Archive for June, 2010

James Joyce is not one of the many authors I write about in Fighters & Writers, but he could have been.

I discuss many of my favorites in the book. Some of them, such as Albert Camus and A.J. Liebling, also wrote about boxing. With others, such as Herman Melville and George Orwell, connections between their work and the sport are less immediately apparent. Joyce might appear to fit in this category as well. His name doesn’t immediately bring pugilism to most readers’ minds, I’d bet. Yet with Ulysses he attempted to pack an entire world, or at least an entire city, into a novel, and he reinvented the literary form in order to do so. With all he put in there, it should come as no surprise that boxing shows up in its pages.

With characteristically fine craftsmanship, Joyce constructs a few alliterative sentences describing an image from a colorful moment from boxing history. Our hero Stephen Dedalus stops at a Dublin shop:

In Clohissey’s window a faded 1860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers held his eye. Staring backers with square hats stood round the roped prizering. The heavyweights in light loincloths proposed gently to each other his bulbous fists. And they are throbbing: heroes’ hearts.

According to boxing chroniclers Nat Fleisher and Sam Andre, “there are some tales which the fight fan is never tired of hearing,” and here Joyce alludes to one of them.

John C. Heenan fought Tom Sayers in the first contest for the title of world heavyweight champion. Known as “The Benicia Boy” for having worked for a steamship company in that California city, Heenan was actually born in Troy, New York, on May 2, 1833. As Joyce certainly knew, the American was of Irish descent. The 195-pound, 6’2” Heenan outweighed his 5’8” opponent by more than forty pounds when they met in Farnborough. Though small, Sayers was considered exceptionally clever, and, in An Illustrated History of Boxing, Fleisher and Andre call him an all-time great.

The first fight between American and English title holders saw the still-common practice of fans regarding athletes as upholders of national honor and declaring their allegiances accordingly. In the 37th round, when Heenan had his opponent trapped against the ropes, Sayers supporters cut through the ropes to save their man. Though the referee fled the out-of-control scene, the bare knuckle boxers agreed to fight five more rounds without an official. After two hours and twenty minutes, the fight ended in a draw, though according to boxing lore, British observers were certain Sayers won, while Americans knew Heenan would have won had Sayers partisans not interceded. Both men received championship belts. When Sayers retired from the sport, Heenan was recognized as the world champion.

Though Fleisher and Andre don’t say whether the novelists were among the ring rope severers, they do note the presence of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray in the audience on April 17, 1860. In The Half-Life of an American Essayist, Arthur Krystal mentions the pair being there as one of many, many examples of writers with an interest in fighters. He doesn’t mention Joyce, but he could have.

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No Neutral Corner – a documentary my wife and I made about the business of boxing – has been accepted into the 2010 All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival.

Professional boxing is a job, and the movie looks at the sport as a form of work. The problems plaguing boxing are legion. They range from the obvious (and not-so-obvious) health hazards to corruption and organizational chaos. But there’s little agreement on how to solve them (hence the title No Neutral Corner). At the same time, however, there are several ongoing efforts to improve the situation. The documentary doesn’t dwell only on the negatives. Numerous people in the boxing world – including current and former professional boxers, writers and broadcasters, lawmakers and doctors – have faced the challenges of reforming the sport. (Essays in Fighters & Writers to varying degrees grew out of research I conducted while working on the movie.)

Over the course of 13 “rounds” (corresponding to the 12 rounds of a championship bout, plus one “round” about life after boxing), No Neutral Corner explores various moves to improve boxers’ working conditions. Shot in New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC, the documentary features footage from professional boxing matches, boxing gyms, and a weigh-in preceding a major championship bout as well as from interviews with dozens of well-know individuals, including former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, U.S. Senator John McCain, on-air boxing analysts and commentators Steve Farhood, Teddy Atlas and Max Kellerman, and writer Thomas Hauser.

The All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival promotes the art of filmmaking in the world of sports and competition. Its jury and judges include people from both the film and sporting industries. The festival’s selected documentaries, feature films and shorts will be screened at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood on July 10 and 11.

No Neutral Corner, a Rodwan Productions film, also won the Las Vegas Film Festival’s Silver Ace Award.

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The best boxing stories are never about athletics alone. If the fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in 1910 had been just another boxing match, just a contest between two professional sportsmen, no one would remember it a century later. But some fights – and that’s certainly one of them – have great historical significance and profound symbolic resonance. Quite frequently, in the United States, talking about boxing means talking about race. And there’s plenty to say…

Information about “Jack Johnson’s Fourth of July,” the talk I’m giving in Reno next month, has been posted on the Johnson-Jeffries Centennial website’s events page.

[UPDATE: For a recap of the centennial events, see “Remembering Johnson-Jeffries in Reno.”]

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The books writers name as all-time favorites reveals something about their interests, outlook, attitudes and perhaps even their values. Illustrating this very point, The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog posted Susan Orlean’s list of the books that changed her life. She cites works by Joan Didion, John Hersey and Tom Wolfe, and it’s not hard to see why the author of The Bullfighters Checks Her Makeup, The Orchid Thief and other works of nonfiction would regard them as influences. She also includes fiction that I would include on my list, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (appropriate for a Bloomsday post), Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

In the same spirit of giving some sense of what I’m about, here’s an incomplete first attempt at such a list of the books that made the most impact on me (in no particular order).

  • George Orwell’s Ninety Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia and his essays – just about all Orwell, actually.
  •  Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man and The Piazza Tales as well as M-D.
  •  A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science and A Neutral Corner (Liebling raised writing about boxing to an art, and Fighters & Writers certainly owes something to his example, if only in aspiration.)
  •  Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Saturday
  •  Albert Camus, The Plague and The Myth of Sisyphus, at least
  •  Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
  •  Salman Rushdie, Step across This Line
  •  Philip Roth, The Counterlife, The Facts and The Human Stain
  •  Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
  •  Martin Amis, The War against Cliché
  •  Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small
  •  Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  •  Zadie Smith, On Beauty (which I liked better than the novel that inspired it)
  •  Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness
  •  Anne Hathaway, The Year of the Goat
  •  The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself

This is by no means exhaustive…

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Christopher Hitchens prefers making arguments to describing his personal life (with some exceptions), as I note in the review of Hitch-22 on The Oregonian’s website and in the Sunday, June 13, edition of the printed newspaper.

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When people inclined to share my enthusiasm for soul-sustaining arts like literature and music learn that I’ve written a book partially about boxing, they often ask how I became interested in the sport. (To date, no one has wondered aloud in my presence why I care about the post-ampersand part of the title Fighters & Writers. I don’t know if this means reasons for an interest in books are self-apparent or if reading is simply safe and uncontroversial.) The implied question seems to be: What’s a cultivated, educated individual doing mucking around with something like that? Certainly there are plenty of literary types who share my enthusiasm. I write about many of them in my essays. Yet a lot of people seem to require an explanation.

To some extent, this might have to do with a snobbish attitude toward sports in general. Sports invite dismissal by serious types. Plenty of reasons for righteous condemnation present themselves: they’re dangerous, they bring out the worst aspects of human nature in both participants and spectators, they’ve morphed from wholesome exercise into perverse industry, games waste time, and they ain’t what they used to be.

Boxing especially excites its critics. Amplify the common objections to sports and boxing haters will want to turn up the volume louder still.

Danger? In boxing, fit individuals aim to render opponents unconscious. Injury and death obviously ensue. How can punching at people’s vital organs and making their brains bounce about in their skulls be a good idea? With dispiriting regularity, boxers die after bouts. News of their deaths sparks fleeting outrage among the civilized set, who cannot fathom how society can condone such atavism, and rote calls for reform from those who either don’t wish to see the sport go away or know it never will.

As if the physical damage were not enough, what about the ugliness boxing brings out in people? George Orwell, in a 1945 Tribune column titled “The Sporting Spirit,” objected to sports generally and to boxing in particular for precisely this reason. When games cease to be about fun and fitness and start to shoulder symbolism, things go straight to hell: “as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.” Orwell worries especially about athletes becoming national representatives.

At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

While Orwell frets about football (i.e. soccer) and cricket as well as the Olympics enflaming vicious patriotic passions, he dislikes boxing because race hatred rears up among those seated around the ring. “One of the most horrible sights in the world is a fight between white and coloured boxers before a mixed audience.” He said that in the mid-1940s, and while I’d like to think racism has dissipated somewhat in subsequent decades, fight fans continue to assign some sort of meaning to the color of the skin boxers expose while fighting. When boxers from different countries fight, nationalist fervor invariably intrudes. It even factors into the promotion of events, with bouts pitched explicitly pitched as battles between boxers’ homelands. When Bernard Hopkins threw the Puerto Rican flag on the ground before fighting Felix Trinidad in 2001, he might not have been expressing his feelings about the place so much as trying to get its loyal fight fans to buy tickets. While Don King may have had custom made a characteristically understated jacket featuring a sequined American flag on the back, on fight night he would not be without flags of other nations ready to wave if a boxer from elsewhere were fighting, especially if he won and King wanted to sign him to a promotional contract. I’ve been at fights where it was immediately evident that the loudest shouters (1) didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to boxing itself and (2) based their preferences entirely on criteria not related to athletic ability. Put another way, countless idiots root for who they root for mainly or exclusively for racial or nationalistic reasons.

It’s easy enough to argue that the costs of sports are unjustifiably high. I’ve sat in ringside seats as a correspondent that I never would have been anywhere near if I’d had to pay for a ticket. The prices for fights at major venues can be outrageous. While I don’t think other sports routinely have four-figure prices for the best views, I certainly have heard people complain about how much money it takes to attend an event. Even viewing at home can be ridiculously expensive, whether it means paying fifty dollars or more for a pay-per-view bout or just paying the monthly bill for the multitude of television stations that broadcast sports. And all that time people spend watching TV is time not doing … something.

Besides, boxing, like all sports, was better in the past. Sure, there are good boxers nowadays – always have been, always will be – but they can’t compare to the real greats. Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko? Sure, they’ve got some skills and, between them, won the major sanctioning bodies’ heavyweight champion belts. But they can’t compare with [insert preferred boxing great from earlier era here].

I wouldn’t dispute a single one of these charges. Of course boxing is dangerous. I’ve questioned what I was doing by deliberately witnessing an activity that ended with participants carried out on stretchers. Yes, boxing can bring out ugliness and stupidity in those who base their allegiances on blood and land. I’m fully aware of and utterly disgusted by exploitative practices rife in the business of boxing and despair that the worst predators enrich themselves at the expense of both fighters and paying fans. As far as talk of a Golden Age, or at least a better time, goes, I’ll admit that while I’ve interviewed heavyweight title-holders like Chris Byrd and John Ruiz, I don’t delude myself that this can compare with interviewing, say, Muhammad Ali in the 1960s or 1970s or Joe Louis in the 1930s or 1940s. I’ve viewed the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila multiple times, but can’t say I’ve ever seen a bout featuring either Klitschko brother that I’d want to sit through again.

So, why boxing? The answer should already be apparent. Put crudely, as something to write about, boxing can’t be beat. As a dangerous, disreputable and dirty endeavor, but also as a demanding, difficult and inherently dramatic activity, it couldn’t be more intriguing to anyone interesting in examining what it means to be human. That fighters risk their lives is no reason to turn away from it. Indeed, their willingness to do so warrants close attention. There’s much about boxing to which sensible, sensitive folks can object. As Orwell knew, this can be done in writing. The characteristics associated with successful promoters – unscrupulousness, double-dealing, disloyalty, “trickeration” – are the stuff that schemes are made of, and they reward scrutiny. Action occurs in the ring, but what happens behind the scenes is another story, or, rather, a never-dry well of stories.

There’s also much to respect – about boxing and especially about boxers. The qualities that define accomplished boxers – determination, dedication, tenacity, “heart” – should never be discounted and cannot be discredited. Boxing, as fight fans habitually have to explain, is not about brutes brawling (though some of the partisans mentioned above might wish it were). It entails technique honed through training. Despite what looks like the elemental simplicity of nearly naked people hitting each other, boxing involves much strategy and thought as well as character and skill. This is no small stuff.

Saddling athletes with more symbolism than anybody can reasonably be expected to bear is a boxing tradition. It may be absurd to take any single person’s punching power or defensive abilities as indicative of the virtue of a race or a nation, but this happens, and when it does it reveals something, perhaps about the boxer, but definitely about the attitudes of those who take him (or her) to be a representative figure.

While boxing has produced countless remarkable individuals of indisputable talent, frequently in combination with great charisma, it has also had moments when the top man in the heaviest weight division fails to inspire. After Jack Johnson comes Jess Willard. After Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas. But even the boxers who never transcend the sport or who never make best-of-all-times lists, do something few people have the guts to do: they test themselves, in public, at the risk of humiliation and physical damage. I can’t help but admire that sort of courage, and all that makes boxing smell disreputable to many people only makes the fighters themselves that much more noble.

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“Few things have given me more pleasure in life than listening to jazz,” poet Philip Larkin claimed, but someone sampling his spirited writing on the subject might conclude that the music caused him great suffering. Here, for instance, is what he wrote about one of my favorite musicians:

With John Coltrane metallic and passionless nullity gave way to exercises in gigantic absurdity, great boring excursions and not-especially-attractive themes during which all possible changes were rung, extended investigations of oriental tedium, long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity. It was with Coltrane, too, that jazz started to be ugly on purpose: his nasty tone would become more and more exacerbated until he was fairly screeching at you like a pair of demoniacally-possessed bagpipes.

And here’s what he said about another artist whose work I very much enjoy:

 I freely confess that there have been times recently when almost anything – the shape of a patch on the ceiling, a recipe for rhubarb jam read upside down in the paper – has seemed more interesting than the passionless creep of a Miles Davis trumpet solo.

Larkin was sincere when he said he loved jazz, however. He simply enjoyed the work of an earlier generation. He celebrated Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ben Webster, among others. The vociferousness of his criticism of players he thought damaged a wonderful type of music is the flipside of this passion and, thus, understandable even to someone who doesn’t share his opinions. (And he clearly took some pleasure in the expression of pain.)

Hull, where Larkin spent three decades as a university librarian, planned 25 weeks’ worth of Larkin lauding to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death, and its appropriate that events include performances of his beloved music hosted by Richard Palmer, the co-editor of one of Larkin’s books of writing on jazz and the author of Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin (about which I’ve had something to say). I’m guessing that nothing from A Love Supreme or Bitches Brew will be part of the program.

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Movies and books can have underlying quasi-autobiographical elements that might not be immediately apparent. Often these have to do with where the works were made or where their creators once resided. Announcers introducing fighters entering boxing rings often say where the athletes came from, even if they don’t live in those places anymore. They do this because of a belief that such background matters, that location affects who people are and what they do. There may be something to this conviction.

Soon after we moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Portland, Oregon, my wife made a short film that slyly connects the two places. Part of the Poetry in Pictures Series, A Noiseless Patient Spider is based on a poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, a poet closely identified with Brooklyn. Stuffy Shmitt, a musician and actor living in the borough, read the poem at a recording studio there, and his son, Dylan Shmitt, composed and recorded music at a studio in Portland. Also in Portland, Nancy painted and filmed images of spiders (who thrive in the city) and combined them with the Shmitts’ sounds.

I think of one of the essays in Fighters & Writers as a kindred effort. “A First-Class Sport” is not explicitly about places I’ve lived, but it does involve three of them. In it, I write about boxing gyms like the Kronk in Detroit, the city where I grew up, and Gleason’s in Brooklyn, where I lived for nearly eleven years and where I wrote many of the pieces in the book. Indeed, I started writing “A First-Class Sport” there. I finished it in Portland, where one of the last things I added was a short discussion of One Ring Circus, a collection of articles on boxing by novelist Katherine Dunn, another Portland resident.

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What insight into boxing does The Three Musketeers offer? Well, consider this scene from the Alexandre Dumas novel (as translated by Richard Pevear): D’Artagnan heads to a scheduled duel with Athos – the first of three duels arranged (but not held) with each of the musketeers – worrying that he will not benefit no matter what the outcome. He fears 

that the result of the duel would be what is always the most regrettable result in an affair of this kind, when a young and vigorous man fights against a wounded and weakened adversary: vanquished, he doubles the triumphs of his antagonist; victorious, he is accused of treachery and easy audacity.

Affairs of this kind happen all the time in boxing, and boxers confronting well known but well worn opponents face the same dilemma. I witnessed Larry Donald’s unanimous-decision win over Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden in 2004, for example, and tended to agree with the New York State Athletic Commission’s decision afterward that Holyfield shouldn’t be fighting anymore. (He didn’t stop after that, of course.) Donald didn’t emerge looking like the next great champion by beating the former champion long after his prime, but if he had lost… What did Trevor Berbick prove by vanquishing Muhammad Ali in 1981? And what did Larry Holmes accomplish by beating Ali one year earlier?

Dumas may have been writing about swordfights, but when I read that passage I thought about prizefights and the pathos of the aging warrior.

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Though I’ve used this site to broadcast shameless advertisements for myself, I’ve also offered some background on Fighters & Writers that I hope is somewhat amusing, at least to anyone interested the book’s dual subjects. I’ve given the story behind the photo on the cover. (My wife, I should add, also took several of the pictures illustrating pages inside.) I’ve described literary boxing moments I probably would have discussed if I’d found them before I’d finished writing the essays. I’ve explained the book’s dedication.  

Not coincidentally, Fighters & Writers includes an essay that explores writers’ dedications and what they reveal. Those and other elements bracketing the main portions of books, the parts many readers only flip through, can also shed light on authors’ aims and intentions. “Writers deliberately make meaningful use of all their books’ pages,” I say at the start of that piece, “including the frequently ignored dedications and acknowledgements.” Even indexes can offer surprises. What’s Jane Austen doing in a book like mine, for instance?

Fighters & Writers includes a section plainly entitled “Sources” that might first look like no more than a list of the books, articles, interviews and other resources that I used when doing research (as well as the place where I indicate where the individual first appeared). But it is more than that. Some of these previously unpublished portions explain the origins of my essays or offer extra bits that give some sense of my at times idiosyncratic approach to boxing-books combinations.

Here, for example, is part of what I say about one of the essays: “Clive James boasts that Cultural Amnesia ‘might well be the only serious book to explore the relationship between Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front and Richard Burton’s pageboy hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare….’ I could similarly suggest that ‘Ink’ … probably stands alone among personal essays by combining contemplation of car crashes, jaguars, Camus, the Bad Brains, tattoos, boxing, T.E. Lawrence and Bond girls.” 

My point here is that readers of Fighters & Writers should not skip a single page.

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