Book Review: “The Gods of War” by Springs Toledo

By Adam Berlin on May 5, 2014
Book Review: “The Gods of War” by Springs Toledo
“And here we are, still squinting in the cheap seats hoping to see something sublime.”

“The idea of boxing remains as pure as the idea of bravery. It remains as compelling as any collision with something at stake. It stirs questions…”

Truman Capote, a boxing fan himself, once said of Jack Kerouac’s free-wheeling style, “That isn’t writing at all, it’s typing.” I don’t agree with Capote’s assessment of Kerouac’s work, but the quote’s a good one and points to the difference between writing and apprentice writing. Go to any big-time fight and you’ll see rows and rows of press. Most of the so-called writers are so busy talking they miss every nuance of the battles raging in front of them. Some of the so-called writers, fingers poised at their keyboards, pound out fight results with overwrought sentences full of over-worn adjectives. The few real writers are easy to spot. They’re not just watching; they’re observing. They’re writing between rounds, scribbling hard during the minute of rest so they’ll be free to observe when action resumes. Moments after the final bell rings, the typists press SEND. The real writers work late into the night, sometimes into the week, struggling, refining, until their art is worthy of boxing’s art. Springs Toledo’s superlative collection of fight essays The Gods of War is boxing writing.

The book is broken into three parts. In the first, titled Immortals, Toledo weaves history and culture and philosophy through fights and fighters, old and new. The stance of the Jews against the Romans at Masada works as a harbinger for Barney Ross’s final bout, a heroic stance (and he did stay standing) against the massacre named Henry Armstrong. The American Revolution works as a juxtaposition for our country’s less-than-rebellious crop of modern heavyweights. A discussion of man’s mortal coil serves to heighten the heroism of prizefighters, whose courage become contagious. And in this sport that’s more than sport, fighters are distinguished from all other athletes who “talk of sweat and tears but not blood.” Toledo punctuates this hard truth: “Strip away their size and ability to run and jump or hit a ball, ignore the bloated salary and celebrity, and something surprising might come into focus—their fields and courts are playgrounds.” In the squared circle, the canvas may give, but the stakes are too high for play.

In part two, The Liston Chronicles, Toledo describes the humanity of this often-vilified fighter, as well as his boxing acumen, pulverizing the misconception that Liston was a mere clubber. On The Big Bear’s loss to then Cassius Clay, Toledo writes, “Barbarosa, one of history’s great warriors, fell off his horse and drowned under the weight of his armor in a shallow river. Sonny’s fall was just as anticlimactic. It was downright meek.” Even war gods fall like mortals. Toledo goes on to dissect Liston’s style, putting him in hypothetical contests against heavyweight legends, making a strong case that despite his aberrant losses to Ali, Liston’s physicality (“The punches he landed downstairs on Leotis Martin sounded like bowling balls dropping on wet salami.”), skills (“At times Sonny’s skillful slips and counters could make James Toney raise an eyebrow.”), and ability to mask pain (“Blood poured like lava, but from the expression on Liston’s face, it looked like he was playing poker.”) would have posed dire problems for boxing’s biggest men. On Liston, as on all the practitioners he features, Toledo writes with respect and admiration and love. Yes, love—in these essays the writer is, thankfully, not ashamed to cover his keenly-observant journalistic eye with the lens of an adoring fan who recognizes boxing’s visceral and existential charms.

Part three comprises the bulk of the book. It’s Toledo’s top-ten countdown to the god of war. At the heart of Toledo’s list is the impossible-to-answer question, Who is the greatest? Toledo sets up a substantive scoring rubric with a nod to the intangibles, then provides an in-depth profile of each fighter. Other sports have quantifiable measurements by which to judge their heroes, but boxing’s various yardsticks are often more subjective (how can one calibrate will and heart, essential ingredients for the successful fighter), less definitive, and so more interesting. Beyond his skillfully-crunched numbers, Toledo understands how the interrogative trumps the declarative when ranking fighters. “The idea of boxing remains as pure as the idea of bravery. It remains as compelling as any collision with something at stake. It stirs questions.” The list of ten often surprises, always justifies. It sets a foundation for debate. It forces us to ask questions, and to question our own top-ten lists of mortals who achieved immortality when they laced on their gloves.

With The Gods of War, Springs Toledo joins the select group of real writers who understand boxing and elevate boxing to the height it deserves. Echoing playwright (and fight fan) Eugene O’Neill’s words about writing—“I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered.”—Toledo writes in his introduction, “And here we are, still squinting in the cheap seats hoping to see something sublime.” O’Neill stammered eloquently. Springs Toldeo squints like a marksman. His observations, set forth in powerful prose, open our eyes, helping us recognize the sublime in boxing, the sublime that’s always there, from the elegant simplicity of a perfectly-timed hook to the brutal complexities of epic wars waged by our greatest pugilists. 

Adam Berlin is the author of the recently published boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). His other novels are The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits J Journal: New Writing on Justice. For more, please visit adamberlin.com.

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  1. LEE_BI 02:36am, 06/15/2015

    Thank you for sharing this content.

  2. Clarence George 05:26pm, 07/20/2014

    Ha!  And gold star next to your name for using “wiffled.”

  3. Springs Toledo 03:07pm, 07/20/2014

    He would have put on his robe, shoes, trunks, and gloves under watch. Perhaps the gloves were “bag gloves” searched and handed to him by a guard (there was a punching bag in the rec area just outside death row -this too is substantiated). Then he would have walked the walk, shed the robe (substantiated), gave the gloves to a guard, and taken his shoes off. Whether they were boxing shoes makes no difference. He said “When you gotta go, you gotta go” to the warden, and when the gas came in, he leaned over and breathed deeply. Anyway, you’re belaboring the point! Am I model? Hell no. Photos don’t do this dented boot of a nose any justice. As for my hair, it has looked like this since the 4th grade. I got a lot of beatings over it because wiffled brutes frowned on pomade and hairspray in grammar school, so boxing quickly became a necessary friend. I’ll have you know that the Smithsonian recently contacted me to bequeath it to them upon the event of my demise. Maybe I’ll be buried in full boxing regalia -outta spite.

  4. Clarence George 01:57pm, 07/20/2014

    So, did Battling Blackjack take the walk decked out as a boxer, or was he executed in that get-up? The answer to the latter, what with boxing shoes and gloves, is “no” (though he may very well have been allowed to wear his trunks as underwear).  The answer to the former is “unlikely.”  It would have meant taking the time for him to change after he’d left his death cell, and in full view of the gas chamber itself.  I don’t see that at all.  Everyone (except the French, as well as Americans when it came to military executions) knew that the process itself should be very speedy—the less time the condemned could think, never mind act, the better.  The period of time from when an English hangman entered the anteroom to the gallows, where the condemned was seated, to the moment of execution…about the time it takes to read this post.  Which brings to mind something you mentioned—it was customary in England to offer the condemned man a whiskey prior to being hanged.  The notorious Neville Heath not only accepted, but asked for a double.

    I learned of the quote from a review.  But the book will be bought and paid for, and eagerly read.  I’m not much on flattery (self-flattery is another matter), but I think you’re one of the best boxing writers around.  I often share your work with others.  I don’t like your hair, though.  What are you, a male model?  I was offered such a position myself many, er, a few years ago.  A riveting and delightful story I believe I’ve related once or twice on this very site.

  5. Springs Toledo 12:25pm, 07/20/2014

    A warden allowing a condemned ex-fighter to walk to the gas chamber/electric chair wearing a fighter’s garb doesn’t strike me as “absolutely inconceivable” on its face. It wouldn’t, even if I couldn’t substantiate Craft with 3+ independent sources. Such garb would be removed before entry, of course, but for the trunks. There’s also a report that says Henry Flakes, an ex-heavyweight, went to the electric chair in ‘60 “wearing his boxing robe.” I haven’t substantiated that one with any reliable sources, however. There are other like examples out there: At Sing-Sing, one condemned man was slipped a bottle of bourbon before his long walk -by the warden (!) and during Prohibition (!!) when it was totally illegal. And up until relatively recently, the condemned at San Quentin were allowed a little whiskey before they entered the gas chamber. This is not to argue that the whole thing is a circus where everyone does the Y-M-C-A, it’s simply to demonstrate that exceptions have been made. Wardens back then had more power than they do now, and I’d wager that many were boxing fans to boot.

    Anyway, if your issue only came to light because you are reading the book, then a hearty “thank you” should have been my first response! If you bought it, then that’s even better (and if so, don’t let anyone borrow it. Tell ‘em to go and buy one!)

  6. Clarence George 10:00am, 07/20/2014

    Never occurred to me that you’d made it up.  My point is that the story is inherently preposterous, regardless of what was reported at the time.  Newspapers were (and are) always looking to boost circulation with colorful embellishments, if not outright fiction passed off as “eyewitness testimony.”

    I won’t belabor the point.  I’ll just say that I find it absolutely inconceivable that a warden would allow an occasion as solemn and as rigorously regulated as an execution to be turned into an audition for the Village People.

  7. Springs Toledo 09:20am, 07/20/2014

    What the condemned are “generally allowed” would be applicable had I been making a general point. I was not. Additionally, nowhere did I say Craft was “executed” in his regalia, though it looks very plainly like he was, in fact, executed while wearing boxing trunks. Dismiss that if you like but the point is this -I don’t make things up and I don’t think the witnesses did either (one of whom was a highway patrolman invited by the warden).

  8. Clarence George 04:34am, 07/20/2014

    Springs:  Those condemned to death are generally allowed a last meal of their choice…not a last fashion statement.  Every aspect of an execution is highly regulated, including attire, and not for capricious reasons.  If I remember correctly, for example, Barbara Graham made a fuss about walking to the gas chamber in her stockinged feet.  They allowed her to wear shoes, but they were removed after she was strapped in.  The gas permeates the shoes’ leather, rendering them a hazard for the guards who enter the chamber following the execution.  As it is, they have to wear gas masks and protective gloves.  I find it hard to believe, to put it mildly, that Battling Blackjack was allowed to wear his boxing regalia while walking to the gas chamber; I find it impossible to believe that he was permitted to be so outlandishly attired for the execution itself.

  9. Springs Toledo 07:20pm, 07/17/2014

    You know what I say, Clarence? I say that 1 of the 30 witnesses at the execution of ASP #19795 is a pretty authoritative source. So isn’t the Arizona Republic, which covered the event. That’s what I say.

  10. Clarence George 02:37am, 07/15/2014

    I’m late to the ball, I know, but it’s only just come to my attention that Battling Blackjack, according to Toledo, “walked to the gas chamber as if he were walking to the ring, wearing boxing gloves, shoes, trunks, and robe.”  You know what I say?  I say, Bullshit!  That’s what I say.

  11. Mike Casey 06:34am, 05/07/2014

    Springs should be on our team but he might hit me if I try to kidnap him.

  12. andrew 07:18pm, 05/06/2014

    Weird dad to give such a dumb name.

  13. Jim Crue 06:43pm, 05/06/2014

    Yes Irish…
    Gods of War
    Graziano-Zale, 3 times!! 6 ounce gloves
    Robinson/anybody else 6 ounce gloves
    heavyweights fought with 6 ounce gloves

  14. Jim Crue 06:40pm, 05/06/2014

    I just ordered it. Boxing journalism is a lost art. It looks like this brings it back.

  15. peter 03:15pm, 05/06/2014

    Congratulations, Springs! It’s always a cause for celebration when a new book on boxing is published.

  16. Matt McGrain 12:38pm, 05/06/2014

    Me too Mike.  One a day, nor more than.

  17. Mike Silver 09:27am, 05/06/2014

    I am taking my time reading this book because I simply do not want it to end. We are fortunate to have someone with this type of talent writing about our sport.

  18. Eric 09:59pm, 05/05/2014

    Excellent shot of the Rock and Moore on the cover.  Liston was probably at least 36 years old when he lost to Clay/Ali in their first bout, and he hardly trained at all for that fight. Second fight with Ali, Liston definitely took a dive. Liston was beating the starch out of Leotis Martin until Martin nailed him, you figure that Liston was probably in his early 40’s when he lost to Martin. In his prime, Liston would whip all but a handful of heavyweights, and he arguably could be in the top 5.

  19. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:30pm, 05/05/2014

    Springs Toledo’s ultimate God of War is….wait for it…..Floyd Mayweather….just kidding….when you think about a fighter as the God of War what comes to mind is someone who is willing to go to very edge like Mathysse and Molina did two Saturdays ago.

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