edited by George Kimball and John Schulian
Library of America, 2011, 517 pp., $35
They Can Run—But They Can’t Hide
by George Kimball
McBooks Press, 2011, 376 pp., $24.95
edited by George Kimball and John Schulian
Fore Angels Press, 2010, 76 pp., $20
There was a time when novelists and poets as well as journalists could take real pleasure, and find deep meaning, in the sport of boxing. That time is gone. It may be difficult to determine precisely when the shift occurred. Several possible hinge events suggest themselves: Muhammad Ali’s departure from the ring, which left us without a heavyweight who could agitate the imagination the way he did; or the widely witnessed death of Duk Koo Kim in the ring in 1982. Other developments—like the creeping disinclination to regard athletes as heroes, the healthy refrain from designating individuals as avatars of racial ideas, a squeamishness about organized violence and malodorous business practices seemingly designed to alienate both participants and spectators—certainly have something to do with the decline of romanticism around boxing, too. Whatever the reasons, the change did happen, as illustrated by At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, as well as two other books also involving George Kimball. Deploying samples spanning roughly a century, the former anthology charts boxing’s degeneration from rich national drama to shameful disgrace. Rather than enjoying boxing, contemporary writers fret about it. Late 20th- and early 21st-century scribblers who want to find something to admire in what author Jack London dubbed “the game” can now only look to the past.
In addition to The Game (as well as The Call of the Wild, White Fang and other novels), London’s credits include his coining of the phrase “Great White Hope”, a label permanently affixed to Jim Jeffries and often attached to subsequent white boxers. Paradoxically, some black boxers got stuck with a version of the phrase as well. The 1910 fight between Jeffries and the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson—an event freighted with symbolic weight—inaugurated American boxing writing, according to Kimball. “The coverage of its predecessors had borne even less resemblance to the often brilliant prose the sport would inspire over the next hundred years than did Johnson-Jeffries, contested under the Queensberry Rules, to the bare-knuckle, eye-gouging contests that prevailed as ‘boxing’ for most of the nineteenth century”, he writes in his introduction to At the Fights.1
London covered Johnson-Jeffries as something much more important than a mere boxing match. The Fight of the Century (or the first of several) ended up as a mismatch. The Great White Hope proved hopeless against the masterful Johnson. Consequently, says London, it “was great only in its significance”, and that had wholly to do with the skin color of the combatants. Johnson “fought a white man in a white man’s country, before a white man’s crowd”, writes London. Through it all, Johnson never displayed the cowardice that London’s racial prejudice convinced him must be part of any black man’s nature. Yet so commanding was the champion’s performance, he was never sufficiently tested, in London’s view. “No problems had been solved, no questions answered”, he says. “The yellow streak had not appeared.”
From the very start, then, modern boxing writers contemplated individual fighters’ characters and considered the sport’s mental side (with its problems and solutions) as well as its physical side, but they did so seeking insights into racial and national identity. Many fights, like Johnson-Jeffries, confirmed that they could reflect and affect the society that staged them. “The White Man must be rescued”, London pleaded after Johnson won his title in 1908 and, from certain perspectives, threatened the entire social order. At the urging of London and others, Jeffries returned from retirement “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” In the clashing celebrations and riots that followed Johnson’s forceful rebuttal to such assertions, several black Americans were killed. Other bouts that caused less blood to flow outside the ring ropes, such as Joe Louis’s defeat of German Max Schmeling in 1938 and almost any event involving Muhammad Ali, gave writers much to mull beyond statistics.
If the fiercely individualistic, stereotype-shattering Johnson had been a polarizing figure, then Louis, the second black heavyweight champion, was a unifying one. Louis thrilled and inspired more than the similarly pigmented. Over the course of his long stand atop the heavyweight division (1937–48), he won far more than the reluctant respect London granted Johnson. For Sherwood Anderson, writing soon after Louis’s 1936 loss to Schmeling, the boxer “was a man doing brilliantly, superbly, the thing he could do, was born to do” and was thus “one of ours.” For Richard Wright, writing after Louis demolished Schmeling in the rematch, the champion was the “living refutation” of racist thought. For sports columnist Jimmy Cannon, Louis was, simply, “a credit to his race—the human race.”
With Ali, the story becomes much more complicated, supplying writers with still more intricacies of identity to ponder. This explains why At the Fights contains more essays about him than any other single boxer. Kimball counts six, but the profiles of George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes inevitably involve the man who overshadowed them. Through a combination of design and serendipity, the overlap among these pieces doesn’t result in tiresome repetition. Rather, it adds to the pleasure of reading by advancing narratives from multiple angles, with different writers carrying stories forward and adding nuance as they go.
Initiating the Ali sequence, newspaper columnist Murray Kempton covers loquacious Cassius Clay spiriting the heavyweight championship away from Charles “Sonny” Liston in 1964. George Plimpton, in Miami for the same event, doesn’t write about the fight. Instead, he explores the boxer’s relationship with Malcolm X, the then-ally of Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad. Already it emerges that the soon-to-be Ali is more than just a rhyming braggart. Sports reporter Dick Schaap picks things up in 1971, on the eve of Ali’s first fight with Frazier, who had claimed the title that was stripped from Ali in 1967 because he refused military induction, thereby becoming not only a symbol of a racially separatist religious sect but a high-profile opponent of the Vietnam War.
Shorn of his contemplation of black psychology, vital forces and his own navel,2 Norman Mailer’s breathless account of the actual fight covered in The Fight, in which Ali beat Foreman to win the heavyweight title for a second time, offers a reminder of just how vigorous his prose could be when he exercised the self-discipline he respected in boxers. (“The sound of a bat thunking into a watermelon was heard around the ring”, Mailer writes of Ali’s hard first-round punches, reprising a line he’d used a decade earlier, to even greater effect, when describing Benny Paret’s death by repeated blows to the head from Emile Griffith.) Mark Kram, a sportswriter who was not charmed by Ali’s personality but appreciated his ability, takes up the tale the following year in 1975 with the “Thrilla in Manila”, the last of Ali’s three fights with Frazier. Budd Schulberg looks at Ali’s penultimate fight in 1980, “a fight in which Larry Holmes established immediate dominance and exposed Muhammad as an old man.” The remark, occurring in a paragraph on a wheelchair-bound Joe Louis, echoes the end of sportswriter Red Smith’s 1951 report on Louis’s fruitless challenge to Rocky Marciano: “An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.” The long tradition of aging boxers refusing to heed this lesson provides one poignant theme of At the Fights.
Historically minded fight-fanciers can argue over which heavyweight champion was the best fighter or the most powerful cultural figure; Johnson, Louis and Ali invariably figure in such debates. But there’s little disagreement about the number-one writer. Of New Yorker star A.J. Liebling, the editors of At the Fights note, correctly, “no boxing writer is more revered.” With writers judging, however, there are no unanimous decisions. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, doesn’t share the enthusiasm for Liebling that characterizes the brotherhood of boxing writers. (It is a fraternal organization: Of the 49 writers represented in At the Fights, only two are women.) Nonetheless, when John Schulian says “the true golden age of boxing writing came in the late ’50s and the early ’60s”, he mainly has Liebling, as well as Ali’s eventful first act, in mind. Regarding Liebling, Schulian says “the glories of his prose, a mixture of sidewalk vernacular and highfalutin’ references, have endured like no one else’s.” Bearing the stamp of superior nonfiction, Liebling’s writing can connect even with readers who have no particular interest in his purported subject.
Liebling obviously relished writing about boxing. He regards boxers as artists and fights as works of art. Describing light heavyweight Archie Moore’s bid to unseat the “inaccurate” but “dreadfully severe hitter” Marciano as heavyweight champion, Liebling contrasts their styles in aesthetic terms, claiming that the “cerebral” Moore “has suffered the pangs of a supreme exponent of bel canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout.” As much as Liebling amuses himself and readers, he takes special pleasure in capturing people talking about fighting. For this he relies on his “explainers”, the boxers, managers and trainers he would chat with before, during and after bouts, characters like light heavyweight Joey Maxim’s handler Jack Kearns. “He once told a group of fight writers, ‘Maxim is as good a fighter as [Jack] Dempsey, except he can’t hit’,” Liebling records. “Since that was all Dempsey could do, Kearns wasn’t handing his new man much.” Assuming the explainer role himself, Liebling imparts this tidbit: “Most managers say ‘we’ will lick So-and-So when they mean their man will try to, but Kearns does not allow his fighter even a share in the pronoun.” Sam Langford, one of the best black boxers of the early 20th century (he fought Johnson), articulated the essence of boxing strategy this way: “Whatever the other man wants to do, don’t let him do it.” Boxing lets Liebling do what he wants to do: indulge in wordplay of his own. Where a less inventive journalist might be content to say a boxer could “take a punch”, Liebling says he has “an apparently unlimited absorptive capacity for percussion.”
Liebling mostly confined himself to what he saw and heard, without trying to discern the state of the national psyche by squinting through the prism of sports. The writer who comes closest to him in cosmopolitan joie de vivre can’t elide the political side of boxing in the Ali era. Sharing Liebling’s fascination with how people speak, George Plimpton incisively compares Malcolm X and his fighting follower.
His answers are always skilled, with a lively and effective use of image, and yet as the phrases came I kept thinking of Cassius Clay and his litany—the fighter’s is more limited, and a different sort of thing, but neither of them ever stumbles over words, or ideas, or appears balked by a question, so that one rarely has the sense of the brain actually working but rather that it is engaged in rote, simply a recording apparatus playing back to an impulse.
David Remnick, writing for the same magazine Liebling filed stories for, shadows a later convert to Islam, and the presence of his 1997 New Yorker profile of Mike Tyson in the same volume as Plimpton’s essay indicates how much had changed in the 33 years separating them. Plimpton actually talked with the controversial religious figure in Ali’s camp; Remnick can only watch Louis Farrakhan try on slacks in a pricey Las Vegas boutique while bodyguards wave off questions. Plimpton wrote of an underdog who upset a champion bathed in an aura of invincibility; Remnick writes of one who modeled himself on the man Ali defeated and who already had “proved himself to be what in gentler times would have been called a bum.” Plimpton, trusting his readers would know all about it, didn’t bother writing about the fight itself; Remnick finds himself having to describe Tyson biting off and spiting out a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
In and out of the ring, Tyson possessed a surplus of the ruffianism that Liebling (preferring technicians to brawlers) disliked. “I wanted to hit him one more time in the nose so that bone could go up into his brain”, Remnick quotes Tyson saying of an unsatisfying knockout. Oates, writing of the fighter’s 1992 rape trial, calls boxing “the very soul of war in microcosm” and claims Tyson viewed himself not as an athlete but as a gladiator intent on “destructing” opponents.
Whatever his atavistic fantasies, Tyson never faced the reality of killing an opponent, as Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini did after his 1982 fight with Duk Koo Kim. Of course, as Ralph Wiley points out in “Then All the Joy Turned to Sorrow”, his aptly titled report on the bout, many other fighters died before Kim—but not before a horrified network television audience. Kim’s mother committed suicide soon afterward, followed by the bout’s referee the following year.
A noticeably gloomy tone emerges in boxing writing around this time. Cultural critic and poet Gerald Early begins to wonder if his heart can take any more of the savage sport. A poem by Early in The Fighter Still Remains ends with an impoverished boxer concluding, “In the modern world everything counts and nothing matters.” In a follow-up on Mancini’s post-Kim career, Bill Barich (yet another New Yorker writer) cites medical journal reports on the cumulative effects of concussive blows to boxers’ heads. At the Fights spills much ink on Don King, the flamboyant raconteur and former prisoner (convicted of manslaughter) who recreated himself as the sport’s best known promoter, becoming in the process its unmistakable poster-boy for sleazy tactics.
Although fight writers could still enthuse about Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard during the 1980s, At the Fights suggests that nostalgia had already set the tone. Schulberg recalls how much Benny Leonard (né Benjamin Leiner) meant to him as a harassed Jewish boy in the 1920s. Novelist and newspaperman Pete Hamill, in a 1985 piece, reminisces about befriending trainer Cus D’Amato in 1958. Sportswriter William Nack looks back from 1996 at Frazier’s glory days of the 1970s. The last essay in At the Fights sees Holmes, still striving for the recognition he believes he deserves as the heavyweight champion with the most successful title defenses since Louis, continuing to fight into his fifties.
I don’t mean to suggest that boxing writers before and during the golden age were indifferent to the brutality of both the sport and the business of boxing or that they consistently viewed boxers as paragons. Paul Gallico, a pioneer of the participatory journalism identified with Plimpton, reflects on the mob-manufactured heavyweight champion of the early 1930s, Primo Carnera (the true-life inspiration for Schulberg’s 1947 novel The Harder They Fall). Barney Nagler’s exposé of corruption in the next generation, James Norris and the Decline of Boxing, which is excerpted in At the Fights, appeared in the mid-1960s. In “Brownsville Bum”, which reads like a solidly carpentered short story, W.C. Heinz profiles Al “Bummy” Davis, who “liked to fight just to fight.” Opening with what Red Smith declared “the greatest novel ever written in one sentence”, John Larder looks at another boxer who met a bloody end: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”
Nor do I mean to pretend that there were no sentimentalists among earlier boxing writers. A newspaper columnist, for instance, favorably compares a raucous mid-1950s bout to the unrestrained, bare-knuckle brawls of a heartier age. Back further still, Jack London imagined things were better in the days before Jack Johnson.
At the Fights
exhibits writers gradually losing confidence in their subject. Post-golden age scribblers seem uncertain not about whether they can find anything worthwhile in boxing but about whether they should. Their predecessors knew the dangers of the game, but they still, at least sometimes, found something ennobling in it. “I know a good thing when I see it”, Schulberg writes in an essay not selected by Kimball and Schulian. “Fistfighting is a good thing. It is like gold that is found in a nugget cluster of baser metals often buried in the mud.” Writers younger than Schulberg (1914–2009) appear to spot more mud than gold in the baseness of their moment.
The structure as well as the content of Manly Art, a bundle of Kimball’s own writing, reinforces the impression left by At the Fights of longing for distant, better times. The first of its six sections looks at scenes from boxing history. It starts with a tribute to Ali and ends with an Irish Times column likening the existence of multiple heavyweight champions—a problem plaguing boxing since the late 1960s, when different sanctioning bodies placed crowns on different heads—to the trio of popes in the 14th century claiming legitimate lineage from St. Peter.3 The second section considers film and literature inspired by boxing. It mostly looks backward as well, from an appreciation of Leonard Gardner’s novel Fat City and the movie based on it to documentaries about (who else?) Ali. (In addition to verse, The Fighter Still Remains includes brief snatches of fight fiction like Fat City.) The third part consists largely of ringside reports on bouts involving fighters who, with the partial exception of Tyson, failed to inflame the public’s passions or even attract their attention.
Part four of Manly Art surveys the sport’s myriad problems, such as the conflicts of interest at play when a promotional company owned by a fighter controls a magazine that covers the sport, issues rankings and designates champions. Kimball trots out the charges of malfeasance routinely leveled against King, ranging from rankings manipulation to his alleged bilking of boxers. Kimball calls this section “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, and the bad and the ugly outnumber the good. The next grouping of articles remembers fight-world denizens who have died.
Kimball, the author of Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing, devotes the sixth section of Manly Art to what he calls the last great heavyweight rivalry. The thorough review of fights involving the remarkable quartet of Ali, Foreman, Frazier and Ken Norton revisits bright moments from yesteryear. Kimball describes both the fistic excitement and the social subtexts, including Ali’s ability to cast even black opponents in roles like the one Jeffries played earlier. From the first of their three fights, Ali designated Frazier the Establishment’s emblem. Ali also managed to turn Foreman “into a white man”, according to a poem Kimball puts in his essay (and in The Fighter Still Remains, alongside lines by Paul Simon, Amiri Baraka and Memphis Minnie). Kimball makes clear his fondness for these events and affection for these fighters, but the piece reads like an elegy for boxing.
My years as an observer contribute to this sense of boxing as a disaster-prone, defeated endeavor, even as many of its athletes remain as admirable as they ever were. I witnessed bouts involving one of those fighters with the absorptive capacity Liebling commemorated; the crowd-pleasing puncher later died in suspicious circumstances in a South American hotel room. I saw a contest for one of the heavyweight title belts conclude with a victory for the challenger that was overturned when he tested positive for steroids; the disgraced, overweight boxer, in a pathetic denial of illicit performance enhancement, pointed out that he was visibly out of shape. I saw an early professional fight featuring an Olympic medalist who subsequently became a recognized champion; his promoter, in the kind of decent move not associated with others of his kind, who earn sizeable percentages of fighters’ potentially massive purses, quit working with the still-young boxer once irreversible neurological damage started to look likely. (Kimball chronicles these and similarly dispiriting episodes in Manly Art.) When I interviewed title-holders and contenders whose names would ring bells only among dutiful students of the sport, I didn’t feel like I was conversing with the true heirs and equals of Johnson, Louis and Ali. Though I repeatedly saw the perseverance, courage, dedication and willpower that draw writers to fighters, I sensed that’s boxing’s glory days were behind it.
Then again, there is a long history of such suspicions. There may never have been a time when boxing was not in decline—in at least some observers’ estimations. As one of Liebling’s explainers told him in 1952:
We are living in a bad period all around. The writers are always crabbing about the fighters we got now, but look at the writers you got now themselves. All they think about is home to wife and children, instead of laying around saloons soaking up information.
Perhaps more gold remains to be found, if only writers knew where to pan for it. After all, as At the Fights shows, boxing writers and their readers have struck it rich many times.
1Though this volume exclusively gathers nonfiction, novelists fill many of its pages. Sherwood Anderson, James Baldwin, Pete Dexter, Leonard Gardner, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Wright and Budd Schulberg, among others, join London and the working press at ringside. Kimball and co-editor John Schulian readied a slender separate volume, The Fighter Still Remains, showcasing pugilistic poetry from the same period.
2See John G. Rodwan, Jr., “Contagious Narcissism”, The American Interest (January/February 2011).
3The rarity of “undisputed” champions who have unified titles in each weight class creates confusion for potential—and actual—fans and benefits only the shady title-belt bestowers, who charge fighters fees for each of their so-called championship bouts.