When I tell people I used to be a boxer, one of the most common responses is the question: “Did you ever take a dive?” Or sometimes it’s worded: “Did you ever throw a fight?”
The answer is no. I was never asked to, and I’ve never met anyone who says that he has.
Interestingly, the terminology used in these questions comes not from the world of boxing (at least not contemporary boxing), but of crime fiction. There seems to be no other sport so closely identified with noir. Eddie Muller, the writer whom James Ellroy dubbed “the Czar of Noir,” has written two powerful crime novels—both with a historical boxing background.
While fixed fights can happen (Jake La Motta, whose life is fictionalized considerably in the film Raging Bull, infamously threw a fight), they have always been rare, despite the popular image. Boxing is as corrupt as any big business (in Mark Kriegel’s superb The Good Son, the promotor Bob Arum not only admits that bribes have to be paid in order to make fights happen, he actually states the dollar figures), but we haven’t seen any noir novels or films about Wal-Mart. The reason boxing is the sport of noir is not because of its criminality, but its seriousness.
You can play baseball. You can play hockey and basketball and football. But you can’t play boxing.
Sports fans talk about going to watch “the game.” Boxing fans talk about going to “the fight.”
In the boxing ring, you can’t play. You have to fight.
What makes noir compelling is the same as what makes boxing compelling. It is about life and death, and it is stripped down to what is essential. In the boxing ring, you have no tools, no props, only your own body. You have no teammates; however good your cornermen, they leave the ring when the bell sounds. You and your opponent stay, and no games are played as you try to win and survive.
Take a look at a baseball player, and you can’t tell whether he played a game yesterday. Take a look at a boxer, and his face will tell you whether he went twelve rounds last night.
When a team loses a game, they lose only the game. They can come back, with the same players or new ones. But each punch a boxer takes is a punch he won’t be able to take in the future.
But if you think boxing is only about two men trying to hurt each other, you probably think Moby Dick is about a bunch of guys going fishing. The reasons men do it, and men and women watch it, are about a longing that can’t be reduced to an easy answer.
Most books and films supposedly about boxing are created by and for people who don’t know anything about it. This is true of the Rocky movies, and it is also true of the celebrated boxing stories of Ernest Hemingway and the reportage of Norman Mailer, both of whom were insecure aristocrats obsessed with what they saw as manliness and their own lack of it. It should be no surprise that these stories are so popular, because, in their ignorance and romanticism, they are not actually about boxing.
But there are a handful of novels that get it right. (I will immodestly claim that I wrote one of them.) And, again unsurprisingly, they all take place in the world of noir.
Perhaps the most widely-admired of these is Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, which was adapted by John Huston into a great film with Stacey Keach. A short, episodic rendering of the lives of a group of small-time fighters who also do day-labor picking fruit to make enough money for food and the rent for single rooms, the novel has all of the power of the best of Steinbeck, but without his sentimentality.
If Fat City shows a world in which the only people who have any hope are deluded, WC Heinz’s novel The Professional—which Hemingway called “the only good novel about a fighter”—shows us who these same characters would be if they had more talent. A day-by-day account of a contender’s preparation to fight for the world middleweight title, it brings the reader into intimate relationship with fighters on the way up, fighters on the way down, and the people who live with them, off them and for them. No one in this story is good or bad without reason, and while perhaps the most fully, accurately detailed fiction about boxing ever written, it is equally astute in its rending of family, marriage and social class. It prompted the up-and-coming Elmore Leonard to write the first fan letter he had ever written, and Heinz responded by giving Leonard advice on writing dialogue that he took to heart and surpassed his teacher.
In some ways, The Professional and Fat City are the same book on a different scale, though they bear no surface similarity, and their tones are opposite. Both are about longing, the protagonists of both see boxing as a way to a better life, and both, as in all noir, are tales of fate—not fate that has been supernaturally preordained, but an inevitable end that character and circumstance lead to.
Both these books are about men who fight to live. The best boxing book I have ever read is about men who live to fight.
Rope Burns, republished under the title Million Dollar Baby (to cash in on the success of the Clint Eastwood film based on one of the stories) is a collection of short fiction by FX Toole, the pen-name of Jerry Boyd, who worked fighters’ corners as a “cut man”—the person whose job it is to tend to a fighter’s cuts, keeping him from bleeding badly enough for the fight to be stopped. Toole was 69 when the book was published, and he died shortly afterward. He is as good a prose-writer as Gardner or Heinz, but, unlike them, he writes from the inside. If Gardner and Heinz serve as Ishmael, Toole is a lucid Ahab.
The first story begins with this sentence: “I stop blood.” Not bleeding, but blood. To the cut man, blood is the opponent, just as the man in the other corner is his fighter’s opponent. Toole’s characters don’t see boxing as a means to an end, a way to a better or different life. To them, boxing is life.
When Toole died in 2002, a radio station replayed an interview they’d done with him when the book came out. I was driving, had the radio on, and happened to hear it. He read the opening of the story I quoted above, “The Monkey Look.” In it, the cut man explains why he never re-uses a bottle of adrenaline from one fight night to the next:
“I never use adrenaline from a previous fight. I dump it, even if three-quarters of it is left. That way, it can’t carry blood over from another fight, and none of my boys can get AIDS from contaminated coagulant. I’d give AIDS to myself before I’d give it to one of my boys.”
At the time, I had never heard of Toole. But when I heard him read these words, my eyes filled with tears and I had to stop driving while I listened to the rest–because in these words I recognized so many men I had known. When you question the rights and wrongs of boxing you find no answers, but these books offer a reply.