Boxing by the Book: “At the Fights”

By Peter Weston Wood on September 23, 2012
Boxing by the Book: “At the Fights”
“Clay is sensitive, very humble, yet shrewd," said Malcolm X. "He should be a diplomat.”

In this fine boxing anthology, John Schulian calls “boxing, prizefighting, the sweet science, the fight game…the best friend a writer ever had…”

Boxing has inspired memorable prose from many gifted writers—and many of those writers have hailed from Long Island’s East End—George Plimpton, Budd Schulberg, Mike Lupica, Robert Lipsyte, A.J. Liebling and Dick Schaap and Sag Harbor’s Wilfrid Sheed.

The prizefighters they write about are a colorful tribe. Above—or below—all other athletes, prizefighters are a driven lot. When did you last hear of a football, baseball, or basketball player called “hungry?”

A.J. Liebling pointed out that while one might play baseball, football, or basketball, nobody “plays” boxing. Former heavyweight contender, George Chuvalo, once said, “You don’t bring boxing gloves to a picnic.”

In this fine boxing anthology, John Schulian calls “boxing, prizefighting, the sweet science, the fight game…the best friend a writer ever had…There is an undeniable jolt to watching violence in the ring, an almost electrical charge composed of equal parts beauty and savagery, and it can stir the poet in a writer who doesn’t realize he has poetry in him.”

In every story of “At the Fights” poetry meets pugilism, eloquence meets brutality and brains meet brawn.

The history of boxing is wonderfully artful and gruesome. And these writers bring beautiful prose to this ugly sport.

For 3,000 years, from Homer to Ernest Hemingway, Plato to Priestly and Virgil to Robert Lipsyte, writers have been concerned with man in the most fundamental form of competition, in the most completely expressive of the arts.

Regrettably, however, today’s boxing and yesteryear’s literary journalism did not both reach their peaks at the same time. Today’s boxing fans live in a twilight era after Muhammad Ali, and before him, Joe Louis and before him, Jack Dempsey.

Mike Tyson? David Remnick writes of Tyson in “Kid Dynamite Bows Up, “...he was briefly burning as a heavyweight comet…and a tragicomic figure.” Joyce Carol Oates offers her opinion of Tyson in “Rape and the Boxing Ring”: “He will be remembered less for his seemingly limitless promise and ultimately squandered talent than for two other life-defining moments, one out of the ring and one in it.”

But the ring has always been a refuge for the extraordinary Mike Tysons of the world. The pattern of social and economic persecution in this country is traced in the names and records of the great Irish, then the Jewish, Italian and Black fighters who have graced the sport. 

The boxing writers in this anthology find the ugly beauty of a sport that pits one man against another unprotected by armor and bereft of any weapon save his own fists.  Boxing is a brutal sport and it reveals brutal truth.

Truth is revealed in John Schulian’s remembrance of Johnny Bratton, a fighter who had everything inside the ring and out until—Bam!—he lost it. Now we see Johnny hanging around the lobby of a seedy South Side Chicago hotel, just keeping out of the rain. There is no better listener than Schulian to memorialize him.

There’s ugly truth in Jack London’s “Johnson vs. Jeffries”. He gives us a 1910 ringside seat and breathes life into the historic Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries bout held in Reno, Nevada.

Katherine Dunn’s riveting expose “The Knockout: Lucia Rijker” is as honest as the award-winning film Million Dollar Baby was successful.

My appreciation goes out to George Kimball and John Schulian for giving us an eloquently honest boxing book which appears at a time when boxing is at its lowest ebb in the memory of the sport. The stories in this book may ease the sorrow and pain of a dying sport—a sport I, for one, once loved.

Like David Sedaris, I like nonfiction books about people with wretched lives. The worse off the better. Everybody involved in boxing—the fighter, the manager and the promoter—is a little bit off. When I boxed, I was a bit demented. That was my strength—my craziness. That’s why boxing is such a fascinating topic—it’s a dystopia. Boxing is where an angry soul rises out of his own smoldering slum in order to be exploited by a grasping, greedy sycophant. 

When I was fighting, boxing was left hooks, uppercuts and right crosses—it was my beauty. What daffodils were for Wordsworth, a knockout was for me.

There is no clear binding storyline in At the Fights. The stories simply spotlight the virtues and vices of great champions: Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Roberto Duran. There are stories about lesser champions and contenders—tragic Sonny Liston and heart-warming Ray Mancini.

Colorful celebrities are sprinkled throughout: Malcolm X, David Merrick, Eddie Arcaro, Fatty Arbuckle, Jim Brown, Frankie Carbo and Dizzy Dean. All grace the pages and hint at their own virtues and vices.

While reading this collection, with its inherent beauty-violence, I felt a kind of joy exuding from within me. Reading creative language is joyful. Traveling back in time is joyful. I suspect readers will discover their own joy reading this book.

Long Islander George Plimpton has had his nose bloodied by Archie Moore, was tackled by Alex Karras, pitched to Willie Mays, lost at golf to Sam Snead and at tennis to Pancho Gonzales. Plimpton, a “professional amateur,” and his unique balance of insight and self-deprecating humor is evident in “Miami Notebook: Cassius Clay and Malcolm X”. In it, we meet King Levinsky, “a second-rate heavyweight in his prime (he was one of Joe Louis’s bums of the month) who fought too long, so it had affected him, and he is now an ambulatory tie-salesman.”

Plimpton, sitting at a luncheonette table, recounts Malcolm X’s perspective on a young Cassius Clay. “Clay is sensitive, very humble, yet shrewd—with as much untapped mental energy as he has physical power. He should be a diplomat.”

Mike Lupica, another Long Islander, Daily News columnist and ESPN correspondent, gives us “Donfire of the Vanities”. Here we meet a nightmare named Don King. It is a scathing glimpse of a man who spent three years and eleven months in jail for manslaughter. From his brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, we hear King brag, “I watched the first Ali-Frazier fight in prison and I promoted the third one.”

Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes, one of many boxers who say King has cheated them, says of King, “He looks black, lives white, and thinks green.” 

“King,” writes Lupica, “is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of sports. And he could have become the important black voice he desperately wants to be. Up close to King, you see the brains, you see the charm, and you see the passion. Ultimately, though, you have to see the hustler in him. The man is full of anger. It is more impressive than his whole range of thought, from Hitler to the Bible.” There is much dysfunction in Don King.

Boxing is dysfunction.

The last best look America got at Dick Schaap (1931-2001) was when he was reining in the runaway egos on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters. Schaap’s “Muhammad Ali Then and Now” is an early snapshot of a young Cassius Clay. He writes: “It is ridiculous, of course, to link presidents and prize fighters, yet somehow, in this case, it seems strangely logical. When I think back to the late summer of 1960, my most persistent memories are of the two men who wanted to be president and of the boy who wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world.

“And he was a boy—a bubbling boy without a serious thought in his head, without a problem that he didn’t feel his fists or his wit would eventually solve.”

Robert Lipsyte, author of a boxing-themed novel, The Contender, gives us “Pride of the Tiger”, a gem about Nigerian Dick Tiger, a forgotten middleweight champion who encounters more violence outside of the ring than inside.

Westhampton Beach’s Budd Schulberg has read at BookHampton many times. He is the only man to be both the winner of an Academy Award (for On the Waterfront in 1954) and an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. In “The Fight—The King is Dead”, Schulberg catches lightning in a bottle when describing the 1921 Benny Leonard-Richie Mitchell bout held in the old Madison Square Garden.

There is the muscular prose of Norman Mailer in “The Fight”, describing Ali and Joe Frazier; the biting, hyperbolic wit of H. L. Mencken in “Dempsey vs. Carpentier”, and the incisive analysis of Joyce Carol Oates’ in “Rape and the Boxing Ring.” Oates writes, “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost art of masculinity all the more lost for being lost.”

Perhaps boxing is lost. Or maybe it’s just anachronistic. I don’t attend fights much anymore; it’s a young man’s sport, and I’m no longer a young man. But this book resurrected something youthful sleeping inside me. My blood ran faster, I could hear the crowds, and I could feel the punches as I sat safely in my comfy chair. As a writer, the insightful writing within this anthology made me envious. But At the Fights rekindled my respect for boxing and for boxers. Ah!—the pen is mightier than the sword, or in this case—the boxing glove.

(Peter Wood, from NYC, is the author of Confessions of a Fighter and A Clenched Fist. He was a middleweight finalist in the 1971 NYC Golden Gloves, and selected to represent America in The Maccabian Games, held in Tel Aviv, Israel.)

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Jack Johnson vs James J. Jeffries (1909)

Jack Dempsey vs Georges Carpentier (July 2, 1921) -XIII-

Kid Gavilan vs Johnny Bratton I

Mike Tyson Found Guilty Of Rape (1992)

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  1. bikermike 05:38am, 09/20/2014

    I was ringside for Hagler leonard….and saw the celebraties make their entrance…...but when Frank Sinatra and his entourage came knew why he was called ‘Chairman of the Board’

    ..gotta get the book

  2. Bob 04:46am, 09/08/2014

    Just read this review again after several years. Sitting in my comfy chair, and closer to 60 than 50, I felt the rush, and fell in love with boxing again after many years. This review rekindled a flame, and reminded me of the passion I once felt for this great sport.

  3. Rich M 12:36pm, 11/18/2012

    What a pleasant surprise. I knew Pete when he was using his fists and am proud to know him now using his words. Boxing may be a young man’s game, but writing about boxing comes from earning the wisdom and insight from first hand experience and certainly is an older man’s game. Pete has earned his chops over the years and wields words with the dexterity of those he has admired for so long.

    Stick around and stay with it Pete. There is little question you have much more insight to impart.

  4. cindy 04:17am, 09/30/2012

    I don’t often read articles about sports, but the title of this piece had me hooked. I had been privileged to be on the fringes of boxing in the very early days my advertising career ... days when, as a young female ad exec, I was hungry for accounts and worked with the WBF. In the late ‘80’s it was just a fledgling organization. I met Ali at several functions promoting the new federation, and often observed Don King ... agog at that wild man from Borneo hair. Eventually, I knew I’d have to actuallly go to a fight, sit there and watch it. That’s when I witnessed the poetry and science of boxing first-hand. This article brought back for me the poetry of Ali; the calm, surgical precision of Holyfield; and the sheer audacity and maniacal exploitation of boxing promoters. Mr. Wood’s article actually made me WANT to go find a copy of this book. For an old lady whose life is now defined by brunches and teas, garden clubs and charitable events, that’s quite a leap ... a welcome one. Thanks for getting my blood pumping again, Mr. Wood!

  5. bob 01:10pm, 09/26/2012

    To anonymous. Go on YouTube. Peter was pretty good with his fists, too. Don’t let the English teacher appearance fool you.

  6. Anonymous 05:47am, 09/26/2012

    As a fan of Pete Wood (the man and the writer) for many years, reading his review of OTHER writers on the topic of boxing was very enlightening. Better with words than he probably ever was with his fists (although I never saw him box to confirm this), Pete has always let us non-pugilists in on what attracts people to the sweet science, and why (seemingly) more “evolved” people find it so fascinating. Thanks, Pete, for this latest insight!

  7. Bob 06:37pm, 09/24/2012

    Any book in which John Schulian and the late George Kimball are jointly involved has got to be a good one. In my opinion, Schulian is the consistently best beat writer of the past 40 years.  If Peter Wood wrote a little bit more often, he could give Schulian a run for his money.  Keep them coming, Mr. Wood.

  8. the thresher 05:03pm, 09/23/2012

    Make that a very well done article.

  9. the thresher 04:57pm, 09/23/2012

    A well done article here. Thanks

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 07:42am, 09/23/2012

    Peter Wood- Now I know why the writers and posters on this site admire your work so much. “Boxing is dysfunction” about reducing something down to it’s true essence…not the fighters and the fights but “boxing”.....finally the light bulb comes on….thanks…I’ve got enough dysfunction in my life….I’m outta here!

  11. Mike Casey 03:46am, 09/23/2012

    Ah, Peter, a SERIOUS boxing book by the sound of it. I’ll investigate this one!

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