"At the Fights': Writers on boxing

Raconteurs of the ring

Mailer: Ryan O'Neal's nemesis.
Mailer: Ryan O'Neal's nemesis.

In 1947, when I was ten years old, my father and his friend Riz Rogers took me to the old Convention Hall on 34th Street in Philadelphia for the Golden Gloves tournament, where Riz's nephew, John Stokes, was fighting.

Afterwards, Riz Rogers got us into the dressing room. I was totally agog; this was all bodies and tape and hubbub, and, permeating my memory to this day, the indelible smell of the wintergreen rubbing compound then in use. This wasn't the Gillette Friday night fights or the Wednesday Pabst Blue Ribbon bouts on TV that my father and I watched religiously. This was boxing from as close to a participant's point of view as there could be, and I was completely and hopelessly enthralled.

When I got out of the Army years later, one of the regulars at my friend Dale's bar on Lower Broadway in Camden— a pro fighter back in the '40s— used to take Dale and me to fights at the old Arena in Philadelphia. Sometimes he'd take us backstage and we'd sit and listen while he bullshitted with the trainers he knew from the old days. I was in boxing heaven. I'll never forget the legendary Gypsy Joe Harris lacing up his boxing boots, while at the other end of the bench the Spanish dude from New York he would fight in the main event was getting his hands taped. No bad-mouthing, no stare-downs, just two pros getting ready to go to work. Great memories.

All these years later, the fights still fascinate. I live down the shore by Wildwood now, and just the other weekend I went up to see my schoolteacher friend, the Wildwood light heavyweight Chuck "The Professor" Mussachio, win a unanimous decision at Bally's in Atlantic City.

Jack Johnson's massacre

That very next Monday, I got a delightful surprise from the UPS man: a review copy of At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. All right! Here was a compendium of great fight writers"“ hell, great writers, period"“ in chronological order, beginning with Jack London on Jack Johnson's massacre of Jim Jeffries in 1910 and ending with Carlo Rotella's 2002 take on former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes at the tired end of a long career.

In between was a pugilistic sampling of literary sportswriters and literary lions alike: H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright, Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, James Baldwin, Larry Merchant, Pete Dexter, Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates (who actually wrote a book about boxing). The book even contained a very literate piece by former heavyweight king Gene Tunney that included his version of the famous "Long Count" in his second fight with the venomous Jack Dempsey, in 1927. (Tunney won them both). Forty-nine writers, in all, were listed.

But At the Fights is more than a collection of great boxing prose; it also offers, perhaps inadvertently, a study in the evolution of the prose of American sports journalism. Jack London's racist-tinged account of Jack Johnson's laughing slaughter of over-the-hill Jim Jeffries takes on the almost stilted literary language of the first decade of the 20th Century. Witness his description of Jeffries entering the ring: "A quick superficial comparison between him and the negro would lead to a feeling of pity for the latter."

Liebling's accessible grace

The style relaxes a bit as time passes, but the tone is still slightly distant and even a little arch, until we get to the nonpareil of boxing writers, A.J. Liebling, and two of his essays from the '50s. I've read every word Joe Liebling ever wrote about boxing and most of what he wrote about his other great love "“ besides women, who were instinctively attracted to him"“ which was food.

Like Fred Astaire, Liebling possessed an accessible grace that made hard work look easy. Here's Liebling in "Kearns by a Knockout," describing the archetypical fight manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, in 1952:

"The weaver of his shirt had imprisoned in it the texture as well as the color of pistachio ice cream. It was a wonder that children hadn't eaten it off his back in the street, with the weather the way it was outside. He was wearing a pale grey suit and skew-bald shoes, and his eyes, of a confiding baby blue, were so bright that they seemed a part of the ensemble."

I rushed to my dictionary to look up skew-bald, which is actually a word, if you'd like to check it out, too.

Goodbye, objectivity

Gay Talese was what they call today a game-changer. His essay in At the Fights, simply called "Floyd Patterson," demonstrates what came to be called "the new journalism" in the '60s. The writer's so-called objective distance went the way of black-and-white TV; in many cases the writer inserted himself into the story and used novelistic and cinematic techniques to establish a three-dimensional finished product. When it worked, as it does in "Floyd Patterson," it's as sharply defined and penetrating as a Japanese wood-cutting.

Patterson's shy, shifting, contradictory persona exerted an irresistible pull on writers, as did Sonny Liston's "badass nigger," as Joe Flaherty called him in "Amen to Sonny," also included in At the Fights.

The great essayist James Baldwin had more use for both Patterson and Liston than he did for either the boxing establishment or what he called the "primitive" writers who attached themselves to it like barely articulate barnacles. Baldwin admitted he knew nothing about boxing, but he did know about writing. He proves it in "The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston," which appeared in, of all places, Nugget magazine, a Playboy wannabe of the day. Baldwin knew that literature, like love, is where you find it, and he must have pulled a big gap-toothed anticipatory grin when he took that assignment.

Mailer's bombastic glory

Norman Mailer in all his supreme bombastic glory is front and center here; the excerpt from his 1975 book, The Fight— a reconstruction of the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between a victorious Muhammad Ali and a humbled George Forman— is ample evidence why Mailer, mostly thought of as a novelist, also won two Pulitzer prizes for his unique, startling and deeply thoughtful brand of journalism.

In The Fight, Mailer's brilliant, breathtaking analysis of the very physics of the fight "“ the forces exerted and their results "“ is no far-fetched stretch of imagination but is grounded in Mailer's participation in the sweet science. For years, he boxed every Saturday morning with a group that included the actor Ryan O'Neal, whose youth, coordination and hand speed made him king of that small hill. Mailer's great moment in those encounters came when he pasted O'Neal with a single, perfect right hand. To read Mailer on boxing is akin, dare I say, to reading James Agee on film.

Eyes of Roberto Duran

Leonard Gardner's Fat City (1969) is, in my opinion, the best boxing novel ever written, and John Huston's 1972 film adaptation stands with Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull as my two favorite fight films. Gardner's selection in At the Fights is "Sweeter Than Sugar," a dissection of the 1980 Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, won by Duran. As in the story before it— Vic Ziegel's "Roberto Duran's New York State of Mind"— both writers are taken by Duran's eyes, which glowed like obsidian coals.

I saw those eyes close up in Duran's Spectrum dressing room following his questionable 1977 unanimous decision over Edwin Viruet, who boxed like a devil that night and probably beat Duran. But this was Philly and Duran was the money fighter. He was perched on a rubbing table, like a black panther crouched in a tree, and when one of the writers asked him if he actually thought he'd won, Duran turned those now-scary eyes toward the guy, and everyone in the room thought he was going to come off that table at the writer's throat. After an instinctive step backward, the writer withdrew the question.

Dangerous woman

Toward the end of the At the Fights is a 1989 piece called "The Knockout: Lucia Rijker," by the novelist Katherine Dunne. Serious women boxers are a fairly new commodity, and, to me, Lucia Rijker is the best ever to lace on the gloves: a superb fighter in every important aspect of the game: speed, power, defense, and effective aggression.

Although she has been dubbed "The Most Dangerous Woman on the Planet," Rijker is also the one of the most striking, realistic and intelligent women on earth, and Dunne captures all these attributes superbly. Rijker is respected by male boxers"“ almost one of the boys"“ but she also chants and meditates every evening, probably the only Buddhist boxer ever. She played the evil opponent in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and has modeled, too. I saw her on the street in New York City once, and Katherine Dunne was right: She glows.

No boxing collection would be complete without a Mike Tyson story. David Remnick's "Kid Dynamite Blows Up: Mike Tyson" captures the contradictory essence of this troubled man who is still known as "Iron Mike." Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker and upholds Joe Liebling's memory here, especially in this passage:

"Boxers go into the ring alone, nearly naked, and they succeed or fail on the basis of the most elementary criteria: their ability to give and receive pain, their will to endure their own fear. Since character "“ the will of a person stretched to extremes "“ is so obviously at the center of boxing, there is an undeniable urge to know the fighters, to derive some meaning from the conflict of those characters."

That explains the appeal of At the Fights better than I could ever hope to.♦

To read a response, click here.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.