When Jack Newfield was preparing for what would turn out to be his last battle, his friend, the boxing trainer Teddy Atlas, offered to buy him a robe to wear in the hospital. Not a terrycloth, hospital-patient type robe, but the satin kind that fighters wear into the ring.
"What name do you want on the back?" Atlas asked. Newfield thought for a moment. He could have picked Sugar Ray Robinson, who, in his opinion, was the greatest fighter who ever lived; or he could have picked Muhammad Ali, a personal favorite; or he could have chosen Tim Witherspoon, a former heavyweight champion who became a close friend.
"Carmen Basilio," Newfield finally replied. "Toughest guy I ever saw." Tough. More importantly, an underdog, Jack Newfield's favorite cause. In his later years, Newfield, the veteran Sun columnist who died Monday night at 66, would be labeled a "liberal" and thought by some to be an anachronism, a relic of the failed movements and faded ideals of the 1960s.
In truth, Jack Newfield was an old-fashioned crusading journalist of the type that doesn't seem to exist anymore. He was wedded to no particular ideology or political party. If he was committed to any one thing, it was to standing up for the underdog, the little guy who couldn't stand up for himself.
Sometimes, the guys he fought for turned out not to be worth the effort, and as is often the case with people who fight the toughest battles, Jack Newfield lost nearly as often as he won. But he never stopped fighting those fights, because that is what guys like Jack Newfield do.
He was a man who understood that you can't fight City Hall, and yet still spent his life trying to. If Newfield had been a boxer, he might have been the type that Newfield the columnist crusaded for. That's what happens when you take on the likes of Don King and Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump and the fat cats of the New York State Athletic Commission.
Sometimes, like Basilio against Robinson on one glorious September night in 1957, you win. Most of the time, you get pummeled. All the time, you walk away knowing it was a fight worth fighting.
Those were the only fights Jack Newfield took on. He was a man with a great heart who loved boxing as a sport - "ballet with blood," he called it - hated it as a business, and cherished and respected the men who practiced it. He was a man who loved jazz and journalism, actors and activists, and was as comfortable with hit men as he was with police chiefs.
Newfield had only one consuming hatred: bullies. That was why he spent so many years exposing and writing about the misdeeds of King, who exploited fighters as if they were field hands.
That is why he tried so hard to bring down the Athletic Commission, which in its patronage-fattened ineptitude routinely endangered the lives of boxers and cheated the public. That is why he still held dear the memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers, baseball's greatest underdogs, while resisting the charms of the Yankees, the game's biggest bullies.
At heart, Jack Newfield was not so much a liberal as a sentimentalist. It may sound corny, but this is a world and a city that could use a little more corn and a little less cynicism, a few more softies, and a lot fewer bullies.
"The first time I heard Jack described as a liberal, I was shocked," Atlas said. "To me, liberals were celebrities who stood around talking about things that they never did. That wasn't Jack, that was just a label he fell under. I never heard him talk about a party or politics, ever. It didn't matter who you were; if he felt you were being treated unfair, and you needed help, he'd help you."
Indeed, Newfield's eclectic collection of friends crossed all ideological, racial, and social boundaries. At his frequent get-togethers to watch the fights in his West Village home, you would often find the likes of retired mob boss Sonny Franzese sitting near Budd Schulberg, of "On the Waterfront" fame, alongside Al Sharpton, and across the way a famous actor like John Cusack, or, on at least one occasion, Helen Mirren.
"He had his own rainbow coalition in his living room on fight nights," Atlas said. "He felt boxing was a great way station where everyone could find some common ground."
At Newfield's annual summer barbecue, you might find Jimmy Breslin rub bing elbows with Edward James Olmos or Omar Minaya deep in conversation with Fernando Ferrer. He knew how to be a friend and how to maintain a friendship.
If a friend of Newfield's was in trouble, he was there, not just to lend support, but to find a solution.
When I left my job writing a sports column for the New York Post in a flap over censorship, Newfield - who had been fired from there by Rupert Murdoch, a classic bully, for being a "liberal" - was among the first to call. Not to commiserate, but to move forward. He introduced me to Seth Lipsky, the president and editor of The Sun, and within a week I was writing a column again.
Jack Newfield loved to tell this one on himself: On the morning it was announced that the rights to his book, "Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King," had been purchased by HBO with the intent of making it into a movie, he found himself in the federal courthouse in Manhattan using a urinal adjacent to the one being used by none other than Don King, who was in the midst of being tried for income tax evasion.
King glanced at Newfield and let out that hearty, distinctive, sinister laugh. "Jack Newfield!" King bellowed in a voice that could be heard down in Foley Square. "I just read in the newspaper that I'm feeding your whole [expletive] family!"
Newfield laughed when he told the story because to a lot of people, and especially to King, that was what Jack Newfield was all about: Trying to "get" Don King, to make him his own personal Moby Dick, an adversary to feed off and ultimately destroy.
But that wasn't what it was about at all. It was all about standing up for the underdog and toppling a bully.
Carmen Basilio would understand.
Mr. Matthews is the host of the "Wally and the Keeg" sports talk show heard Monday-Friday from 4-7 p.m. on 1050 ESPN radio.