43 Ways of Looking at a Boxer

By Peter Wood on November 24, 2015
43 Ways of Looking at a Boxer
I’ll leave the perplexing poetry to former Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney to unravel.

A belligerent cockiness bubbles within his blood. He has yet to realize that hell is not other people—it is himself…

Wallace Stevens’ poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” challenges readers with thirteen obscure stanzas, or “snapshots,” of how to look at a blackbird. I’ve suffered through countless readings of his poem, never understanding a damn word.

I may be dense, but Wallace’s poetry is denser, so I’ll leave his perplexing poetry to former Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney to unravel. 

I’ll concentrate on what I do know—prizefighters.

I have been watching, listening to, training, and admiring prizefighters for decades. I fought myself, and I think I understand a fighter better than a blackbird.

When the spotlight shines upon a talented boxer, that spotlight casts a long shadow—and living in that long dim shadow are thousands of unsung pugs struggling to scratch out a meager existence.

So here, I offer forty-three “snapshots” of a boxer—a man forged by a rugged and raw life—an athlete who smooths out his jagged edges in the ring and creates his own perplexing poetry—a prizefight.

1. He looks into the eyes of his opponent and takes a deep pull of air through his flat nose. It’s the beginning of the fifth round and behind his thick skull, the delicate folds of his young brain are slowly beginning to soften.

2. A belligerent cockiness bubbles within his blood. He has yet to realize that hell is not other people—it is himself.

3. His young brain is paleo-mammalian, and his heart sweats. He taps into the power of his fists and the strength of his dysfunction.

4. He thrives on hostility, brainpain, and belligerence.

5. His knowledge is higher ignorance.

6. His mouth is an insignificant piece on his body. If he tries to say what he feels or thinks, he feels stupid, so he verbalizes with his fists: Boss…Money…Respect…Love…

7. He is almost happy—but not quite.

8. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but he is scathingly intelligent in his own way—and he hits very hard.

9. He trains, drives to the arena, pukes, boxes…He trains, drives to the arena, pukes, boxes…He trains, drives to the arena, pukes, boxes…He trains, drives to the arena…

10. He is still a scared little boy.

11. He has met the enemy…and it is himself. But he doesn’t know that yet.

12. He is defined by what he hates.

13. He deals with his damp fear by ignoring it.

14. He needs an exorcism—and boxing is it.

15. There is a mysterious, potent, beautiful strength within his silence.

16. He is not normal.

17. His fists are his words.

18. His life is a brutal life with many traps.

19. He is tough inside the ring but vulnerable outside it.

20. He is malicious because he is miserable.

21. He is what he hates.

22. He comes from the mud of civilization.

23. He perceives slights, offenses, and insults and then manufactures vendettas.

24. He finds simple spiritual strength from punching a heavybag.

25. He loves a mirror.

26. He is an anachronistic man who creates modern-day beauty.

27. The voice within his boxing gloves whispers, “This, too, is art.”

28.  He stares into the mirror, and locked behind the flat wall of his face is the knowledge that the dark fertile crevices of his brain are, indeed, softening.

29. He is the victim of his own hatred. And love.

30. Dreaming and boxing are the only two places where he can go safely insane.

31. He is a nimble actor performing on a stage where nobody speaks a foolish word.

32. His punch is anger that bursts.

33. Pain produces his endorphins.

34. He is strong, but weak.

35. The kindest thing you can say about his childhood is that he survived it.

36. He would never have punched a single punch unless some minor tragedy had not twisted his soul or soiled his brain.

37. He delivers the most exciting word in sports: KNOCKOUT.

38. His exhilarating victory is his opponent’s humiliating defeat.

39. His tears are hidden inside boxing gloves.

40. Throughout his life, he has battled real, or imaginary, limitations.

41. He is a man—but an unfinished, half-baked man—still waiting to happen.

42. He is an old, scarred, war-horse, still, essentially, vertical, but going bald and missing a few teeth. Boxing has crawled deep inside him—but his belligerent cockiness is long gone. 

43. He thinks about retiring, but wants one more fight.

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books.

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  1. Ken Marsh 11:18am, 12/10/2015

    8 Ways of Looking at Peter Wood, Boxer, Artist

    Knowing Peter Wood more as an artist, both writer and visual artist, than a boxer, here are the 8 ways of looking at this gifted, aging, but not old human male, who has integrated diametrically-opposed aspects of human experience in a yin-yang balance that incorporates the complete practice of a sane life on a planet rife with the insanity of too many of his fellow beings in a universe that offers no help, but does not prevent it either.

    1) His jabs are to the interstellar plexis to bring stars to the mind’s eye.

    2) His punches are with fingers flailing to tickle viewers down to the mat.

    3) His footwork is a dance of the hora to dizzy his viewers into an embrace.

    4) His art and his boxing are opposite sides of that proverbial coin he flips to decide instantaneously next what to do.

    5) He banks on chance, knowing that in all arenas certainty is not to be found.

    6) In the ring, facing an opponent or the blank surface of a new work in his studio, both life-threatening and demanding the match to dominance, he engages with the physical and intellectual grace of the innocent child and the wise old man.

    7) In all this, he repeatedly relives his first and every subsequent struggle for freedom and dignity into which his birth delivered him, exemplifying the behavior for a full life available to every single one of us.

    8) All this he does maintaining connection and interdependence with family, friends and co-workers… maybe we need to clone this palooka!

  2. Jeffrey Sussman 10:50am, 12/03/2015

    Peter Wood is a masterly psychologist and sociologist whose cleared-eye view about boxing and boxers is unmatched. He is one of the sport’s most talented and insightful writers. Whatever he writes will become part of the history of boxing.

  3. MIke Chiariello 06:59pm, 11/27/2015

    Awesome article Pete! Your passion, experience and knowledge of boxing is so evident!  You once again prove that good writing is very much like good boxing. You are able to consistently accomplish the following in your writing:

    1. Your entrance is always important.
    2. You maintain great composure.
    3. You don’t much about.
    4. You always respect your opponent - your reader!

    BRAVO!!

  4. skip 03:08am, 11/27/2015

    Mr. Wood continues to gracefully punch out his hard-hitting prose. Each line is a lightning jab that jolts the reader—another insightful piece of writing on the inner life and mind of the pugilist. Thank you Mr. Wood. Keep writing and we will keep reading.

  5. Alan W. 06:57pm, 11/26/2015

    Peter, I think you understand the poem plenty well enough, at least as much as Stevens is meant to be understood.  See below for a story of the time that Wallace Stevens fought a round with noted pugilist Ernest Hemingway:

    When Wallace Stevens hit Ernest Hemingway in Key West

    By Michael Slicker

    October 2 is the birthday of poet Wallace Stevens (1879), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955 for his Collected Poems. For many years, he was a frequent visitor to Key West, beginning in 1922. In 1936, he encountered Ernest Hemingway there, and thereby hangs a tale.

    As Hemingway told the story in a letter to a friend, his sister Ursula was at a cocktail party and endured the apparently intoxicated Stevens insulting her brother. Ura came home crying. It wasn’t the first time offensive remarks from Stevens had reached Hemingway. This time he decided to confront the poet.

    Hemingway charged out into the rainy evening and found Stevens just leaving the party. Hemingway said later he was told that Stevens had just said, “By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.”

    So they took the confrontation out into Waddell Avenue, the 50-something hard-drinking poet and the 30-something hard-drinking novelist. Stevens swung first and missed, then Hem (still wearing his glasses) knocked him down three times into a puddle in the middle of the muddy street.

    Bystanders wanted Hemingway to remove his glasses, and when he did, Stevens popped him on the jaw. The punch didn’t hurt Hem’s jaw at all but Stevens broke his hand in two places. Hem pummeled him again, and Steven spent five days in his room attended by a doctor and nurse.

    A week or so later, Stevens went over to Hemingway’s house and the two made up. Still, in his letter, Hemingway wrote “But on mature reflection I don’t know anybody needed to be hit worse than Mr. S.” Hemingway also said he hadn’t realized in the heat of the moment how big a man Stevens was. He said he was sure he wouldn’t have felt up to hitting him if he had gotten a good look at him.

    When he returned home to Hartford, Connecticut, several weeks later, Stevens still had a puffy eye and a broken hand. He is said to have told his own versions of the story of the fist fight with Ernest Hemingway for the rest of his life.

  6. Jonathan Pierce 11:21am, 11/26/2015

    Refreshing and impressively articulated without the Hollywood sensationalism that always misrepresents the sport and the fighter. Great visions from a man that has walked the walk. Well done Peter Wood

  7. CB 07:40am, 11/26/2015

    Many of these snapshots also apply to people who have never put on boxing gloves.  Some might have a chip on their shoulder or some unresolved personal issue.  Others may feel that every day they are stepping into a ring, maybe it’s a ring of their own making.  Maybe they thrive on competition or maybe they just see everything as a competition.  No doubt there is something in these snapshots that each of can relate to.  Nice piece Peter Wood!

  8. Bob 08:06pm, 11/25/2015

    LL Cool John:  On the day this article came out, the obituary for one of Mailer’s wives, Adele, age 90, was given prominent coverage in the New York papers. She was the one he stabbed twice and almost killed. It occurred in 1960, the same year Mailer announced his candidacy for president of the U.S.  I wasn’t besmirching your comment, I just had Mailer on my mind and realized how tired I was of all these purportedly brilliant tough guys who display their swagger in the wimpiest and most cowardly of ways. My annoyance had nothing to do with your timely and topical comment, just my aversion to self-absorbed, albeit talent jerks like Mailer who somehow convince themselves they are genuine tough guys when nothing could be further from the truth.

  9. John aka L.L. Cool John 04:57pm, 11/25/2015

    Mike Silver/Bob: You guys missed the point entirely. It didn’t matter if I quoted Dr. Seuss. It was the TEXT of the quote that mattered.
    In my opinion, the Mailer quote worked well with the author’s (Peter Wood) piece. I wasn’t implying whatsoever that Wood was a better or worse writer than Mailer. Far from that.

  10. Mike Casey 01:59pm, 11/25/2015

    Sadly, Bob, a ‘faux sense of manliness’ afflicts many so-called boxing writers and fans.

  11. Bob 01:39pm, 11/25/2015

    Well put, Mike Silver. Mailer was a good writer but an insecure buffoon. He got lost in his own faux sense of manliness when writing about others that were truly fighters, not bullies who stabbed and abused women (as he did) or picked drunken fights with those he knew he could beat.

  12. Mike Silver 12:49pm, 11/25/2015

    Pete, what you have written is as good as anything Mailer wrote about boxing. A lot of his stuff was imaginative and creative but you truly speak the truth of one who has been there. Thank you for articulating what we sense unconsciously but cannot put into words. A rare talent indeed.

  13. John aka L.L. Cool John 11:10am, 11/25/2015

    “It is not uncommon for fighters’ camps to be gloomy. In heavy training, fighters live in dimensions of boredom others do not begin to contemplate. Fighters are supposed to. The boredom creates an impatience with one’s life, and a violence to improve it. Boredom creates a detestation for losing.”
    ― Norman Mailer, The Fight

  14. Eric 10:48am, 11/25/2015

    Read that Milligan was quite an all around athlete. Good wrestler, and wasn’t bad on the football field or baseball diamond. Read that he beat some good amateurs including future cruiserweight champ, Orlin Norris. Not bad considering Milligan was a bit undersized at around 185lbs for his weight class. Like Czyz, Milligan was a member of Mensa as well. How does a guy like that wind up in boxing?

  15. Bob 09:35am, 11/25/2015

    The Milligan-Tyson fight was at the 1984 Olympic Trials and was announced by Howard Cosell. If you watch the fight on You Tube, you realize that as obnoxious as Cosell was, he was, in my opinion, a terrific boxing broadcaster who brought excitement to the booth.

  16. Eric 08:33am, 11/25/2015

    Henry Milligan? Haven’t heard or read that name in ages before visiting this site. I think Milligan was mentioned in the series about boxers and their favorite books on this site, before that the last I had read of this guy was back in the 80’s in a Sports Illustrated article. If I’m not mistaken, Milligan was beaten in the amateurs by some guy named Mike Tyson.

  17. peter 06:21am, 11/25/2015

    Boxing and film! Henry Milligan was a Princeton grad and collegiate champ in the 1980s—90s. He later fought for the WBO Heavyweight Championship, appeared in 10 commercials, and acted alongside Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange in “Night and the City, (1992).

  18. c.h. 05:34am, 11/25/2015

    Every point has a true relation to a boxing mindset. Enjoyed thinking on each point listed….By the way Joe Brown was a South Philly boy, and the brother of long time lightweight contender Harry “Kid” Brown, and was the star of the Temple U. boxing team in 1927, 28, 29 before his brief pro career. One of his sculptures depicts a boxer knocked down who is badly hurt and seems to be deciding whether to get up and continue on.

  19. Mike Casey 04:44am, 11/25/2015

    Simply stated, intelligent and sparkling. This is the kind of article that makes Boxing.com the place to go. The writer takes a back seat and makes his subject the star attraction. No vanity or tiresome macho posturing from a man who has actually been inside the ring. Ten out of ten, Peter!

  20. Bob 04:26am, 11/25/2015

    There was also boxing at Dartmouth. Reading a new book on the great actor Robert Ryan, who was a collegiate champion from Dartmouth and showed much skill in the movie “The Set-Up.” Ryan is a fascinating character, but while the book is “okay” it is not the page-turner I thought it would be given the interesting subject, who Martin Scorsese described as “one of the most important but unrecognized actors of the past century” or something like that. If you see the “The Set-Up,” “Crossfire,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Odds Against Tomorrow” or scores of other socially relevant films, you will know what Scorsese was talking about.  On another note, Robert Wise, who directed “The Set-Up”, “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and many more major mainstream movies such as “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” doesn’t get his due for being the terrific director he was.

  21. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:23am, 11/25/2015

    Hey! You can’t fool me….this is poetry! I like it….a lot!

  22. Clarence George 03:07am, 11/25/2015

    This piece reminds me of one of Joe Brown’s boxing sculptures.  In fact, one in particular was very much in my mind as I was reading it.  If I can find a photo of it, Peter, I’ll send it along to you.  Brown, by the way, had once been boxing coach at Princeton.  Yes, you read that correctly—there was once boxing at Princeton.

    Whenever someone mentions Stevens (which doesn’t happen all that often), I always think of the time he broke his hand by hitting Hemingway in the jaw.  One of the more amusing literary anecdotes, I think.

  23. Bob 02:26am, 11/25/2015

    What a tremendously insightful piece. The strength of his dysfunction?  Meeting the enemy, but not knowing it is one’s self?  Victim of his one’s own hatred?  The author captured the soul and psyche of a fighter with the strength of a punch to the solar plexus.  I will be thinking of this story all day , probably read it over many times, and quite possibly fall in love with boxing all over again. It is writing like this that makes me recall the origins of my love for such a barbaric sport. No athlete is more complex or nuanced than a fighter.  It might be a tired cliche, but youngsters play football, baseball, basketball, etc. Boxing can’t be played, and Peter Wood eloquently tells us why. Phenomenal read, which could be placed alongside Wood’s last article on tattoos and boxers in the Sunday New York Times magazine or another literary venue where a more diverse audience could read his great work.

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