Absalom, Absalom! (Modern Library)

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A Morality Play Where the Moral Keeps Changing: Notes on the Library of America’s At the Fights

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In William Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!, landowner Thomas Sutpen’s idea of a rousing good time is to stage fights between his slaves. It’s his way of reminding himself of his own station in life, his triumph over his white trash past, to watch the lower orders go after each other tooth and nail, “fighting not like white men fight, with rules and weapons, but like negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad.” Occasionally, he even likes to participate, “as a grand finale or perhaps as a matter of sheer deadly forethought toward the retention of supremacy, domination, he would enter the ring with one of the negroes himself.”

Money, power, race, and violence – they’ve all been a part of boxing from the beginning and they’re on full display in At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from the Library of America. I could tell you how good this book is, and point out that the editors do a great job of piecing together a 20th Century history of the sport as told by a variety of first-class journalists (A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Leonard Gardner, Budd Schulberg) and a number of lesser-knowns who are just as good. That, however, is not what most impressed me about the book.

What impressed me is that it’s hard to love the sport without being, also, deeply aware of what a bestial exhibition it is. It’s uncivilized, dirty, corrupt, and ought to be against the law; it’s also deeply satisfying on a purely primal level. It’s a racket that refuses to be rehabilitated, and a volatile, exhilarating vice.

There are any number of ways of looking at it, many of them contradictory. Here are a few.

It’s about white power

Jack London – Yukon adventurer, Socialist stalwart, all-time champion of the underdog – had it in for a cocky heavyweight champion named Jack Johnson. In Reno, Nevada in 1910 he watched the perpetually grinning Johnson square off against James L. Jeffries, the man London pegged for the Great White Hope to reclaim the championship.

“Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Johnson’s face,” he had written previously. “Jeff, it’s up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”

In Reno, London joined the audience in chanting, “Don’t let the Negro knock him out, don’t let the Negro knock him out.”

The Negro knocked him out, still smiling. London doesn’t begrudge Johnson the win, but he still yearned for a white hero. “And where now is the champion who will make Johnson extend himself, remove that smile and silence that golden repartee?”

It’s about good versus evil

The Great White Hope was Max Schmeling. He was Hitler’s man in the ring. When he knocked out the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, in 1934, German newspapers took it as proof of master race ideology.

When Louis met Schmeling again four years later, the stakes were high: it was American democracy versus the Third Reich, which was not without its sympathizers down South. Richard Wright, covering the story for New Masses, reports of rumblings that “allowing a Negro to defeat a white man in public… tended to create in Negroes too much pride and made them ‘intractable.’”

Schmeling’s comeuppance was swift and terrible, ending two minutes into the first round. Columnist Bob Considine couldn’t type the story fast enough: “Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling.”

In Harlem, according to Wright, there was dancing in the streets, where Schmeling was burned in effigy and thousands yelled “Heil Louis!” The editors of the present volume suspect this was a people’s uprising of Wright’s fervid Communist imagination, but it’s the kind of legend one can only hope is true.

It’s about blackness

It is 1962, and two fighters represent opposite sides of the black experience in America. In one corner is the very handsome Floyd Patterson, devoted father, successful businessman, and heavyweight champion of the world. In the other stands his challenger: Sonny Liston, a proud thug with a criminal record, a gambler, and an all-time bad example. The American Dream versus Your Worst Fucking Nightmare.

Everyone from the NAACP to Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Kennedy wants Patterson to win. So does James Baldwin; it’s the choice between “the disciplined sweetness of Floyd, or the outspoken intransigence of Liston.”

Intransigence wins in the first round, destroying Patterson’s burgeoning career as a role model. Liston’s reign at the top is short. Two years later, he faces a brash upstart named Cassius Clay, who is nine years younger. He goes in the favorite; the hoodlum turned cop, as Murray Kempton puts it, “the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.” The sassy Negro wins in six rounds, and celebrates by renaming himself Muhammad Ali. A rematch a year later is famously humiliating: Liston is knocked out in round one, and Ali dances with joy.

Within a decade, Liston is dead, found with a needle in his arm, foul play suspected. Joe Flaherty in the Village Voice writes the epitaph: “He was a blatant mother in a fucker’s game… As Ali murdered the myth of the sixties, so Liston was the pallbearer of the fifties’ liberalism. He embodied what they didn’t want to recognize – that our streets spawn a sea of Sonnys.”

A Sea of Sonnys, Part I
I remember once, two boys and myself, we robbed a guy. Threw him down. I could hold the guy because I was strong, and the sneaky fella would grab the money. And then we’d run until we couldn’t hear the guy screaming anymore. And then we’d walk home as if we’d just earned some money on a job, counting it. We didn’t even know we were criminals.
– George Foreman
A Sea of Sonnys, Part II
…[Mike] Tyson seems to have styled himself at least partly on the model of Charles (Sonny) Liston, the ‘baddest of the bad’ black heavyweights. Liston had numerous arrests to his credit and served time in prison (for assaulting a policeman); he had the air, not entirely contrived, of a sociopath; he was always friendly with racketeers, and died of a drug overdose that may in fact have been murder… Like Liston, Tyson has grown to take a cynical pleasure in publicly condoned sadism…
– Joyce Carol Oates
It thrives on exploitation

Primo Carnera, a big dumb circus freak (6’7”, 268 lbs.), arrives in this country from Italy and quickly falls into the hands of the mob. Although Carnera barely knows how to box, he rises to the top through a series of fixed fights, with the prize money split up by the fixers. When the fights get to the top level, Carnera is gradually destroyed by a series of boxers – Tommy Loughran, Max Baer, Joe Louis, Leroy Haynes – who actually know what they’re doing. “His last days in the United States were spent alone in a hospital,” writes Paul Gallico. “One leg was paralyzed, the result of beatings taken around the head. None of the carrion birds who had picked him clean ever came back to see him or help him.”

It’s about violence
I wanted to hit him one more time in the nose so that bone could go up his brain.
– Mike Tyson, regarding Jesse Ferguson.
De La Hoya opened a gash above [Julio Cesar] Chavez’s left eye a minute into the fight. It was like a razor cut, a red thread. But De La Hoya attacked the wound until it was the size of a baby’s mouth. Then, in the fourth and final round, came a left hand thrown from an acute angle, something between a hook and an uppercut, a punch that seemed to explode Chavez’s nose, making shrapnel of cartilage and tissue and blood.

“Oh, that felt good,” says De La Hoya, now dreamy with delight. He’s never had a sip of liquor, but blood, even the recollection of blood, gets him high. “I wish he had two noses,” he says.
– Mark Kriegel
It’s not about violence
They said I lacked the killer instinct… I found no joy in knocking people unconscious or battering their faces. The lust for battle and massacre was missing. I had a notion that the killer instinct was really founded in fear, that the killer of the ring raged with ruthless brutality because deep down he was afraid.
– Gene Tunney
It’s more about muscle than skill

In 1921, Jack Dempsey, the “Manassas Mauler,” who sat out World War I, faced Georges Carpentier, a valiant Frenchman who had served with distinction. By popular accord, Carpentier was a better man and a better boxer; the crowd greets him, writes Irvin S. Cobb, with “an ovation as never before an alien fighter received on American soil.” Ringside experts like George Bernard Shaw point out Carpentier’s extraordinary skill. It doesn’t matter. Carpentier’s blows, writes H.L. Mencken, “had the effect upon the iron champion of petting with a hot water bag.” When Carpentier falls and staggers to his feet for the last time, Cobb writes: “It is the rule of the ring that not even a somnambulist may be spared the finishing stroke.”

It’s more about skill than muscle

When another valiant soldier of the Great War, Gene Tunney, took on Dempsey, it looked like another massacre in the making. Tunney let it be known that he liked reading Shakespeare, which made Dempsey think he was a pansy. Actually, it was Tunney who saw through Dempsey. He had studied him, and knew that for all his hitting power he didn’t have a great defense. True to form, once they got in the ring, Dempsey left himself exposed. Hamlet knocked him out.

It’s unhealthy

What we call punch drunk doctors call “dementia pugilistica.” A report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, according to a 1986 article by Bill Barich, surveys 18 boxers, most of them pros, who have not retired for medical or psychological reasons, and had no known drug or alcohol problems. A majority “suffered from a variety of complaints, such as disorientation, confusion, temporary amnesia, and Parkinsonian disturbance.” Also, “brain damage seemed to be a widespread condition among fighters… Worse still, the condition was degenerative, and symptoms often did not materialize for years.”

It’s fatal

Duk Koo Kim (1959-1982), a Korean boxer of renowned aggression, took on Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. In the 13th round, Mancini knocks out Kim, who quickly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. Kim’s mother commits suicide. So does referee Richard Green, wracked with guilt over not stopping the fight sooner.

It leads to sobering reflection
In no other sport this side of dueling is it an objective to inflict pain, or even physical harm, on one’s opponent.
– George Kimball
…[B]oxing is the ultimate sport where you have your unconscious opponent dead if you win, and next month maybe derided as a broken-down pug yourself. It’s combat, not diffused into a team sport such as football where the officiating is more solicitous and the pain is blurred, or gentrified like tennis or golf. It is conflict with no drinks together afterward.
– Edward Hoagland
The paradox of boxing is that it so excessively rewards men for inflicting injury upon one another that, outside the ring, with less “art” would be punishable as aggravated assault, or manslaughter.
– Joyce Carol Oates
It’s a job
What are we to do with these men who know how to do nothing but fight? I suppose we can continue to lock them in our jails and in our ghettos, out of sight and untouched by our regard. That, in the end, is precisely what those who wish to ban boxing really want to do: not to safeguard the lives of the men who must do this work but simply to sweep one excessively distasteful and inexplicable sin of bourgeois culture under the rug.
– Gerald Early
It’s money
With blood still streaming down his face and onto his chest, [Marvin] Hagler leaped into the air at least $5.7 million richer.
– Pat Putnam
It turns writers into pugilists of prose
Across that embattled short space Foreman threw punches in barrages of four and six and eight and nine, heavy maniacal slamming punches, heavy as the boom of oaken doors, bombs to the body, bolts to the head, punching until he could not breathe, backing off to breathe again and come in again, bomb again, blast again, drive and steam and slam the torso in front of him, wreck him in the arms, break through those arms, get to his ribs, dig him out, dig him out, put the dynamite in the earth, lift him, punch him, punch him up to heaven, take him out, stagger him — great earthmover he must have sobbed to himself, kill this mad and bouncing goat.
– Norman Mailer on the Ali-Foreman Fight
It makes them reach for odd literary references
His fighting style is as formless as the prose of Gertrude Stein.
– Heywood Broun
So he perished there in that Homeric stewpan, a brave man but an unwise one.
– H.L. Mencken
Since the rise of [Rocky] Marciano, [Archie] Moore, a cerebral and hyper-experienced and light-colored pugilist who has been active since 1936, has suffered the pangs of a supreme example of bel canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout.
– A. J. Liebling
It’s a creative act
The ideal fighter has heart, skill, movement, intelligence, creativity. You can have everything, but if you can’t make it up while you’re in there, you can’t be great. A lot of guys have the mechanics and no heart; lots of guys have heart, no mechanics; the thing that puts it together, it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art, you bring everything to it, you make it up when you’re doing it.
– Cus D’Amato, legendary trainer
Last words of Duk Koo Kim, scrawled on a lampshade in his hotel room:

“Kill or be killed.”

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