioned in the article a recent murder victim who had been a good guy, but who was “stoned all the time.” The bartender and his mother called Dexter to scream at him–how dare he suggest the victim was an addict–and he went to the bar to talk the guy down.
As he reported it, he was arguing with the bartender when he took a sucker shot to the head, messing up some teeth. Finding himself outnumbered, he got out of the bar and went to see his good friend Cobb, who was throwing a party. Cobb rounded up some friends and went back with him to the bar, but there, they met a gang with baseball bats and tire irons. In the fight, which bled into the lot outside, Dexter went down, “hit five or six times in the head,” and he goes on to write, “it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out what would have happened to me if he’d left me.” Cobb had his arm broken by a tire iron, but despite the injury, which ultimately cost him a chance to fight boxer Mike Weaver, he remained, “standing over (Dexter’s) body, fighting kids with tire irons and baseball bats.” Dexter estimated 25-30 guys came at them that night.
Cobb got him into a car and to a hospital. On the drive there, Dexter wrote, he said aloud that they should have planned the night better. Cobb responded, “General Pickett planned it better at Gettysburg.”
Dexter had fractures to his pelvis, his back, head injuries and possible brain damage. He speculates that Cobb was never the same fighter after that night. But he stayed and he fought. He very well might have saved Dexter’s life.
Personally, I stand a towering 5’9”, and although I have a linebacker’s weight, it’s the weight you get from pizza, not the gym. No one facing a bar fight says to himself, “Where’s Bobby Phillips?” That is, unless they see a fight coming and they want someone to blog about it.
But I like to think I can be Tex Cobb that December night in Philly. Maybe I’ wrong, but I do think of myself as someone who would come to the aid of a friend in need. Am I kidding myself? The closest I’ve been to a fight in my life is writing this article, but if we really are who we choose to be, then I would be Randall Cobb that night. I would be someone who had your back. I would be Robert Phillips. My friends call my Bobby…but I got no friends.