This month’s David and Goliath championship bout between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito may have brought boxing some new fans. Watching Pacquiao, outweighed some sixteen pounds, dazzlingly wallop the villainous but courageous Margarito, was nothing short of spectacular if not epic. Margarito, who had mocked Pacquiao trainer’s Parkinsons just before the match, met poetic justice for the first time in Cowboys Stadium.
It’s no wonder boxing has fascinated so many writers. The late Budd Schulberg, author of the novel and screenplay On the Waterfront, traces literature’s affair with pugilism back to Epeius and Euryalus’ fist-fight during the siege of Troy in The Iliad. He also describes Lord Byron fancying the sixty-round bare-knuckled fighting popular in his day. In the 20th century, A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker famously set the bar high for boxing journalism, employing obscured latinate words between steak and whiskey dinners in West Side dives. In fact, his haughty tones and smart aleck descriptions can even sound condescending to the world he described. (Joyce Carol Oates has gone as far as to say his boxing writing is racist.) Boxing was clearly a serious matter for manly men, a tradition followed by the new journalists, who seemed to have viewed the boxing piece as a rite of passage. Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese, all wrote extensively about pugilism, but none of these portrayals of real life boxers nurse a bookworm’s dream of being a toughened fighter like fiction.
Ernest Hemingway was a master of fiction and a master of fictional boxing, a self-proclaimed boxing expert in Paris, who despite his lack of experience, trained poet Ezra Pound and coached the Spanish painter Juan Miro on his jab; unfortunately, his sparring matches with real boxers like Canadian Morley Callaghan got Hemingway pummeled. And yet despite his lack of talent, Hemingway continued following and writing about boxing. His stories “Fifty Grand” and “The Battler” are both based on pugilists, as is Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises.
There is plenty of bad boxing fiction, mostly old, mostly clichéd, mostly rotting away in used bins, or library sales racks, but then there are the gems, the ones that endure. In the last couple of years I’ve come across a few that are not just good boxing fiction but good fiction. They all inexplicably take place in California (where both Pacquiao and Margarito both trained before their match).
Fat City by Leonard Gardner is one of the best novellas I’ve read this year. It’s a noir novel without really trying to be one. No detectives, city nights, or hyperbolically dark dialogue, instead we have subtle descriptions, hazy characters; some of its patiently rendered urban landscape descriptions almost slip by, as the reader enters 1950s Stockton, on the beat street motels, between hot pans and dirty sheets. When not working odd jobs, the book’s protagonist Billy Tulley (a name vaguely reminiscent of late champ Gene Tunney) is boxing or being an alcoholic, a combination which you can imagine must be horribly painful, not to mention high unlikely. Still, Tulley sweats out his shakes at Ludo’s Gym where a sign reads: “PLEASE DON’T SPIT ON THE FLOOR GET UP AND SPIT IN THE TOILET BOWL” and where dialogue like this can be overheard in the changing room:
“You want to know what (sic) make a good fighter?”
“It’s believing in yourself. That the will to win. The rest condition. You want to kick ass, you kick ass.”
When not training, Tulley is sopping up booze into bars, where sometimes people even recognize him as the promising fighter he once was. But then, he gets into a tangle with a malevolent female — a must in any noir novel — something like a trashier version of Holy Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Somehow, despite the archetypal characters, the story, thanks to its effortlessly sleek story, manages to move. Tulley’s struggle to make himself ¨kick ass¨ in the face of alcoholism and loneliness is tragic, and perhaps tragically outdated in this era of athletic competitiveness, but is told in such a way that the reader can’t help but want to save Tulley from one punishment or another. I was only disappointed when I found out Gardner hadn’t written any other novels.
Gardners‘s gruesome tell-it-like-it-is portrait of working class in California reminded me of another book that brims with fisticuffs, Ham on Rye. I should preface my description of the novel by saying that I’ve never been a Bukowksi lover. Since high school I thought his old man alcoholic misogyny was kind of boring, but this book is different from his others: his fictional self is only a pre-teen , plagued by acne, no chance at being cool, but angry enough so he isn’t the catch of the day for his belligerent friends who endlessly pull at their crotches, compare wieners, and fantasize about every female near them. Bukwoski writes:
Each afternoon after school there would be a fight between two of the older boys. It was always out by the back fence were there was never a teacher about. And the fights were never even; it was always a large boy against a smaller boy and the larger boy would beat the smaller boy with his fists, backing him into the fence. The smaller boy would attempt to fight back but it was useless. Soon his face was bloody, the blood running down into his shirt.
What I think makes this particular pointdexter protagonist so interesting is that he’s tougher than a stale piece of jerky, as are all the other kids. In this world, “even the sissies took their beatings quietly.” Zealously narrated kiddy fight scenes run like well told bar stories:
They squared off. Wagner had some good moves. He bobbed, he weaved, he shuffled his feet, he moved in and out, and he made little hissing sounds. He was impressive. He caught Moscowitz with three straight left jabs. Moscowitz just stood there with his hands at his sides. He didn’t know anything about boxing. Then Wagner cracked Moscowitz with a right on the jaw.
The interchange continues until Moscowitz turns the fight around:
Moscowitz was a puncher. He dug a left to that pot belly. Wagner grasped and dropped. He fell to both knees. His face was cut and bleeding. His chin was on his chest and he looked sick.
Paradoxically these school fights, although bloody, are nothing compared to the beatings Bukowski gets from his dad. In fact, these fights seem almost cathartic, a good thing in comparison to the much more serious and scary adult world that surrounds them.
Nearly everyone’s seen the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby starring Hillary Swank as a female boxer from the sticks, but not everyone knows it’s based on a short story by F.X. Toole. A fledgling writer most of his life, Toole was a cut man by trade, the guy in the corner who swabs and smears Vaseline on a fighter’s face, after having been told he was too old for a career in boxing. Although the stories in Rope Burns can be a bit repetitive (how many more down and out kids do we have to hear about) and sometimes cliché (see previous parenthetical remark), they have a lot of heart.
“Fightin Philly” describes a manager and his talented but injured light heavyweight fighter Mookie facing a title fight against a hardened Ugandan fighter in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Mookie has a leg injury. Like Yuri Foreman’s bout against Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium earlier this year — Foreman bravely, perhaps foolishly fought through two rounds wobbling — Mookie must fight his injury as much as his opponent. The match ends up even by the tenth round, or at least his corner man Con thinks. So, late in the fight – thanks to Con’s advice – Mookie manages to frazzle his opponent with a flurry attack that includes a low blow to frighten him. Afterward “he nailed him with big left hands and combinations to the head, which began to swell and make [the Ugandan] looked like a zombie.” Sadly, it isn’t enough and Mookie’s courage, training, and will aren’t enough. Maybe this story gets at me because I know someone like Mookie with 10-10 a professional record who insists on continuing to fight professionally.
Writers and boxers actually have something in common: nearly impossible odds at ever making it big; of course, it goes without saying that boxers get real bruises rather than just bruised egos. Toole definitely got this about boxing and literature, which is perhaps why he kept it up for so long. Unfortunately, he died before the movie adaptation of his book ever came out. Since his death, a posthumous novel Pound for Pound was published. I guess some guys just never go down.