In the foreword to "At the Fights," a newish boxing anthology that spans over a century of pugilistic history, the novelist Colum McCann observes, quite appropriately, that, "Boxers get told to imagine punching a spot behind your opponent's head, to reach in so far that they can extend the destruction to the back of the head. Writers do the same thing — they try to imagine a spot behind your brain and punch you there."
For good reason boxing has inspired some of the best writing in sports. Boxing is about life, within the ropes and without, and how much of it a person cares to risk. No shortage of drama there. Sadly, boxing coverage has withered in the modern era, along with the fortunes of the sport. Most of the entries in "At the Fights" are from times long past and writers long gone. (One of the editors of the anthology, George Kimball, died after the book was published.) Nevertheless, there is plenty to enjoy here, including pieces from H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, Red Smith, John Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, Dick Schaap, others. Only Grantland Rice seems to have been excluded. Go figure.
Irwin Cobb on Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier:
Conspicuous at the front, where the lumber-made cliffs of the structure shoal off into broad flats, is that type which is commonest of all alongside a fight ring. He is here in numbers amounting to a host. There must be thousands of him present. He is the soft-fleshed, hard-faced person who keeps his own pelt safe from bruises., but whose eyes glisten and whose hackles lift at the prospect of seeing somebody else whipped to a souffle. He is the one who, when his favorite pug is being hammered to a sanguinary Spanish omelet, calls out: "That's all right, kid — he can't hurt you." I see him countlessly repeated. For the anonymous youths who in the overtures are achieving a still greater namelessness by being put violently to sleep he has a listless eye. But wait until the big doings start. Then will his gills pant up and down as his vicarious lusting for blood and brute violence is satisfied. ....
The third round is Dempsey's, from bell to bell. He makes pulp of one of Carpentier's smooth cheeks. He pounds him on the silken skin over his heart. He makes a xylophone of the challenger's short ribs. The Frenchman circles and swoops, but the drubbing he gets makes him uncertain in his swings. Most of his blows go astray. They fly over Dempsey's hunched shoulders — they spend themselves in the air.
In the fourth round, after one minute and sixteen seconds of hard fighting — fighting which on Carpentier's part is defensive — comes the foreordained and predestined finishment. I see a quick flashing of naked bodies writhing in and our, joining and separating. I hear the flop, flap, flop of leather bruising human flesh. Carpentier is almost spent — that much is plain to ever one. A great spasmodic sound — part gasp of anticipation, part groan of dismay, part outcry of exultation — rises from a hundred thousand throats. Carpentier totters out of a clinch; his face is all spotted with small red clots. He lunges into the air, then slips away, retreating before Dempsey's onslaught, trying to recover by footwork. Dempsey walks into him almost deliberately, like a man aiming to finish a hard job of work in workmanlike shape. His right arm crooks up and is like a scimitar. His right fist falls on the Frenchman's exposed swollen jaw; falls again in the same place even as Carpentier is sliding down alongside the ropes. Now the Frenchman is lying on his side.
Paul Gallico on Primo Carnera:
There is probably no more scandalous, pitiful, incredible story in all the record of these last mad sports years than the tale of the living giant, a creature out of the legends of antiquity, who was made into a prizefighter. He was taught and trained by a wise, scheming little French boxing manager how had an Oxford University degree, and he was later acquired and developed into the heavyweight champion of the world by a group of American gangsters and mob men; then finally, when his usefulness as a meal ticket was outlived, he was discarded in the most shameful chapter in all boxing.
This unfortunate pituitary case, who might have been Angoulaffre, or Balan, or Fierabras, Gogmagog, or Gargantua himself, was a poor simple-minded peasant by the name of Primo Carnera, the first son of a stonecutter of Sequals, Italy. He stood six feet seven inches in height, and weighed two hundred and sixty-eight pounds. He became the heavyweight champion, yet never in all his life was he ever anything more than a freak and a fourth-rater at prize fighting. He must have grossed more than two millions of dollars during the years that he was being exhibited, and he hasn't a cent to show for it today.
There is no room here for more than a brief hasty glance back over the implications of the tragedy of Primo Carnera. And yet I could not seem to take my leave from sports without it. The scene and the story still fascinate me, the sheer impudence of the men who handled the giant, their conscienceless cruelty, their complete depravity towards another human being, the sure, cool manner in which they hoaxed hundreds of thousands of people. Poor Primo! A giant in stature and strength, a terrible figure of a man, with the might of ten men, he was a helpless lamb among wolves who used him until there was nothing more left to use, until the last possible penny had been squeezed from his big carcass, and then abandoned him. His last days in the United States were spent alone in a hospital. One leg was paralyzed, the result of beatings taken around the head. None of the carrion birds who had picked him clean ever came back to see him or to help him.
W.C. Heinz on Bummy Davis:
One day Bummy was going it down the street with the bottle under his coat and some real smart guy stuck out his foot. Bummy tripped and the bottle broke, and Bummy looked at the bottle and the whiskey running the sidewalk and at the guy and his eyes got big and he started to scream. The guy just laughed and Bummy was lying right on the sidewalk and banging his fists down and screaming. A crowd came around and they watched Bummy, with the guy laughing at him, and they shook their heads and they said this youngest Davidoff kid must be crazy at that.
Davidoff was his straight name. Abraham Davidoff. In Yiddish, they made Abraham into Ahvron and then Ahvron they sometimes make Bommy. All his family called him Bommy, so you can see they didn't mean it as a knock. The one who changed it to Bummy was Johnny Attell.
Johnny Attell used to run the fights at the Ridgewood Grove, a fight club in Brooklyn where some good fighters like Sid Terris and Ruby Goldstein and Tony Canzoneri learned to fight, and Johnny and a nice guy named Lew Burton managed Bummy. When Bummy tuned pro and Johnny made up the show card for the fight with Frankie Reese he put the name on it as Al (Bummy) Davis, and when Bummy saw it he went right up to John's office.
"What are you doing that for?" he hollered at Johnny. "I don't want to be called Bummy."
"Take it easy," Johnny said. "You want to make money fighting don't you? People like to come to fights to see guys they think are tough."
They sure liked to come to see Bummy all right. They sure liked to come to see him get his brains knocked out.
Gay Talese on Floyd Patterson:
Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed The Deauville. He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.
Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $25,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sportswriters — and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false mustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.
It was after the being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a mustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.
Although there proved to be no need to bring the disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his forty-eight-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.
"As I got onto the plane, you'd never have recognized me," he said. "I had on this beard, mustache, glasses, and hat — and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn't care what plane I boarded; I just looked ip and saw this sign at the terminal reading 'Madrid,' and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.
"When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name 'Aaron Watson.' I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And, after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. ... And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else. ..."
Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, "With money, you can do anything."
Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, "You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don't know ... but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you're alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word — myself — is because ... is because ... I am a coward."
He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering if he should have said it.