Book Review – On Boxing, by Joyce Carol Oates

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By any standards, Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing is one of the high-water marks of boxing writing[1].  It routinely appears on lists of greatest boxing books[2], usually near the top.  Largely on the strength of this one piece (though she has written others on the subject), no less a figure than Nigel Collins, long-time editor of The Ring (when that title really meant something), has named her as one of his two favourite living boxing writers.

But Oates is not just a boxing writer: far from it.  Her output is as varied and as torrential as it is highbrow.  The author of over forty novels, she has also produced plays, novellas and poetry, as well as non-fiction: she has won a hatful of literary awards, and has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer.  In her spare time she is also, somehow, a professor at Princeton.

The reader who fears that a bluestocking in an ivory tower could never get to grips with the dirty world of boxing may take encouragement from The New York Review of Books’ description of her work as “a kind of Grand Guignol of every imaginable form of physical, psychological and sexual violence: rape, incest, murder, molestation, cannibalism, torture and bestiality”.  In addition, although the nitty-gritty of the boxing business is not her principal topic, she shows a genuine understanding of it, remarking wryly “[t]hat boxing is our most controversial sport, always, it seems, on the very threshold of oblivion, has not prevented it from having become a multimillion-dollar business.”

What is true, however, is that the present work is not necessarily aimed at the general boxing fan.  Indeed, it is not clear that On Boxing is “aimed” at anyone at all in particular.  It seems, rather, to be a very personal attempt on Oates’s part to come to grips with her own responses to boxing, and with some profound questions that, she feels, boxing raises. These are:

  • what is boxing? (in particular, is it, as it is usually unthinkingly described, a sport?)
  • why do we watch it? why do we like it?
  • what does this tell us about ourselves, the audience? what does it make us?

Oates’s attempt to address these questions is serious and substantial.  Her conclusions are unorthodox and sometimes profound.   They deserve the attention of anyone who takes boxing seriously.  But they are not immune to challenge.

On Boxing displays several flaws common when literary writers take on topics which are, for want of a better word, philosophical.  Firstly, she often says things that simply are not, and sometimes cannot possibly be true. The very first sentence of the preface reads “[n]o other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing”, a sentiment unlikely to be endorsed by anyone who has read, for example, Paul Celan (as Oates surely has)[3].  This habit forces the reader to work hard: if she can’t mean, or believe, what she says, what does she want to say?  Secondly, she has a habit of overblowing what turn out to be mundanities.  She writes, for example, that to the boxer, his opponent is “a dream-distortion of himself in the sense that his weaknesses, his capacity to fail and to be seriously hurt, his intellectual miscalculations – all can be interpreted as strengths belonging to the Other . . . my strengths are not fully my own, but my opponent’s weaknesses; my failure is not fully my own, but my opponent’s triumph. He is my shadow-self, not my (mere) shadow.”  Even after multiple readings, it is not clear to me that this passage expresses any more than the truism that a boxer can only measure himself against an opponent.  Thirdly, she contradicts herself, sometimes spectacularly: early on, she writes “[l]ife is like boxing in many unsettling respects.  But boxing is only like boxing”, then spends large parts of the rest of the book discussing the ways in which boxing is like, among other things, religious ceremonies, story-telling, dance, music, pornography, and sex (straight and homosexual).  And finally, she is maddeningly imprecise in her use of terminology, including some of the terms most important to arriving at grasp of her views.

This dense and complex work is hard enough to follow as it is without these offputting habits, which may be a consequence of Oates’s methods of composition.  She herself describes the essay as “mosaic-like”, apparently foregoing a single narrative theme as she tries to build a picture from scattered, individual elements which do not always cohere with each other.

However, with effort, some key themes emerge, as follows.

  • Boxing is, or expresses, something ancient and primitive (“Boxing inhabits a sacred space predating civilization”): it may be anti-civilization and anti-rational, or even insane (“[t]he boxing match is the very image . . . of mankind’s collective aggression: its ongoing historical madness . . . “’Free’ will, ‘sanity’, ‘rationality’ – our characteristic modes of consciousness – are irrelevant, if not detrimental, to boxing in its most extraordinary moments . . . the great boxer must disrobe himself of both reason and instinct’s caution as he prepares to fight”).
  • Boxing is not normal or natural; indeed it is “contrary to nature” in that “’normal’ behaviour in the ring would be unbearable to watch, deeply shameful: for ‘normal’ beings share with all living creatures the instinct to persevere, as Spinoza said, in their own being”, that is, to survive and avoid damage or destruction.
  • For this reason boxing gives rise to a “theoretical anxiety” about our self-image.  (“Clearly, boxing’s very image is repulsive to people because it cannot be assimilated into what we wish to know about civilized man . . . [boxing] violates a taboo of our civilization”).
  • The fighter is essentially physical (“a boxer ‘is’ his body, and is totally identified with it”), and essentially masculine (“[t]he physical self, the maleness, one might say, underlying the self”).  The masculinity boxing reflects is “unthinking, unforced . . . beyond all question”.
  • Oates has “no difficulty justifying boxing as a sport because I have never seen it as a sport”: rather, boxing is more like an art form, with a fight being compared to a story (albeit one “without words”), to music, to dance, and to tragic theatre.
  • There is nothing metaphorical about boxing: it is something real.  “Nor can I think about boxing in writerly terms as a metaphor for something else . . . as a symbol of something beyond itself . . . For boxing isn’t metaphor, it really is the thing in itself”.
  • Watching (self-destructive, masculine) boxing and particularly thinking and writing about it, puts us in touch with “the lost ancestral self”, and forces us “to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization – what it is, or should be, to be human”.
  • Boxing makes spectators into voyeurs of violence.  “Boxing as a public spectacle is akin to pornography: in each case the spectator is made a voyeur, distanced, yet presumably intimately involved, in an event that is not supposed to be happening as it is happening”.
  • But as viewers, we too seek not just to watch but to participate in the contact with our pre-civilized selves: “the desire is not merely to mimic but, magically, to be brute, primitive, instinctive and therefore innocent. One might then be a person for whom the contest is not mere self-destructive play but life itself; and the world, not in spectacular and irrevocable decline, but new, fresh, vital, terrifying and exhilarating by turns, a place of wonders”.

Firstly, a boxing match is nothing like a “story”, and the boxer is nothing like the writer.  A story is separate from, and tells us about, the thing or events about which it is a story.  But a boxing match doesn’t represent or depict anything, and doesn’t point to, or tell us about, anything outside itself (this is why boxing cannot serve as a metaphor for other things: it is, in Oates’s Kantian formulation, “the thing in itself”).  While not representative of anything, boxing can certainly be expressive, what it expresses being facts about the nature of the participants & audience in particular, and (perhaps) humanity in general.  In this sense, as Oates says, “boxing as performance is more clearly akin to dance or music than narrative”, though since it is improvised and unpredictable, more like jazz than the orchestral music Oates alludes to (and again, nothing like a story – a story can be retold, but a boxing match cannot be refought).

These ideas are highly suggestive.  But then what does boxing “express”? In the first instance, and most directly, it expresses something profound about the fighters.  Oates is characteristically exaggerating when she says boxing “contains nothing that is not fully willed” – there are plenty of accidents in the ring – but, I think, on the right lines, when she says that in boxing “[a]ll is style”[4]. Style can consist only of willed actions, and so expresses character, something which boxing is uniquely able to reveal.

On the other hand, it is important to understand that Oates is simply wrong to depict boxing (as she does repeatedly) as something purely physical or corporeal.  There is more to a person, and certainly more to a fighter, than his body.  Firstly, boxing’s cognitive element is surely indispensable: without concentration, strategy and intelligence a fighter is lost.  Oates herself admits as much, when she discusses how “intelligently ferocious” Sugar Ray Leonard was, or how one boxer seeks to profit from the “intellectual miscalculations” of another.  Secondly, boxing’s demands are as much conative as cognitive: while it may be true that boxing “dramatizes the limitations . . . of the physical”, it – surely – can only do so by dramatizing, equally, the overcoming of the (merely) physical, through (to use Oates’s own word) will, or (to use an alternative term) heart, which ranks among boxing’s highest virtues. It is a complete human being who fights, not just a body, and there is no such thing as “the physical self . . . underlying the self”.

The question of will gives rise to some other issues.  As we saw above, for Oates, boxing is abnormal and “contrary to nature” because it is unnatural to “seek out” pain.  But elsewhere she writes that the boxer “must learn to exert his will over his merely human and animal impulses, not only to flee pain but to flee the unknown”. So which “nature” is the boxer overcoming by this act of will: his civilized, learned nature, or his pre-civilized, “animal” nature?

The answer, of course, is that the fighter needs to overcome both his instinctive and rational fears, and thus to control both his “atavistic” and civilized “selves” (if such there be).  It is clear, therefore, how we should answer Oates’s question whether boxing is “[m]adness? – or merely discipline? – this absolute subordination of the self”.  Boxing requires discipline, not madness, and epitomizes self-control, which is the very opposite of insanity. It is exactly backwards to say “the great boxer must disrobe himself of both reason and instinct’s caution as he prepares to fight”.

Similar considerations apply to Oates’s association of physicality, irrationality and anti-civilization with an “unthinking” masculinity.  “Values are reversed, evaginated: a boxer is valued not for his humanity but for being a ‘killer’, a ‘mauler’, a ‘hitman’, an ‘animal’, for being ‘savage’, ‘merciless’, ‘devastating’, ‘ferocious’, ‘vicious’, ‘murderous’”.  But it is a poor, indeed etiolated vision of masculinity that only includes brute, irrational, physical violence: men, after all, had a hand in the creation of civilization, and are no less masculine for it.  If there is something masculine about boxing – and I think Oates is undeniably right that there is – it lies precisely in boxing’s requirement for what she calls the “absolute subordination of the self”, in applying one’s reason and will to control and exploit (to use a Nietzschean term, “sublimate”) one’s own urges (both for fight and for flight) in order to take on one’s opponent.

It is for all these reasons that Oates is wrong to say that boxing “is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain . . . more than it is about winning . . . the boxer prefers physical pain in the ring to the absence of pain that is ideally the condition of ordinary life”.  In fact it is almost never true that boxers want to be hit (and in fact when they do – one thinks of Oliver McCall against Lennox Lewis, and perhaps also Mike Tyson against the same opponent – not only are they are not boxing, they risk disqualification for breaching the referee’s explicit instruction to “defend yourself at all times”).  It is one thing to accept pain as the price of success, quite another to prefer it.  So it feels like Oates’s line of thinking here reduces to the commonplace that fighters understand the need, and are willing, to suffer (both in training and in the ring) in order to succeed.  Apart from being less than revelatory, this surely finally refutes the suggestion the boxer is irrational – what could be more rational than enduring something now in return for future reward? – as well as the suggestions that fighters are “unnatural”, “abnormal” or “other”.

There are further difficulties with Oates’s treatment of the relationship between boxing and civilization, a crucial term, but one which she uses loosely.  So, at one point, she draws a distinction between boxing, “a highly complex and refined skill, belonging solely to civilization”, and fighting, “something predating civilization, the instinct not merely to defend oneself . . . but to attack another and to force him into absolute submission”.  Everywhere else in the book, however, Oates uses the two terms interchangeably – rightly so, since a boxing match is always a fight, and as she says boxing “isn’t metaphor, it is the thing in itself”.  Consequently, and for all the reasons given above for doubting that boxing (or fighting) is something irrational, unthinking or primitive, it does not seem to me that there is any reason to locate boxing, or the source of its appeal, outside, or prior to, “civilization”.

I have suggested elsewhere that it is because a boxing match is a real (if stylized) fight that boxing should not be regarded as a sport.  Sport is what we do instead of fighting, and in this sense a sporting event, unlike a boxing match, is a metaphorical fight (this is how I read George Foreman’s oft-repeated aphorism, quoted by Oates, that “boxing is the sport all other sports aspire to be”).

However, Oates’s own arguments against regarding boxing as a sport are weak, based as they are on the observation that “[b]aseball, football, basketball – these quintessentially American pastimes are recognizably sports because they involve play: they are games. One plays football, one doesn’t play boxing”.  True enough: but then you don’t “play” swimming, running, cycling, diving, or ice-skating either, and they are certainly all sports.  This is partly, but not only, a question of English grammar: someone engaging in sports whose name comprises the gerund “Ving” is said to “V”, not to “play Ving” (we run, swim and cycle, we don’t play swimming, running or cycling[5]).  But these other sports don’t “involve play” either, and not all sports are games.  Someone running a marathon or riding a bicycle up an Alp is engaged in a sport, but not a game, and isn’t playing.  Likewise, anyone claiming that boxing isn’t a sport or a game because it “cannot be assimilated into childhood” hasn’t spent much time around children lately.

More promising is Oates’s suggestion, referred to above, that boxing is, or is akin to, an art.  We suggested above that boxing may be disqualified from being representative art by virtue of being something real (i.e., a match is a real fight), rather than symbolic, but allowed that it might be more correctly described as expressive, at least of the character of the fighters.  We have rejected Oates’s characterizations of boxing as (in her sense) masculine, abnormal and unnatural, essentially because we cannot see it as irrational or “brute, primitive and instinctive”, as something essentially predating “civilization”.  What is left?

Just as there is no such thing as a “physical self”, there is no such thing as an “atavistic self” which might be opposed to a “civilized self”.  There are only complete human beings, physical, intellectual and moral – and of course human nature, which varies with the times, but which also involves the permanent truths and values that make us human.  And it is because boxing (at its best) can express those truths and embody those values so uniquely well that Oates is right to say it displays the “full spectrum of the human condition”, and (it seems to me) why it is so appealing.  As Oates writes, a great fight is “a joint response to the will of the audience which is always that the fight be a worthy one so that the crude paraphernalia of the setting – ring, lights, ropes, stained canvas, the staring onlookers themselves – be erased, forgotten.  (As in the theatre or the church, settings are erased by way, ideally, of transcendent action.)”

This, I think is what Oates is driving at when she talks about boxing being “superior to life”, and also what gives it its artistic character.  Fighters are pushed to the limits of human existence in a way other humans are not, and can show us those limits in a way no one else can.  So, “[b]oxers are there to establish an absolute experience, a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings; they will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess – of how much, or how little, they are capable”.  In other words, boxing’s appeal lies in the fact that what it expresses and embodies is not something ancient – after all, why should we care about that? – but something timeless[6].

Great boxing expresses the dignity of man through the extremes of life: in other words, exactly what Greek tragedy expresses.  We may therefore disagree with the route by which she gets there, but still agree with Oates’s conclusion that “[i]n the brightly lit ring, man is in extremis, performing . . . for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America’s tragic theatre”.  The comparison can be pushed too far – boxing expresses these things through athleticism rather than plot – but we need not pull back from it entirely, as Oates elsewhere seems to, when she suggests (contrary to her comparisons between boxing and writing, dance and music) that boxing is “an art form . . . with no natural analogue in the arts”.  (Indeed, it is when she draws out this comparison that Oates is arguably at her best.  Certainly, it is hard to think of a better sentence in boxing writing than this: “If boxing is a sport it is the most tragic of all sports because more than any human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays – its drama is this very consumption.”)

It follows, however, that the appeal of boxing to its audience does not simply reside in a desire “to be brute, primitive, instinctive and therefore innocent”.  Indeed, if this were so it would be hard to see how an audience could “will” that a fight should be “worthy” or “transcendent”.  It is true that a fight crowd responds to the violence, but also that an audience admires athleticism, heart, courage, intelligence, determination and skill: the highest of humanity, and not only the lowest.

A final consideration.  While fighting may express the whole of humanity, its “transcendence” can lead us to see the fighters themselves as somehow other than human, even superhuman.  This is especially true given the nature of boxing, where the opponent is not “merely” an opponent, but also, as it were, stands in for both the ball and the goal.  Without measures to protect the fighters (from themselves, their opponents and the “will of the audience”) the dangers of their being pushed beyond what is humanly bearable are obvious.  This, I think, is what Oates means when she writes that “so central to the drama of boxing is the referee that the spectacle of two men fighting each other unsupervised in an elevated ring would seem hellish, if not obscene”.  But there is something deeply unsettling in Oates’s further observation that “[t]he referee makes boxing possible . . . . He is . . . our moral conscience extracted from us as spectators so that, for the duration of the fight, ‘conscience’ need not be a factor in our experience”.  If we spectators have to be thus temporarily parted from our “moral conscience” to enjoy boxing, what does that make us?  More than voyeurs, I would suggest: and this, I think, rather than any roots in “pre-civilization”, is the source of the “theoretical anxiety” that boxing certainly gives rise to in the thinking observer.

On Boxing is not an easy read, and not only because it deals with difficult topics.  There is much in the book to disagree with.  Oates arrives at her insights via questionable routes, and often appears not fully to appreciate their true meaning or importance.  But it is, nonetheless, both deeply insightful and deeply important.  A boxing fan who has not read it and thought carefully about its themes is missing a lot, and in a way is doing a disservice both to himself as a spectator and to boxing’s participants.  For all these reasons, it is one of the few works on the subject that can truly be described as indispensable.

 

[1] In its most recent edition, the essay On Boxing is anthologized with some of Oates’ other writings on the subject, notably her pieces on Tyson and Ali and her review of Unforgiveable Blackness, Geoffrey Ward’s immense biography of Jack Johnson. The present review will deal only with the original essay.

[2] For example, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/08/top-10-boxing-books-markus-zusak; http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/6672.Best_Books_on_Boxing_and_Boxershttp://www.proboxing-fans.com/merchandise/best-boxing-books/

[3] Celan, whose parents died in an internment camp in Transnistria in 1943 after he had failed to persuade them to flee, most famously wrote Todesfuge as a response to Theodor Adorno’s suggestion that “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric”.

[4] Which is not the same as saying that, in boxing, “all is stylishness”, a distinction apaprently missed by Anatole Broyard in his New York Times review (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/07/05/specials/oates-boxing.html ), in which he surprisingly asks “can the word ‘style’ be applied to Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson?”.

[5] Interestingly, one can be said to “play” the Celtic sports of hurling and curling (but note that these are also games, and the players neither hurl nor curl).

[6] Oates, it seems to me, misses the importance of her own comment that “[t]he fight itself is timeless”, which she makes in her discussion of the importance of time to boxing. (For example, “[w]hen a boxer is ‘knocked out’ it does not mean, as it’s commonly thought, that he has been knocked unconscious, or even incapacitated; it means rather more poetically that he has been knocked out of Time”.)

Podcast Review – The HBO Boxing Podcast

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The stars of HBO’s new effort represent a sort of boxing podcast supergroup.  Kieran Mulvaney, long-time ESPN blogger, and recently added to the 24/7 lineup for Pacquiao-Bradley 2, was responsible for HBO’s previous attempt, Heavy Hitting.  His partner Eric Raskin, among the most talented and entertaining of active boxing writers, is also one half of the duo behind Ring Theory, which remains boxing’s best podcast by far.

The HBO Boxing Podcast is extremely professionally done.  Sound quality is excellent, even though the participants appear always to be in different cities.  Handovers are FM-radio-slick.  The content is well-prepared and focused: no lengthy discussions here of whether Skype is working, or whether one or another participant is going to be too hungover to dial in on time.  All this is worth mentioning because it is by no means a given, even from an organisation as professional as HBO: Mulvaney’s Beckettian Heavy Hitting sounded like a castaway talking to himself in a dustbin.

There is ample evidence of both intelligence and humour.  Raskin in particular has plenty to say that is useful and interesting, and usually finds entertaining ways to say it.  What is more, the product is tightly structured, albeit on occasion perhaps too much so: in a tic familiar to Ring Theory listeners, Raskin cannot help announcing when the podcast is about to move from one “segment” to the next, as if he cannot trust his listeners to figure it out for themselves (which is not to say he is wrong, only that there might be more elegant ways of achieving the same thing).

But the reason why the production values are so superior to those of other podcasts is that this isn’t really a podcast in the usual sense & spirit of the term, i.e., enthusiasts sharing their more-or-less independent views with their more-or-less peers.  Rather, it is a marketing vehicle for HBO’s upcoming big fights[1].  This often makes for unsatisfying listening even when the fights themselves are reasonable matches, as has been the case for most of those featured so far, including Chavez, Jr.-Vera 2 and Lomachenko-Salido as well as Pacquiao-Bradley 2 (sample dialogue: “are you as pumped for this fight as I am?”).  But when the fight clearly cannot live up to the excitement Raskin & Mulvaney are being paid to convey – as in the case of the recent Kovalev-Agnew mismatch – listening becomes painful. Mulvaney, a long-term boxing fan but a relative newcomer to the ranks of professional pundits, raving that Agnew might be able to do to Kovalev what Tony Thompson did to the cheese-chinned David Price, sounds like a man who has got the gig of a lifetime and can’t believe his luck.  Raskin, gently pointing out the differences between Price and the terrifying Kovalev, who is about as fragile as a Bond villain’s sidekick, sounds like he can’t believe Mulvaney’s luck either.

However, there is hope.  Following the Pacquiao-Bradley rematch Raskin and Mulvaney convene to discuss, for the first time on the podcast, a fight that has already happened.  Thus relieved of the pressure to sell something, their conversation assumes a more normal tone, and becomes far more entertaining and informative – making for an excellent listen, much more in the “spirit of podcasting”.  Perhaps this will be enough to make HBO realize that this forum, and Raskin in particular, could be used very effectively to extend and enhance its boxing coverage rather than simply shill for it.  We shall see.

 

[1] There is also a peculiar form of product placement in the form of the “Stat Chat Segment”, brought to the podcast by “our friends at Compubox”. It is hard to imagine Compubox’s products holding much interest for the average boxing fan (I picture a heavyset man of vaguely Mediterranean descent wearing a stained string vest and chewing the remains of a long-dead cigar).

 

Book Review – War & Peace, by Ricky Hatton

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A commissar in one of post-revolutionary Russia’s regions once proudly told a visiting dignitary that, thanks to the glorious victory of communism, the area now boasted over 200 published writers, whereas previously there had been only one.   Oh really, responded the dignitary: and who was the lone pre-communist exception? The commissar gave an embarrassed shrug and said “Well, .  .  .  Tolstoy”.

There was only one Leo Tolstoy, but, thanks to the putatively similarly unique Ricky Hatton, there is now a second War and Peace.  On reading Tolstoy’s original, Flaubert famously exclaimed “What an artist, and what a psychologist!”.  Readers of the present work are unlikely to echo these sentiments.

First, the “artistry”.  Ricky Hatton’s immense popularity rested on two things.  Firstly, he was tremendously exciting to watch: an all-action, face-first, hyper-aggressive fighter with a tough chin, willing to take on the very best, who was notorious for knocking opponents out with spectacular bodyshots.  His 2005 home-town victory over Kosta Tszyu remains one of the greatest achievements, and one of the greatest nights, in UK boxing history.  It is hardly a criticism (though, as we shall see, Hatton himself does not agree) that when he came up against the absolute elite, in the shape of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, he was comprehensively pancaked.  It certainly did not impair his public appeal: when Hatton announced his ill-fated comeback fight, three and a half years after being knocked out by Pacquiao, 19,000 tickets were sold within hours, even though no opponent had been named.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, his fans could see that he was, indisputably, one of them.  War and Peace attests to this repeatedly in its content – so, here’s Ricky, holidaying in Marbella, Tenerife and on cruise ships; here’s Ricky, playing practical jokes on his mates from the gym; here’s Ricky, ignoring invitations to fancy showbiz events in favour of a night playing darts and downing endless pints in his local; here’s Ricky, enthusing wildly about the ghastly Las Vegas.  But more obviously and more often, indeed in almost every sentence, it is embodied in the book’s style.  Hatton is clearly determined to underscore his status as the People’s Champion, and ghostwriter Tris Dixon, editor of Boxing News, is equally clearly under strict instructions to stick, as far as possible, to Hatton’s uneducated Mancunian vernacular.  So, Hatton’s brother Matthew is described as having “a right mouth on him”; Hatton himself does not wish to be seen as a “head-up-my-own-arse big-time Charlie”.  This is unfortunate, for a number of reasons.

An author who is stuck with an inarticulate narrator faces a formidable challenge in remaining linguistically inventive enough to retain the reader’s interest.  Irvine Welsh managed it in Trainspotting, as did Martin Amis, triumphantly, in Money.  Dixon addresses, and comprehensively fails, this test, with a combination of Olympian swearing and endless clichés.  A big fight is “an acid test”; an upset Hatton has “lost the plot”; at the announcement of his comeback he is “bursting with pride”; and so on, and so on.  However, like most writers who lean heavily on dead metaphors, Dixon sometimes doesn’t even get these right: Hatton describes being “put through the ringer” in training.  Martin Amis this is not.

One consequence is that whenever the register does rise above the plebeian, even if only as far as the mildly polysyllabic, the effect is as jarring as – at the risk of delivering another cliché – a left hook to the floating rib.  Hatton claims, wholly implausibly, to have addressed the following post-fight encouragement to an early victim: “I don’t want to sound patronizing .  .  .  but I was quite shocked you’d only had eight fights .  .  .  Don’t be disheartened.” Patronizing? Quite shocked? Disheartened? Is this the same person who supposedly wrote the sentence “When you get cut in the first round of a twelve-round title fight you think ‘Fucking hell’”?

Worse still, this man-of-the-people style too often simply becomes a licence to write badly.  Whatever the restrictions placed on an author, there is simply no excuse for sentences as lazy as this: “Then, in the ninth round, I suppose I got that frustrated that I had not been able to nail him flush that I took a run-up as if to say ‘Fuck it’ and I flew at him with a left hook, and it was probably the hardest punch I ever threw.  It’s a wonder he’s still not there now”.  This being Ricky Hatton’s own version of his own story, rather than a guess at what someone else might have been thinking, there is no warrant for the use here of the qualifier ‘I suppose’; the self-conscious use of the colloquial ‘that’ instead of ‘so’ (i.e., ‘so frustrated that .  .  .’) is clumsy and ugly in written English; if you are pretending to be transcribing written speech, ‘had not’ (rather than ‘hadn’t’) is completely out of place; and there is no way of construing ‘it’s a wonder he’s still not there now’ to mean what it is supposed to mean (viz., presumably, ‘it’s a wonder he’s not still there now’, strangled as that formulation would have been).   The same sort of wearying analysis could be applied to many similar sentences.

The indolence is not restricted to syntax.  A young Hatton describes himself watching Manchester City’s lavishly talented Georgi Kinkladze and thinking “how great it would be to be a sportsman that excites people”.  Then, later – mirabile dictu! – “whenever I put an opponent up against the ropes, I could hear the crowd take a sharp intake of breath .  .  .  it’s .  .  .  how it was at Maine Road all those years ago when I was on the terraces and Georgi Kinkladze picked up the ball”.  So cheap is this device that the reader almost fails to register the ugliness of “take a sharp intake of breath”.  Almost.

Some may think it unfair to expect a punch-drunk recovering alcoholic and substance-abuser to maintain tolerable standards of literacy.  I disagree.  Firstly, that’s what ghostwriters (and editors) are for.  Secondly, it wasn’t beyond, say, Jake La Motta & Rubin Carter.  And finally, where the offences against grammar and style are as egregious as this, a book becomes almost unreadable.

This is a shame, because there are some good things in War and Peace.  The account of rising through the UK’s amateur and then professional worlds, facing opponents from juniors, to journeymen, to “crossroads” fighters, to the absolute elite, is entertaining and informative.  And the book really comes alive whenever Hatton is in the ring: the depictions of the fights are often exciting, and usually reasonably objective.  Hatton is good on explaining how a top-level fighter approaches a particular opponent, developing a strategy and, where necessary, improvising improvements in the ring.  Even when he fights poorly (by his own estimation) Hatton rarely fails to tell us something worth hearing about the experience and its aftermath and effects (in one memorable scene Hatton goes for treatment on facial scar tissue that repeatedly opens during fights: on investigation, it turns out that the Vaseline applied to the original wound is still there under the skin).  And of course, few fighters have been in the ring with both Mayweather and Pacquiao, the two outstanding stars of the present generation, making the insights Hatton provides into their styles truly compelling.

So much for the artistry.  What of the psychology?

It was Leon Festinger who first coined the term “cognitive dissonance” for the mental distress experienced by an individual who holds contradictory beliefs, ideas or values.  On the basis of War and Peace it is clear that Hatton’s capacity for cognitive dissonance is as impressive as his appetite for ale and pies.

Some examples are relatively harmless.  It is a common peculiarity of people who come from the North West of England that they can, like Hatton, casually mention that they grew up 200 yards from the house where the Moors Murders were committed, went to school with the son of Harold Shipman (the UK’s worst mass murderer), then immediately aver, without the barest hint of irony, that “[s]ome of the nicest people in the world come from the area but sadly it’s not known for that”.    Also not uncommon among British working class young men is Hatton’s account of his career in football.   Taken on as a junior by his beloved Manchester City, then dropped because he spent too much time at the boxing gym and not enough at the training ground, he writes “it always makes you wonder, could I have done it?”, but immediately answers his own question: “there were some players in my class who stood out a mile .  .  .  and I wasn’t one of them”.

Other examples of this phenomenon are less amusing.  Hatton was notorious for gaining a great deal of weight, sometimes as much as ninety pounds, between fights (so much so that he claims his doctor warned him about heart attack risk[1]), then enduring impossibly hard training camps in order to get it all off.  Hatton says he would never let a fighter he was training get away with this, and also that if he could change one thing about his career it would be his behaviour between fights, even blaming it for his defeat against Senchenko.  However, he bizarrely also says that he was “quite proud of being called Ricky Fatton”, even claiming it as a sort of strength: “to do what I did and get my body from where it was to what it became on fight night, I think that showed the ultimate dedication”.

Perhaps this is not that unusual.  Many fighters are prone to self-delusion of one kind or another: after all, how many convince themselves that they have a chance against a palpably superior opponent, or that they still have it when they are clearly shot? And how many would agree with Hatton when he says of his son that “if I had a choice, I would rather he didn’t box, but .  .  .  it’s the best sport in the world”?

Less commonly, indeed perhaps uniquely among fighters, Hatton seems unable straightforwardly to report his own achievements, or attempt a positive evaluation of his abilities: instead, even after all these years, and all his successes, he endlessly reports what others (“people”, “observers”, or “writers”) say or said about him.  It is as if he can’t believe anything, even about himself, unless someone else says it.  “As a schoolboy, people were saying ‘There’s this kid from Manchester who can’t half body punch’ .  .  .  more people had started talking about me: I wasn’t just steamrolling people, I was doing it in a certain manner, and with moves that were impressing observers .  .  .  one writer even said I was ‘showing the footwork of a young Roberto Durán’ .  .  .  I could get nasty if I had to.  The guys at Sky Sports would say they could see it in the changing rooms before my fights”.  He records apparently every instance where someone of note mentions him as a prospect, from George Foreman to “Scotland’s former world lightweight champion and Sky Sports commentator Jim Watt”.  And it is not enough for him to complain that Joe Cortez didn’t give him a chance to fight Mayweather on the inside: he has to add that “Oscar de la Hoya .  .  .  and Bernard Hopkins at ringside were incensed”.

Where he does not have an authoritative third party opinion on himself, he instead offers an excess of justificatory evidence.  So, on turning professional, he can’t simply say “I was good enough to go straight to the major promoters”: instead, we get “[a]s a ticket-seller who had boxed for England, won about seventy of seventy-five fights, had won the ABAs and was turning professional as the number one in my weight class in the country, I had earned an audience with the country’s biggest promoters”, even though he has just spent the whole of the book thus far telling us precisely this story.

Why does Hatton do this? Firstly, there is his acute self-consciousness, which manifests itself in a chronic fear of being seen to be big-headed or arrogant.  He just cannot bring himself to say “I was good”: rather, it has to be “look – these people think I am good”.  It is, I suspect, the same self-consciousness which is at the root of his obsession with his “critics”, who for example, “had been asking ‘Well, he’s all right, but has he got any boxing ability?’ I’d ticked those boxes against Tackie, now demonstrating I could fight and win with bad cuts .  .  .  and that I was not just a body puncher .  .  .  I not only proved I could stand there and have it out with him, punch with him, but at times that I could outbox him, jab and move and display my boxing ability”.  Does Hatton really believe that he proved all this in a single fight, but had never adequately done so in the thirty-three professional wins he had before meeting Ben Tackie, or in becoming “the number one in my weight class in the country” as an amateur?

Secondly, Hatton obviously doubts that readers will trust his judgment without independent verification (after all, he doesn’t appear to trust them to know who Jim Watt is).  But as the book goes on it becomes ever clearer that Hatton also has no faith in his own judgment.  His obsession with “critics”, and in particular with repeatedly proving them wrong, betokens a broader lack of self-confidence, which is only ever temporarily ameliorated , but apparently never eroded, by positive assessments from third parties of his achievements in the ring.  Even after handily beating Tszyu, widely regarded at the time as one of the best fighters in the world, he imagines his critics saying “‘Oh, he’s beaten Tszyu? That was a fluke.’ ‘He’s a one-hit wonder.’” Revealingly, he goes on to add that, as a result, for his next fight, “[t]here was no lack of motivation”.  Similarly, on visiting the Kronk gym in Detroit he says “I think some of the fighters there were quietly taking the piss out of me.  Then Billy and I got in the ring on the bodybelt .  .  .  afterwards all of the other fighters came up to me, asking me my name and what my record was.  It had gone from ‘Who’s this little, pale-faced white kid grunting like an idiot?’ to all of a sudden thinking ‘Fucking hell.  That’s not bad, is it?’  That was quite pleasing.”

In other words, Ricky Hatton’s psychology comprises the following elements: a lack of self-awareness so complete that he is able to answer his own questions without realizing it; a self-consciousness so crippling as to make him incapable of expressing a positive opinion about himself without adducing extensive corroborating evidence; a resultant complete lack of self-confidence; and, therefore, an obsession with the views of other people so profound that eliciting positive opinions and disproving negative ones are his principal sources of, on the one hand, self-esteem, and on the other, motivation.

Any sportsman with this outlandishly fragile psychological profile is likely to react badly to defeat.  But the issues are multiplied a thousandfold in boxing, where public outings are relatively rare, where undefeated records are so highly prized, and where the physical as well as moral consequences of a single defeat can be career-ending.

It is against this background that Hatton entered the ring to face Floyd Mayweather, where he lost every round before being dispatched head-first into a cornerpost by a perfectly-timed check hook.  The psychological consequences of that defeat become particularly murky, not to say Freudian, when Hatton subsequently decides to abandon long-time trainer and supposed “best mate” Billy Graham in favour of none other than Floyd Mayweather Sr.  Hatton explains this decision by reference to Graham’s declining physical ability, citing in particular his inability to work the pads without painkilling injections to his hands.  Given everything that has come before, it is no surprise when it becomes clear that the idea of dumping Graham was put into Hatton’s mind by “some members of the team”.  Hatton himself seems characteristically confused about his own motivations for going with Mayweather, Sr.  in particular: “There was no rhyme or reason behind my going with Floyd; I wanted to add a few new facets to my game.” So, there was no reason; but here’s the reason.

At any rate, subsequent less-than-entirely-convincing victories over Juan Lazcano and Paulie Malignaggi achieved little beyond qualifying Hatton and his psyche for an even more spectacular two-round battering at the hands of Manny Pacquiao (following which he is, in turn, abandoned by Mayweather, Sr.).

What follows is a journey (documented extensively on the pages of the UK’s tabloids) into alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, and (allegedly[2]) infidelity that is deeply unsavoury even by the low standards set by other boxers.  Worse still, despite his repeated protestations to the contrary, it is not clear that Hatton is or ever could be equipped to deal with his demons.  Finding himself in the Priory, he refuses to accept that he is an alcoholic, insisting rather that he drinks so much because he is depressed.  This is obviously nonsense, not only for the implication that other alcoholics are any more cheerful, but because, by his own account, he remained depressed after leaving even though he (and, presumably, the Priory staff) managed to bring his drinking under control.

The true basis of Hatton’s malaise surely lie in his own longstanding emotional weaknesses, which, as detailed above, are visible on every page of War and Peace.  Having based his entire self-image on remaining undefeated in the ring, in order to silence the “critics” and thus cope with his own low self-esteem, he was utterly destroyed by his comprehensive losses to Mayweather and Pacquiao.  This is clearly what is behind his complaints that no one at the Priory understood him because none of them “had been embarrassed in front of millions like I had”, and his melodramatic claim that “[m]y sense of invincibility had now gone, having been an unstoppable force for so long, and I was forced to think about how I had let a nation down”.

Hatton claims that alternative therapies (from Tony Adams’ “Sporting Chance” clinic) have helped him: if so, they have done nothing to address his utter lack of self-knowledge.   This much is clear from two topics addressed at the end of this long book.   Firstly, in his lengthy discussion of his embarrassing falling-out with his parents and other relatives (mainly due to unspecified money problems) Hatton never considers the difficulties his family may have had dealing with a drunken, suicidal, substance-abusing, grossly overweight son.   And secondly, in his ponderings on the possible impact his career in boxing may have on his future health, it never occurs to him to wonder whether his current and historic emotional problems may have been caused, or at least aggravated, by the fact that he has spent so much of his life being punched in the head.

In these latter stages of the book there is a strong echo of the ending of Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth, in which Tyson waxes lyrical about the new sober life he has found through therapy and the love of a good woman – then admits, in a self-pitying epilogue added at the last minute, that nothing could be further from the truth.   So far Tyson seems to have found a way to stay alive and achieve some sort of peace, mainly by distancing himself from the man he used to be.   The reader of this sometimes unreadable, sometimes compelling, multiply flawed autobiography cannot help but fear that Ricky Hatton will lack the emotional strength to achieve even this uneasy settlement with himself and his past.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/nov/23/ricky-hatton-vyacheslav-senchenko

[2] Hatton admits to all the listed failings except this one, though he has apparently taken no legal action against his accuser, Emma Bowe.  http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/ricky-hatton-had-11-month-affair-with-me-251286

Book Review – Hard Road to Glory, by Johnny Nelson

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Life must be hard for the modern boxing ghostwriter.  With all the details of his subject’s career immediately available on Wikipedia and BoxRec, and footage of the actual fights on YouTube, the autobiography he comes up with needs to contain something really remarkable if it is not to be utterly otiose.

Pity, then, Richard Coomber, sports correspondent of the Hartlepool Mail, who is tasked with attempting to make something out of the life story of Johnny Nelson.  Nelson was an unremarkable fighter, competing in a division no one cares about (cruiserweight), who won and repeatedly defended a meaningless title (the WBO’s) by beating a series of fighters no one has ever heard of.   Coomber tries hard to make us see this as noteworthy, but the best he can do is to point out that Nelson brought little to boxing by way of talent, was usually afraid to fight, and two of his earlier attempts to win a different meaningless title – against Carlos de Leon and James Waring – were unwatchably feeble.  This, presumably, is the explanation for the book’s title: but as “hard roads to glory” go it hardly compares with, say, Joe Frazier’s.

Nelson started out in Brendan Ingle’s Wincobank gym, and there is some interesting colour on some genuinely significant figures in British boxing, notably Naseem Hamed, Herol Graham and Ingle himself.  Nelson and his story, however, simply pale by comparison.  The most exciting thing that happens in the book is that Nelson doesn’t get kidnapped.  The second most exciting is that he doesn’t fight Mike Tyson.

Hard Road to Glory is well put together and written as pacily as possible.  Nelson appears to be a decent man, and is after all a British world champion.  But given the thinness of the material, it is hard to recommend this book to anyone but the most committed of boxing fans.

Book Review – Sound and Fury, by Dave Kindred

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Boxing, perhaps more than any other, is a sport of double acts.  The status of Mike Tyson will always be questioned for the simple reason that when he was at his peak, there was no one around who could live with him, and he only fought truly great opponents when he was obviously past it.  Roy Jones, Jr. was perhaps the most lavishly talented and entertaining fighter of all time, but his career is widely regarded as unsatisfactory because he spent so much of it fighting people he could easily beat.  Joe Calzaghe and Rocky Marciano left the stage unbeaten, but left the public cold: likewise, among today’s active fighters, the Klitschkos and Floyd Mayweather.  It is, in short, not enough for a fighter to have immense talent, to put together a long string of wins, to dominate a division for years on end, to retire undefeated, or even to appear unbeatable: in boxing, greatness can only be measured against greatness.  This is why none of these boxers will reach the fabled status of Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Durán or Thomas Hearns: or, for that matter, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, or even Antonio Gatti and Mickey Ward.

Muhammad Ali featured, along with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, in some of the greatest double acts in boxing’s long history.  He and Howard Cosell were a double act of a different kind, but no less significant, and no less well matched.  One tall, young, handsome, athletic, and black, the other short, middle-aged, dumpy, and Jewish, the comic potential was obvious, and rarely underexploited, with Cosell an indispensable part of Ali’s big fights, there to ask the questions before and afterwards, and to absorb Ali’s jokes about his toupee and his love life. But the similarities between them were more important than the differences.  For one thing, besides being immensely talented originals, both were immensely watchable.  No one had ever seen a heavyweight with Ali’s combination of, on the one hand, extraordinary speed and athleticism, and on the other, technical flaws and apparent vulnerability: and no one had heard a broadcaster like Cosell, with his bombastic, aggressive style and his nasal Brooklyn accent.

Together with their huge egos and cartoonish characters, this made them perfect for what Dave Kindred’s remarkable dual biography calls “the hyperbolic demands of television”.  Their forebears had tended to be deferential.  Joe Louis never spoke a word out of turn, and never even smiled after knocking someone out for fear of being accused of getting above his station.  Previously, sports leagues were permitted to approve broadcasters before they went on-air, a practice ended by ABC Sports President Roone Arledge specifically to accommodate Cosell’s unmissable inquisitions.  Raised in Brooklyn and trained as a lawyer, Cosell brought an unprecedented aggression and intellectual rigour to sports broadcasting.  Not seeing himself as in any way inferior to, say, Walter Cronkite, he also brought great seriousness, and a high-minded attitude to journalistic integrity.  But even Cosell’s lack of deference couldn’t compete with Ali’s.  Referring to himself as “the greatest thing that ever lived”, he was the first high-profile black man of the television age to express such pride in himself and his race: he may not have invented the phrase “black is beautiful” but he expressed the sentiment, and embodied its truth, better than anyone.  And it wasn’t only the white establishment to whom he displayed no deference: he essentially invented “smack talk” specifically in order to rile no less a figure than the terrifying Sonny Liston.  So, besides being made for television, they were made for each other.  Cosell liked to stick a microphone in sportsmen’s faces and demand they account for themselves in a way they had never had to before, and Ali liked nothing more than to oblige.

Made for TV, made for each other: but they were also made for their times.  In refusing the draft Ali made perhaps the first high-profile protest against the war in Vietnam.  Uniquely, Cosell was willing to give Ali a platform to express his anti-establishment, anti-white views, and argued consistently for his right to hold them.  Their voices were as new and different in their own way as those of the Beatles and Dylan, and only in the 1960s could they have reached such a massive audience.  Furthermore, only in that extraordinary age could public opinion on an American war have moved so far as to bring it into line with Ali.  Only then, also, against the background of the civil rights movement, could so much of America come to sympathise with a black separatist when, with his case still under appeal, and in direct contravention of the U.S. Constitution, the authorities took away his titles, refused to sanction his fights in the US and then took away his passport so he couldn’t fight abroad either.  Indeed, with the passage of time his stance, which meant public vilification, and cost Ali millions in endorsements as well as three years of his career, came to seem heroic.

Having taken on and beaten the United States, when he returned to the ring he was already more than a sportsman: but following his immediately mythical victories over Foreman and Frazier, with his extraordinary character and unmatched profile now embodied in the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World, Ali made the unique journey from first and greatest sporting iconoclast to ultimate sporting icon.  For this reason, too often he overshadows those whose lives intersected with his own, because you cannot tell their stories without telling his, and his tale is so extraordinary.  For example, it was their brief meetings with Ali that left Joe Frazier so bitter, that made Henry Cooper so beloved in the UK, and that ultimately entirely defined both men.

The signal achievement of Kindred’s book is to give us the human reality of both Cosell and Ali, and the relationship between them, without underestimating the symbolic importance of either man.  This is clearly a function of the unique access Kindred enjoyed.  He literally travelled on the young Ali’s bus as he toured the country from fight to fight, and he was close enough to Cosell to be asked to help write the fourth volume of his memoirs.

Kindred’s intimacy with the lives of both means he can provide some wonderful anecdotes.  According to one, Cosell once stopped a fight in the street by leaping from his limo and delivering a burst of unmistakeable commentary, to the delight of the immediately disarmed pugilists and their audience.  On another occasion, hearing a construction worker criticize the draft-dodging champion, Cosell returned to the site shortly afterwards with an apparently incensed Ali, causing considerable consternation before revealing the gag.

More importantly, however, it allows Kindred to illumine their faults alongside their shared talents, egos, and symbolism.  Kindred paints each one of them as a sort of savant, brilliant at the things they are good at and childishly inept at everything else.  Cosell was effortlessly expert both in front of and behind the camera – notoriously, he could improvise a note-perfect voiceover to any footage and finish it in exactly the number of seconds available, yet he could also script and produce an entire documentary more or less single-handed.  But when his wife died he was helpless in the face of the realities of life, having never so much as paid a bill.  Ali may have shown no deference to the white establishment, but he swallowed every piece of nonsense the Nation of Islam produced, apparently honestly believing that the white race had been created by a big-headed devil called Yacub and that divine spaceships were circling the earth.  The Nation was not afraid to renounce and reject him when it suited them, its head Elijah Muhammad even preaching at times that all sports were wicked; and they appear to have taken even more of Ali’s money than Don King (a figure who, like Bob Arum, who also promoted Ali fights, features surprisingly little in the book).  But Ali never questioned Muhammad’s authority, and even after Muhammad’s death in 1975 his son Herbert continued to mismanage Ali’s affairs until as late as 1988.

This much of Ali’s career has, of course, been well-covered before.  Nonetheless, Kindred has a mastery of detail that manages to make even the most familiar parts seem fresh.  (An example is the story of a triumphant Ali being driven away from the ring in Zaire along roads lined by thousands of locals, holding their children up in the early morning light to see the champion).  He also has no difficulty in showing how charismatic and irresistibly likeable Ali could be.  However, Kindred does not hesitate to bring out themes that are visited less often.  In particular, it is clear that Ali was capable of extraordinary cruelty.  He delayed knockouts of both Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell so that he could prolong their punishment for personal slights.  His insulting of Joe Frazier was, if anything, worse – at one time calling him an Uncle Tom, at another deriding him as subhuman in the crudest of racial terms.  His treatment of women was no less callous.  While in Manila for the final Frazier fight, so badly did he treat his second wife, the statuesque Belinda, that during the fight she willed Frazier to inflict on him the same pain to which she had been subjected.  And Ali’s acquiescence in the ostracism and eventual murder of Malcolm X, once his closest supporter, is truly shocking. The strong implication of Kindred’s book is that these forms of behaviour too were another consequence of Ali’s childish self-obsession and limited intelligence, and on the evidence here it is not difficult to agree.  (When someone later impersonated Ali in a series of bizarre telephone calls to prominent politicians and journalists, the hoax was obvious not from the speaker’s voice – by all accounts the similarity was uncanny – but from his ability to discuss issues of public policy in a way the real Ali never even approximated.)

More original still, and more powerful, is Kindred’s treatment of Ali’s life after retirement.  Having lost his money, his fame, his wife, his retinue and his health, Ali could find nothing to fill his days, which he spent sitting alone and quiet, sometimes in the little office he rented, sometimes just in his car.  This being so, and with his naivete and his ego undiminished, he was a ripe target for further exploitation.  He was taken in by at least two convicted swindlers, and was even prevailed upon by the very US government that had tried to destroy him to make a disastrous trip to Africa to attempt to drum up support for a boycott of the 1980 Olympics.

It is some measure of Howard Cosell’s ambition, even hubris, that when he gave up his legal practice to become a sports broadcaster, sports broadcasting didn’t even exist.  It is, equally, some measure of his determination and talent that this didn’t stop him: he simply went ahead and invented it.  Initially lugging a 17-pound tape recorder on his back wherever he went, sometimes using it as a weapon to barge past competitors on his way to securing interviews, Cosell was the perfect man to fulfill Arledge’s vision, which has since become the blueprint for all sports on TV: “Heretofore, television has done a remarkable job of bringing the game to the viewer – now we are going to bring the viewer to the game!”.  Arledge & Cosell took techniques from news, political coverage, travel and adventure series, in order to “add showbusiness to sports”.  They were the first to add colour shots of girls in the crowd smiling, and of coaches cursing: they were also the first to cover the background of sporting events, interviewing players and coaches before and after the event, building up to matches and fights and making the participants familiar to the nation.  Cosell also helped set the standard for matchday coverage, bringing intelligence and scepticism into the booth at Monday Night Football alongside the professional insights of ex-players Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.  Cosell was not cowed by their purported expertise, and the resultant banter, often with an antagonistic edge, took MNF from nowhere – football hadn’t been shown on prime-time US TV in 15 years – to first place in the Nielsen ratings.

But Cosell’s biggest achievement was to treat sports in general, and boxing in particular, with the respect and seriousness it deserved, being the first to examine its cultural, political, economic and sociological foundations.  It is hard to imagine any other sports commentator, before or since, matching his documentary on the achievements of Grambling College (an all-black school that produced numerous NFL stars), his interviews with Jackie Robinson, or his on-the-spot coverage of both the Black Power salute given by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico games.  At the same time, he knew the limits of his subject: after breaking the news of the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and John Lennon he simply refused to continue talking about anything so trivial as sports, instead, in each case, improvising a moving eulogy.

As he aged, Cosell increasingly felt those limits, and tried to graduate from sports to a bigger stage.  To support his attempt to become the new Ed Sullivan, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, he suggested to John Lennon that the Beatles reform for the show (he was reduced to booking the Bay City Rollers instead, who he pathetically introduced as “the next Beatles”). Despite this apparent hubris, the show was cancelled after just eight weeks, a victim of – in Kindred’s telling – Cosell’s total and uncharacteristic failure of nerve, failing to prevent Jimmy Connors singing, refusing to criticize the unprofessionalism of no-shows (most notoriously Patti LaBelle), and relying on a script, rehearsals and cue cards for the first time in his career.  After that debacle, his further suggestion that he be moved to current affairs (and finally achieve the Cronkite status he always thought he deserved) was never taken seriously.  He gradually faded from the screen, half resigning in exhaustion, and half pushed out following, among other things, performances clearly impaired by alcohol.

Besides setting out his remarkable and unique achievements, Kindred does a brilliant job of bringing out Cosell’s curious blend of arrogance and insecurity, and of bravery and cowardice.  Largely dismissive of the intellectual capacities of ex-players, he was nonetheless afraid of devilish conspiracies between them and network management.  While he was willing to give Ali a platform to speak, and to use the name given to him by the Nation (a courtesy not extended by other boxing journalists for some years after the change, who continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay), he never himself took a position on any of the issues.  When other boxing journalists tried to persuade him to come out in favour of Ali, on the basis that he was the only one with a national audience, he declined, claiming that to do so would potentially be suicidal in the face of such violent, racially-based hostility among the general populace.  While Cosell indeed routinely received hatemail calling him a “nigger-loving Jew bastard”, the strong impression given by Kindred, surely correct, is that Cosell would have seen that the risk in explicitly defending Ali was limited to professional suicide: this was enough, however, for him to rule it out completely.  Only in his final years, freed from network pressures, did he feel entirely free to investigate sports, and especially the business of sports, with a cynical eye.  It is perhaps partly for this reason (though also because towards the end his criticisms became so aggressively personal) that opinions on his legacy are so divided.

Ali’s “legacy”, by comparison, appears settled.  Kindred does an excellent job of tracing the reversal in his fortunes, triggered largely by Ali’s fourth wife Lonnie, boosted notably by Thomas Hauser’s epic biography, and culminating in his sanctification at the Atlanta Olympics.  It is once more to Kindred’s credit, however, that he doesn’t simply go along for the ride, giving plenty of space to alternative views, and expressing a few of his own.  He questions the attempts of those around Ali to make money from his name, though given the way others have done the same thing for the whole of his life, such remarks appear churlish at best.  He even finds space for a typically dissenting quote from Mark Kram, author of the controversial Ghosts of Manila, who paints Ali’s personality in much darker colours both there and here.

But Kindred’s book succeeds where Kram’s fails.  Without playing down his many shortcomings, Kindred refuses to present Ali in such simple and mean-spirited terms.  Rather, he lays out both Ali and Cosell in full, never refusing to offer his own view, never falling for history’s hyperbole, but always leaving room for the reader to draw his own conclusions.  Too often painted in black and white, both men benefit from the many shades of Kindred’s treatment.  It is hard to imagine a biographer of either man could combine sympathy and honesty to greater effect.  And the decision to present both together is triumphantly justified on every page, since each tells us so much about the other: and their stories tells us a lot about America, and about the twentieth century they illuminated in their own ways.

If there is a failing in this book, it is perhaps Kindred’s failure fully to explore Ali’s refusal to leave the limelight (difficult enough for any boxer at any time) was not just down to a need for money and attention.  This is not to whitewash, much less glamorize, the beatings of Ali’s later years: rather, it is to stress that if his resilience and determination also led him to fight on when he should not have, and it certainly did, then Ali himself is not solely to blame.  In 1977 Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s personal physician, famously wrote to Ali, trainer Angelo Dundee, Herbert Muhammad and Ali’s then-wife Veronica Porsche to report evidence of widespread internal damage, to warn them of the dangers of continuing, and to recommend an end to Ali’s career.  None responded.

This resilience was an essential part of Ali’s nature, and indeed a large part of what made him so great.  He accepted defeat in the ring, particularly his first defeat by Frazier, with remarkable magnanimity.  Elsewhere he was the same.  When asked if he would sue the government for the loss of his prime years, he said no: “They only did what they thought was right at the time. I did what I thought was right. That was all.”  It was this same equanimity and determination in the face of impending or actual disaster that allowed him to beat Foreman, and to come back from defeat to beat Frazier, Norton and Spinks, sealing his legend: indeed, it is just this sort of response to adversity and defeat, and not simple dominance of his weight class, or an undefeated record, that can make a fighter great.

There are questions here with which all of us who love boxing must wrestle.  It is no criticism of this magnificent book that Kindred has no better answers than the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

Book Review – The Black Lights, by Thomas Hauser

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In The Black Lights Thomas Hauser quotes Bob Arum as saying “I’m a businessman. Two guys fighting in a ring, that has nothing to do with me.”  A reader of this exceptional book, in which Hauser explores the “red-light district of professional sports” by following junior welterweight Billy Costello as he builds a record, then wins and defends a world title, might come to feel that Arum’s line could serve as the motto of the entire boxing business.

The book is immaculately written.  Hauser’s prose is clear and concise, never suffering from overwriting or affectation, but able to capture a moment or an individual with a single precise phrase (he describes José Sulaimán “choosing his words like a man taking only green jelly beans from a multicolored jar”).  More importantly, despite the extensive access he is obviously granted, making him a direct witness to some extraordinary events, Hauser is willing to restrict himself to the role of narrator.  British sportswriters have a habit of putting themselves into their own books, especially when they write about a subject as personal and intimate as boxing.  Hauser never succumbs to this temptation, preferring to disintermediate himself: in letting Costello & and his manager Mike Jones tell their own story, and by adeptly filling in the sporting, commercial and moral background, he shows us an entire world.

It is a world of dirty gyms, partisan crowds in sweaty halls, of the tedium of training, and of fear: and also of glory, honour and excitement.  Hauser is good on the quotidian grind of the boxer’s life, including not just the champions and challengers but also capturing the lives and the language of the sparring partners and the club fighters (who, in another powerful formulation, “don’t even know the names of the men who wrap their hands”).  The fights, in particular, are brought alive by Hauser’s taut, unshowy style.  But the book is at its best when it uncovers the parallel world of gross conflicts of interest, of near-criminal neglect, and of betrayal and frustration as impotent fighters wait for their title shot, or their TV debut, their fates in the hands of people who, in the words of Michael Katz of the New York Times (quoted here), “should be in jail” but “are looked upon as characters instead of the scum they really are”.

It says much about Hauser’s portrayal of Bob Arum, for example, and the state of boxing during Arum’s dominance, that the reader understands how Don King could have looked like a palatable option by comparison.  Accused of being untrustworthy, Arum simply says “I’m a lawyer and I use very precise language, but no matter what you say, they hear what they want to hear”.  Two guys in a ring?  Nothing to do with me.  Read the small print.

Of course, King turns out to be anything but palatable.  So complete is his monopoly over the heavyweight division, and so perfect his arrogance, that when promoter Butch Lewis takes him to court for interfering in the contract of prospect Greg Page, King simply argues that he was doing both of them a favour: since all twelve of the top heavyweights are on King’s roster, Page’s career would be over if he didn’t join them.

Complacent television executives, ignoring the behaviour of Arum, King & co., repressing their own discomfort with the violence and danger, and with an eye to boxing’s high ratings and low production costs, argue that TV is good for boxing: “[t]he glaring eye of the TV camera encourages honesty in judges’ decisions.  We get rid of more mismatches in a week by turning down prospective opponents for champions than the public could possibly imagine”.

Hauser responds witheringly with the notorious story of the “US Boxing Championship”, where King and others faked records to win televised bouts, and then rigged the results to get wins, for King fighters, at the expense of others.  More powerfully still, he also draws out the way that TV grants to the sanctioning bodies “an imprimatur which [they have] not earned”.  Everything one needs to know about the WBA and the value of their titles is summed up by Arum’s remark that “[t]here’s one bagman in the WBA, and that’s Pepe Cordero.  Anytime you want a fix in the WBA, you bribe Cordero and he takes care of it.  When I want something done, I have to pay off Cordero.”  The WBC is painted as a rather more substantial operation, but in the end also revolves similarly around a single individual, Jose Sulaimán.  Hauser’s account of the WBC conference is brilliantly revealing, particularly the all-important rankings session, where a handful of unknowns, wholly dominated by Sulaimán, decides which fighters will qualify for a shot at which title (and therefore win TV exposure, with all the economic advantages that brings).  Anyone who still thinks such rankings and titles mean anything about the relative ability or achievements of different fighters should read this section carefully.  Similarly, anyone who thinks that the alphabets are therefore harmless should reflect on the fact (which I did not know before reading this volume) that when Duk Koo Kim was killed in the ring by Ray Mancini in 1982 he was the No.1 contender for Mancini’s WBA title, but was not ranked among the top 40 fighters in his own country by the Korean authorities.  “Yes, my rules are flexible”, says Sulaimán, “but that is necessary for fairness and compromise”.  It apparently never occurs to him, nor to the TV executives with their limitless appetite for worthless title fights, that there might be anything wrong with this kind of “fairness and compromise”, much less with the fact that “the rules” are, as he says, Sulaimán’s.

Initially ecstatic at winning his own title, Costello says, “after a few days I didn’t even feel like a champion. All I’d gotten . . . was twenty-five thousand dollars, and I owed more than that.  No one recognized me on the street.”  More generally, Costello, who comes across as dignified, intelligent and decent, is under no illusions about the nature of his “sport”.  He knows the likely fate of the fighter: after watching one get pummelled insensible at New York’s Felt Forum, he remarks only that “[i]f that guy tries to get into the Felt Forum next week to watch a fight they’ll charge him ten dollars.”

And it is here that Hauser is at his most penetrating.  The meaningless glitz of the sanctioning bodies is no substitute for the competent regulatory authority boxing so desperately needs.  Instead, dozens of state commissions preside over a mishmash of different rules and regulations and widely divergent safeguards and standards.  Since these bodies do not share information efficiently it is idiotically easy to game the different systems, meaning that even a fighter who has lost his licence or been recently knocked out can fight again somewhere.  Add the facts that, firstly, promoters and managers are effectively wholly unregulated (King gets around the legal split of promoters and managers by having the fighters he promotes “managed” by his stepson Carl), and secondly, that gambling on boxing (unlike the great majority of sports) is not restricted in the US, and the scope for misbehaviour is wholly unlimited.

It is, of course, the fighters who suffer.  “The bulk of boxing’s revenue is divided among noncombatants, and the fighters – who have no union, and none of the protections normally accorded professional athletes – are left with poor wages, inadequate medical care, and no pension beyond a pocketful of memories when their career is done”.

Emphasizing this, Hauser finishes the book with a dramatic, clever, unexpected and very effective flourish.  After Costello’s comfortable title defence over Saoul Mamby, for the last few pages Hauser leaves Costello behind and takes us into Mamby’s dressing room.  By refusing to end on the easy high note of a triumph for his subject, Hauser reminds us once more that for every champion there is a defeated – literally, beaten – challenger.

But the most important thing about this book, and the reason for revisiting it now, is that so much of it could have been written today.  The cast has changed, in part at least, but the stories are still wearyingly familiar.  Don King’s influence may have faded, but Bob Arum is still around, and his biggest modern competitor, Golden Boy Promotions, has clearly learned from the King playbook: Golden Boy’s principal (indeed, the original Golden Boy himself) Oscar De La Hoya is not above tempting fighters to sign contracts with a King-like briefcase full of cash[1].  The WBA and WBC have been joined by the IBF and the WBO, but this has scarcely improved matters.  In August 2000 IBF founder and president Bob Lee was convicted on six counts of racketeering after being videotaped taking bribes to fix rankings and sanction fights.  Super-middleweight Darrin Morris was promoted in the WBO’s rankings twice in 2001 despite, firstly, having fought only once since December 1997, and secondly, having died in October 2000[2].  

More seriously still, despite the Ali Act, fighters are still not given the protection they deserve.  No one has written more convincingly on this than Hauser himself, whose articles[3] on the unfortunate Magomed Abdusalamov still raise the questions “whether proper procedures were in place, and whether those procedures, if appropriate, were properly implemented”.  Abdusalamov’s corner failed to stop the fight when he was clearly struggling; post-fight, no one on the medical staff seemed to know the way to the nearest hospital; and whatever insurance was in place, it was clearly not enough to cover his medical bills[4], even though provision of such insurance is a requirement of the Ali Act.  The outcome of the family’s case against the NY State Medical Commission could be immensely significant.

The book is not perfect.  The first few chapters, clearly aimed at giving the general reader some background, now feel dated, and will anyway be too familiar to the enthusiast.  There are almost no women in the book – there may not be many women “in boxing”, but there are plenty in the lives of boxing people – and when they do appear they are not terribly plausibly drawn.  Jones’ wife complains of his spending three days of their holiday with a boxing colleague called Bill Miller, who, she conveniently lets the reader know, “coordinated the Hagler-Scypion fight for Bob Arum and used to manage Alexis Arguello”.  This is not the only example of clunky dialogue, where Hauser is perhaps trying so hard to capture a theme or message that he forgets that real people are more than ciphers and symbols, and don’t really talk like that.

But these are minor quibbles.  The Black Lights is serious, angry, and magnificent.  If there is a better, clearer, more thorough explanation of the many flaws of the boxing business, then or now, I have yet to read it.  Recommended without reservation.

 

[1] http://articles.latimes.com/2007/mar/01/sports/sp-boxing1

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/boxing/2998879/Boxing-Morris-a-dead-cert.html

[3] http://www.boxingscene.com/magomed-abdusalamov-dark-side-boxing–71949

[4] http://www.eastsideboxing.com/2013/andrey-ryabinsky-will-pay-for-magomed-abdusalamovs-medical-bills/?utm_source=feedly

Podcast Review – Boxing News’ “The Opening Bell”

There are two ways in which a podcast like this one can be made to work: either the participants talk normally and naturally, which should only be attempted by those who are either unusually knowledgeable or innately entertaining, or they prepare properly and present professionally (or, of course, both).  The speakers here do neither, instead stiltedly working their way through their undiverting opinions on a list of recent and forthcoming fights, as if agreeing to do so were part of the terms of their day release.  In an apparent attempt to sound like proper sports commentators they pile cliché upon weary cliché – we are reminded repeatedly that “styles make fights”; one bout is described as a “bruising encounter” – and sometimes don’t even get that right – two well-built fighters are described as “body beautifuls”.  Offering neither education nor entertainment, this podcast is so utterly without merit that is hard to understand why it exists.

On Ending One’s Career

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Last weekend, in Monterrey, Mexico, the little-known[1] Vivian Harris (31-9-2 prefight) fought and beat one Jorge Paez, Jr. (37-4-1).  Several writers have expressed their shock and outrage, not at Harris’s win, but at the fact he was allowed to fight at all.  Harris had previously retired following an ugly series of knockout losses, saying he no longer had the “desire and hunger” to be a fighter, and since his comeback he had been denied a licence to box in the UK[2].

So, Tim Starks, writing at http://queensberry-rules.com, said “Harris should not have a license to box in Mexico or anywhere else”[3].  Dan Rafael of ESPN worked himself into a positive frenzy, declaring that the fight was “everything that is wrong with boxing . . . Harris is damaged goods”[4].  Steve Kim of MaxBoxing declared “Harris [is] a fighter that should be put down. If he were a horse, he’d either be taken to stud or the glue factory”[5].

This being boxing, others have taken a contrary view.  Paul Magno of http://theboxingtribune.com called this “canned outrage” and “blind grandstanding”, quoting with approval Sam Geraci of http://www.fightnews.com, who said he could not understand “how any person with ethics can write something that harms the earning potential of a fighter without having verified information on why a fighter may have been denied a license in one region and granted one in another ”[6].

This is an unedifying debate.  I cannot be the only one who finds something distasteful about suggesting a fighter is fit only for breeding or the glue factory, or describing him as “damaged goods”, especially when the writer professes a sanctimonious concern for the same fighter’s welfare.  Nor can I be alone in detecting a whiff of condescension, or even colonialism, in the bald statement that “in Mexico, where suspensions in the United States or England are usually ignored, the standards are lax”.  Some pretty questionable fights are sanctioned, and licences granted, in other places, the UK and US not excluded.  On the other hand, I am not convinced of the “ethics” of saying a fighter should be allowed to go jurisdiction shopping in the interests of making a buck.  But there are some important, more general issues here that are worth airing.

The boxer who won’t quit when he should, or comes back when he shouldn’t, is a dreadful cliché.  Boxing writers, podcasters, et al, tired of the same old stories, groan and roll their eyes.  Of course he can’t quit: the idiot spent all his money, and he can’t bear to leave the limelight! But there is more to it than this.

From the beginning, a fighter is taught that the decision to stop a fight is for his trainer, or the referee, or the doctor, but not for the fighter himself.  His job is to keep going, to keep punching, to defend himself at all times (and, not coincidentally, there is perhaps no worse insult in all of boxing than that of “quitter”). The quid pro quo is that he trusts his handlers to take the tough decisions and look after his best interests.

This being so, it is asking a lot of a fighter that he alone make the judgement to end his entire career once and for all. However, due to boxing’s usual grotesque conflicts of interest – that is, absolutely everyone else’s interests exactly conflict with those of the fighter – often there is no one for him to turn to for help[7]. A retired fighter isn’t going to make any money for anyone. What’s more, a rich fighter is much likelier to retire: yet another reason, in case they needed one, for unscrupulous handlers to screw boxers out of their earnings and – a point less often noted – to encourage fighters to blow what money they do get their hands on.

There is another respect, less obvious, in which boxers are different.  In most elite sports, and especially team sports, and most especially of all sports that are very physically demanding or where performance is very objectively measured, the absolute demand for positive results and the economic imperatives that accompany such demands generally ensure that players who are past their best are kept well away from the action.  Enthusiasts may wax nostalgic about big names from the past, and sports clubs may like nothing more than to trumpet their history and tradition, but no one, from the fans, to the other players, to the managers, to the team owners, wants to see a has-been step up to take a last-minute penalty, bowl the final over of a one-day international, or (perhaps most relevantly) attempt to block a charging defensive tackle.  But one of the many perverse facts about the economics of boxing is that the opportunities and rewards available to a fighter may increase after his peak.

It takes time and money to get to, or near to, the top in boxing.  Having reached it, a guy may only stay there for a short time. But having made his name, especially if he has won one of boxing’s worthless “titles”[8], he can often make good money by hanging around (or coming back) to fight against, and polish the records of, young prospects.  This is how a 35-year old Marco Antonio Barrera ended up in the ring with the 22-year old Amir Khan, and why a 38-year old Larry Holmes met Mike Tyson when he was 21 and terrifying.  More recently, a badly faded Erik Morales fought & lost to Danny Garcia twice, despite giving away eleven and a half years, and Zab Judah (who once held WBC, WBA and IBF welterweight titles simultaneously) has become a sort of specialist celebrity loser, having now succumbed to Paulie Malignaggi as well as both García and Khan.

But let’s say our fighter does have the strength of will to stop. Let’s say he isn’t tempted to come back. And let’s assume he doesn’t have enough money to “retire” in the good way. What is he going to do with himself? And what is he going to live on?

Many retired sportsmen go on to a career in the sports media. But this requires a certain public profile. The historic decision to shift the most important fights to subscription-only channels or pay-per-view may have meant sustainable boxing revenues for broadcasters & promoters, because it ensures that the core audience ponies up, but it is a disaster for individual fighters trying to make a name for themselves in the wider world. There are people outside boxing’s hardcore support who have heard of the Klitschkos, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, but how many have heard of such extraordinary athletes as Sergio Martinez, Tim Bradley, Andre Ward, or Guillermo Rigondeaux, all of whom are regularly listed among the pound-for-pound top ten fighters in the world? What chance do they have of presenting a boxing show on TV, much less getting a gig in the wider sports media?

Of course, there are other qualifications for a job of that kind.  A presentable appearance, a degree of literacy and a civilized manner are three of them. These are not areas in which retired fighters typically excel.  It would be easy, but lazy and wrong, simply to put this down to their backgrounds: plenty of retired sports stars have had high-profile public careers despite humble beginnings.  Rather, in their own short-term financial interest, promoters always permit and often encourage boxers to remain essentially feral, their public appearances often comprising little more than sullen misbehaviour and graphic and obscene threats of violence.  A recent low point came when Adrien Broner and Paulie Malignaggi publicly destroyed the reputation of one of Malignaggis’ female conquests.  It is impossible to imagine a young soccer, baseball or NFL star, carrying the reputation of his club and also of his sport, being allowed to carry on like this with impunity.  In boxers it appears to be the norm.

And this limits boxers’ opportunities in other ways than stopping them getting a gig on Fox Sports.  Many retired sportsmen become coaches: but who wants to be trained (and which parents want their kids to be trained) by someone like that?  Some become “spokesmen”, or travelling salesmen, for companies: but what business is going to want a boxer’s “endorsement” if he doesn’t know how to speak, dress or behave?  For the same reasons, and others besides, what employer is going to hire him?

It isn’t hard to see why we admire fighters: they step into the ring alone, almost naked, armed only with their talent, their conditioning and their determination, and put their lives at risk in the name of glory (and our entertainment).  But if we expect these lone warriors to be superhuman outside the ring, too, I suggest we expect too much.  Fighters, by temperament, training and culture, are ill-suited to determine when to end their careers.  The people around a fighter are incentivized to extend his career as far, and make retirement as unappealing, as possible.  Economic forces encourage him to box on past his prime.  Fighters are encouraged to develop antisocial personas making them ill-suited to life, especially working life, after boxing.  And this is before we consider the difficulty anyone might have in “leaving the limelight” (or just something they were good at) at an early age.

Perhaps, then, when they find it difficult to leave the ring for good, fighters deserve a little more understanding and compassion than they get from the likes of Rafael and Kim. Equally, before we trumpet a fighter’s right to seek out a regulator with low standards so he can make a living, we might like to reflect on why that might be necessary.

[1] This is another way of saying I’d never heard of him.

[2] http://www.boxingscene.com/fighting-words-vivian-harris-danger-success–75950

[3] http://queensberry-rules.com/uncategorized/weekend-afterthoughts-on-vivian-harris-health-face-off-manny-pacquiao-vs-timothy-bradley-ii-more.html

[4] http://espn.go.com/blog/dan-rafael/post/_/id/8068/harris-should-not-be-fighting

[5] http://www.maxboxing.com/news/max-boxing-news/requiem-for-a-repeat

[6] http://theboxingtribune.com/2014/03/vivian-harris-and-the-licensing-lynch-mob/

[7] Of course, this isn’t always true, and as the always-readable Steve Bunce points out (http://www.espn.co.uk/boxing/sport/story/187155.html) managers & promoters often intervene, even against the fighters’ wishes, to protect their charges by suggesting their licence be withdrawn. This does not change the point, which is that fighters are too dependent on the goodwill of people whose economic interests are opposed to their own.

[8] Vivian Harris is a former WBO light welterweight champion.

Podcast Review – Buncey’s Boxing Podcast

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Anyone who doesn’t get enough of Steve Bunce from what appears to be his 24-hour-a-day gig with BoxNation, not to mention his torrential writings in such different places as ESPN.co.uk and The Independent, can now download and enjoy him in podcast form.  Always operating on the excitable side of energetic, for the purposes of his podcast Bunce adopts the persona of “Hysterical DJ”, talking a mile a minute and repeatedly singing the praises of his own product.  However, the podcast is put together with considerable professionalism – well-structured and mostly tightly edited, not always a given even from such a commercially minded organisation as ESPN – and while the material is fairly heavily weighted towards the UK fan, it includes an appealing mix of reviews of fights from all over the globe, both recent and forthcoming.  Most importantly, “Buncey” has been around boxing for ever, knows its people, history and audience, and regularly pulls off excellent interviews not only with modern headliners but also with such obscure but fascinating figures as former British light-heavyweight champion Bunny Johnson, Hackney-born surprise WBO middleweight champion Jason Matthews, and John H. Stracey, who (amazingly) won the welterweight title from José Nápoles in Mexico City in 1975.  The only real complaint is that Bunce and his usually overwhelmed sidekick Barry Jones (a former WBO titleholder, we are repeatedly reminded) have a bad habit of running competitions based on rather meaningless questions (such as “who is the best heavyweight with less than ten fights?”) then reading out the answers and names of what appear to be literally all the entrants.  All around an enjoyable listen for half an hour once a week, but probably best enjoyed in small doses.

Book Review – In The Red Corner: A Journey Into Cuban Boxing, by John Duncan

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Everyone knows the same handful of facts about Cuba.  Cubans make the world’s best cigars.  They drive American cars left over from the 1950s.  Their extravagantly-bearded revolutionary leader Fidel Castro used to make immensely long speeches.  Americans can’t visit Cuba, in spite of their supposedly constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of travel (strictly speaking, they are allowed to visit, but they aren’t allowed to spend any money if they do, so in practice they can’t).  And in amateur boxing, Cubans win everything in sight.

The reason for starting with this list of appalling clichés is that it appears to comprise the sum total of John Duncan’s knowledge of Cuba, and Cuban boxing in particular, prior to embarking on the writing of this book.  This does not stop him abandoning his job as a sports writer at the Guardian and persuading Frank Warren, of all people, to provide financial support for his quixotic attempt to arrange a fight between Cuban heavyweight Felix Savón and Mike Tyson, despite the facts that, firstly, professional boxing is illegal in Cuba, and secondly, a previous attempt at exactly the same thing ended in failure, despite a $10m offer to the Cuban from its rather-better-qualified author, Don King.

Long experience teaches the reader to be wary of any book whose subtitle begins “A Journey Into . . .”, since it more or less guarantees that the book will be much more concerned with the journey, or more specifically the journeyer, than with whatever subject into which it is putatively a journey.  This book is no exception.  In the early stages Duncan agonizes over, among other things, his decision to leave the Guardian and the arrangements he needs to make to let his property in London, topics which are of interest to exactly nobody.  His attempts to arrange meetings with Frank Warren are also related in excessive, and occasionally fawning, detail, emphasizing Duncan’s own inexperience and unsuitability for the job at hand. Self-deprecation done well can be charming: when it is overdone, as here, the reader cannot help but ask why he should not take the author at his own estimation, and give up on him entirely.

Matters improve when Duncan arrives in Cuba.  He does a fair job of sketching how, through a mixture of rum, humour, compassion, and a complete disregard for rules and regulations, Cubans survive poverty, oppression and endless bureaucracy.  More importantly, despite the utter implausibility of his mission, Duncan makes impressive progress in meeting and interviewing boxers and administrators of all levels, all the way up to the likes of Savón himself and fabled national coach Alcides Sagarra.  He is even included (though it is not clear whether he is invited) on the Cuban team’s trip to the World Championships in Hungary in 1997.

But all this says much more about the openness and friendliness of the Cubans than it does about Duncan’s nose for, or grasp of, his story.  So limited is his understanding of boxing and its culture that one wonders whether the reason for his suggestion of a Savón-Tyson bout is that Mike Tyson is the only boxer he has ever heard of.  It is clear to the outsider that his failure to make more progress than he does is down to the fact that he is just not equipped for the task, and the Cubans know it.  He is genuinely amazed to discover that boxing involves skill and strategy, and that boxers are capable of both enjoying it and discussing it in detail.  When Felix Savón holds out a friendly fist for Duncan to “bump”, he pathetically wraps his hand round it.  In the face of this sort of ineptitude, no amount of self-deprecation can suffice.

However, it is not all bad news: and given that the history of Cuban boxing is full of great fighters, great characters, and great fights, how could it be?  Many boxing fans, especially the casual fans at whom the book is apparently aimed, will find much of interest in Duncan’s portraits of a handful of figures from Cuban boxing history, notably Kid Chocolate and Teófilo Stevenson (though these are scarcely revelatory, and were probably more interesting and useful in the days before Wikipedia, Boxrec and the other numerous online sources that were not available when this book was published in 2000).

Better still – much better, in fact – are the lengthy interviews Duncan carries out with less well-known figures in Cuban boxing, where he mostly keeps the focus off himself and on his interviewees.  The embittered Angel Espinosa, retired, divorced, penniless and living with his mother, complains of how the system treats those who serve it loyally: conversely, Joel Casamayor, pining for his 5-year old daughter in Miami, and struggling to get either a break or a fair deal from professional boxing’s often commercially-minded judges (Cuban boxers, unlike Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, almost never draw big crowds), shows the sacrifices and painful uncertainty of a life in exile.  Most affectingly of all, Duncan tracks down the ex-wife of the near-legendary Kid Gavilán.  Gavilán too was mistreated and exploited by the Cuban system, but was eventually given permission to leave at short notice: his wife was not.  He departed, never to return, and after waiting seventeen years in Cuba, she finally and sadly petitioned for divorce.  “Our story is a true love story,” she says, “but Cuba got in the way”.  As so often in boxing, the toughest chins don’t necessarily belong to the boxers.

But these undoubted high points do not compensate for the book’s other flaws.  For one thing, the writing itself is often clumsy.  There is the occasional solecism: Duncan writes “The day of the final [of the 1978 World Championships] built to a crescendo for the Cubans.”   Any competent writer (and his editor) knows that you don’t build to a crescendo: the crescendo is the building.  Elsewhere, Duncan gives a long, tedious account of the process of finding Kid Chocolate’s grave, presumably to give the reader an idea of just how long and tedious a process it was.  It would have been much, much better simply to write “it was a long and tedious process”.  And he writes of Savón: “he has so much bulk around his shoulders and back that it looks as if he has a giant armpit ringed by muscle”.  What does this mean?  Does he have a giant armpit ringed by muscle – just the one?  Or does it just look like that?  But then what does that look like, if it doesn’t look like someone’s muscled back – which is what was supposed to be the subject of the description in the first place?

For another thing, Duncan just doesn’t display enough curiosity.  More than once, he inexplicably fails to follow obviously promising suggestions from his interviewees.  Perhaps he is too self-obsessed, or perhaps talking to the Cubans generally is so easy that he forgets that his job is to ask for more than is straightforwardly offered.  Sagarra suggests, surely absurdly, that Cubans’ proclivity for boxing is related to their love of dancing.  This is passed over without comment.  Casamayor hints that other boxers are keen to join him in Miami and turn pro but don’t because they are afraid of the consequences – but, writes Duncan, “He didn’t elaborate . . . I didn’t push him”.  Why not?

But the biggest problem is the condescension inherent in the very project itself.  Boxing plays a huge part in Cuba’s national history and identity, but from the start Duncan treats the country, its boxing history and even its boxers as something akin to a school summer project.  He appears to think that trumpeting his own lack of qualifications is endearing, when the effect is quite the reverse.

We started with a list of clichés, and we close with another.  There is
undoubtedly a great book to be written on boxing in Cuba.  But, despite its
numerous high points, “In the Red Corner” isn’t it.