At the Fights
American Writers on Boxing
Library of America: 517 pp., $35
Part freak show, part sitcom, part mortal combat — ah, yes, behold the world of professional prizefighting, the face-break social network, an ultraviolent art and craft that to some is more subhuman than true sport. Or, as a fictional character unlocked by a key to Rod Serling's imagination once put it, ever so luridly: "Sport? Are you kiddin'? If there was headroom, they'd hold these things in sewers."
Oh, I miss it so.
Not the splatter of plasma and phlegm that would fleck any of us occupying a chair at ringside. Not the leaky eyesocket in one corner or the oozing nostril in the other, undergoing triage by Q-tip. Not any of those kidney-killing, lip-collagening, mind-blowing blows. What I do miss are the rock-'em, sock-'em combatants themselves, the lunks, the punks, the greats, the galoots, the ones with "Jersey Shore" abs and the ones with "Biggest Loser" flab, bless their endangered hearts.
Creative writers have long given us the gory details. Like in 1919, when a reported 484 gentlemen (cough) of the working press—Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner and Bat Masterson among them—sat outdoors in the 100-degree heat of Toledo, Ohio, on the Fourth of July to watch 37-year-old Jess Willard, a 6-foot-6 former cowboy, be flattened in Round 1 seven times by Jack Dempsey, 24, who sat out World War I but was sufficiently fit to break Willard's ribs, cheek and jaw.
No account of that bout can be found in "At the Fights," a lovingly rendered anthology from the Library of America intent on presenting the finest American boxing reporting of all time. Not a single word, in fact, from Damon, Granny, Ring and Bat appears on any leaf of this volume, which does seem a shame (particularly considering a couple of the comparative lightweights who did make the cut.).
Happily, inasmuch as no sport has been painted in print as vividly as this one has, there is purple prose galore. My wordsmith's heart skips a beat at the way, say, Irvin S. Cobb, in depicting a different Dempsey match, tells how the champ "makes a xylophone of the challenger's short ribs." Or when novelist Sherwood Anderson goes to a Joe Louis fight, rubs elbows not with the swells but up in the $3.50-per-views with the hoi polloi, then observes of the one-two KO punches: "I don't believe I saw them. To me, it was like when you put a charge of dynamite under a rock and touch it off."
Snappy patter such as this is preceded in each case by a few well-chosen words from the book's editors, George Kimball and John Schulian, whose richly detailed introductions are at times more enthralling than the essays that follow. An explanation of Anderson's own fate — he more or less got killed by a martini olive's toothpick — is but one fine example of this.
Clang a bell and begin with Jack London—racist sentiments unaltered, unlike in certain editions of Mark Twain's—at a Jack Johnson fight of more than a century ago. Do not backpedal because you soon will lunge face-first into Gay Talese's astounding account of Floyd Patterson's innermost fears and loathings, then the peerless Pete Dexter's yarn from a sparring scrap in a South Philly gym, then a Bill Nack pièce de résistance about the smoldering hatred that Smokin' Joe Frazier feels for his cruel tormentor, Muhammad Ali.
To some, Don King seems a Bozo-tressed clown. Tag along with Thomas Hauser to hear the true King's speech, the private kind. See how a two-faced promoter turns off the charm to cajole, bully, dare a pug's manager to accept a foe he is desperate to duck. In an eyelid's blink, when King's manner turns menacing and he snarls, "You're a coward, man, and your fighter is too," shut your own eyes and you can still see the back room that Hauser finds himself in, a four-sided trap as fraught with danger as any with ropes.
Tales such as these serve as a permanent reminder to 21st century storytellers to take a reader someplace beyond a stale press conference or the lame quotes captured by a dozen thrusted Sonys at some jock's locker. To emulate the influential styles of a Mark Kram or a Dick Schaap is to understand why their progeny, Mark Jr. and Jeremy, respectively, would come to be two of the most splendid sports correspondents of this day and age. To accompany the late, great Vic Ziegel on his appointed rounds with Roberto Duran is to wonder why more of today's journalists can't seem to pry themselves out of a hermetically sealed pressbox.
"At the Fights" is a treasure chest. It overflows with rings of gold. A quibble is its overload of East Coast delights — any scribe with a table at Elaine's or a keyboard along the Eastern Seaboard stood a fighting chance to be immortalized herein, whereas a worthy contender out of a Fort Worth or Detroit or San Francisco need not have applied. H.L. Mencken makes an appearance, though he had about as much to do with boxing as Jane Austen did with beach volleyball. Jim Murray is absent, inexplicably. A piece by David Remnick plows up 27 pages, but, as in boxing itself, greats got cut. It is also unbecoming for a book that trumpets "the very best writing" to be edited by Kimball and Schulian and contain stories by Kimball and Schulian, good as they may be. A split decision, but for the most part please do pay to view.
Downey is a former columnist for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.