The Black and White of the Black and Blue and Bloody
SunPost Weekly May 12, 2011 John Hood
Boxing may not be the glory sport it once was back in its heyday -- and if last weekend's Manny Pacquiao/Shane Mosley bout was any indication, it's not gonna be either. But at its best, and its brightest, there's something brutally beautiful about the sweet science. No one knows this better than those who throw words around for a living, who find in the fistic not just the stuff of legend, but a veritable parallel to their own craft.
"What you have with a fight is what you have with writing, and they each become metaphors for each other -- the ring, the page; the punch, the word; the choreograhy, the keyboard; the feint, the suggestion; the bucket, the wastebasket; the sweat, the edit; the pretender, the critic; the bell, the deadline. There's the showoff shuffle, the mingled blood on your glove, the spitting your teeth up at the end of the day."
That's what Irish wordslinger Colum McCann claims in his Foreward to At the Fights (The Library of America $35). And it's a cinch that each and every writer featured in this robust collection would wholeheartedly agree. What McCann didn't mention though, was that, like fighters, many of writers featured here would boast their accounts to be the singlemost ass-kicking pieces ever put to print.
Okay, so maybe I exaggerate -- a little. For every Norman Mailer and Jack London, there's a good dozen like the late, great A.J. Liebling, whose prose was so forceful and fluid it stood toe-to-toe with even the most blow-hardiest of braggarts, and in many cases whipped their asses to boot. (It's no wonder The Library of America also collected Liebling's The Sweet Science and Other Writings.) But that didn't stop the top scribblers of their time from trying to best the best, and with the likes of H.L. Mencken and Sherwood Anderson and James Baldwin in the ring, the writings make for one helluva championship season.
Okay, so as renowned columnist Mike Downey pointed out in the LA Times, At the Fights doesn't include anything from Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner or even Bat Masterson, let alone an account of the infamous 1919 bout when the four were among the "484 gentlemen (cough) of the working press [who] sat outdoors in the 100-degree heat of Toledo, Ohio, on the Fourth of July to watch 37-year-old Jess Willard, a 6-foot-6 former cowboy, be flattened in Round 1 seven times by Jack Dempsey, 24, who sat out World War I but was sufficiently fit to break Willard's ribs, cheek and jaw." But that's a very minor quibble in a collection this vast. (For five years Downey wrote "In the Wake of the News," a column which the great Ring Lardner started back in 1913, so he may be taking the exclusions a little personally anyway.) And with apologies to Downey, wouldn't it be wiser to herald what At the Fights does include?
Of course it would. The problem with that is At the Fights includes far too much worthy of both merit and mention for a single column, unless perhaps one wanted to eliminate all the high caliber color, and what would be the fun of that?
Beginning with Jack London's account of the 1910 championship bout between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries (for which the Call of the Wildman called for and coined the term "The Great White Hope"), and ending with Carlo Rotella's 2002 homage to Larry Holmes ("Champion at Twilight"), At the Fights is a near century's worth of rip-roaring reveal. Some of it comes ringside (Mailer et al); some of it comes from the gym (i.e. Pete Hamill's "Up the Stairs with Cus D'Amato"); and some of it comes from so far behind the scenes you feel as if you've been eavesdropping (Thomas Hauser's excerpt from The Black Lights).
Like in London's account, race is a rather rampant factor, including the bout between Joe Louis and Jorge Brescia, though in this case it's not sparked by the writer (Sherwood Anderson), but by a Nazi magazine which claimed Louis's loss to Max Schmeling was a "Cultural Achievement" for the white race. Anderson, like Americans of every color, wanted Louis to get a second stab at Schmeling, and if he lost to this so-called "Bull of the Pampas," that stab wouldn't be coming. Thankfully, two stories later, Bob Considine, "the racehorse of the Hearst syndicate's International News Service," recounts the 1938 bout where our beloved Brown Bomber did just that, and he does so with the kinda befitting "rat-a-tat-tat" that sealed the lid on Schmeling's race-baiting career.
Race also propels Richard Wright's account of the Brown Bomber's first round knockout of the Nazi Kraut (sorry, I couldn't resist), just as it propelled nearly every word Wright ever wrote. Nevertheless, his "High Tide in Harlem" evokes a pride that was far too long in coming for a people who deserved it perhaps more than anyone.
The inimitable Joe Louis is the subject of equally inimitable Red Smith's entry as well. This time it's the Brown Bomber's 1951 bout with Rocky Marciano, and it becomes a fitting, if sad, epitaph to a stellar career.
Of course Joe Louis isn't the only legendary pugilist to be awed upon (though it wouldn't be such a bad thing if he were); nor even the most praised (Ali here claims that title too). In fact, there's nary a 20th century champion who doesn't get his due by at least one of superlative-slingin' scribe or another.
Why, you ask? Well, in the words of John Schulian, who (with George Kimball) co-edited this collection:
"The most quotable, accessible, big-hearted athletes I've ever covered are prizefighters. Doesn't matter whether they're choirboys or ex-cons. They all talk, they all share pieces of their lives that athletes in other sports would never reveal. The important thing to remember, though, is that this is life in microcosm. It's beautiful, messy, profane, funny, sad, cutthroat, brutal -- and yet heroes rise from it even if their hands aren't always raised in victory. When I think of what I've written about boxing, so much of it feels like noir fiction, and yet I was there, I saw it happen. And if I hadn't seen it, when I'd read somebody's account of it, I'd want a taste the next time a big fight came along. Because, as every writer who's been there will tell you, there's nothing in all of sports that compares."
And if that's not enough to get you into this ringside seat, then you're just not into the black and white of the black and blue and bloody sport of boxing.