At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, George Kimball and John Schulian, eds., Library of America, 560 pages
By Paul Beston | April 21, 2011
“For some reason, people don’t want fighters just to be fighters,” Garry Wills wrote in 1975. “They have to stand for an era, for the color of hope, for a metaphysics of the spirit.” Wills was being generous, for by “people” he really meant “writers,” who have been drawn to boxing from the beginning. As bad off as the sweet science is today, if a sport were judged by the writing company it keeps, boxing would still be king.
Going back to Pierce Egan and William Hazlitt in 19th-century Britain, boxing has never lacked for talented scribes, and in America they’ve come from all corners of the literary world: the finest novelists and essayists, from Jack London and H.L. Mencken to Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Joyce Carol Oates; elite magazine journalists like Pete Hamill and David Remnick; the best sportswriters ever to practice the craft, from Paul Gallico and Jimmy Cannon to Red Smith and John Schulian; even academics and social historians like Gerald Early and Carlo Rotella.
Along the way, chroniclers have opined on the racial and political significance of fighters, tried to understand boxing’s place in a violent culture, and grappled with the attractions of our most controversial sport. For many, the most persuasive link between the writer and the fighter is the idea of existential loneliness: boxers and writers are naked before their public, only arriving at a moment of glory after years of solitary preparation, during which they must sustain themselves through torturous self-doubt. In his introduction to At the Fights, the Library of America’s new collection of boxing writing, novelist Colum McCann suggests that boxing and writing “become metaphors for each other—the ring, the page; the punch, the word; the choreography, the keyboard; the feint, the suggestion; the bucket, the wastebasket; the sweat, the edit; the pretender, the critic; the bell, the deadline.” McCann should probably be ticketed for hyperbole, but he understands the sport’s central appeal for writers: “What’s most beautiful about boxing are the lives behind it. They’re so goddamn literary.”
Take Stanley Ketchel, an early 20th-century middleweight with a killer punch, a mama’s boy’s sense of melodrama, and a weakness for, as John Lardner’s great essay here puts it, “women, bright clothes, sad music, guns, fast cars, and candy.” Lardner—son of Ring—was a virtuoso magazine writer still revered by those who remember his work. The editors must have struggled to choose just one Lardner entry; his essay on the 1923 Jack Dempsey/Tommy Gibbons fight in godforsaken Shelby, Montana, is equally worthy of inclusion, as are many more. Perhaps the editors picked the Ketchell homage because its opening sentence—“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast”—was called “the greatest novel ever written in one sentence” by the New York Times’ Red Smith.
Smith himself may never have matched that opener, but his entry here, “Night for Joe Louis,” shows that he had few equals when it came to writing a close. Smith describes the melancholy spectacle of the Brown Bomber’s final fight, in which he was knocked out by up-and-coming Rocky Marciano. Catching the elegiac mood, Smith writes: “An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.”
An author of novels much longer than one sentence, Norman Mailer, wrote about boxing repeatedly over the years. Like so many others, he had a fascination with Muhammad Ali, and an excerpt from his 1975 book The Fight, which chronicled Ali’s astounding defeat of George Foreman in Zaire, displays all of Mailer’s literary muscle. Yet one cannot help but lament that the Mailer selection wasn’t his essay on the fatal bout between Benny Paret and Emile Griffith in 1962 (perhaps because it has been anthologized elsewhere). Somehow Mailer combined the most poetic of descriptions of a boxer’s death with a pugnacious rebuttal of boxing abolitionists.
For all of the big literary names who have looked up from ringside, the generally acknowledged lord of boxing scribes was a magazine writer: A.J. Liebling, the prose master who wrote for The New Yorker until his death in 1963. No other sport has had so gifted a stylist to chronicle it. Liebling—a World War II correspondent, gourmand, and pugilism devotee who wrote about all three memorably—was the kind of writer whose every essay is littered with dazzling descriptions; he watches a fighter descend to the canvas “as heavily as suet pudding upon the unaccustomed gastric system.”
Liebling’s fight reports often take the form of a city travelogue, as he narrates his journeys through the subway system up to Yankee Stadium or other boxing venues—as he does in one of his two pieces here, “Ahab and Nemesis,” which describes the Rocky Marciano-Archie Moore heavyweight title fight in 1955. (Only Liebling and Budd Schulberg get two selections in the anthology.) After the fight, Liebling stops at a cafe north of Yankee Stadium to let the crowds pass. He remembers that he attended the first boxing card ever held at the stadium in 1923 and reflects that the boxers he’s just watched were better than the ones he saw then. This pleases him, he writes, “because it proved that the world isn’t going backward, if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like when you were really young.”
The magazine that helped fill the void left by Liebling’s death was Sports Illustrated, which for a generation produced some of the greatest boxing reporting. The magazine always handed major fights to its best writers—Mark Kram, Pat Putnam, and William Nack, all represented here—who helped define Sports Illustrated’s golden era, long before the Internet, when a weekly sports magazine with lush color photography and top-of-the-line prose was a vital institution.
Narratively irresistible, the best SI features read like short stories. Mark Kram’s report on the Thrilla in Manila, the third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975 before an audience that included Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, is justly celebrated as a masterpiece of the form. Kram’s writing has the intensity of war reporting, as the surging, half-decade-long hatred between the two adversaries plays itself out in the ring, seeming to consume everything around it: “Two hooks ripped with slaughterhouse finality at Ali’s jaw, causing Imelda Marcos to look down at her feet, and the president to wince as if a knife had been stuck in his back.”
Two of the game’s leading chroniclers of today, Thomas Hauser and George Kimball, are represented as well. Co-editor Kimball covered most of the great lower-weight fights of the 1980s, and his essay here, on the aftermath of the hotly contested Leonard-Hagler fight in 1987, takes on the proportions of a story beyond the ring—the breach of trust between two men who had once seemed friends. Hauser started out as a corporate attorney, then became a writer and authored the book on which the film “Missing” was based. He seemed well on his way to a promising career in more respectable pursuits, but became captured by boxing and couldn’t let go. An excerpt from his 1986 book, The Black Lights, captures the ruthlessness of promoter Don King in just a few pages.
If all of the attention from essayists and novelists weren’t enough, boxing has also attracted a steady stream of scholarly writers. Gerald Early’s beautiful essay “Ringworld” is part personal memoir and part boxing reportage, in which the author wrestles with self-loathing for his continued attachment to boxing and its downtrodden souls. They remind him, a child of the Philadelphia public schools, of old friends who did not make it out of adolescence on the right side of the law. Boston University professor Carlo Rotella’s report on former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes’s final fight—at age 52—with a nearly 400-pound barroom brawler named Butterbean juxtaposes two men from opposite ends of the boxing spectrum. Rotella’s portrait of Holmes, a master boxer who had saved his millions but couldn’t resist the allure of yet more money, captures an acutely American dilemma: the difficulty, for a person of ability, of acknowledging limits.
Hovering over the experience of reading so much fine boxing writing is the sport’s loss of centrality in the American imagination. It once stood aside baseball as the nation’s most popular sport, but it has long since faded into a niche interest, the old fervor surfacing again only on the rare occasion of a big fight. There are a host of reasons for this—cultural changes, competition from other sports, medical issues, and boxing’s endemic corruption—but regrettably, no essay here addresses this fall from prominence as a subject in itself. As At the Fights amply demonstrates, great boxing writing endures. But its contemporary practitioners exist in the same limbo as the fighters do. There must always be the nagging feeling that one is writing, or fighting, within a void.
Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal.