Rabbit Was a Boxer
"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."
Fighting professionally as a featherweight between 1967 and 1978, Kenny Weldon became the number-four contender in the world. He also formed the Galena Park Boxing Academy, a boys boxing club. While he prepared for his professional fights, he trained hundreds of youngsters. (After retiring from pro fighting, Weldon has gone on to train many national amateur champions, and professionals such as Evander Holyfield and Vinny Pazienza, the Pasmanian Devil.)
Weldon gave Michael/ David his nickname, Rabbit, because he could run so fast for so long, even as a five-year-old. Under Weldon's tutelage, Rabbit had club fights at five, and at seven took runner-up in his first Golden Gloves. He improved quickly and steadily. By the time he was a teenager, the Galena Park Boxing Academy was traveling all over the country, and he was a star fighter, winning around 90 percent of some 300 fights, according to Weldon. ("That wasn't an unusual total for the '70s," Weldon says.)
"By the time Rabbit was 13 or 14, he was one of the three best junior boxers at his weight," Weldon says now. "There was no doubt in my mind that he would be a champion."
"I lived for working out," Rabbit recalls. "My best friends were boxers. I didn't have friends at school."
Because of his racial mix, and because he was adopted -- "Being adopted scared me" -- Rabbit felt like an outsider at Galena Park Elementary and Galena Park Middle School. He says that in the second grade he tried to burn the school down so he would be a hero. "I saw on the news that a school had burned somewhere, and that the kids were out for the whole year. I figured if I did that, I would be a hero."
He also felt out of place around his house. "It was a tough, redneck neighborhood. I had to learn to fight my way down the street." He told his few friends that his real parents had been killed in the '57 Chevy that sat behind the Picha house. "I didn't get along with my [adoptive] father. I stayed with Kenny."
Weldon says Rabbit was drawn to him because he offered the boy stability and structure. "He grew up in an unstructured atmosphere. His parents were never at home. I have a real structured life," he says. "My whole life revolves around the gym."
Weldon felt a bond with Rabbit, despite early warnings that he and the boy were miles apart in their temperaments. ("He thinks real liberal," Weldon says now, "and I'm probably as conservative as Rush Limbaugh. I can't explain the way we get along.")
"There has always been a sort of genius about Rabbit," Weldon recalls. "Even as a kid he was a writer. A lack of focus is his main problem."
"But that didn't surface until a little later. This was Rabbit's strongest round, when he was part of "The GPBA -- The Galena Park Bad Asses."
"But after he started having family problems, he just used the gym as a place to hang out," Weldon sighs.
Those problems came early, when Rabbit turned 14. His parents discovered that he was smoking dope, and they disapproved of his street fighting. But Rabbit just couldn't make himself stay home and do what they wanted.
"I used to open my window at night and sneak out," he says. "I was the first kid to roam the streets of Galena Park. I know, because there was nobody else out there."
But there must have been somebody out there, because before long the Galena Park police told him he would be tried as an adult if he didn't quit fighting. He still remembers with some glee a time when "I had just drunk two six-packs of beer and ate everything in Dairy Queen when this older guy challenged me [because he was a boxer]. I fought bare-chested on boiling parking-lot asphalt. Later he wanted to press charges, but we asked if he wanted to admit that a 15-year-old had whipped his ass."
But Rabbit's mother, Jeanette Picha, was preparing to run for mayor of Galena Park, and she wasn't pleased with her adopted son's public wildness. When she pressured him to straighten up, Rabbit lit out for the territories of Telephone Road. His companion was the first love of his life, Bennie Lynn. With the help of his girlfriend's father, he took a maintenance job at an apartment building. But despite his love for Bennie Lynn -- which he still professes -- Rabbit felt lost, and turned for the first time to God.
"I tried to read the Bible alone in our apartment, but it was like reading French upside-down and backwards. I couldn't understand what it meant." He and Bennie Lynn broke up after he got in a fight at the apartment complex. "The guy couldn't take a punch worth a flip."
s confused as ever, and maybe more so, Rabbit returned to his parents' house. His earlier success wasn't forgotten; it wasn't even over, but the boy was wobbling.
He still fought with his parents and had more trouble with them over dope, but he'd begun to win the Golden Gloves. He took the local titles from 1976 until 1979, and that last year he was named Outstanding Boxer. He still had a chance to get it together. Kenny Weldon recalls, "He was losing controversial decisions to national champions even after he stopped taking boxing seriously."
But his mother lost a close decision for the mayorship, and she puts part of the blame on Rabbit. That's how he remembers it, at least. "People said, 'If you can't control your own son, how can you be mayor?'" he says. Then his father took ill with cancer.
ut Rabbit fought on. "I was sparring with Top 10 contenders. Wilford Scypion [Rabbit's best friend on the team]. Termite Watkins [both came up through the Galena Park Boxing Academy]. And I was holding my own, toe to toe."
In 1979, in Scypion's 13th professional fight, his opponent died. Willie Classen was brain-dead by the time he was carried from the Madison Square Garden ring, but Classen's death was attributed to various drugs in his system, along with the beating Scypion had administered. Scypion did go on to fight Marvin Hagler for the world middleweight championship; he lost in the sixth round "after having Hagler in trouble," as Kenny Weldon puts it.
It was a shocking and demoralizing event for the entire Galena Park camp. Scypion did eventually fight Hagler, and lose, but he'd lost something forever: not his life, like poor Willie Classen, but his fire. Kenny Weldon says, "Scypion was never the same. He lost his ferocity." Rabbit was confused about his own future. Then his adoptive father died in Las Vegas, where he was undergoing a specialized therapy. Jeanette Picha had gone to Las Vegas to be with her husband, and she was out of Rabbit's life forever.
A couple of years before leaving, however, she gave Rabbit a surprise from the woman Rabbit calls his "real mother." (Kenny Weldon cautions, "Don't make Jeanette Picha a villain. They did the best they could until Rabbit was a teenager.") The two women had corresponded over the years. At 15, when Rabbit finally asked about his mother, Jeanette Picha gave him a box of letters. "I sat up reading them, then jumped out the window and went to Kenny's gym. I took the door off its hinges with a screwdriver and went in to call. For privacy."
When a Junior Olympics boxing tour took Rabbit to Arizona, he met Sally Ann, his birth mother. "I wanted you to have something better than what I could give you," she told him. "I was single and had two kids."
"I understand," he answered. "But I'd rather have been raised with my own family and lived on peanut butter."
Rabbit says now, "I expected to hate her. But blood is thicker than water."
Alone in the Pichas' house in Galena Park, Rabbit turned again to God. "I was praying for truth and comfort. I was praying to have somebody to love." This in spite of, or because of, a series of married women he visited around the neighborhood.
Rabbit says God answered his prayer with a vision of Elizabeth, his future wife. He then met her at "a church spook house on October 31, 1979. Halloween."
Her family was Pentecostal. Her father, in fact, was a Pentecostal minister. "They didn't think much of my Baptist upbringing."
After marrying Elizabeth, who was pregnant with their daughter, Rabbit became Pentecostal himself, even though his co-religionists' behavior "scared me half to death." Rabbit says that when he got the Holy Ghost, "I saw my body below me, praying at the altar, just like when I'd nearly OD'd." Not that it was a completely peaceful experience.
Rabbit says now, "The day I got the Holy Ghost, the Devil was in front of me. Everything I spoke in tongues he said back to me. He told me he was making me speak in tongues." Angry, Rabbit told the Devil to take his best shot, toe to toe. "I wish I hadn't done that. He landed some heavy punches. I lost my family. I lost everything."
Even though Rabbit now prayed in the Pentecostal style, he didn't get along with his new church or his in-laws. He says the whole church seemed to be against him. "A minister accused me of making up a word -- 'nymphomania.' He accused Elizabeth of harlotry when we went for a swim in an apartment swimming pool, just because she was wearing her bathing suit in public."
So Rabbit broke the minister's nose. Unfortunately, the minister was his father-in-law. "My wife never wanted to see me again."
abbit ran away from the scene, which was outside a Pentecostal retreat center to the north of Houston, and hid in the woods. "I was disillusioned." But he told himself, "People push people away from God. God never pushes people away."
He left the church then, and his family. He clung to his gift of tongues.
Rabbit went through the early '80s with even less focus than usual. He fought Golden Gloves two years, but he lost in the finals. "I fought heavyweights. I fought out of my weight to help the team."
He had lost his sharpest edge by this point. Because Rabbit wouldn't train seriously, Kenny Weldon refused to work with him. Rabbit lived with Galena Park police detective Joe Price for 18 months or so and generally drove his benefactor crazy with his scatterbrained ways. He wouldn't finish the odd chore that Price expected of him, and was generally irresponsible. "He doesn't think right. His brains have been scrambled," Price says in a combination of affection and annoyance. The final straw came when Price found a small stash of Rabbit's dope in the garage. Or maybe it came when Rabbit asked him, "What do you want out of me? What's your angle?" "That really hurt," says Price, who has an unlucky record with the strays he has taken in, including an alcoholic Louisiana state trooper who wound up drinking Price's shaving lotion. "But Rabbit was the straw that broke the camel's back."
In 1983 Rabbit moved to Arizona and trained under Paavo Ketone, who, according to Rabbit, once trained Rocky Marciano (Kenny Weldon doubts that this is so).
Rabbit's first fight under Ketone was his best ever, according to Rabbit. The fight took place inside a prison. He was supposed to face an imprisoned amateur, but Ketone recognized his opponent as a pro. "That's fucking Alex Frimbreck," he said. "He's not supposed to be here."
But Rabbit fought, trading punches just the way he liked. He still thinks he was screwed out of the decision.
His first pro bout was in Tucson. After he won, he went to the courthouse to find a way to get in touch with his biological father. He couldn't find a trace in the county files, but on a whim he dropped by a bar and asked out loud, "Anybody know Carter Dale Carr, nicknamed Breezy?" Breezy wasn't there, but patrons claimed to know him.
He sounded a lot like Rabbit. He was big-hearted, and he never backed down. Braced with this comfort, Rabbit won his first five pro fights, then lost a bout in Las Vegas against an opponent who, Rabbit claims, had a weight in his glove. "He broke my jaw in the first round. Paavo said, 'What? You wanna quit?'
"If he breaks the other side, will my jaw fall off?" Rabbit asked. He hung on for five more rounds, then told his people to check his opponent's gloves after the referee stopped the fight. "But his corner man pulled them off real fast and disappeared, so there was nothing I could do."
A humbled Rabbit returned to Houston. He took a job in a car body-repair shop, and lived there as well. Using his truck, he began hauling pallets for a living. He would pick up discarded pallets and then sell them to likely pallet users. But he didn't always ask permission. By 1985 he was in jail for stealing pallets.
Rabbit doesn't talk about jail as if it were the worst thing that ever happened to him. He had time to think and write. One night the Lord spoke to him in jail.
"Get a pencil," He said.
"Where, Lord? I'm in jail."
"David, I said, 'Get a pencil.'"
A cop gave him one, even though he wasn't supposed to.
"God dictated the words [of a poem] to me."
The poem begins this way:
As I write by the great bright white night light, there shines on me a glow of pure sweet love.
God spoke to Rabbit from time to time afterward, though not often enough to keep him out of trouble. Not long after Rabbit got out of county jail, he was sent to a Texas state prison for stealing money from one of his pallet customers. "I just took what was mine. The son of a bitch didn't want to pay me what he owed."
But after six months, Rabbit met Cruz, the next woman in his life. Calling again on Joe Price's generosity, Rabbit moved with Cruz into a rent house that belonged to Price's wife. It was a nice two-story house off Greens Bayou Road. "To me this was a palace," Rabbit says. He continued hauling pallets.
Cruz got pregnant and gave birth to Eric, nicknamed Popeye. Then, "You know that old myth about women who have their mother's milk [who are nursing] can't get pregnant? I'm here to tell you it ain't true." Cruz next had Vanessa, nicknamed Nesser.
Rabbit loved Cruz and his children. The loss of his first family had thrown him completely out of whack, but now he felt he was getting his life back together. Even though he had already fought six professional fights, Rabbit decided to try out for the Olympics. He hadn't been a high-profile pro, so maybe no one would notice.
ut Rabbit's mix of anger and love was as wild as ever.
When Rabbit met Kenny's brother, Roger, whom he hadn't seen since he was three or four, Roger saw "coldness" in Rabbit's eyes. Rabbit had recently been shot in the leg, and, goaded to revenge by his Galena Park friends, he had murder in his heart. "I went out looking for the guy, night after night."
And Rabbit couldn't pretend everything was all right with Cruz after all. She began disappearing for days, nights, then weeks at a time. Rabbit suspected that she was seeing another man.
But Rabbit learned something from Roger that eased his pain a bit. Roger had been a member of the same Pentecostal church that Rabbit felt had ruined his first marriage. Rabbit had never known why the congregation turned on him, even before he punched out its minister, but now he learned that Roger had himself left that church under a cloud, and because of his connection to the Weldons, Rabbit had stepped into the bad feeling Roger left behind.
To a fighter who has never quite figured out life's strategies against him, this was welcome news. At least Rabbit knew why everyone in the church had hated him. His ruin hadn't been altogether random, even if it had been, as Rabbit sees it, undeserved.
Roger says now, "Pieces of the puzzle began to fit. He could accept it after he understood."
That didn't improve Rabbit's boxing luck, however. He quit hauling pallets and trained full-time for the box-off in Baytown that would send its champions to the Olympic trials. Again, even though he was ineligible for the Olympics, he had his heart set on winning a gold medal.
"Sugar Ray Leonard was making commercials with his son back then," says Rabbit, "and I saw myself doing the same thing with Popeye."
abbit says he was at the top of his game at Baytown, that he was soundly outboxing his foe when the referee stopped the fight and disqualified Rabbit for holding. ("You mean you lost for fighting dirty," Joe Price says. Rabbit answers, "I wasn't holding, I was beating his brains out.")
After it sank in that this fight had been "stolen," Rabbit stood in the middle of the ring and tried to scream obscenities. But the Holy Ghost took over, and all he could do was pray, pray in tongues.
Things became a blur. Rabbit was a blinded fighter.
Cruz was in and out. Rabbit began to accidentally destroy his benefactor's house. "He did $1,500 in damage to my cabinets trying to get at a mouse or a rat," Price says.
But that was just a detail. Rabbit also poured five gallons of gas into the dumpster behind the house, planning to burn trash. Somehow the gas vapors exploded, blowing out the windows in Price's house. Rabbit and Cruz had to move out immediately, "or my wife would have killed him," Price remembers with a rueful chuckle.
In 1992, Rabbit was driving his pallet truck during a tornado watch. "I got greedy and put on one more pallet, after I had a load," Rabbit says. The top pallet blew off and hit the windshield of the car behind him. Rabbit pulled over, panicked. While he was trying to decide whether to hit the enraged driver and then vanish, he noticed that the driver was an off-duty cop.
"He would have killed me," Rabbit says.
Instead, the off-duty cop arrested Rabbit, and the boxer spent a couple of days in jail. By the time he got out, Cruz and the kids were gone. But it wasn't just a case of her having had enough. Cruz held the insurance on Rabbit's truck, and the accident report came to the house where she was staying with another man -- the husband she left when she moved in with Rabbit. Cruz never returned to either of her men.
I haven't seen her since," Rabbit says. "Cruz, if you read this, I still love you. I want to see my kids."
On July 4, 1992, Rabbit moved to a bench outside the zoo in Hermann Park. He took along Alpha, a totemic wooden sculpture he had been working on since 1987. He began sleeping outside the entrance to the zoo, reciting poems for children and working on Alpha. He added a photo of Ali or Magic Johnson here, a picture of Popeye or Nesser there, until he had covered the massive block.
One night, while lying on a bench, he looked at the three-tiered pedestal which has the preamble to the Constitution engraved upon it. He focused on the word "provide" from "Provide for the common good." Then he saw an angel standing on the pedestal -- it was even taller than Alpha -- and the angel said, "God will provide."
Rabbit wasn't sure what the angel meant, but he started working out again at the Main Street gym. A boxing promoter saw that Rabbit seemed in surprisingly good shape, so he arranged a fight for him in El Paso. Once out west again, Rabbit got in touch with Paavo Ketone, his old trainer. Ketone in turn helped Rabbit find his last boxing glory, a kind of Olympics.
As part of a campaign to persuade the Olympic site-selection committee to choose Beijing for the Olympic games for the year 2000, the People's Republic of China staged a professional boxing tournament -- ...in Beijing. Rabbit isn't quite sure how he was selected, but he says his Chinese ancestry "didn't hurt."
He joined a crew of fighters and boxing luminaries, including Muhammad Ali himself, who flew off to China. Rabbit knew this was a high point in his life, and he determined to make the most of it.
He composed and recited a poem in the bus as the fighters headed from the Beijing airport to their hotel, and earned a laugh from the guys. He approached Muhammad Ali and got him to read two of his poems. Rabbit does a pretty fair Ali imitation when he has the Greatest say, "Come to my museum some time, boy, where you'll see your poems hanging on the walls."
At a press conference he recited one of them and became a celebrity, complete with a large, color, front-page photo in a Beijing newspaper. Kids followed him on the street as he left his hotel to go buy smokes. He was training hard for his fight against a Norwegian Olympic bronze medalist. Nobody expected him to win -- "I was 'an opponent.'"
Nobody except Rabbit. "I said to myself, no big old white boy ain't gonna whip me." As for smoking while he was in training, he says, "If you know what you're doing, and you're not nervous, then you don't need a lot of wind."
He didn't in this fight. Rabbit made his entrance "with an American flag in one hand, and a Chinese in another, just like Oscar de la Hoya" (who carried both the American and Mexican flags into the Olympic ring). The Norwegian came right out and knocked him down.
"If I could have survived the first round, I could have boxed him," Rabbit says. "But I put my head down. I had a bad habit of doing that. He caught me on the chin. I was lying there thinking, 'Son of a bitch, here I am in front of my people in China, and I'm getting my ass kicked.'"
Rabbit got up. After he took "25 or 30" good punches, the referee stopped the fight with eight seconds to go in the first round.
abbit came back to Houston. He fought once more in El Paso.
"But my heart wasn't in it. When you walk out into that ring, you're not supposed to be able to hear the crowd. You're supposed to be totally focused on your opponent, or you'll get your ass kicked. But that night I could hear the crowd. I could hear my buddies yelling at me. I outboxed him for three rounds, then I didn't want to box anymore."
Which doesn't mean Rabbit is through with boxing. "If I want a champion now, I'll have to train him."
As always, Rabbit overflows with schemes and plans. Now he'd like to compose advertising jingles: "Houston Press, read by the best." Now he wants to get a truck, renew his driver's license and go back into the pallet business. Now, of all his projects, Rabbit is most enthusiastic about his dream of opening a downtown gym where he would work with kids and let homeless people stay, in a pinch. Though his biography might suggest otherwise, Rabbit seems to work well with kids. "I definitely know what to tell them not to do," he says. Other boxing trainers agree that he works well with youngsters, and that he is a sound teacher.
He's a patient and soft-spoken coach, and his two teenage fighters seem to like him, even if one does groan when Rabbit begins to recite a poem.
At a recent Hermann Park rally to restore prayer in public schools, Rabbit talked his way onto the program, then recited a poem. He was introduced as "David Picha, a poet." He gave away copies later to enthusiastic well-wishers. He wished he had a published book that he could sell. A couple of hours later, he and I visited a black Baptist minister who has taken a liking to him. The minister (who stores the Alpha sculpture in his garage) told Rabbit he was always welcome to come read his poems in his church.
"I need to get that book published," Rabbit said. "I could sell some there, too." That line was pure, golden hustle, and Rabbit and I both laughed.
"Aw," Rabbit said. "That's not what I mean.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.