WRITERS AND FIGHTERS
In a straightforward world, boxing is boxing. From the view of a romantic, however, it’s the sweet science. And for those with a more hardboiled twist, it’s the fight racket, prizefighting, or the train to Palookaville...For writers, it’s the Golden Fleece.
There is a cinematic lyricism inherent in boxing, which has spoken to the souls of uncountable scribes since the early Greeks first began throwing fists at one another. Writers who have never thrown a punch, and those who have both given and taken their share of fists to the face, have found their true muse in boxing’s gladiatorial clashes.
But there is something more tying writers to fighters—fighting is writing and writing is fighting...A writer’s blank page is his ring, words are his punches, tone and intonation are his footwork, re-writing and re-writing are the miles and miles of roadwork and sit-ups, the bell is the deadline, the blood on the page is the blood on the canvas...and the sweat is the sweat in both professions.
Fighters are taught to punch through their opponents to knock them out, while writers strive to break through a reader’s cynicism and turn his world upside down. And while untold symphonies of words have been used to capture the drama of real world bouts, it is in the world of fiction where writers have taken the metaphoric spirit of boxing and delivered the knockout punch.
The fight fiction genre has become an integral part of our cultural history—especially when economic times have been as tough as the characters in a fight fiction tale. I have long been fascinated by the history of fight fiction and those writers who have used it to create stories going far beyond the big fight finish of most boxing tales.
Even before the explosion of fight fiction in the pulps of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Jack London was penning fight stories for the masses, such as his classics A Piece of Steak and The Abysmal Brute. Feeding the need of the everyman to rise above his daily struggle for survival through vicarious fight entertainment, London’s fight tales were devoured.
London learned to box by sparring with his friend Jim Whitaker, and his love of the sport never waned. Wherever his wanderings took him, London always had a pair of boxing gloves, always ready to mix it up with any challenger. Most often, however, London’s regular sparring partner was his wife, Charmian Kittredge, with whom he routinely boxed at home.
Even on his sloop Snark, travelling to the Solomon Islands, or on the Tymeric from Sydney, Australia, to Ecuador, or the Dirgo from Baltimore to Seattle in 1912, Jack and Charmain would put on their bathing suits and square off for an hour of sparring before throwing buckets of salt water on one another. Because he couldn’t strike back against Charmain as he would against another man, London developed an almost impenetrable defense, making him more than a challenge for any man he toed the line against. London hated bullfighting and hunting, considering them without any sporting interest. However, the specific mano-a-mano science of boxing fascinated him. He always tried to attend professional fights as a reporter in order to secure a ringside seat.
In 1905, he wrote one of his most highly regarded fight stories, The Game, which was serialized in Metropolitan Magazine. The story caused a clamor when critics claimed the story’s conclusion was over-the-top as a fighter could not be killed by hitting his head on the canvas. London’s reply was a claim to have seen it happen in the West Oakland Athletic Club. Eventually, lightweight champion of the world, Jimmy Britt, settled things in the San Francisco Examiner when he was quoted as saying, “With...nothing more to guarantee me he knows The Game than his description of his fictional prize-fight, I would, if he were part of our world, propose or accept him as referee of my impending battle with Nelson."
During the height of the pulp era on the ‘30s and ‘40s, Robert E. Howard was another writer who banged out fight stories while also engaging in the pugilistic arts. Even though as a child he was bookish and intellectual, in his teen years he took up bodybuilding before eventually entering the ring as an amateur boxer.
The first heyday of fight fiction , however, came in the American pulps from the turn of the 20th century through their final issues in the 1950’s. While the sports pulps have not become as collectable as the hero pulps or the detective pulps, there were at least fifty sport pulp titles available monthly during their zenith—and their pages were filled with fistic action.
Two pulp magazines in particular, Fight Stories and Knockout published nothing but fight fiction during their run on the newsstands. Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine was another, but it only had a short run. Fight Stories often featured tales staring Sailor Steve Costigan, the lovable, hard-fisted, and innocent semi-pro pugilist who regularly squared-off against dastardly villains in exotic ports of call. Created by Robert E. Howard, the Sailor Steve Costigan stories have endured to become the standard of the genre and are still readily available.
Best known as the creator of Conan The Barbarian, Solomon Kane, and other sword and sorcery characters, Howard had a lifelong interest in boxing, attending fights and avidly following the careers of his favorite fighters. During the height of the pulp era, he banged out numerous fight stories claiming to considered his fictional fight tales—especially The Iron Man, and the adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan—as among the best of his works. Howard wrote more stories about Costigan and his pugilistic ilk than any of his more famous fantasy series characters. His boxing tales and the hundreds of other two-fisted pulp yarns helped a generation of readers to fight through the Great Depression and the tough years to follow.
During the ‘50s, the printed tales of fight fiction gave way to a wider appreciation of live bouts. Television brought those fights into American living rooms for all to see. However, as the public became jaded by the scandal of fight fixing and the real life encroachment of organized crime into the fight game, a new realism in fight fiction wrapped its hands with tape and pulled on battered leather gloves illegally loaded with lead.
Published in 1958, The Professional written by W. C. Heinz cast a harsh reflection of the seedy circus-like atmosphere of boxing with its assorted hangers-on, crooked promoters, and jaded journalists. With his lean sentences, rough-and-ready dialogue, dry wit, and you-are-there style, Heinz brilliantly used the cynical eyes of fictional sports writer Frank Hughes to recount the trials of middleweight Eddie Brown and his crusty trainer, Doc Carroll, as Brown prepares for a championship fight. Heinz’ novel is still as revered today as it was when Hemingway—himself an amateur pugilist and teller of fight stories such as Fifty Grand and A Matter of Colour—declared it the only good novel about a fighter I've read and an excellent novel in its own right.
Movies also reflected the public’s growing disenchantment with boxing in the ‘50s. Humphrey Bogart’s final screen appearance in 1956’s The Harder They Fall—based on Budd Schulberg’s 1947 novel—dramatizes a thinly disguised account of the real life boxing scandal involving champion Primo Carnera. Bogart's character, Eddie Willis, was based on the career of boxing writer and event promoter Harold Conrad. The book and film pulled no punches, showing brutal and brutish fight scenes coupled with the cynical and humiliating treatment of fighters by those surrounding them—which further reflected the middle class workers’ own feelings of punitive treatment by upper management.
Finally, in 1969, the noir edge of fight stories was capped with the publication of Fat City. Written by Leonard Gardner, Fat City, set in the small-time boxing circuit of Stockton, California in the late ‘50s, became an acclaimed film from director John Houston in 1972. As in The Professional and The Harder They Fall, the message of Fat City was a harsh metaphor for the impossibility of a public striving to get ahead while surrounded by forces determined to derail them at every turn.
As the ‘70s progressed, however, the public became primed for a change. Unlike prior generations, this change in popular entertainment would not be tied to the socio-economic factors of the day. Instead, a blurring of the lines of fact and fiction—especially in the world of boxing—was occurring as the hyper embellishments of celebrity were inflicted upon larger popular culture as a whole.
In boxing, the anger, power, and sheer showmanship of Muhammad Ali—the man who would become boxing’s greatest ambassador—had revitalized the public’s fervor for ring action. Ali’s larger than life, love-me-or-hate-me-I’m-still-the-greatest personality overshadowed the ever darkening machinations of the trademark spiky-haired head and grasping fingers of promoter Don King.
In 1971, Joe Frazier fought Ali in a bout hyped as The Fight of the Century. Frazier prevailed over Ali, who was returning to boxing after being suspended for three years for his refusal to obey the draft. The defeat sent Ali on a quest, fighting contender after pretender to the heavyweight throne in an attempt to obtain another title shot.
The Rumble in the Jungle in 1974, pitted then world Heavyweight champion George Foreman against former world champion and challenger Muhammad Ali. This fight, coupled a year later with The Thrilla in Manila (the climax of the bitter rivalry between Ali and Frazier) returned boxing to the world stage like nothing before. Norman Mailer's bestselling non-fiction work, The Fight, documented The Greatest Fight of the Greatest Life with all the power of a great fictional narrative. This revered work ushered in an era of self-involved journalism, which laid the ground work preparing the public for a little film that could go the distance...Rocky.
Rocky detailed the winning underdog story of a fighter who only wanted to go the distance—an achievable, if difficult, goal believed in and desired by the everyman of the day in his everyday mundane life, However, the film’s real world inception and creation was an underdog story to rival its fight fiction, pulp-style, plot. Sylvester Stallone was inseparable from his onscreen persona as he fought for his screenplay and starring role against all studio odds—and then went the distance as Rocky would go on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. Rocky and its (eventually) five sequels were hits and misses with the critics, but not with the public. The average Joe began to see the hype of the real world fights and fictional movie fireworks as almost one and the same. Fight stories were back in the public eye in a big way.
In 2000, fight fiction morphed again with the publication of the pseudonymous F. X. Toole’s, Rope Burns: Stories From The Corner. Each story in the collection was a gem. But unlike the tales populating the fight pulps of old, the stories in Rope Burns gave a whole new human face to the world of boxing, a deeper meaning—all leading to the brilliant Best Picture Oscar winning film Million Dollar Baby, based on several stories from the collection. Rope Burns proved to the wider public, yet again, what fans of fight fiction have always known—the world of the sweet science, at its best, has always been a reflection of what it means to be human, what it means to struggle, what it means to be hit in the face with the daily and millennial challenge of survival as individuals, as families, and finally as a race.
In the new millennium, the economy has struggled again. Today, the ever exploding popularity of mixed martial arts tournaments (MMA) has brought the fighting arts back to the forefront of the public consciousness. In MMA, the everyman sees in the caged octagon his own incarceration, its brutality a blow against the state of the world—the stark struggle to survive in a time and place where the rules have change, where the action is faster, more violent, and yet possessed of a choreographed beauty.
Simultaneously, the thirst for fight stories has increased, as shown by the popularity and critical acclaim for such MMA-themed novels as Suckerpunch by Jeremy Brown, The Longshot by Katie Kitamura, Choke Hold by Christa Faust, and many more. Traditional boxing novels are flourishing. Every Time I Talk To Liston and Las Vegas Soul by Brian DeVido; Pound For Pound, F. X. Toole’s posthumously finished novel; Waiting for Carver Boyd by Thomas Hauser; and many, many, more continue to tell the tale of the tape and the story of the squared circle.
My love of fight fiction and my own writing career eventually squared off in 2012. Together with fellow scribe Mel Odom, we created the Fight Card series of 25,000 word novelettes designed to capture the feel of the fight fiction tales of the pulp era for a new generation. By the end of 2016, the Fight Card series had published fifty tightly plotted tales of fistic mayhem from 45 of the most promising writers working today. Set in the gangster era of the 1920s through the noir-filled streets of the ‘50s and on to the gaged violence of MMA, Fight Card has provided inspiring, entertaining, stories of tough guys caught in tough spots with nothing but their fists, wits, and fighting nature to battle against the odds.
The best fight fiction has boxing (or other fighting styles) at the beating heart of each narrative and provides the resolution through which each conclusion is reached. Great fight fiction is about character—the individual’s journey into darkness and back to the light. It inspires our character and our journeys. It makes us believe we can endure our own darkness until the light breaks through again.
I savor fight fiction because, as a reader and a writer, it brings my imagination alive. It makes me want to stand up and cheer. It elevates me beyond the ordinary and takes me into a world of one man's determination and skill pitted against another in the brutal ballet danced in ring or cage. No matter the time period or the style of fighting involved, it gives me the vicarious experience of being in the ring against an overwhelming opponent, yet with the resolve to never, never, go down for the count—something I never get tired of feeling.