At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing
George Kimball and John Schulian, Eds.
Library of America
Articulated in Britain in the 19th century, prizefighting belongs to the world in the 21st, but through the 20th it was headquartered and nurtured in these United States, where hard men with a history of sharecropping, shtetl, potato famine, and hobo camps commingled their blood on the canvas.
At the Fights, Library of America's history of writing on and around the fistic arts, elucidates that golden age which was, among other things, a story of successive waves of ethnic aspiration and rivalry. Jack London, reporting from the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson fight, is candid in discussing the racial/tribal animus in the ring, as is Budd Schulberg on his childhood idolization of middleweight Benny Leonard, his victories "sweet revenge for… pale little Jewish boys who had run the neighborhood gauntlet."
Colum McCann's introduction gets the inevitable boxers-writers comparison over with mercifully early. It is worth noting that fighters, for their part, very rarely compare themselves to authors—though Gene Tunney contributes herein an account of his bout with Dempsey that shows no signs of Dementia pugilistica. "Like mediocre fiction," David Remnick writes in a superlative piece on Mike Tyson, "fights for the heavyweight championship of the world are invariably freighted with the solemnity of deeper meanings." This is demonstrated most baldly by the Great American Novelists here, who come off as tomato cans, throw
It's hard to deny, though, Norman Mailer's play-by-play of the Rumble in the Jungle (unlike his quickdraw predecessors at ringside, Mailer benefits from playback tape and no looming deadline). Mailer's onetime campaign manager, Joe Flaherty, puts a stingingly funny snap at the end of every paragraph of his eulogy for Sonny Liston, "the pallbearer of fifties liberalism," and the sanctimonious media reactions to his death. On wolverine-fierce Stanley Ketchel, another famously troubled fighter, John Lardner's "Down Great Purple Valleys" is justly celebrated for its opening one-sentence biography of its subject; as perfect as the lede is, what's even more impressive is the speedbag tempo that follows.
This collection, assembled by George Kimball and John Schulian, has a notably worried conscience over the pleasure of watching "the flop, flap, flop of leather bruising human flesh," per Irvin S. Cobb. Along with the workaday fighters and trainers, a recurring cast of crooks, fixers and promoters reappear from piece to piece—James Norris, Don King, the trash behind Primo Carnera's hoax of a rise. Queasy fight "fan" Gerald Early, not mincing words: "It is fitting to have professional boxing in America as a moral eyesore: the sport and symbol of human waste in a culture that worships its ability to squander." Elsewhere, Bill Barich gives a persuasive account of the cumulative effects of a boxing career (capsule: it makes you broken and dumb), and Ralph Wiley writes on Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini killing his opponent in the ring—the reason we watch 12-round fights today, those of us who watch at all.
But we've come to praise the Marquis of Queensbury, not bury him. Read At the Fights with YouTube fight footage at the ready: there's no more satisfying experience of the hand-in-glove relationship between criticism and art.