The panelists are captivating this night. I am seated in the middle of an aisle with extremely little leg room, surrounded by people similarly engrossed. Many have decided to stand. The venue is a Barnes and Noble. The event concerns the publication of a compilation entitled “At the Fights,” a work dedicated to superior writing about boxing, spanning decades. Mike Lupica, Robert Lipsyte, Leonard Gardner, Pete Hamill and Colum McCann are discussing the pages, along with the experiences capable of creating narratives, both personal and professional.
George Kimball, an older gentleman wearing a distinctive cowboy hat, was one of the editors of the book. His sentences seemed to count extra, utterances cloaked in an archetypical insight that the careful consideration of fighting could provide, over much time. Considering his company included lauded writers such as McCall and Hamill, famous reporters in the persons of Lupica and Lipsyte, and an expert scribe of the pugilistic arts, Leonard Gardner, this distinction carried weight. His voice was raspy, but very strong.
Outside, there is a late March chill. The conversation between the experienced men on stage recalls a summer barbecue, joy and depth punctuating every sentence. The microphone is being passed between them.
“My first interest came in watching Friday Night Fights with my father,” Kimball says, adding with the slightest ironic touch, “It was the only thing we could do without getting in a fight.” Fathers will be discussed frequently. The connection seems close, between discovering a lifetime passion for a violent athletic competition, and feeling closer to the father. I am struck by how elementally Kimball recalls the memory; the approach is miles removed from psychoanalysis. Family issues sometimes seem naturally occurring. Personalities inevitably clash, and the friction can become constant. A mutual appreciation for something external offers an escape from the ego trenches. I consider my own father, and a thought that had passed through my consciousness a night or two before this event. It returned with fury, as Kimball spoke.
I loved baseball for many reasons, but without an initial spark, my interest may have been a mere curiosity. That first flicker of flame undoubtedly came from watching my dad, and yes, other adults, genuinely joyful in upper-deck seats. You grow up middle class, people are under pressure; they yell sometimes. It was at baseball games, as a child, that I saw my father unleash smiling screams, free. That feeling is natural when young. It ultimately becomes something to search for… and you remember, forever… I pondered whether Kimball found peace in boxing, in the rhythm of jabs and counterpunches, the structuring of rounds, the blunt honesty of competition. Maybe he had other reasons. Either way, he bought me closer to understanding mine.
Pete Hamill has a beautiful voice. If the words from his mouth somehow solidified, they would surely glisten. His tone is relaxed, and through this ease he commands attention. “Growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood with no name… it was strange,” Hamill says at one point, driving at a neighborhood’s ability to rally around unifying forces such as boxers. While recalling being entranced by fights broadcast over the radio, he states, “I imagined fights before I saw them,” with assurance, as if subtly conveying that this experience helped him later, in the practice of visualization. At least that’s what I thought. I figure everything he’s saying must mean something.
Leonard Gardner followed the silky smooth vocal styling of Hamill, and the change is pleasantly jarring, as if the evening just switched to southpaw in the twelfth round to rattle an unsuspecting opponent. Gardner’s halting and considered mode of expression forces one to play close attention. “I got into writing and boxing around the same time.” Gardner would discuss his father, as well. His dad had actually been a fighter. “[He] always said they couldn’t touch me, they couldn’t touch me… and I thought this was possible,” Gardner said with a smile. His sentiments correlate with Hamill’s, in the aspect of imagination. He’d no doubt pretended to be his father at an early juncture in life, dodging every punch, fully embracing possibility. Gardner, in fact, boxed on the outskirts of the professional ranks. He eventually wrote “Fat City,” a novel deemed by many the finest ever written about the sport. “I worked for four years on my novel Fat City… by bringing boxing into the fiction I was able to work on a level I hadn’t before.” Yes… he must have found another level of possibility, perhaps previously unrealistic. Maybe on that plane of writing, he’s dodging every punch.
Robert Lipsyte is next. He’s worn two hats quite well, as both journalist and fiction writer. Lipsyte proceeds to tell a story containing so many preposterously unbelievable moments that it best be classified mythological, despite its basis in concrete reality.
He was a backup reporter in his twenties for the New York Times, assigned to cover a heavyweight title fight in Miami that the paper deemed unworthy of serious consideration. The bout, taking place on February 25th, 1964, pitted Cassius Clay, who would eventually change his name to Muhammad Ali, against Sonny Liston, the defending champ and brutal virtuoso of the knockout.
Clay was considered charismatic, yet given absolutely no chance against the dominant Liston. Clay was a curiosity, Liston the real celebrity, chosen to pose with The Beatles in a photo shoot days before the bout. Liston, though, threw the fab four out of his dressing room. They were being led down a gym stairwell by two burly security guards, aghast at this shabby treatment, when Lipsyte arrived on the scene. He explained, in vibrant detail, how the pictures were eventually taken with Clay, marveling at the snap action chemistry conjured between the contender and band. Clay would place his fist under one Beatles’ chin, and the others would fall like dominos, photographer snapping away. This obviously was not choreographed, master entertainers creating spontaneous art.
It was an amazing story, made more fascinating by an interlude which landed Lipsyte in a dressing room alone with the fuming Beatles, who had been rejected by Liston and not yet accepted by Clay. “I was the fifth Beatle,” he quipped, eventually bookending the anecdote by confirming Clay and Liston had both dubbed the band “Sissies.”
For me, a sixties music enthusiast, this tale was worth the trek from Queens, and then some. “I was a utility nighttime writer for the Times,” Lipsyte had begun innocently, “The Times, in their infinite wisdom, decided the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight wasn’t worth their regular beat writer.” After Clay shocked the world by defeating Liston, Lipsyte became the regular boxing writer at the Times.
Mike Lupica, the nationally syndicated Daily News columnist, spoke about Canastota, the unlikely home of the boxing Hall of Fame. He weaved a connection between Canastota, former boxer Carmen Basilio, a champion from the small town, and Sugar Ray Robinson, a boxing legend. It turned out, when Basilio was contacted about the death of Robinson for a quote, Lupica’s attempt at exchanging pleasantries about their mutual roots in Canastota fell on deaf ears. Instead, Basilio railed incessantly about a decision against Robinson that had not gone his way, all the way back in 1958. Basilio had shaken the foundations of boxing the previous year when, as a 37 year old, he upset Robinson. His loss in the rematch was controversial, and he had not forgotten. Only problem was, Basilio never came close to offering anything remotely approaching a condolence. Lupica noted, still amazed, how grudges in boxing die hardest.
McCann, the author of two short story collections and five novels, undoubtedly offered a concise encapsulation while unfurling this lightening quote. He was speaking about his father’s friendship with a legendary Irish boxer named Big Jack Doyle before saying, “All of these stories go so deeply into myth, attaching themselves to boxing, attaching themselves to language, and around again, until we’re in this literary ring together.”
Such is life, and boxing. The closure we receive is in the form of a ring. And yet, even when encased within finite terms and conditions, the fights become memories, which linger indefinitely.
McCann provided punctuation. He rang the bell. In life, we are on to the next moment, in boxing, the next round. Does it ever end? Is it really connected, or are the bonds tenuous? Maybe the delicate possibilities suffice. Big Jack Doyle had inspired a writer who won a writer of the Year prize from Esquire in 2003. This fact alone may be enough, for everything. It was for me, anyway. The audience could now ask questions.
When the occasion was concluded, after a brief crowd interaction, I was left pondering statements made by the first audience member able to speak his peace. This fellow, a man beyond middle age, assembled a fighting posture while reminiscing about pride from ancient times, in neighborhoods now rendered ghostly figments of their inhabitant’s imagination. The pressure fell on my chest as he suggested the contemporary generation had no such pride, aligning his notions with the faded glory of boxing.
I knew he was right, in many ways. My peers and I are different. We have lost something. It’s a sense of fury, I suppose, a desperate lunge for acceptance and community. These things used to be forged in steel. Now I think they are questioned, rebelled against. This can be a negative. We are too splintered within our neighborhoods. Battles are waged for superficial reasons. And the modern definition of normal can produce pretty bizarre people. What is acceptable does not constitute greatness. Success, or at least the perception of it, is cheaper than ever. The eighties are being sold back to us at half-price, with worse music. I understand this.
I also understand mythology is fading, sleeping in the ruins of a weird old America, hidden like Atlantis under highways leading to shopping malls. Sure. I never sensed any great depth to growing up and hanging out in Whitestone. I felt the borders of my reality narrowing. Maybe it was our fault. Maybe things go wrong when people don’t try hard enough. When they don’t train like maniacs.
The main event can be against apathy, or societal standards gone haywire, even bullying, though that requires the truly special to fight against. But did the previous generation, that this man glorified, not lose a few fights of their own? Myth can be deadly, especially when used to glorify or deny violence. Neighborhood pride is fine, until it becomes an excuse for tribal warfare.
No, we all have our fights. And we all want our fighters to be remembered as the best. I still dream. We really do. I want to take it to the next level, the same one Gardner found while writing about men fighting for their lives. Twitter, Facebook, internet connectivity and networking… these could have light and dark sides.
I thought of standing up and defending my generation. Someone in the back began talking about how much Hamill meant to his native country, due to a friendship with a boxer. He was impassioned, bent on making his point. I’d understand when he was through. It was his match, now.
And it’s a big ring.