Thursday, April 14, 2011

At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing edited by George Kimball & John Schulian

Rating: 3 & 1/2  Stars

“It is the easiest thing in the world to say that professional boxing ought to be banned because it is savage, corrupt, and a dangerous health threat to the men who participate in it. Yet this moralistic rage of the righteous misses a few major points: First, to ban boxing would not prevent the creation of boxers since that process, that world would remain intact. And what are we to do with these men who know how to do nothing but fight? I suppose we can continue to lock them in our jails and in our ghettos, out of our sight and untouched by our regard. That, in the end, is precisely what those wishing to ban boxing really want to do…Second, those who wish to ban boxing know that they will simply condemn those men to surer deaths by not legally recognizing the sport. Boxing banned will simply become…a very popular, underground, totally unregulated sport.” – Gerald Early from ‘Ringworld’

‘At the Fights’ has done what I would have considered impossible – made me feel uncouth and graceless for never having cultivated an interest in the ‘sweet science’ of boxing. As the title indicates, the book is an anthology of some of the finest essays on prize-fighting. Whether the reader is an ardent fan of the sport, or has only lukewarm or non-existent interest, the writing in this book packs a wallop, then amiably steers us into a ringside seat where we breathlessly watch the drama unfold before our eyes. 

Like the sport it portrays, the writing too is stylish, savage, and visceral. One fine example of a match description is Irvins S. Cobb’s coverage of the 1921 Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier fight.  It has a careless savoir-faire and panache in capturing the feverish excitement in the arena, and delivers an actual blow-by-blow account of the scene, so that it seems to be playing out before us in cinematic slow-mo. On the same fight, H.L. Mencken has some trenchant remarks to make in the trademark style that made him an American literary icon.

Not all the essays are press reports of matches. Many of them are about the boxers themselves. These intimate portraits are instrumental in dispelling the stereotype of the fighter as a low-browed Neanderthal dragging his knuckles on the ground. More often than not, it shows the boxer, not as a vicious bully (not always anyway), but first and foremost, an athlete who has chosen to make his living through his strength, his more-than-average killer instinct, and, his ability to take a beatin’ and keep on poundin’. It’s almost a universal rule, that these boxers come from working-class backgrounds, from tough neighborhoods, where they learned early to hone their aggression, and unleash it on a target. And yet, some of them like Dick Tiger and George Foreman, overcame their early disadvantages. Some like Stanley Ketchel and Al (Bummy) Davis succumbed to a predictable end.

It takes more than pro-boxers to make the fighting world. Also included is some memorable portraiture of amateurs, trainers, promoters like the colorful, and notorious Don King; and, some scathing indictments of the corruption in this sport, which probably would have been there even if the Mob hadn’t muscled in on the action. Let’s face it – with the exception of the factory farming of teen-aged pop tarts, this is the most exploitative industry in the world.

This is a fascinating book, though a couple of essays stick out by their mediocrity, and from some surprising sources. Norman Mailer’s ‘The Fight’ is one example of how not to write non-fiction – turgid prose that gets snowed under by a flurry of needless metaphors.

So, am I ready to join the legions of fans of the pugilistic arts? Hardly. It would take more than a book to undo a lifelong aversion to violence. I have reconsidered all my assumptions about boxers. But what to make of the audience, safely ensconced in their comfortable seats, risking injury to neither life nor limb, yet fearlessly roaring encouragement to one man to beat the brains out of another?

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