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How Sweet It Is

George Plimpton once wrote, “The smaller the ball used in the sport, the better the book.” But this doesn’t account for boxing, a sport that word-for-word has produced more great writing than any other. For hard evidence, look no further than “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” an outstanding new collection edited by George Kimball and John Schulian.

All of the heavyweights are here–from Jack London, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, to A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. And that’s just for starters. How about Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, Pete Dexter, David Remnick and Mark Kriegel, not to mention the veterans of the boxing scene like Larry Merchant, Mark Kram, Vic Ziegel, Pat Putnam and Richard Hoffer.

I’m not a huge boxing fan but I adore boxing writing and this is the finest anthology I’ve ever come across.

Check out the Library of America’s website for a fascinating and in-depth interview with Kimball and Schulian.

Here’s Kimball:

The wonder shouldn’t be that there are two Liebling pieces, but that there are only two. (He and Schulberg have the only double-barreled entries in the anthology.) If I’d been compiling that list, The Sweet Science would be No.1, and A Neutral Corner, Liebling’s other collection of (mostly) New Yorker pieces No. 2.

Putting At the Fights together was a painstaking, year-long process that was often like a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a par- ticular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others. John and I made a conscious decision early on to hold Liebling in reserve. We knew whichever of his pieces we wound up using, they were going to work. Our initial inclination, for instance, had been to include Liebling’s terrific account of his visit to Sonny Liston’s training camp, but if we’d used that we probably wouldn’t have been able to include Joe Flaherty’s wonderful “Amen to Sonny,” and if we hadn’t used Liebling’s “Kearns by a Knockout” we’d probably have had to find two more pieces to adequately address Doc Kearns and Sugar Ray Robinson. It was sometimes like playing Whack-A-Mole, because every time you’d hammer one down, three more would pop up somewhere else. But in that respect Liebling was a constant security blanket, our wild-card, because of our unshaken confidence that whatever we wound up using was going to be great.

Anyone who has written about boxing for the last fifty years owes a great debt of gratitude to Joe Liebling, so yes, his influence has been both pervasive and profound, but woe be unto the conscious imitator. Any writer who sets out trying to write his own “Liebling piece”—and there have been a few—is inex- orably doomed to fall flat on his face.

And Schulian:

It’s too much to say that the best boxing stories are about losers. That argument is contradicted time and again throughout the book. But losers and eccentrics and guys who never quite made it to the mountaintop have inspired some classic writing. You want to weep for Primo Carnera after read- ing what Paul Gallico had to say about the way he was used as a patsy and a stooge and a pretend heavyweight champion. And then you have Stanley Ketchel and Bummy Davis, two crazy-tough fighters who would have been swallowed by the mists of time if it weren’t for the stories written about them. Was John Lardner’s piece on Ketchel better than the fighter himself? Absolutely. And Bill Heinz’s on Davis? Without a doubt. And the amazing thing is that Lardner and Heinz never met their subjects, both of whom were prematurely dispatched from this life by gunshot. But Lardner and Heinz were intrepid reporters as well as stunning writers, and they proved it with their renderings of the two fighters’ hearts and souls.

Click here for an excerpt.

Don’t sleep, pound-for-pound, this will be the most rewarding book–never mind sports book–you’ll buy this spring.

Let it Bleed

 

Here’s George Kimball on Sly Stallone and “Rocky”:

If Ali remains the most recognizable boxing figure of the 20th century, Rocky Balboa, at least in the public consciousness, probably ranks a close second.

Stallone had drawn his inspiration for Rocky, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year (the defeated competition included All The President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver) from a real-life title fight in Cleveland a year earlier, when a journeyman heavyweight named Chuck Wepner lasted until the 15th round against the great Ali. Wepner, who was known for reasons devoid of irony as “The Bayonne Bleeder,” was even credited with a ninth-round knockdown.

On the evening of that bout, The Bayonne Bleeder presented his wife with a filmy blue negligee and instructed her to wear it later that night when, he promised, “you’re gonna be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world.”

Much later that night, having been taken first to a hospital to have his face stitched back together, Wepner stumbled back to his hotel room, to find his wife sitting up in bed wearing the filmy blue negligee.

“Well,” Mrs. Wepner asked her husband, “is he coming up here, or do I have to go to his room?”

Legends of the Fall

 

Fight fans as well as movie fans will enjoy this—George Kimball’s wonderful piece about Budd Schulberg’s memorial service back in the fall of 2009.

“On the Waterfron,” for which Budd received the Academy Award, might not have been in the strictest sense a “boxing movie,” but Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy is the ex-pug who “coulda been a contender,” and at Budd’s insistence, a trio of charter members of the Bum of the Month Club — Two-Ton Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello, and Abe Simon — were cast as burly longshoremen in the film. One highlight of the program was the telecast of the 1954 Oscar ceremony, when, after director Elia Kazan and Brando had already won their statuettes, Bob Hope and Brando opened the ‘Best Screenplay’ envelope and summoned Budd from the audience to receive his. (And let history record that he didn’t even try to look surprised. He knew what he’d done.)

Pete Hamill recalled having first met Budd at the 1962 Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson fight in Chicago, an occasion far more memorable for the press room cast publicist Harold Conrad had assembled than for the barely two minutes of action in the ring. “You’d look in one direction and there would be Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling,” recalled Hamill, then just in his second year as a newspaperman, “and you’d look the other way and there would be Nelson Algren and James Baldwin and Budd Schulberg.”

(Liebling, recounting the same scene in the New Yorker, wrote that “the press gatherings before this fight sometimes resembled those highly intellectual pour-parlers on some Mediterranean island; placed before typewriters, the accumulated novelists could have produced a copy of the Paris Review in forty-two minutes.”)

Hamill also recalled that on the evening of June 6, 1968, he and his brother Brian had driven across Los Angeles to pick up Budd in their rental car, and driven from there to the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy would be speaking once the returns were in from that day’s California primary. Budd, said Hamill, remembered the hotel from his youth as the scene of some memorable Hollywood debauchery. Both Hamill and Schulberg were waiting in the kitchen that night when Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy. Hours later, once the east coast deadlines had passed, everyone reconnoitered, still battered by the shocking assassination. Everyone was grieving, but Schulberg made it his particular point that night to console Hamill, who he knew had lost a close personal friend.

They don’t make ‘em like Budd anymore. Hell, they don’t make ‘em like Kimball anymore either.

[Photo Credit: Boston.com]

Beat of the Day

This one isn’t in the new book of boxing poetry and song lyrics but still, Uncle L’s crossover hit is still worth dropping here:

Beat of the Day

Another boxing beat:

…For the Brown Bomber:

Beat of the Day

Boxing Week continues

Beat of the Day

In celebration of the recent publication of The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song from Zevon to Ali (edited by George Kimbal and John Schulian), let’s do a week of boxing tunes.

First up, a classic:

Hurts So Good

“Sometimes you only get to win one championship.” –Leonard Gardner

Did you ever rent a movie and then return it without watching it?

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I’ve rented John Huston’s Fat City at least twice in my life but never watched it. I can’t explain why. Chalk it up to my mood at the time. After all, Huston is one of my favorite directors and Jeff Bridges one of my favorite actors.

Fat City is based on Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name. The book is less than 200 pages long, and the story is almost unbearably grim. It is about boxing and drinking in Stockton, California. It is about losers losing. And although the prose is lean and clear, it is also dense–you can almost feel how much effort went into making it so direct and spare.

It was a tough book for me to get through, even though it wasn’t long. I read it because I thought it would be good for me not because I enjoyed it. I admired the artistry–the writing was superb, but I found the story bleak and depressing. When I finished it, I thought, Now, there is a world I don’t need to visit again. No wonder I never watched the movie.

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I felt compelled to read the book because Huston’s movie started a two-week run at the Film Forum last night. George Kimball and Pete Hamill introduced the movie and then stuck around to answer questions when it was over. Hamill said that Gardner’s novel is one of the three best boxing novels ever written, along with The Professional by W.C. Heinz, and The Harder they Fall by Budd Schulberg. Kimball who is a walking encyclopedia of boxing knowledge talked about how Huston cast boxers and non-actors in the movie, how he insisted that it be shot in Stockton to preserve the book’s authenticity, how the producer Ray Stark wanted to fire the DP, the great Conrad Hall, because the scenes inside the bars were so dark.

Kimball also tried to explain the biggest question about Gardner (one that Gardner is probably asked daily)–why was Fat City the only book he ever wrote? Gardner continued to write short stories and journalism–I remember reading a piece he did for Inside Sports on the first Leonard-Duran fight–and eventually went to Hollywood to write for television. David Milch taught Fat City when he was at Yale and got Gardner work on NYPD Blue, which proves that Milch isn’t all bad (although he famously ripped-off Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood for his TV series).

Kimball didn’t know the exact reason why Gardner has never written another book. He said Gardner’s never offered a reason and he’s never  pressed him for one. Kimball’s guess is that Gardner wrote such a perfectly realized book in Fat City that he figured could never reach that height again. So why bother trying?  Kimball said that Fat City was 400 pages long and Gardner kept honing it, pairing it down, like a master chef making a reduction.

Whatever the reason, it is easy to see why Huston was attracted to the story.  Hamill said that Huston spent his life making one movie for the studio and then one for himself. And this was one of his personal movies. He has great affection for the characters and the place and while he captures the unhappiness of Gardner’s book, I think the movie is has far more humor. There was some funny banter in the book but it didn’t come across as amusing to me. But the moment we see Nicholas Colasanto (better known to my generation as Coach from Cheers), the sound of his voice is warming, and cuts into the despair. So does the soundtrack.

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Huston’s directorial style is also an ideal fit for Gardner’s prose. I remember once reading an article about Huston in American Film when he was making his final film, The Dead (another personal project). His son Tony was surprised at how skilled his father’s camera technique was.  And the old man said, “It’s what I do best, yet no critic has ever remarked on it. That’s exactly as it should be. If they noticed it, it wouldn’t be any good.”

In Huston’s movies–The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra MadrePrizzi’s Honor–you don’t notice the style, you follow the story. Gardner, who wrote the screenplay with Huston, was blessed to have this man in his corner. The boxing scenes are strong. You feel close to the action, but nothing is forced or stylistic–it’s not like the Rocky movies or Raging Bull. In fact, you can see the ropes in the frame often, putting us just outside of the ring. The boxers sometimes look clunky but since they aren’t supposed to be great fighters, it works. And in Keach’s big fight scene you can feel the fighter’s exhaustion, their bodies getting heavy, by the second round.

fatcity1

Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges are terrific (so when is Bridges not terrific?). There is a dignity to the characters, no matter how laid-out they are.  There is a tremendous shot, a long take, when Keach and his trainers and their wives leave the arena after a fight, followed by a broken-down Mexican fighter that illustrates this beautifully.

Keach wears a silver braclet in the movie that was exactly like the kind my father wore during that period, when I was a young kid. But my old man was a middle-class drunk, so the comparisons end there. However, the bar scenes, the life of drunks, rang true and reminded me of my father’s alcoholism.  There is a lot of drinking during the day, and Kimball remarked on the blinding light that greets you once you stumble out into the daylight. Like when you come out of a movie theater in the middle of the day–but more woozy and disorienting.

It is that kind of touch that makes Huston’s movie effective. Nothing much happens in the story. But it feels authentic, taking the essence of Gardner’s book and making it into a story for the screen.

Yanks Finally Beat Sox in Soporific Slugfest

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Boxing metaphors are easy to come by when the Yanks play the Sox and I had boxing on the brain today for a couple of reasons: the writer Budd Schulberg died, and Muhammad Ali was honored before the game at Yankee Stadium.

My grandfather the head of public relations at the Anti-Defamantion League from 1946-71 (the year I was born), and helped prepare Schulberg’s statement before HUAC during the communist witch hunt after World War II–he also helped the actor John Garfield with his statement.

I remember seeing a worn copy of Schulberg’s The Disenchanted on my grandfather’s bookshelf; I think my aunt has his signed copy of Waterfront, the book that was the basis of On The Waterfront. Schulberg’s most enduring work is What Makes Sammy Run? a cynical novel about show biz.

waterfront2-121

Over at  The Sweet Science, George Kimball remembers Schulberg:

He straddled the worlds of literature and pugilism throughout his life, but unlike some of his more boastful contemporaries he was not a dilettante when it came to either. He sparred regularly with Mushy Callahan well beyond middle age. The night of the Frazier-Ali fight of the century Budd started to the arena in Muhammad Ali’s limousine, and then when the traffic got heavy, got out and walked to Madison Square Garden with Ali. A year before Jose Torres died, Budd and Betsy flew to Puerto Rico and spent several days with Jose and Ramona at their home in Ponce. Art Aragon was the best man at his wedding. And when push came to shove, he put on the gloves with both Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer and kicked both of their asses, though not, as some would now claim, on the same night.

And from an interview with Schulberg earlier this year in The Independent:

No writer has ever been closer to Muhammad Ali. Schulberg travelled in Ali’s car on the way to fights, sat in his dressing-room even after defeats, and was at the epicentre of some of the bizarre social situations the Louisville fighter liked to engineer. He was at the Hotel Concord in upstate New York when Ali was training for his third fight against Ken Norton. Schulberg was with his third wife, the actress Geraldine Brooks. “Ali,” Schulberg recalls, “asked Geraldine for an acting lesson. She improvised a scene in which he’d be provoked into anger.” After two unconvincing attempts, “She whispered in his ear, with utter conviction: ‘I hate to tell you this, but everybody here except you appears to know that your wife is having an affair with one of your sparring partners.’ I watched Ali’s eyes. Rage.”

Then, he recalls, Ali had another idea. “‘Let’s go to the middle of the hotel lobby. You turn on me and, in a loud voice, call me ‘nigger’.” Once in the foyer, crowded with Ali’s entourage, “Gerry dropped it on him. ‘You know what you are? You’re just a goddamn lying nigger.’ Schulberg recalls how Ali waited, restraining his advancing minders at the very last minute; a characteristic sense of timing that allowed his white guests, if only for a moment, to experience the emotions generated by the prospect of imminent lynching, yet live to tell the story.

The stars were out at the Stadium to see Ali and the Yanks: Bruce Willis, Paul Simon, Kate Hudson, and Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray. Ali was wearing a powder blue shirt and dark sunglasses; he slumped forward, a hulking man, surrounded by young, fit athletes and middle-aged executives. The moon was yellow and almost full. The stands were packed (49,005, the biggest crowd all year) as this was the most talked-about game to date in the new park.

(more…)

Two Giants and Four Kings

Last Friday night, I had the pleasure of listening to George Kimball read from his new book at Gelf Magazine’s Varsity Letters reading series.  (Here are two video links: One and Two.) The book,Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing is a must for anyone interested in the fight game.  

roberto-duran

Kimball was there for it all and conveys the excitement these four champions brought to the game in this expertly reported book that is written in pleasing, straight-forward prose.

For a sampling of Kimball’s work, check out his archive at The Sweet Science.  For example, here is his story on the Hagler-Hearns brawl

Nearly a quarter century later it remains a high point of boxing in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some knowledgeable experts have described it as the greatest fight in boxing history – which it probably wasn’t, if only due to its brevity. But its ferocious first round, which to this day remains the standard against which all others are measured, was undoubtedly the most exciting in middleweight annals, and one of the two or three best opening stanzas of all time.

What did Bob Arum know that the rest of us did not? Already in the midst of an age in which it had already become obligatory to sell every big fight – and many smaller ones – with a catchy slogan, the promoter who had already staged (with Don King) the Thrilla in Manila, as well as served as the impresario for Evel Knievel’s ill-fated attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, christened the 1985 matchup between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns simply “The Fight.”

This Friday, Kimball will be interviewed by none other than Pete Hamill (who wrote the foreword for the book) at the  Barnes and Noble in Tribeca (97 Warren street).  7 pm, ya heard? 

Again, anyone with a remote interest in boxing should brave the cold and check out what promises to be a riveting chat.

hearns

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver