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Fighting for Wisdom Inside the Ring

"Gentleman Jim" 1942 (Warner Bros/Screengrab)

Punching from the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer, Glen Sharp, McFarland, 265 pages

Glen Sharp’s Punching from the Shadows differs from many boxing-related memoirs in that it does not concern how a young man finds a path to success, either in the ring or by applying its lessons outside the ring. Instead, it chronicles a personal crucible through boxing, while discussing the specifics of the sport with rare precision. Sharp, who studied economics, sees boxing as “a case study in resource management,” and his analysis of how fighters move, punch, and defend—ranging from his own efforts to those of champions like Joe Frazier—is some of the keenest and clearest ever written. Yet thanks to Sharp’s elegant and conversational style, and his ability to tell the main story in tandem with a searching examination of his own character and experiences, the scope of his book extends far beyond rings and gyms. Punching from the Shadows is “about boxing” the way Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” is about fishing.

In this age of intellectually high-powered writing about sports, it’s still surprising to learn how much of what athletes do depends on their minds. Every fan knows that great fighters must have “heart”—the inner strength and will to carry on—but fewer understand how a degree of concentration that resembles meditation is also required. In these respects, along with its demanding intricacies, boxing can be regarded as an art, and like other arts, it is a relentless sifter of souls. Punching from the Shadows is the story of one man’s attempt to prove himself an artist in boxing, and what happened when he learned that he could not be. Campaigning in the early 1980s, Sharp logged three professional bouts before giving up—but he makes a good case that nearly everything that happened to him in the ring reflected what was already going on in his head.

Sharp grew up mostly in central Illinois, but as a young man he followed his parents to California, where he still lives. (He works as an editor for the California Energy Commission.) His father, a career Air Force man, wanted him to go to college and pursue white-collar work, but like other sons of such fathers, Sharp didn’t appreciate education until later. He did finish college, but he wanted to test himself and satisfy his yearning for adventure and his sense, common to young men, that he was cut out for special things. He pursued a boxing career, first in Sacramento and then in Stockton, the setting of the famed boxing novel Fat City, whose down-and-out characters Sharp evokes in his own portrayals of obscure, if not quite so desperate, fighters and trainers.

Sharp’s problems are twofold. First, he is at odds with his first trainer, former middleweight champion Carl “Bobo” Olson, who tries to teach him how to box out of a defensive shell. Like most fighters blessed with natural punching power, Sharp resists the defense-first approach. The second problem is that Sharp begins to realize that his passion for the sport is superficial because he is more interested in getting something from it than in giving something to it. He wins his first pro match but loses his next two. He could have continued—his peers still felt that he had ability—but his second loss convinced him to hang up the gloves.

Sharp was resolute in walking away in part because he had observed up close how a truly dedicated professional approaches his craft mentally, physically, and even spiritually. In Stockton, he becomes a sparring partner for Yaqui Lopez, a perennial contender of the 1970s who got about as close to becoming light heavyweight (175 pounds) champion as anyone can. Lopez fought for that division’s title four times, losing close decisions and once by technical knockout in a heart-stopping 1980 battle against Matthew Saad Muhammad, in which he looked to be the proverbial one punch from glory. In his beautifully etched portrait of Lopez, Sharp offers a glimpse of the consummate craftsman, egoless in his willing submission to the demands of his trade.

In that submission comes, paradoxically, the opportunity for distinction. “Yaqui fought to discover and to express something about himself,” Sharp writes. “To express something that exists in all of us to some degree. …Yaqui needed to know what we are talking about here at a deeper level than the vicarious, and that is what separates him, and those like him, from the rest of us, me included. …What Yaqui really valued in boxing was the commitment to the experience, with one’s commitment being a measure of the boxer’s virtue.”

Following a custom of the sport, Lopez touched gloves with his sparring partners before every round, a gesture of respect and fair play, but he was unusual in also touching gloves after each round. He did this with Sharp, too—unless he sensed that Sharp wasn’t giving his best effort. Then he wouldn’t touch. Sharp loved boxing “despite how much work was required,” but Lopez loved it “because of the work.” From Lopez, Sharp learned that “attraction without commitment is not love; it is only desire.”

Sharp struggles to understand why he lacked this more profound devotion, which precluded him from discovering how far he might have gone in boxing. The pain was magnified by his awareness of his father’s doubts. The elder Sharp, who had lost his own father when just a boy, knew well that life required commitment and mindfulness, and submission, too—if only to life’s stubborn realities. For a time, Yaqui Lopez becomes a kind of surrogate father. But Sharp makes his peace with his father in the end, only to see time, in the form of dementia, take him away.

Punching from the Shadows offers no neat endings. Its proper narrative concludes—before a flash forward to later developments—with a decision made by Sharp and his then-girlfriend that seems to bring everything to bottom. From this low point, Sharp writes, he began what he considers his real life, but he is shadowed by its dark cost. “No day passes for me,” he writes, “without the awareness that it took the loss of one life for mine to be found.”

The book is a testament to the hard-won wisdom that only loss seems to impart, and a good corrective to the “follow your dream” mantra. Understand your dream, we would be better instructed. A humble and candid narrator whose wry wit lightens a serious tale, Sharp probes for insight on every page. Time and again, he surprises the reader by following seemingly mundane observations to a deeper core. He couldn’t find commitment as a boxer, but only a committed writer could have produced Punching from the Shadows, which deserves to take its place as a classic of boxing literature. And though Sharp, modest to a fault, describes the book as “a rise-and-fall story without so much rise in it,” his tale does include a fleeting moment of triumph: sparring one day in the gym, he unleashed a perfect left hook and knocked Yaqui Lopez down.

Paul Beston is the managing editor of City Journal and author of The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring.

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