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Tag: richard hoffer

BGS: Leonard Stuns Hagler With Split Decision

For years, Richard Hoffer was a stud at Sports Illustrated (where he still contributes the occasional essay), and before that he worked for the L.A. Times.  He  is a master stylist and writes lean, elegant prose–precise and wry. He is funny, though never showy. Combined with skillful reporting and sharp observations (his book on Mike Tyson is a must for any boxing fan) that is enough to make him one of our best.

Take, for instance, this  L.A. Times piece on the controversial Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler fight.

Written on deadline, it is reprinted here with the author’s permission.


“Leonard Stuns Hagler With Split Decision”

By Richard Hoffer

Sugar Ray Leonard’s enormous bravado, which was nearly offensive in the pre-fight buildup, became a promise fulfilled Monday night when, after what was essentially a five-year layoff, he returned and upset boxing’s dominant champion, Marvelous Marvin Hagler. The sheer audacity of what he attempted was somehow matched by the strategic elegance with which he did it.

The comeback, culminated before the largest world audience to ever see a bout, had been judged foolhardy by most. The symmetry of their careers, their destinies so intertwined, somehow forgave the circumstances of the obvious mismatch. They deserved each other five years ago, but this was better than never.

Still, only those who believed in time travel gave Leonard any chance against Hagler. Leonard would have to return five years, to a time when hands were fast and legs tireless, to meet the foreboding Hagler on anything near equal terms.

Well, he wasn’t the welterweight of 1982, when he first retired after eye surgery. But there was more about Leonard than his tasseled shoes that recalled his time of greatness. For 12 tactically brilliant rounds, he circled and countered, confusing and confounding the bewildered middleweight champion, until he had secured a split decision.

Though the judges did not entirely agree on what they saw—Lou Fillippo had it 115-113 for Hagler, Dave Moretti 115-113 for Leonard, and JoJo Guerra 118-110 for Leonard—the only person near the ring in the parking lot at Caesars Palace to voice any genuine surprise at the decision was Hagler himself. “I beat him and you know it,” he said immediately afterward. “I stayed aggressive. C’mon. I won the fight.”

But Leonard’s game plan never let Hagler in the fight. He circled outside, daring Hagler to stalk him, occasionally entangling the champion in a brisk flurry. Hagler missed monumentally as he chased Leonard. Although neither was hurt or in any danger of going down, it was clear that Leonard was hitting more than Hagler and gaining angles on a man not particularly known for his balance.

“Hit and run, stick and move, taunt and intimidate,” explained Leonard, facing the press in a jaunty yachtsman’s cap afterward, “a variety of things.”

It was not always pretty and may have disappointed the nearly 300 million people watching, in that it lacked boxing’s concussive conclusion. But it was not ugly, as even Leonard’s attorney, Mike Trainer, had predicted when the comeback was announced a year ago.

Richard Steele, the referee, said: “Maybe he fought him the only style he could win with.”

Leonard, of course, knew better than to lead Hagler into any kind of brawl. Hagler (62-3-2, 52 KO) had leveled Thomas Hearns, the last fighter to try that, in just three rounds. In fact, he did fight Hagler the only possible way.

And he fought him that way the entire night. Leonard (34-1, 24 KOs) danced outside from the first round. The clinching was plentiful. And at times, Leonard leaned back into the ropes, imitating the last great popular champion, Muhammad Ali. It was obviously frustrating for Hagler. His long looping rights missed by feet, it seemed. Once he threw a punch, followed it into a ring post, while Leonard bobbed and returned to the center of the ring.

Leonard gave him head feints, his hands dropped, offering his chin disdainfully. Once, in the seventh round, Hagler threw three large right hands in a row. They sailed wide, tremendous arcs in the desert air.

Leonard was masterful in his attempt to frustrate Hagler. In the fourth round, Leonard mocked his opponent with a bolo punch to the stomach.

Hagler, of course, would not be unnerved in the way that Roberto Duran was, when Leonard frustrated him into submission. Still, he was mad, and the two often crossed stares at the bell, and several times had to be escorted to their corners. Hagler was often exhorting his long-time nemesis, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he kept repeating.

“Once,” said Leonard, shrugging his shoulders, “he called me a sissy.”

In the later rounds, when Leonard was obviously and desperately tired, Hagler began to close the distance between the fighters. In the ninth round, Leonard appeared in trouble in his own corner, but he battled out of it with a vicious fury. At times, he seemed to die against the ropes. Or was he inviting Hagler in for that staccato counter-punching?

In that ninth round, the best of the fight, Leonard four times ensnarled Hagler in some reckless flurries.

It was dangerous and, considering the scoring up to that point, unnecessary. In the 11th round, Leonard got cute. He got up on his toes, smirked as he circled the champion, and threatened yet another bolo punch.

In the 12th and final round, with Hagler continuing to miss, Leonard mocked him by raising his right glove, apparently in anticipation of victory.

Inasmuch as this fight is expected to pull in more than $60 million, a record gross, there will undoubtedly be some who felt they didn’t get their money’s worth. Yet Leonard, who received a flat guarantee of $11 million to Hagler’s $12 million (plus a percentage of the gross), certainly made an effort to earn his.

For, he won with as much grit as wit. At the fight’s end, he collapsed into the arms of his handlers. Those legs, suspect going into the fight, hadn’t failed him until then.

Leonard, 30, had fought just 32 rounds in six years but his year of conditioning apparently dissolved the ring rust that so affects boxers. Of the unlikeliness of his achievement, Leonard said: “It’s the first time a young guy came back against an old guy.” Previous examples of failure do not apply.

Hagler, 32, was obviously disappointed, and he referred very quickly to the trouble he has with judges in Las Vegas. He lost his first title bid on a controversial draw with Vito Antuofermo here. But he admitted that Leonard, who he had pursued for years, fought a “courageous fight.” He could pursue him, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever catch him.

Hagler, who was stopped short of his 13th title defense in the sixth and final year of his reign, must now hope for a rematch. Leonard will not likely be quick to oblige, if at all. In the ring he said, laughing, “depends on the contract.” But later, he refused to guess one way or the other as to what he’d do.

The decision certainly creates some interesting matchups, and it will be fun to speculate on the combinations. Hearns, who has lost to both, will want in on the action. Permutations abound. If Hagler and Leonard remain true to their peculiar destinies, they are likely to chase each other around for years more, until finally, they really are too old for this kind of thing.

Bronx Banter Interview: Rob Fleder

“Damn Yankees” is a winning new collection of essays about the Bronx Bombers. Edited by Rob Fleder, it features an All-Star lineup and is a must not just for Yankee fans or baseball fans but anyone who appreciates good writing. I recently talked to Fleder about the project. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.

Rob Fleder at Yankee Stadium

RF: We’ve been catching up the TV series “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t really watch much TV but it’s great, just so well done. If you summarized the plot line, it would sound like cliché after cliché, but that never occurs to you because it’s great story telling, it’s so well executed. It makes me think of Colum McCann’s piece in the book. We’ve all read some version of that story. If you’re a Sports Illustrated editor you’ve seen it a hundred times—and almost none of them have worked. It’s very rare that someone can pull it off, and he did spectacularly. I think it’s a fantastic piece.

BB: It’s the father-and-son piece, the outsider-coming-to-baseball story.

RF: Right, but you don’t even think about reducing it to those terms because it’s so beautifully done.

BB: I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book. Now, when you approached Colum, did you know that was the piece he was going to write?

RF: Yeah. Even before I got in touch with him, I knew from Dan Barry that Colum had a son and that he’d come to baseball through his son. He has lived here for many years but he’s still an Irishman too. His kids have grown up here. I’d read “Let The Great World Spin” and some other things by him and loved his work. I thought if anybody could do this kind of story, it’s him. What’s cool is that because he didn’t grow up in a baseball culture, I think he was more or less oblivious to the fact that he was doing something that many other people have tried, usually without much success.

BB: There is no guile or irony in his story.

RF: That’s right, and it’s an enduring theme in baseball, fathers and sons—except that he does turn the whole thing on its head, in a way. He’s coming to the game through his son, and that process takes him back to his father and grandfather. It’s great when someone is artistic enough to take material is familiar and seems predictable in some ways and does something truly original with it. That’s the magic—to take something that’s right in front of the readers eyes and to dazzle him by revealing something he never saw. That’s what good writing is about to me.

BB: The other piece in the book that I think took a familiar theme and did a nice job making it work is Will Leitch’s essay, which is really a Babe-in-the-Woods story. It’s funny, and I think he really got the tone right.

RF: Very much so. I hadn’t met Will, but he’s a friend of my friend Dave Hirshey, who’d edited him at Harper Collins. So Dave said, let’s go get a drink with Will Leitch. And when I started this whole project, my son, Nick, a deeply knowledgeable sports kid, said, “Oh, you’ve got to get Will Leitch, he’s really funny and a really good writer.” We sat down at a bar and we connected immediately. He had an idea for the book, and I was like, “Yeah, Huckleberry Finn comes to New York, that’s it.” And he ran with it. Again, a hard one to pull off, but he did a great job with it. His piece is laugh-out-loud funny but it’s also sincere. The irony in it doesn’t create distance, it does just the opposite.

BB: Going back for a minute, how did this book begin?

RF: Roy Blount was in some ways the genesis of the whole book. Dave Hirshey reminded me of this, because I’d forgotten. There is a charity dinner I go to every year where Roy is a featured guest, and he’s always hugely entertaining. So I mentioned to Hirshey that I’d been to this dinner and Roy was telling all these great old Yankee war stories from his days writing sports. I don’t know how the subject came up but Roy had all these great stories. I mentioned this to Hirshey in passing and he called me the next day and said, “Do think there’s a book in this? The best writers you can think of, writing about the Yankees?” At the very least, I thought, it’d be a lot of fun to think about, and that’s how the whole thing started.

BB: Did you know what you wanted each writer to do before you approached them or did they have an idea in mind when you first talked to them? Or did you say, I want Leigh Montville, I want Richard Hoffer, and they’ll figure it out?

RF: Some had specific idea, and some didn’t. I tried to have several possible ideas for each writer I called, things I thought might appeal to them and they might be especially good at, but I always wanted to hear the writers’ ideas first—if they had anything specific—before I suggested possible topics for them. But I did want them to be aware of the range of possibilities, so I would tell them the sorts of things other writers were doing.

BB: You do have such a wide range in the book, not only of writers but of takes on the Yankees. I mean, you’ve got Dan Okrent and Frank Deford who are classic Yankee haters.

RF: Plus, there is a little cluster from Boston, Charlie Pierce and Leigh Montville. Montville, of course, had written a big biography of the Babe as well as one of Ted Williams, and Jane Leavy had written about Mickey Mantle. And these are big books—-not just “big” as in best-sellers, but deeply researched, substantial volumes that cover a lot of ground. So I asked, “What’s the best thing that didn’t make the book?” It took Leigh a while and of course he drew on material that he’d used in the book, but his take was new, and I think what bubbled up for him with passage of time was a new perspective, a fresh insight about Ruth. And Jane just went out and did a whole lot of new reporting. She had a situation with Frank Sullivan, the old Red Sox pitcher, where she mistakenly pronounced him dead in her Mantle book. Sullivan contacted her and wondered when she planned to announce his rebirth—or something like that. It was very funny. She was mortified by her mistake, but he had a great sense of humor about it. So she dug into it and—typical of her—she did more reporting and came up with a terrific piece. So sometimes I went to people who’d already written about subjects involving the Yankees and other times I went to people who were just writers I admired who I knew had some feeling for baseball, though I didn’t know what their feelings were about this team.

BB: Who were some of those guys?

RF: I knew our friend Dexter watched every Yankee game. And as much as I’ve talked to him about the Yankees over the years—even gone to Yankee games with him—it’s never clear what Pete’s going to come up with, how he’s going to land on a subject. That’s true with anything that he’s going to write.

BB: Yeah, like that book review he did last year for the Times on the Jim Harrison novel.

RF: The book report, he called it. Exactly. You’ve read his columns and magazine pieces. That’s part of Dexter’s genius—-you never know where he’s going to be coming from on a particular subject, or where he’s going to land.

BB: Were you amused then when in typical Dexter fashion he chose Chuck Knoblauch, of all people, to write about?

RF: Well, Pete had been very sick a few years ago, very nearly died, as he writes about in the piece. Then it took him a long time to come back and there was a stretch where he felt seriously damaged by his illness, where he couldn’t write. And it was awful. And it was during that period when he landed on the idea of Chuck Knoblauch, a guy who had done something as well as anyone in the world, had done it every day of his life, and then woke up one day and suddenly couldn’t do it at all. Pete had a personal connection to that story, something you couldn’t have predicted. I mean, I knew about Pete’s illness and its aftermath, but I never could have predicted that he would connect it to that Yankees by way of Chuck Knoblauch. And you look at it and it’s a brilliant, funny piece about the awful things that went wrong for him and for Knoblauch. Nobody else could have written that piece.

BB: You’ve known and worked with Pete for a long time. You edited “Paper Trails,” his collection of newspaper columns and magazine pieces. How much editing did you do with him on his piece, and with the other writers too, for that matter? Did Pete give you a final draft and that was it or did you actually work on the piece with him? 

RF: It varied with each writer how much editing it took to get from the first draft to the final. In Pete’s case, it’s hard for him to let go of what he’s writing. He’s a perfectionist. He will rewrite everything until you badger him to give you a peek at it. He sent a draft and it was late in the process of the book’s production—meaning I was feeling the crushing weight of a deadline. The piece was brilliant, it was fall-out-of-your-chair funny but he kept working on it. He was just getting back up to speed for himself. A week or so later he sent a draft that was completely different. He tried to come at the same subject from a totally different direction. It was written like a mock children’s book, and it might have been one direction too many. He sent me about half or two-thirds of it. He’d written the whole thing and then lost the original version on his computer— he was having technical difficulties as he sometimes does. It was like “Paris Trout”

BB: Jesus. That’s when he lost more than 100 manuscript pages somewhere in his computer back in the mid-‘80s and then took a baseball bat to the machine and had to start over from the beginning.

RF: Right. The second version of his Yankee piece was still funny but I liked the earlier way he did it better. So he did a third version, which was recreating the first version, different and better. That was classic Dexter.

BB: You talked about Pete not wanting to let things go and being a perfectionist, does there ever come a point where a writer can cross a line and keep hold of something too long?

RF: I think it happens to writers all the time, and usually they know it and can see that they’ve pushed it too far or changed directions once too often, and will go back to the sweet spot that was working before. For instance, Pete bounced the second version of his piece off me, and by the time I got it and read it—we don’t work electronically with Pete, it still comes the old fashioned way, on paper, by Fed Ex—he’d already gone back to his first version, or what he could remember of it, and finished it that way.

BB: Is he the only writer in the collection who works like that?

RF: In technological terms, Frank [Deford] was like that for a long time—he was the last guy I worked with who used a typewriter—but he moved decisively into the electronic mode a long time ago. But there were other writers who were as meticulous as Pete, who worked on things until the last minute and wanted to see every draft, every galley, every version. It’s a matter of style, I think—some writers work one way, some work another. It doesn’t mean that someone like Frank or Jim Surowiecki or Roy Blount, who file pieces that are virtually finished the first time you lay eyes on them, are any less meticulous or aren’t perfectionists. Their process is different—at least, that’s the way it looks from the vantage point of an editor—but I think they’re all trying to make their words as good as they can possibly be, one way or another.

BB: I’m sure for some writers it’s never going to be good enough, even when the book is published they’ll still look at their piece and want to tinker with it.

RF: Yeah, Bruce McCall is a very meticulous writer who found things he wanted to fix in his piece until the very end. And when the book was about to close we shot this little video, and Dan Okrent left the shoot with a copy of the galleys, which were outdated by that point, and by the time I got home from the video shoot I had a message from Dan saying that there were two mistakes in Bruce’s piece. And Bruce is a careful writer. We were able to correct the things Dan found at the last minute, even though the book was already at the printer. I know there will be other things that we missed—it’s inevitable—but you do the best you can in the time that’s allotted.

BB: That’s agonizing but at some point—

RF: You have to let go. And the writers do the same thing. Some writers sent me drafts that were virtually perfect.

BB: Was Richard Hoffer one of those guys?

RF: Actually Rick and I worked on it because he was worried in his first draft of the piece about making it baseball-y enough. I always think of Hoffer as a great essayist. He’s always been one of my favorite SI writers.

BB: So understated and yet he’s not humorless. There’s a strong sense of wit in his writing. It’s just dry.

RF: Very much so. He’s extremely skillful and has a distinctive voice. And he has truly original thoughts in a world that I think is filthy with group-think. A Hoffer piece is never just the same old thing.

BB: And you don’t think of him as a baseball guy especially.

RF: No, but Hoffer’s one of those guys that I want to read on anything. I had an idea that I thought would make a perfect Hoffer essay, but at first he did much more of a narrative history piece without much of the essay component. He said to me as we were working, “I have two gears: this one and the other one.” I told him that I was envisioning a piece that included more of the other one, so he wrote a draft that was almost pure essay and left out much of the great historical narrative, all these great details. So we took both versions and put them together and I think it worked out beautifully. I love the piece. And I think it’s quintessential Hoffer.

BB: You were at Playboy and Esquire and SI as an editor and have worked with many of the writers featured in this collection. How many of the writers had you not worked with before?

RF: I can count them. I didn’t know J.R. Moehringer or Nathanial Rich or Jim Surowiecki. Pretty much everybody else I was at least acquainted with or had worked with directly. I met Will Leitch in the very early stages of the book. I’d been introduced to Colum McCann at Dan Barry’s book party, but that was the extent of it at that point. I’d admired Mike Paterniti’s work for a long time and tried to get him to write for me at one magazine or another, but can’t say I really knew him.

BB: What about Bill James?

RF: Bill James I’ve known since he was sending out his Abstract on mimeograph. I met him when I was a fact checker or a baby editor at Esquire. Okrent introduced Bill to us at Esquire, and in some sense, Esquire introduced him to a wider audience. It was great. Okrent wrote the first big piece about Bill that I remember and I worked on a little piece Bill wrote for an Esquire baseball package one year, and he was obviously an original thinker and, I thought, a terrific writer. I touched base with him every so often over the years and followed his ascension. I’d write to him from SI and say, “I don’t know if you remember who I am but would you be on a panel to pick the greatest all-time team…” or whatever. And he always remembered our connection from way back and was always generous with his time. So I called him for this book. He works with the Red Sox but is still as clear-headed about baseball as anyone I’ve ever read, and he’s a funny, quirky writer. I had no idea what he’d write about and neither did he, as it turns out. One day, late in the process, I got an e-mail from him in which he said, “I’ve been thinking about Yankee catchers….” And he was off and running.

BB: And it’s really a perfect kind of Bill James piece. It’s smart and irreverent.

RF: Analytical and full of all his digressions and humorous asides and deep baseball knowledge.

BB: That’s one of the things I noticed about the book, you’ve gotten kind of a quintessential piece from so many of the contributors.

RF: That’s the ideal—what you dream about as an editor. You pick writers of this quality and then you hope they get into it and just do what they do.

BB: I also like the variety. There are humorous pieces, memoir pieces—Sally Jenkins’s piece that is so evocative of New York City, historical stories, analytical pieces.

RF: I’m glad it hit you that way. My big picture idea was to have a bunch of voices that I really like to hear on the subject of the Yankees, more or less directly. In some cases I had specific topics in mind, like Jane Leavy on Mantle or Tom Verducci on Jeter. I told every writer who some of the other contributors were, so they knew who else was playing, and I just hoped all the writers would bring their game. As it turned out, they did.

BB: I’m forever grateful for Charlie Pierce’s piece if only because he punctured that horseshit Seinfeld routine, which has somehow become celebrated, that rooting for a sports team is like rooting for laundry.

RF: Charlie is another one you can count on to come up with something unpredictable.

BB: Right, because he starts there and shifts gears in the middle of the piece about growing up and what the Yankees meant growing up in Boston.

RF: He does lay waste that whole Seinfeld bit about laundry. But in a much larger context he also writes about what baseball’s tribal experience means to people who come to this country from somewhere else, and he does it in a way that is immediate and on a human scale. Charlie’s piece has a lot of common ground with Column McCann’s, but they are totally different essays.

BB: Taken as a whole were there any surprises in the collection, a theme, or a player who jumped out as somebody that appeared in more than a few of the pieces?

RF: There are some threads that run through the book, yeah. And I was aware of them when I was figuring out the order of the pieces and was conscious of spacing them out so that they didn’t come together too quickly. Catfish Hunter comes up more often than I would’ve anticipated. And he’s the focus for Mike Paterniti, who wrote just a beautiful piece.

BB: The book ends with Steve Rushin talking about Catfish, too.

RF: And I was aware that. I’d really admired Mike’s classic Thurman Munson piece in Esquire. When I spoke to him, he mentioned that he’d seen Catfish Hunter near the end of his life and had written a quick remembrance of him in the early days of Esquire.com. He sent me the little post he’d done and he went back to that and really dug in. So I knew that Mike and Steve were going to touch on some of the same ground, and Rushin wrote a gem of a piece in which he gets the last word in the book, which is fitting. And Catfish also comes up again in Bill Nack’s amazing story about the Bronx Zoo Era Yankees. There’s a different focus and context in each of the three pieces in which Catfish appears.

BB: Also, what a beautiful guy to come up. A guy with a sense of himself and a sense of humor about the Yankees and how crazy George was even though he was the first big free agent. Yankee fans love him but also probably saw himself as being apart from that too.

RF: And there was another surprise in the book. Steinbrenner comes up, obviously, over and over again. But Jim Surowiecki, the financial writer for the New Yorker, who is another really original thinker, did a revisionist analysis of what Steinbrenner did with the team economically—a totally fresh take on Steinbrenner’s ownership .

BB: I also like that there are a few essays on the modern Yankees. Verducci on Jeter but also Steve Wulf on Robinson Cano, which is important I think—to talk about a Latin star.

RF: As the book was taking shape I knew Tom was going to do Jeter but I thought it’d be good to have a piece on a player who represented the future. I think of Steve as the guy who first wrote about Dominican baseball, about Dominican shortstops. I remembered his piece from the ‘80s, and I thought Cano was the guy for this book. He is a monstrously good player and will be the center of gravity when Mariano and Jeter are gone. Steve took it and ran. He’s been an editor at ESPN for a while now, but he was a great baseball writer at SI for a really long time and knows the game as well as anyone. It was a perfect match of writer and subject.

BB: And it’s an important piece because for so many years the Yankees didn’t have Dominican players, certainly not stars, despite playing a stones throw from Washington Heights.

RF: That’s right. Another surprising piece came from Dan Barry.

BB: Which is great because the Mike Burke, CBS years were covered.

RF: The last thing you think of is the Yankees as underdogs.

BB: Celerino Sanchez.

RF: “Poor Celerino Sanchez,” is a little refrain from Dan’s piece, which is both poignant and very funny. And he had a deeper connection to that team than I expected before I talked to him. Then there’s Roy Blount, who I knew had Yankee stories to tell, but the nature of a Blount piece—the beauty of a Blount piece—is that you have no idea how he’s going to get at his subject and can’t possibly predict where he’s going to go with it.

BB: Then you see writers like Moehringer, McCann and Dexter and you think, I wonder what those guys have to say about them?

RF: J.R. Moehringer had an intimate connection with the team through his grandfather, who was a key figure in his life. “The Tender Bar” is J.R.’s great memoir about growing up with an absent father, and his grandfather is in that book. But what J.R. has done here is an element of the story that wasn’t in his book.

BB: And Moehringer is a Mets fan.

RF: I contacted him and he said that he wanted to write about the Yankees from a Mets fan’s point of view. And I already had Nathaniel Rich doing that. In fact, I had Nathaniel’s story already, and it was terrific, extremely amusing. So I told J.R. that I had that piece but that I really wanted him to write for this book. At that point I suggested a couple of topics, but he had something else he wanted to try. And after a while he sent me what he said was a really rough draft of something that was well on its way to being this piece. He’s another one who goes back to his copy over it over and over again, making it better and then going back to it again. It’s a wonderful piece about how he connected with baseball. It’s amazing.

BB: Plus, watching the games on TV and listening to the Scooter. You needed to get the Scooter in there.

RF: Had to. And he’s another thread. He’s also gets a prominent mention in Rushin’s piece.

BB: Yankee fans will obviously be interested in the book but there are enough of the writers in the book who are Yankee-haters that I suspect you want to draw readers that aren’t Yankee fans, too.

RF: Yeah, I think anybody who is interested in reading good writers is the potential audience for the book. The natural audience is Yankee fans, baseball fans. They are a team that people have strong feelings about: people love them and people really love to hate them.

BB: This is the book you want to read.

RF: That was the hope. The plan, insofar as I had one, was to get the writers I want to read on a subject I want to read about. Beyond that I didn’t really know where it would go. I wanted to be surprised and delighted, and by that measure I think the book is a real success.

“Damn Yankees” is available for pre-order at Amazon. It will be published on April 3rd.


[Photographs via N.Y. Daily News, N.Y. Times, ESPN, Corbis, Marisa Kestel, Peter Adams, SI, Illustration by Bruce McCall, photo of Pete Dexter by Stuart Isett]

100% Dundee

Angelo Dundee passed away yesterday. He was 90.  Robert Lipsyte remembers the legendary trainer today in the New York Times.

Over at Grantland, here’s a terrific piece by Dave Kindred.

And at SI, dig what Richard Hoffer has to say:

Lest you think Dundee was merely a stagehand, a lucky accomplice, somebody fortunate enough to latch onto a rising star, consider the rest of his career. Having taken Ali to the top, in the middle of that ruckus for 21 years, he then joined another Olympic phenom, Sugar Ray Leonard, and helped pilot him to multiple championships. Once more, Dundee adapted himself to the fighter’s natural abilities, allowing Leonard’s stardom to develop. But in at least one fight, just as he had with Ali, it was Dundee who may have saved the day. With Leonard flagging in his back-and-forth fight with Tommy Hearns, Dundee got in Leonard’s face after the 12th round and, in no uncertain terms, called him out. “You’re blowing it, son.” Leonard famously rallied.

There were others as well: De La Hoya for a while, and even George Foreman when the big man regained his heavyweight title in his comeback. There was always somebody, though. Dundee was a boxing man, destined to carry a bucket, happiest when he was swabbing cuts or taping hands. Long after the line of champions had ended, he was still in his gym, his bubbling optimism creating contenders out of anybody who walked through his doors. He was training until the end.

But it was those years with Ali, that incandescent time when boxing was last important, that we remember him for. What a time. What a pair! They would have been an odd couple in any case, the young fighter’s flamboyance and braggadocio in outlandish contrast to Dundee’s puckish demeanor. But they were more simpatico than most would have guessed, sharing their love of boxing, but also a capacity for hijinks. Ali recognized in Dundee a kindred spirit, after all, and was not above rigging the hotel curtains with a long rope, pulling them back and forth in a spectral fashion, until the little trainer exploded from his room in fright. They were a pair.

Would Ali have been The Greatest without Dundee? Maybe, though probably not. Would he have been as much fun without Dundee, certainly an enabler, if not quite a co-conspirator? Absolutely not. Ali’s tendency toward meanness, his inexcusable treatment of men like Floyd Patterson or Frazier, was an innate and probably important part of his personality. But that meanness was alloyed by Dundee’s presence, had to have been. Dundee’s influence, his unabashed sweetness, was its own kind of smelling salt in Ali’s career, the sort of freshener that cleared his head from time to time, restored his goodness, if not his greatness.

Click here for an interview with Dundee at East Side Boxing.

Never Say Die

Richard Hoffer is one of the best writers to ever cover sports in this country, first at the L.A. Times and then at Sports Illustrated. His prose is graceful and precise, he’s understated and funny.

Here is he on Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the current issue of SI:

It was no wonder Joe Frazier was so bitter. He was made to seem the foil, a mere accomplice in mythology, consigned to a supporting role in Muhammad Ali’s extravagant, ego-driven drama. It is a harsh truth that if you participate in the most exciting rivalry of a century, it does you little good even to win one of its three bouts. The verdict of history is decisive, and it is permanent, and men like Frazier, who stumble at the precipice, are forever remaindered on the heap of losers, their vinegary claims to justice lost in the courts of public opinion. It was no wonder, then, that when Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996, his trembling hands viewed as a physical artifact of heroism by an adoring world, Frazier allowed that if he’d had his way, he’d have pitched Ali into the fire.

…In 1975—Ali now 33, Frazier 31—they met again in the near-death experience that would ever after be known as the Thrilla in Manila. Ali was even crueler in his prefight taunts, exploiting the fact that gorilla rhymed with the venue. Frazier, by turns mystified and hurt, was provoked beyond the requirements of the bout. While Ali would always say he was only boosting the box office, Frazier could never accept any explanation for attacks that might affect his children’s impression of him. “Look at my beautiful kids,” he’d say. “How can I be a gorilla?”

But not even animus could account for what happened that morning in the Philippines. It was such a violent affair—recklessness tilting it first Ali’s way, then Frazier’s way and then Ali’s again—that it seemed less a boxing match than an exploration of man’s capacities, a test of his will to win or at least survive. But once it turned Ali’s way again in the 12th round, too much had gone before for yet another reversal. There wasn’t anything left in either man. Before the 15th and final round Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, called it quits, saving his fighter from certain ruin, even as Ali was instructing his corner to cut his gloves off. It was victory, but by attrition.

Ali called it “the closest thing to dying I know of,” and he didn’t know the half of it. Their careers were essentially over that day, their 41 rounds of shared agony making any further discoveries in the ring unnecessary, or even possible. Frazier lost a rematch to Foreman and called it quits. Ali managed to dominate the game for several years more, but only on the basis of his personality—he was spent. Even then he was beginning a slow and ironic decline, Parkinson’s eventually rendering him rigid and mute, the final price for all those wars.

Ali’s respect for Frazier was enormous, and he apologized for his name-calling on several occasions. “I couldn’t have done what I did without him,” he once said.

Frazier repaid the compliment: “We were gladiators. I didn’t ask no favors of him, and he didn’t ask none of me.” They recognized that their destinies were entwined, that neither would have achieved his greatness without the other. But Ali could afford to concede the point, being the most popular athlete, even personality, in the world. Frazier, who spent the rest of his life living above his gym in Philadelphia, did not have the comfort of the world’s goodwill—he lived in an age that would reward style over substance every time—and so maintained his half of the blood feud as vigorously as possible, even seeming to take a grim satisfaction in Ali’s poor health, proof of who really won that day in Manila.

That a feel-good reconciliation would elude the two men who shaped such a magnificent rivalry is apt. Even if they were more like brothers than foes—who else could understand the kind of pride that forced them through those three battles?—fighters like them could never really enjoy a cease-fire, could never drop their hands, as if they alone knew what man was truly capable of.

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.

It was 40 Years Ago Today…

A few months before I was born, two previously undefeated boxers, Muhammad Ali (31-0)and Joe Frazier (26-0) fought for the heavyweight title in the so-called “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. That was forty years ago today. It was not their greatest fight–that would be the Thrilla in Manila–but it was possibly the biggest spectacle in boxing history.

Here is our man John Schulian, writing for the Library of America’s website:

The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.

They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.

And here’s Mark Kram from his book “Ghosts of Manila”:

Ali was the first in the ring, in a red velvet robe with matching trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. He glided in a circle to a crush of sound, a strand of blown grass. Whatever you might have thought of him then, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again. Assessed by ring demands–punch, size, speed, intelligence, command, and imagination–he was an action poet, the equal of the best painting you could find or a Mozart who failed to die too early. If that is an overstatement, disfiguring the finer arts by association with a brute game, consider the mudslide of purple that attaches to his creative lessers in other fields, past and present; Ali was physical art, belonged alone in a museum of his own. I was extremely fond of him, of his work, of the decent side of his nature, and jaundiced on his cultish servility, his termopolitical combustions that tried to twist adversaries into grotesque shapes. It never worked, excerpt perhaps on Liston, who came to think that he was clinically insane. It did work on himself, shaped the fear for his face and general well-being into a positive force, a psychological war dance that blew up the dam and released his flood of talent. The trouble was that, like Kandinsky’s doubled-sided painting of chaos and calm, it became increasingly difficult for him to find his way back from one side to the other.

In a green and gold brocade robe with matching trunks, Joe Frazier almost seemed insectile next to Ali in the ring, and he was made more so as Ali waltzed by him, bumped him and said: “Chum!” Far from that slur, Joe was a gladiator right smack to the root conjurings of the title, to the clank of armor he seemed to emit. Work within his perimeter, and you courted what fighters used to call “the black spot,” the flash knockout. He was a figher that could be hit with abandon, but if you didn’t get him out of there his drilling aggression, his marked taste for pursuit and threshing-blade punches could overwhelm you; as one military enthusiast in his camp siad, “like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia.” I was drawn to the honesty of his work, the joy he derived from inexorable assault, yet had a cool neutrality to his presence. In truth, with a jewel in each hand, i didn’t want to part with either of them, thus making me pitifully objective, a captial sinner in the most subjective and impressionistic of all athletic conflicts.

Frazier won the fight, of course, in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. Dali, Elvis, Woody and the Beatles were there. Burt Lancaster did the color for the closed-circut broadcast and Frank Sinatra was there taking pictures for Life Magazine.

In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, Richard Hoffer has a nice little piece on the fight:

While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.

All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.

Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.

Ali taunted and humilated Frazer time and again in the press and Frazier has never forgiven him for it. From Bill Nack’s great 1996 piece on Smokin’ Joe:

He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…. Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”

Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”

Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn’t like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: “Why not? I’m a good American…. A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”

And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali’s head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.

“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”

Check out this cool photo gallery of “The Fight of the Century” over at Life.com.

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