Kaplow! Landing Punches in American Writing

Watching the movie Creed–the latest installment in the Rocky franchise–turned out better than I anticipated. Sylvester Stallone’s ongoing exploration of Philadelphia’s favorite son is a pretty uneven affair, going rather downhill after the first installment. Still, it has its fair share of excellent moments, and Creed is easily the best of the bunch since the 1976 Best Picture winner.

Seeing the movie put me in the mind of other excellent boxing stories, both on the page and the silver screen. And it led me to reminisce that, aside from baseball, no other sport has so continually captured the imagination of American writers and American audiences.

the game jack londonThe first legitimately great writer to take a jab (he he) at writing about boxing was Jack London. The author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild wrote on both sides of the literary divide when it came to the ring: as a journalist (covering multiple fights by the legendary Jack Johnson), and as a novelist (in his unsung and little-known The Game).

A bit of trivia: Jack London is the originator of the term The Great White Hope, which he coined while writing about boxing.

That most macho of American writers, Ernest Hemingway, would also turn his hand at boxing in the incredible short story Fifty Grand:

After about four rounds Jack has him bleeding bad and his face all cut up, but every time Walcott’s got in close he’s socked so hard he’s got two big red patches on both sides just below Jack’s ribs. Every time he gets in close, Jack ties him up, then gets one hand loose and uppercuts him, but when Walcott gets his hands loose he socks Jack in the body so they can hear it outside in the street. He’s a socker.

Boxing plays a backdrop for another Hemingway story, The Killers, in which Ole Anderson is a washed-up boxer who didn’t hit the deck in the rigged fight he was paid to throw (Hemingway leaves this particular bit of information out, although he makes it clear in later interviews).

ernest hemingway the killers

Even writers as diverse as Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer have written about boxing. In fact, their respective non-fiction books, On Boxing and The Fight, are each considered seminal reading on the subject.

More recently, though, the writer FX Toole made a name for himself (before his untimely death) penning about fights. Toole’s short fiction collection Rope Burns served as the basis of the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby. Toole was a veteran boxing trainer and knew a thing or two about the sport.

I’m not the one who decides when to stop the fight, and I don’t stitch up cuts once the fight’s over. And it’s not my job to hospitalize a boy for brain damage. My job is to stop blood so the fighter can see enough to keep on fighting. I do that, maybe I save a boy’s title. I do that one little thing, and I’m worth every cent they pay me. I stop the blood and save the fight, the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy.

dubus townieBut for my money, the best writing about boxing is a book that isn’t so much about boxing as it is about fighting and violence in general: Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie. Dubus lays bare the adolescent fear and rage that led him into inner-city boxing gyms. He writes with a piercing honesty about how violence overtook his life, and how he became willing to fight anywhere, anytime, and anybody.

And he writes movingly about the difficulty in stepping off a path that he was certain would get him killed.

It is easy to romanticize boxing, and fighting, and violence. There’s plenty of war-porn in American literature and film making. What is rare is the blunt acknowledgement that no one willingly chooses a fighter’s life. This is something that you are molded into by your environment.

I was always a sensitive, sweet kid, but I got brutalized and I became brutal. And frankly, I don’t think it was my natural makeup. I don’t think it’s anyone’s natural makeup to be a violent brawler.

The movie Creed acknowledges and examines this particular point: Adonis Creed, though he has grown up in foster care and spent time in juvey, is a wealthy and educated young man. He chooses to become a fighter, a rather dubious and not altogether believable choice (although it hardly ruins the movie).

creed 2

A final word on boxing lit (and we’ve only barely scratched the surface here): if you read nothing else, track down a copy of Pete Dexter’s fabulous essay A Clean, Well-Lighted Gym. You can find it in Dexter’s book Paper Trails, or in the anthology At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing.

It’s a short piece, but Dexter’s writing is clean and fluid and (I’ll say it) punchy. Dexter is one of America’s most underrated novelists, and his skill with the pen is on full display in this piece about an upstart fighter and the old, worn-out trainer who has to put the kid in his place.

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