Dennis Lehane, the author of several best-selling fictional narratives that are noteworthy for dark landscapes and edgy behaviors, proclaims on the cover of At the Fights that this compendium of American writers on boxing is “a knockout of a collection.” That is an understatement.
George Kimball and John Schulian—both recipients of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism—are to be congratulated for putting together, arguably, the finest collection of boxing writing up to this point in time. At the Fights is more than a superior anthology. Ranging from Jack Johnson battling James Jeffries at the start of the twentieth century, to the swansong of Larry Holmes’s career at the end of the century, the various essays are vigorous brush strokes on an American canvas made extraordinary by its reflections on competition, race, social class, success, disaster, and mayhem.
No less than forty-eight authors are featured in this book. It is enough to point out that from this list the following stand out as, not only being noted boxing writers, but as great authors in broader spheres of literature. So Kimball and Schulian tap into Jack London, H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Paul Gallico, James Baldwin, Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, Pete Hamill, Joyce Carol Oates, and William Nack.
Colum McCann, in his foreword to At the Fights, does a marvelous pulpit-worthy rant on what makes boxing special and why a relatively brutal contact-collision form of athletics attracts the attention of writers seen as being more cerebral and literary than muscular and confrontational:
Soccer has never really made great literature, nor has tennis, or football. Baseball and chess get a bit of literary attention, but never on the level of boxing. And I don’t know a good poem yet about curling. Let’s face it, the Great Book says that in the beginning was the word. And then the word was made flesh. And then it dwelt among us.
What’s most beautiful about boxing are the lives behind it. They’re so goddam literary. Every boxer you ever met was fathered by Hamlet, and if not the Dane, well, at least Coriolanus. There’s always the Gatsby moment and the gorgeous pink rag of a suit. Every promoter you’ve ever seen has Shylock on his shoulder(p.xii).
While not every famous fighter is profiled in At the Fights, the Kimball and Schulian collection virtually showcases the most stellar, successful, sensational, and controversial boxers in a century of ring action. While not a complete trawl of At the Fights here are just some of the leading battlers—Jack Johnson, James Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, Georges Carpentier, Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, Stanley Ketchel, Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Duk Koo Kim, George Forman, Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, Oscar De La Hoya, and Larry Holmes. [End Page 167]
It is hardly surprisingly that Muhammad Ali comes most under the microscope in At the Fights. Murray Kempton, George Plimpton, Larry Merchant, Dick Schaap, Norman Mailer, and Mark Kram explore and analyze the life and times of the “Louisville Lip.” Kram interviewed Ali at the end of the “Thrilla in Manilla,” the 1975 bout between Ali and Joe Frazier. Ali observed:
When somebody asked a marathon runner what goes through his mind in the last mile or so, he said that you ask yourself why am I doin’ this. You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you go insane(p. 262).
While Ali is the dominant boxer featured in At the Fights he is pressed by Joe Louis with six essays covering the “Brown Bomber.” Sherwood Anderson in his piece entitled “Brown Bomber” describes how Louis hit his opponents—“it was like when you put a charge of dynamite under a rock and touch it off” (p. 51). Red Smith, the distinguished journalist...