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By Craig Malisow
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By Jeff Balke
"Hey Rabbit," I asked. "How long were you a boxer?"
This was one morning at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, where a lay ministry serves breakfast to the homeless and near-homeless.
Rabbit, tall, dark and intense, known to me as the homeless boxer, or the boxing poet, or the homeless boxing poet, grinned, and, by way of answer, took the tip of his right index finger and pushed his nose flat against his face.
"Fighters are lovers of life," Rabbit says after a wide variety of provocations. After he's lost yet another temporary home -- just about the only kind the 31-year-old ex-boxer has known since he was a teenager with dreams of ring glory. Or after he's announced that he wants to publish a book of his poems, or that he wants to open his own gym downtown.
His saying is a basic one-two combination; he inevitably follows the first line with "Willing to challenge it to the utmost." I can imagine him thinking those thoughts as he tears into the tattered canvas of a heavy bag in the gym owned by his cousin Kenny Weldon. Rabbit's through with fighting -- the body shots finally started to hurt, really hurt -- but the old ferocity still shines through as he jabs and hooks the bag. Fighters are lovers, wham. Willing to challenge, kablooey.
If I were one of the teenage boys here to train with Rabbit in preparation for the February Golden Gloves tournament (Rabbit's one pro student is Lucy Tellez, one of the first women to fight professionally in Texas), I'd be thankful he doesn't like to spar. "I don't like people banging on me and me not banging back," is his explanation. He has cooled down some since the old days, but if his blood isn't on permanent boil now, it can heat up fast enough. As we stand face to face and he tries to show me how to keep my balance on the left-right combination, his eyes are wide and intense as he feigns punches. I have the sense that he tells himself on every move, Don't hit him, Rabbit. He's just a writer.
"Tell everybody I'm on the move again," Rabbit says afterward, with his face-crinkling grin. He's just moved out of a church mission, and he'll be leaving his bags at Weldon's gym while he looks for a new place to live.
As a boxer, Rabbit went toe-to-toe. "I'll let you hit me in the head till I figure you out. It's hard to explain, but I used to like getting hit." At least, that's how he fought after he left Weldon's tutelage and forgot all his boxing lessons. "Rabbit was the most uncoachable human being I ever met," Weldon says now.
But in the big fight, the ongoing duke-out between Rabbit and life, the boxer has to keep dancing. The fighter was stunned in the early rounds, and he constantly has to move and cover up while he tries to clear his head. This is old-style boxing. No victory by decision. No round limit. No standing eight-count. It's over when one of the contestants can't get up, and hard-headed Rabbit keeps answering the bell.
The venue was Tucson, Arizona, and frankly, the event was rigged. Rabbit was born as Michael Dale Vinzant to Sally Ann, a 20-year-old single woman who already had two children. She didn't think she could handle another, so, after bringing her baby boy home from the hospital, she took him to an orphanage.
"That's what screwed up my older sister," Rabbit says now of his sibling who died the victim of a rape and murder. "She saw me, her baby brother, at home, and then they took him away."
Sally Ann's best friend, Jean Marie, tried to adopt the baby boy, and she took him to Houston. When the court vetoed the adoption Jean Marie's half-sister, Jeanette Picha, got custody, and thus Sally Ann's baby boy was adopted by a Czech family and became David Wayne Picha (pronounced "pee-ha"). Jeanette Picha had lost a child at birth, and David Wayne Picha was supposed to take his place in the Pichas' Galena Park home. Rabbit is one-quarter Chinese -- his maternal grandmother was full-blooded, he says -- and he never felt that he fit in with his adoptive family.
Like other adopted kids, he dreamed about who his blood relations might be. "I think Randy Travis might be my older brother. I always had a feeling I had an older, famous brother. I talked to a psychic on the Q-Zoo, and she told me I was right."
When Rabbit was a child, his comeback got off to a promising start. He says that he never felt particularly close to his adoptive parents, but he fit right in with their relatives, the Weldons, a tough and talented Galena Park bunch. Wayne Weldon became a renowned breeder of "chickens and dogs" -- the fighting kind, that is. Two of Wayne Weldon's brothers became musicians. The late C. L. Weldon and his band the Pictures were a regular attraction at the Palms on Telephone Road. Roger, the most liberal and least settled of the Weldon family, became a white soul singer and sang for years in Percy Sledge's club ("Percy Sledge is my hero," Roger says) in Monroe, Louisiana. But it's Kenny who "was like [Rabbit's] daddy."