September 01, 2009

Best books about boxing

When I was growing up I always thought of my father as someone who looked down on sports, but later I realised that it was just team sports he didn’t like. He loved top performers. He watched Wimbledon. He watched the Olympic divers and sprinters and skiers. And he watched boxing. He saw Sonny Liston lose the heavyweight championship of the world to Cassius Clay, and I remember overhearing him say that Sonny Liston had thrown the fight. I wanted to know what it meant, and I guess once I knew that I asked why. Never one to underestimate children, he would not only have mentioned organised crime, but probably attempted an exposition of the Faustian bargain as well.

Well, it was a fascinating riddle to me and it must have lodged itself inside my brain, so that last week, when I was looking up a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis by Nick Tosches on the library catalogue and discovered that he had written a book about Sonny Liston, I found myself rushing upstairs to grab it off the shelf, like the brainwashed agents in that old Charles Bronson spy movie who twenty years later are reawakened by a line of poetry and compelled to go and blow up missile sites.

Nick Tosches is a writer I’ve always liked. In the first photo I saw of him he looked a bit like John Cassavetes (though he doesn’t really) and the first book of his I picked up had a great dedication, with lines like “to those who broke and entered with me / into the cathedral of the heart, / to those who took my back / in right and in wrong.” That’s what his prose is like, Little Italy tough-guy with moments of sentiment but not sentimentalism, and an echo of Dante, except that Dante was never brutal, and he rhymed.

The book is called Night train, after the song Liston liked to work out to, and I read it in two nights. I would have read it in one if I hadn't had to go to work the next day. It’s dark and disturbing, like Sonny Liston, who turns out to have been the archetype of “bad”. I didn't know. The book quotes Liston comparing boxing to a cowboy movie, with the good guys and the bad guys. “’The bad guys are supposed to lose. I change that,’ he had said. ‘I win’.” But Tosches's take is, “He rode a fast dark train from nowhere, and it dumped him at that falling-off place at the end of the line.”

On the lighter side, this book was directly responsible for me watching the DVD of Fight Club last night. I had never wanted to see it because I had imagined it as something World Wrestling Federation types watched, not to mention the problem of pretentious Brad Pitt, but it was proposed to me, and after Night train, men beating each other up didn't sound so shallow after all, so I watched it. Once I would have cried “foul” about the scene where the narrator pounds the guy’s face into pulp, but not any more. Now I’m looking forward to the book, my first Chuck Palahniuk novel ever. I see a whole new world opening up here.

Vice versa, here’s a book I've read which everyone should read: The fight, the book Norman Mailer wrote about the Rumble in the Jungle -- the famous match held in Zaire with which Muhammad Ali won his world championship back from George Foreman. Boxing fans have deemed it the best book ever about boxing, but I just love it for how convulsively funny it is, not to mention exceedingly sharp, and, just often enough, from-the-heart eloquent. It's Mailer totally in command. Here he is on George Foreman:

syndetics-lc"He came out from the elevator dressed in embroidered bib overalls and dungaree jacket and entered the lobby of the Inter-Continental flanked by a Black on either side. He did not look like a man so much as a lion standing just as erectly as a man. He appeared sleepy but in the way of a lion digesting a carcass."

And lastly, there's Hemingway’s classic, great story about the shadowy world of boxing and the mob, “The killers”, which you can now read online -- hard to believe, if you are acquainted with the Hemingway family’s possessiveness with regard to their precious “brand”, including their attempt to stop the Hemingway look-alike contest in Key West from proceeding as not being respectful enough (or not having paid them enough).

This from the family that had the bad taste to bring us the Ernest Hemingway line of rifles! I saw the advertisement in an U.S. magazine with my own eyes.

Read "The Killers"

And get from the library

Night train by Nick Tosches

Fight club (DVD)

Fight club (the novel)

The fight by Norman Mailer

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30


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