Today, championship boxing is lucky to win half a column in the sports pages. There was a time, though, when things were otherwise. In one of two introductions to At the Fights, George Kimball, who edited this anthology with John Schulian, recalls the 1910 fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries: “More than 600 writers of varying stripes augmented the ringside crowd of 20,000 spectators. . . . Western Union transmitted more than a million words of copy, a record that would stand until Lindbergh touched down . . . 17 years later.” And as indicated by the editors elsewhere in the book, when Jack Dempsey defended his title against Georges Carpentier, the coverage in The New York Times “consumed not just the sports section on July 3, 1921, but almost the entire paper.”
|Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, June 22, 1938|
More than any other sport, even baseball or golf, boxing calls forth the muse in writers. It’s no surprise. Where there is risk there is drama, and boxers put more at risk than other athletes. In a single evening, they roll the dice with their health, marketability and sense of identity. When you have a bad night in the ring, you can’t make it up in a doubleheader on Sunday, or on another football field in a week’s time. And after the very last bell, there is seldom a diploma to fall back on, and there sure won’t be any pension checks coming in the mail.
It’s a very hard game — maybe even crazy — but as the affection-filled writers who have attached themselves to these warriors know, the masters of the ring possess a unique nobility. That nobility is perfectly framed in this remarkable volume from the Library of America. The essays here capture every angle of this world, both solemn and comic.
A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker is perhaps the doyen of the boxing literati. Some sportswriters today feel he was a bit de trop, but Liebling’s richly ironic musings on Doc Kearns, Dempsey’s manager, are jaw-dropping.
Many trainers jabber about their fighters in the first-person plural, but as Liebling points out, Kearns took this practice to another level. When Liebling interviews Kearns about his fighter Joey Maxim’s technical knockout of the immortal Sugar Ray Robinson in 1952, Kearns boasts: “It was up to me to pick the round. Next time I’ll knock him out quicker.” In closing, Liebling wryly notes that Kearns’s charge would later lose the light-heavyweight title to Archie Moore, “but Dr. Kearns did not say after the bout, ‘Moore licked me.’ He said, ‘Moore licked Maxim.’ ”
It could be argued that for Americans, Joe Louis’s defeat of the Nazi-backed Max Schmeling in 1938 was the most significant sporting event of the 20th century. The first African-American to become a national hero to whites as well as blacks (with the possible exception of Jesse Owens), the Brown Bomber had the immense weight of race on his back. At the same time, he was also the Lancelot of the free world. As if that were not enough, Louis had been brutally knocked out by Schmeling in 1936. How Louis had the nerve to make it to the ring, much less beat Schmeling senseless in a single round, is hard to grasp. In a dazzling article written for New Masses, Richard Wright describes the ecstatic reaction in Harlem to Louis’s victory: “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that it seemed would never end, and a scream that seemed to come from untold reserves of strength.”
Even as some people are counting out the sport, this book provides a canon of American boxing literature, including work by the likes of Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, David Remnick, Budd Schulberg and Gay Talese. The classics are all contained within the covers of At the Fights, but there are dozens of other sparkling pieces.
For example, Gene Tunney offers a candid recollection of the “long count” in his second meeting with Dempsey, in 1927. Thomas Hauser captures the frenetic give-and-take of negotiations involving the promoter Don King. A grateful Jerry Izenberg takes the measure of the legendary trainer Ray Arcel. Gerald Early depicts the “caldron of violence and inertia, depravity and bravado, distorted masculinity and strange fellowship” that gave rise to the bantamweight sensation Jeff Chandler and “nearly every other good fighter from South Philadelphia currently working his trade.”
The book begins with Jack London’s famous report from the Johnson-Jeffries fight, and it closes with Carlo Rotella’s masterly miniature of Larry Holmes’s last battle, in 2002. At 52, Holmes takes on Eric Esch, a k a Butterbean, a behemoth graduate of the Toughman contests who, at the time, has rolled up a record of 65-2-3. Holmes is irked at all the press and money his corpulent brawler of an opponent has garnered. Many regard the bout as a circus, but it is in fact a fascinating test case of sheer boxing science versus power. Holmes dissects Butterbean, winning a unanimous decision.
I would bemoan only one omission, namely, the wise, lustrous pages of F. X. Toole’s introduction to his short-story collection, “Rope Burns.” Though “At the Fights” weighs in at 500-plus pages, it doesn’t contain a single flabby contribution. Over and over again, writers and readers have sought to get behind the eyes of a fighter, to fathom the fighter’s heart. This is as close as you can get without catching a hook to the head.
Source: NY Times