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Cut Time: An Education at the Fights [NOOK Book]

Overview

Carlo Rotella, an award-winning writer and ringside veteran, unearths the hard wisdom in any kind of fight, from barroom dustup to HBO extravaganza. He vividly describes the tough choices and subtle pleasures that come the way of every fighter, from perennial underdogs on the tank-town circuit to the one-time heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who still spars to retching exhaustion daily.
Rotella uncovers the often startling light that boxing sheds on the world beyond the ring. ...
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Cut Time: An Education at the Fights

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Overview

Carlo Rotella, an award-winning writer and ringside veteran, unearths the hard wisdom in any kind of fight, from barroom dustup to HBO extravaganza. He vividly describes the tough choices and subtle pleasures that come the way of every fighter, from perennial underdogs on the tank-town circuit to the one-time heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who still spars to retching exhaustion daily.
Rotella uncovers the often startling light that boxing sheds on the world beyond the ring. A college student's brief fistic career pinpoints the moment when adulthood arrives. The serenity of a fellow fan shows Rotella how to process the trauma of a car crash. The persistence of a wizened ex-champion reminds him of his grandmother and helps him accept her death. Throughout, Rotella achieves moving resonances between the worlds inside and outside the ropes.
He also tackles fascinating questions that have gone largely unexplored until now: How do boxers endure the brutal punishment that is the sport's essence? And why do they come back for more, again and again? As Rotella traces his immersion in the fight world, he achieves what few other writers in that world have: he makes it relevant to us, whether we're fans or not.
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Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
Rotella, who is in his 30s, has preserved the blow-by-blow and the grandeur of another age but has somehow expanded the ring to include his own generation's proclivities and sensitivity. — Susan Salter Reynolds
Publishers Weekly
An English professor and fight fan, Rotella writes essays that speak to both his passions. His carefully crafted prose ("Andreske's internal organs rolling and bruising in the lightless sea of his insides, like submarines bracketed by depth charges in old movies") demonstrates a gift for language as well as an in-depth understanding of boxing. Whether a fight takes place in a sold-out arena, a dingy training hall or a street corner outside a townie bar, Rotella, always the teacher, seeks out the inherent lesson to be learned by "the most basic fact" common to each and every fight: "hurt." But his most engaging writing occurs when he takes the lessons learned in the ring and applies them to people without monstrous physiques or lightning quick reflexes such as his aging grandmother; Gary, a car crash victim; and Russ, a college student trying to learn to box. Though none of his characters will ever fight a title bout, each one embodies an ideal-perseverance, honesty, self-discovery-that every fighter must understand to reach his pinnacle as a boxer and that every individual must strive to grow as a person. Rotella's essays, with their marriage of literary analysis and the hard-knocks reality of the fights, are a welcome addition to the vast library of boxing literature. (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Maybe it's our eternal search for meaning. Or maybe it's just our attempt to rationalize endless hours spent in front of the tube watching people run by, jump over, or pound on one another. Whatever the reason, many people seem compelled to portray sports as a metaphor for life. Rotella, a college professor and prize-winning essayist, believes that boxing is such a metaphor and that we can learn something about persevering in the journey from cradle to grave by considering practitioners of the "sweet science" who have trained and disciplined themselves to go the distance in grueling bouts. He does his best work, however, in the more grounded views he offers into the world of club and undercard fighters, the sort of men who, along with a smattering of contenders, train in obscurity in gyms such as that owned by former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, whom Rotella admired growing up. His conversations with Holmes offer insight into a man who might have been considered one of the all-time greats had he not followed in the considerable wake of Muhammad Ali. Covering the big time and the small, this "thinking man's" take on a blood sport is a good purchase for larger public libraries.-Jim Burns, Jacksonville P.L., FL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Natty, cogitative essays on the sweet science, often from the perspective of the small boxing venue. Boxing, writes Rotella (Good With Their Hands, 2002; English/Boston College), "self-consciously takes form around the impulse to discipline hitting, to govern it with rules, to master it with technique and inure the body to its effect." This is how one could approach life, he suggests, though he lets that idea sit lightly on the proceedings, a metaphorical tap. Still, there's the climate of hurt: "In boxing, hurt is what people do to each other, an intimate social act, a pessimistically stripped-to-the-bone rendition of life as it is lived outside the ring." Here lies the lesson: to get an education in the ring and not die from it. "Mastering the craft means fashioning a style that takes maximum advantage of one's root capacity for hitting and minimizes the necessity of taking advantage of one's root capacity for being hit." Being hit results in being like the fellow whose eye "resembled some kind of meat custard with a black rubber band pulled tight around it," or-in Rotella's relaxed evocation of the language of the ring-like the one with "arms flung over his head to create about nine feet of horizontal British heavyweight, when a guy from Baltimore named Hasim Rahman starched him with an overhand right." When Rotella was teaching in the Lehigh Valley, he had a chance to attend fights on the Pennsylvania mill-town circuit and in the no-flash champ Larry Holmes's training center in Easton-the kinds of places where the fight game obtrudes into the local culture, pomp and celebrity don't apply, and the act of boxing-the principle of defense with bad intentions-can be observed in all itsexpressions, with enough heart and high action to renew your faith in the game. Rotella gives back to boxing some of its old-school, venerable aura.
Boston Globe
"Rotella finds in boxing not only entertainment, but worthy and sustaining metaphors for battles outside the ring. In some of the most extraordinary passages of this thoughtful and crafted book, Rotella compares the proud struggles of old and damaged boxers to his grandmother's determined progress through her final days."
Wall Street Journal

"A wonderful book. . . . Cut Time is aimed at everyone, even readers who can't imagine that they could ever learn anything from men slugging it out in a ring. They can."

— Gordon Marino

Stuart Dybek
"Rotella knows that for this to be a book about more than boxing, it must first be a keen, solid account of his time spent at ringside. That's admirably accomplished, and in the process he has written one of the shrewdest, least egocentric, most engaging memoirs about acquiring an education that I've read."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Rotella sets out to accomplish something refreshingly simple, accessible and deliciously raw. He glides with language and delivers his words with what boxers call 'quick hands.' Reading his words is a pleasure, but absorbing their underlying force, and the dark things they sometimes suggest, can be bruising . . . Rotella shows that he's not just an excellent reporter, keen writer and an acute observer, he's a hell of a teacher to boot."

— Mark Luce

Chronicle of Higher Education
"One of the best boxing books ever written."
Los Angeles Times
"Just when you think it's all been written, a good writer takes a shining new look at an old subject and breathes life into it. . . . Rotella has preserved the blow-by-blow and the grandeur of another age but has somehow expanded the ring to include his own generation's proclivities and sensibility."
Sports Illustrated
"Cut Time should be read not just by fight aficionados but also by fans of intelligent nonfiction writing.. Rotella delivers a clear-eyed report that sets aside the question of whther boxing is good or evil and instead describes precisely what a life in boxing entails . . . An absorbing read."
Pete Hamill
“This is a superb book about the noble squalor of the world of prizefighting. Carlo Rotella has given us an account that is acutely observed and elegantly written, charged on every page with intelligence, pity, surprise, and yes, a kind of wisdom.”—Pete Hamill, author of A Drinking Life and Forever

 

 

 

 

Anne Fadiman
“Carlo Rotella writes with his mind, his heart, and his gut. The result is prose that leaves you breathless. As one of his boxers says about another, ‘He can hit.’”—Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Ex Libris

 

 

Wall Street Journal - Gordon Marino
"A wonderful book. . . . Cut Time is aimed at everyone, even readers who can't imagine that they could ever learn anything from men slugging it out in a ring. They can."
San Francisco Chronicle - Mark Luce
"Rotella sets out to accomplish something refreshingly simple, accessible and deliciously raw. He glides with language and delivers his words with what boxers call 'quick hands.' Reading his words is a pleasure, but absorbing their underlying force, and the dark things they sometimes suggest, can be bruising . . . Rotella shows that he's not just an excellent reporter, keen writer and an acute observer, he's a hell of a teacher to boot."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547344966
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/5/2003
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • File size: 186 KB

Meet the Author

Carlo Rotella writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine, and he is a columnist for the Boston Globe. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, Slate, and The Best American Essays, and on WGBH. He is director of American Studies and professor of English at Boston College.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

At Ringside

Ringside comes into being whenever the hitting starts and both combatants know how to do it. There is almost always a place on the margins of a fight for interested observers; most fights, even those between drunks in the street, would not happen without them. In the narrow sense, though, ringside requires a ring. Inside a ring, fighting can come under the shaping influence of the rules, traditions, and institutions of boxing. The fight world is grounded in relatively few pieces of real estate — the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, for instance, or the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia — but it also floats across the landscape, touching down and coalescing in material form when a casino puts up a ring for a night of boxing, or when a trainer rents a storefront and fills it with punching bags and a couple of duct-taped situp mats and a ring for sparring. When the gym loses its lease or when the casino has to clear its hall the next day for a Legends of Doo-Wop concert, the fight world packs up and moves on, traveling light. A ring is just a medium-sized truckful of metal struts, plywood flooring, foam padding, canvas, ropes, cables, and miscellaneous parts; it takes only a couple of hours for a competent crew to assemble it or break it down. While the ring is set up it creates ringside — and the possibility of learning something.
There are lessons to be learned at ringside. Close to but apart from both the action and the paying audience watching it, you see in two directions at once: into the cleared fighting space inside the ropes, and outward at the wide world spreading messily outside the ropes. You must learn specialized boxing knowledge to make sense of what you see in the ring, but the consequences of those lessons extend far beyond boxing. The deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such lessons — about the virtues and limits of craft, about the need to impart meaning to hard facts by enfolding them in stories and spectacle, about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy, and especially about education itself: boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.
A serious education in boxing, for an observer as well as a fighter, entails regular visits to the gym, where the showbiz distractions of fight night recede and matters of craft take precedence. Gyms are places of repetition and permutation. A fighter refines a punch by throwing it over and over in the mirror and then at a bag and then at an opponent. A short guy and a tall guy in the sparring ring work out their own solutions to the ancient problem of fighting somebody taller or shorter than oneself. Everybody there, no matter how deeply caught up in his own business, remains alert to the instructive value of other people’s labors. My first and best boxing school has been the Larry Holmes Training Center, a long, low, shedlike building facing the railroad tracks and the river on Canal Street in Easton, Pennsylvania. Holmes, the gym’s owner and principal pugilist, was the best heavyweight in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he had an extended run as undisputed champion. He has been retiring and unretiring since then, fighting on through his forties and past fifty. His afternoon training sessions at the gym have allowed younger fighters to work alongside a master, and interested observers to watch.
Holmes, the last of the twentieth century’s great heavyweight stylists, practices the manly art of self-defense as it used to be taught. A big, prickly fellow with a no-nonsense workingman’s body and an oddly planed head that seems to deflect incoming shots like a tank’s turret, he has prospered through diligent application of the principle of defense with bad intentions. He puts technique before musculature, good sense before crowd-pleasing drama, perseverance before rage. Boxing is unnatural: instinct does not teach you to move toward a hard hitter, rather than away from him, to cut down his leverage; you do not instinctively bring your hand back to blocking position after you punch with it; almost nobody feels a natural urge to stay on his feet when badly hurt by a blow, or to get up within ten seconds of having been knocked down. Even after a lifetime of fighting, a boxer has to reinforce and relearn good habits in training. Sitting on one of the banged-up folding chairs arranged at ringside in Holmes’s gym, you could pick up some of those habits — or at least an appreciatttttion of them — by watching him at work.
My education as a ringsider probably began at the first school I ever attended, the Ancona Montessori School. I spent the better part of two years there banging a green plastic Tyrannosaurus rex into a blue plastic Triceratops (and then putting them away where they belonged, which is what Montessori schools and well-run gyms are all about), absorbing the widely applicable groundline truth that styles make fights. The gangly T. rex had to risk being gored in order to bite; the squatty Triceratops had to risk being bitten in order to gore; and T. rex had to force the action like a challenger, rather than the undisputed champion among dinosaurs he was supposed to be: he needed meat, while Triceratops could get by on shrubs. Among nonextinct fighters, I knew who Muhammad Ali was, but he was mostly a face and a voice, like Fred Flintstone. The first boxer I recognized as a boxer was Larry Holmes, who was sizing up and solving one contender after another, some- times on television, when I was in high school. Holmes, part T. rex and part Triceratops, had the first boxing style I could see as such. Circling and jabbing, he wore through the other man’s fight like a toxic solvent. A little more than a decade after leaving high school — having gone on to college and graduate school and a first teaching job at Lafayette College, which overlooks Easton from the steep remove of College Hill — I went for a walk to explore the town and found my way down Canal Street to Holmes’s classroom.
I am not saying, as Ishmael says of a whale ship in Moby-Dick, that a boxing gym was my Yale College and my Harvard. I go there to watch, not to train. I’m inclined by temperament to look blankly at a potential fistfighting opponent until he gets bored and goes away, and I’m built physically to flee predators with bounding strides and sudden shifts of direction. Yale and Harvard and other schools like them have, in fact, been my Yale College and my Harvard. You can get an education at ringside, but you also bring your own education to ringside.
I’m currently in something like the thirtieth grade of a formal education that began at the Ancona Montessori School, and somewhere along the way I picked up the habit of research. Visits to ringside and conversations with fight people inspire visits to the archive to pursue context and understanding. The archive of boxing includes a library of edifying and sometimes elegant writing that reaches from the latest typo-riddled issue of Boxing Digest all the way back to a one-punch KO in book 23 of the Iliad, but it also includes many thousands of fights on film and videotape. Seeing a bout from ringside sends me to the VCR with a stack of tapes to study the styles and stories of the combatants, or to consider analogous fights informed by a similar principle: bomber versus tactician, old head versus young lion, showboat versus plumber. I get the tapes in the mail from Gary, an ascetic in outer Wisconsin, and from Mike, a scholar in Kansas with a good straight left who sounds just like a young Howard Cosell (except that Mike knows what he’s talking about). Gary and Mike trade tapes with a motley network of connoisseur collectors, fistic philosophes, and aggression freaks who convene on the Internet to argue over such arcana as whether John L. Sullivan could have coped with Roy Jones Jr.’s handspeed. If the tape-traders’ network can also provide a copy of a bout I attended (not always possible, since I often cover tank-town cards that escape the notice even of regional cable and video bootleggers), I review it to see what cameras and microphones might have caught that I did not.
Even if it begins in the gym, a ringside education has to reckon with television, which has dominated the fights since it rose to power in the 1950s. That’s when boxing began to become an esoteric electronic spectacle rather than a regular feature of neighborhood life (and that’s when A. J. Liebling was moved to write a definitive and already nostalgic defense of seeing a fight in person, “Boxing with the Naked Eye”). From ringside, you can see the signs of television’s dominance. Bouts begin when the network’s schedule requires them to begin; extra-bright lights make everything appear to be in too sharp focus. Announcers, producers, and technicians have a roped-off section of ringside to themselves. Camera operators with shoulder mounts stand outside the ropes on the ring apron, trailing cables behind them as they follow the action. They interfere with the crowd’s view of the fighters, but the inconvenience makes a sort of sense: a few hundred or a few thousand attendees put up with a partially blocked view so that millions, potentially, can see everything.
Not only does TV money dictate the fight world’s priorities, TV technology also promises to turn your living room into ringside. These days, cameras and microphones can bring spectators at home closer to the action than would a ringside seat. When you watch a fight on television, a corner mike lets you horn in on a trainer’s whispered final instruction to his fighter before the bell, and you can see the fighter’s features distort and ripple in slow motion from three different angles as he gets hit with the combination the trainer warned him about. Some part of me knows that this is all deeply intimate and therefore none of my business, even as I pause the tape and then rewind it so I can write down exactly what the trainer said and note the precise sequence of punches.
But television hides as much as it reveals. For one thing, it tells you what to watch. It does not let you turn around to look at the crowd, whose surging presence you can hear, and smell, and feel on your skin at ringside. It does not allow you to look away from the terrible mismatch in the ring to watch for flashes of shame behind the boxing commissioners’ impassivity. It also muffles the perception of leverage and distance, the sense of consequences, available at ringside. You often can’t tell how hard the punches are; occasionally, you can’t tell what is happening at all. After eleven Zapruderine replays, you still ask, Was that a hard shot or a glancing blow? Did it knock him down or did he stumble? Returning to a fight on tape can fill in or correct my understanding of what I saw in person from ringside, and I’m grateful that the boxing archive on videotape has allowed me to see a century’s worth of fights that I could never have seen in person, but I don’t try to score a fight unless I was there in person. I thought John Ruiz was robbed when judges gave the decision to Evander Holyfield in their first fight, but I only saw it on television, so I can’t be sure. Had I been at ringside, I might have concluded that Holyfield hit so much harder than Ruiz that he deserved to win rounds in which he landed fewer blows.
The apparatus of television is not always equal to the task of connecting action to its meaningful context. Television seems to get you close enough to see almost everything and taste the flying sweat, but its appeal lies primarily in cool distance. There’s a basketball game on one channel, a tragic romance on the next, a ten-round bloodbath on the next, and in each case the camera does the equivalent of following the ball, tracing broad emotions and basic narrative contours. For reasons that have as much to do with business as technology, television can’t or won’t capture the off-the-ball struggle of four against five to create or advantageous angles to the basket, or the nearness of another sleeping body in a bed, or the slight changes in distance a smart defensive fighter constantly makes between himself and his opponent to neutralize the other man’s developing punches.
That leaves it up to the on-air announcers to connect action to meaningful context. Talking from bell to bell, they model and parody the processes of education at the fights. When the HBO crew works a bout, for instance, Jim Lampley divides his time between describing the action and mock-crunching the opaque CompuBox numbers that purport to quantify the bout’s progress. Larry Merchant, the professorial one, offers boxing lore and the occasional historical or literary reference. Mostly, though, he makes a smelling-a-bad-smell face I associate with French public intellectuals and explains that the guy who isn’t winning is the more egregious example of how men are no longer men in this debased age. George Foreman, who used to hurt people for a living, is the most sympathetic to the fighters, but wildly erratic and often plain wrong in his commentary. I’m always in some suspense as to how long he can hold back from expressing his obsessive fear of being touched on the chest: “That’s how you take a man’s power.” When moonlighting active boxers like Roy Jones Jr. or Oscar De La Hoya sit in on a broadcast, they seem to be running their thoughts past an internal Marketing Department before articulating them. By the time the profound and useful things they could be telling us about boxing have made it back from Marketing, thoroughly revised, all that’s left is press-release haiku: “Well, Jim, I think they’re / Both great, great competitors / And very fine men.” I always start out rooting for the announcers to break free of the bonds of the form — they are, after all, offering ways to get something out of boxing, which is what I’m doing in this book — but I soon end up wishing they would shut up so I can hear as well as see the electronic facsimile of the fight.
They don’t shut up, though, and anyway, television is a weak substitute for being there, so I go to the fights. It’s better to sit close, and nobody sits closer than ringsiders (who feel the petty little pleasure of having the big spenders and celebrities seated just behind them), so I cover fights for magazines and newspapers. I pick up my credentials at the press table, hang the laminated badge around my neck, and make my way to ringside. At a local club fight, nobody stops me to check my badge; I find an empty press seat at the long table abutting the ring apron and say hello to other regulars. In Massachusetts, where I live now, that means Charlie Ross, the gentle old-timer who writes for the apoplectic North End paper, the Post- Gazette; Mike Nosky, a mailman who moonlights for RealBoxing.com and briefly managed a cruiserweight out of Worcester named Roy “House of” Payne; and Skeeter McClure, who won a gold medal as a light middleweight in the 1960 Olympics, and who used to head the state boxing commission before a new governor’s cronies squeezed him out. At a casino or a big arena like Madison Square Garden, ushers and security guards look over my badge at checkpoints controlling access to ringside, where several rows of tables and seats have been set up to accommodate a small mob of functionaries, reporters from all over, and television people.
In a club or at the Garden, the prefight scene is always fundamentally the same. The ring girls, in bathing gear and high heels, have draped other people’s jackets around their shoulders to keep warm. Guys in suit and tie from the state commission walk back and forth with great conviction, glad-handing and trying to look busy. The referee for the first bout bounces lightly on the ropes to test the tension, then straightens his bow tie. (My favorite local referee is Eddie Fitzgerald, a smiling gentleman with flowing white hair who breaks fighters out of a clinch as if making room to step between them to order a highball. He taps them briskly on the shoulder as if to say, “Gentlemen, there’s no need to fight.”) The promoter walks by, flush and tight, usually managing to make his priciest clothes look like a forty-dollar rental. He stops to rub important people’s necks and shoulders; he points across the room with a wink or a grin to those who don’t merit a stop; he looks over the crowd filling up the hall, pressing in on ringside from all around. Cornermen and old fighters stand in clusters, talking about the time Bobby D got headbutted by that animal out of Scranton. Photographers check their equipment and load film, like infantry preparing to repel an assault. Print and on-line reporters hang around gossiping. Some of the deadline writers have plugged in their laptops to begin laying down boilerplate. It’s always safe to open with something like this:

They said the old pro from Providence couldn’t take it anymore. They said he had taken too many beatings, too many shots to the head. They said he was old. Tired. Washed up.
All washed up.
All he had left was a heart as big as Federal Hill.
Thump thump. Beating with the will to win. Thump thump. And the pride to carry on.
Thump.
Beating.

If the old pro wins, heart conquers all; if the other guy wins, the hard facts of life KO sentiment again. Either way, the lead works. Soon the sound system will play the ringwalk music for the first bout of the undercard, the first two fighters will make their way through the crowd to the ring, and it will be time for the hitting. Then the writers can finish their stories.
At ringside, you feel yourself to be at the very center of something, but you are actually in a gray borderland between the fights and the world. The action in the raised ring happens far away, even when the clinched fighters are almost on top of you, the ropes bowing outward alarmingly under their weight so that you and the others sitting just below all put up your hands at once, like people getting the spirit at church. But neither are you part of the crowd, exactly. At a major fight, ringside expands to a breadth of fifty feet or more and becomes a populous little district in its own right; the crowd, a largely undifferentiated mass, rises into semidarkness somewhere behind you. The people up there paid for their seats (or were comped by a casino, which means they overpaid for their seats); they expect to be entertained. At least in theory, everybody at ringside has a job to do: staging the fight, governing its conduct, bringing news of it to others.
The distinction can collapse, though. At a local fight, ringside can shrink to a couple of feet wide or less. Once, at the Roxy in downtown Boston, when a union carpenter out of Brockton named Tim “The Hammer” Flamos was fighting Pepe Muniz from Dorchester, an especially enthusiastic supporter of Flamos worked his way forward from his seat down to ringside until he was standing between Charlie Ross and the judge seated to his left, bonking their heads with his elbows as he shouted for Flamos to punch to the body. When Flamos pressed Muniz into the ropes on that side of the ring, the guy reached up with incurved hands and helpfully pointed to the exact places on Muniz’s torso he had in mind, his index fingers nearly touching the straining flesh.

This book pursues a ringside course of study at the fights. It follows the progression of humane inquiry, from mystery to learning to mystery again.
Learning at the fights, following the lessons out through the ropes into the wider world beyond boxing, you regularly arrive at the limits of understanding. All sorts of people wrap all sorts of meaning around the fact of meat and bone hitting meat and bone (until one combatant, parted from his senses, becomes nothing more than meat and bone for the duration of a ten-count). The fight world’s specialized knowledge supplies the inner layers of that wrapping: lessons in craft, parables of fistic virtue rewarded or unrewarded, accounts of paydays and rip-offs. Boxing self-consciously takes form around the impulse to discipline hitting, to govern it with rules, to master it with technique and inure the body to its effect. Fight people like to repeat aphorisms, like “Speed is power” or “Styles make fights,” that domesticate the wild fact of hitting. They have plenty of extra-fistic company in this undertaking because the resonance of hitting extends far beyond the fight world’s boundaries. Scholars and literary writers and even crusaders calling for the abolition of boxing wrap it in more layers: not just the conventions of show business and sport, but also social and artistic and psychological significance. And they keep coming because there’s always more work to do. It takes constant effort to keep the slippery, naked, near- formless fact of hitting swaddled in layers of sense and form. Because hitting wants to shake off all encumbering import and just be hitting, because boxing incompletely frames elemental chaos, the capacity of the fights to mean is rivaled by their incapacity to mean anything at all. There is an education in that, too, since education worthy of the name knows its limitations and does not explain things away.
The book begins with introductory courses in the first three chapters, which feature initiations into the fights and trace the traffic between formal schooling and a fistic education. I’m not sure what it says about me and my day job that they also lead in one way or another to college students getting whacked in the eye. The middle three chapters, advanced electives, extend the line of inquiry deeper into the fight world and the careers of seasoned campaigners, who, just as much as spectators, struggle to make hitting mean something. The last three chapters, senior seminars, arrive at limits imposed by age, frailty, and the stubborn meaninglessness of hitting. Toward the end of the book, many of the fighters and their counterparts outside the ring are older — wiser, maybe, but also more damaged.
I do not set out to be comprehensive or chronological; I treat boxing as I have found it at ringside and as it persists in memory. The effect of persistence, the way a fight lives in me and I make use of it, tends eventually to silt over the original experience. I bury a fight like a bone and dig it up from time to time to gnaw on it. After a while, I’m tasting mostly my memory of the original meal, but the exercise has contemplative value, and it’s good for the teeth. Any sort of bout, not just famous ones, can demand such return visits. Some important fights and fighters appear here, but so do obscure set-tos between journeymen almost nobody has ever heard of. Boxers, whether testing themselves against an opponent or shadowboxing in the mirror, are always reminding me that you can get an education out of whatever you find in front of you, wherever you find it.

Copyright © 2003 by Carlo Rotella. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Table of Contents

Contents Introduction: At Ringside 1 1 Halfway 17 2 Cut Time 31 3 Mismatches 53 4 An Appetite for Hitting 83 5 Out of Order 111 6 The Switch 135 7 The Distance 163 8 Bidness 185 9 Hurt 205 Acknowledgments 221
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First Chapter

Introduction

At Ringside

Ringside comes into being whenever the hitting starts and both combatants
know how to do it. There is almost always a place on the margins of a fight
for interested observers; most fights, even those between drunks in the
street, would not happen without them. In the narrow sense, though, ringside
requires a ring. Inside a ring, fighting can come under the shaping influence of
the rules, traditions, and institutions of boxing. The fight world is grounded in
relatively few pieces of real estate — the International Boxing Hall of Fame in
Canastota, New York, for instance, or the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia — but
it also floats across the landscape, touching down and coalescing in material
form when a casino puts up a ring for a night of boxing, or when a trainer
rents a storefront and fills it with punching bags and a couple of duct-taped
situp mats and a ring for sparring. When the gym loses its lease or when the
casino has to clear its hall the next day for a Legends of Doo-Wop concert,
the fight world packs up and moves on, traveling light. A ring is just a medium-
sized truckful of metal struts, plywood flooring, foam padding, canvas, ropes,
cables, and miscellaneous parts; it takes only a couple of hours for a
competent crew to assemble it or break it down. While the ring is set up it
creates ringside — and the possibility of learning something.
There are lessons to be learned at ringside. Close to but apart
from both the action and the paying audience watching it, you see in two
directions at once: into the cleared fighting space inside theropes, and
outward at the wide world spreading messily outside the ropes. You must
learn specialized boxing knowledge to make sense of what you see in the
ring, but the consequences of those lessons extend far beyond boxing. The
deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that
would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in
spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly
engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but
also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such
lessons — about the virtues and limits of craft, about the need to impart
meaning to hard facts by enfolding them in stories and spectacle, about
getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy, and especially
about education itself: boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching
and learning of knowledge with consequences.
A serious education in boxing, for an observer as well as a fighter,
entails regular visits to the gym, where the showbiz distractions of fight night
recede and matters of craft take precedence. Gyms are places of repetition
and permutation. A fighter refines a punch by throwing it over and over in the
mirror and then at a bag and then at an opponent. A short guy and a tall guy
in the sparring ring work out their own solutions to the ancient problem of
fighting somebody taller or shorter than oneself. Everybody there, no matter
how deeply caught up in his own business, remains alert to the instructive
value of other people's labors. My first and best boxing school has been the
Larry Holmes Training Center, a long, low, shedlike building facing the
railroad tracks and the river on Canal Street in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Holmes, the gym's owner and principal pugilist, was the best heavyweight in
the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he had an extended run as
undisputed champion. He has been retiring and unretiring since then, fighting
on through his forties and past fifty. His afternoon training sessions at the
gym have allowed younger fighters to work alongside a master, and
interested observers to watch.
Holmes, the last of the twentieth century's great heavyweight
stylists, practices the manly art of self-defense as it used to be taught. A big,
prickly fellow with a no-nonsense workingman's body and an oddly planed
head that seems to deflect incoming shots like a tank's turret, he has
prospered through diligent application of the principle of defense with bad
intentions. He puts technique before musculature, good sense before crowd-
pleasing drama, perseverance before rage. Boxing is unnatural: instinct does
not teach you to move toward a hard hitter, rather than away from him, to cut
down his leverage; you do not instinctively bring your hand back to blocking
position after you punch with it; almost nobody feels a natural urge to stay on
his feet when badly hurt by a blow, or to get up within ten seconds of having
been knocked down. Even after a lifetime of fighting, a boxer has to reinforce
and relearn good habits in training. Sitting on one of the banged-up folding
chairs arranged at ringside in Holmes's gym, you could pick up some of
those habits — or at least an appreciation of them — by watching him at
work.
My education as a ringsider probably began at the first school I
ever attended, the Ancona Montessori School. I spent the better part of two
years there banging a green plastic Tyrannosaurus rex into a blue plastic
Triceratops (and then putting them away where they belonged, which is what
Montessori schools and well-run gyms are all about), absorbing the widely
applicable groundline truth that styles make fights. The gangly T. rex had to
risk being gored in order to bite; the squatty Triceratops had to risk being
bitten in order to gore; and T. rex had to force the action like a challenger,
rather than the undisputed champion among dinosaurs he was supposed to
be: he needed meat, while Triceratops could get by on shrubs. Among
nonextinct fighters, I knew who Muhammad Ali was, but he was mostly a
face and a voice, like Fred Flintstone. The first boxer I recognized as a boxer
was Larry Holmes, who was sizing up and solving one contender after
another, some- times on television, when I was in high school. Holmes, part
T. rex and part Triceratops, had the first boxing style I could see as such.
Circling and jabbing, he wore through the other man's fight like a toxic
solvent. A little more than a decade after leaving high school — having gone
on to college and graduate school and a first teaching job at Lafayette
College, which overlooks Easton from the steep remove of College Hill — I
went for a walk to explore the town and found my way down Canal Street to
Holmes's classroom.
I am not saying, as Ishmael says of a whale ship in Moby
that a boxing gym was my Yale College and my Harvard. I go there to watch,
not to train. I'm inclined by temperament to look blankly at a potential
fistfighting opponent until he gets bored and goes away, and I'm built
physically to flee predators with bounding strides and sudden shifts of
direction. Yale and Harvard and other schools like them have, in fact, been
my Yale College and my Harvard. You can get an education at ringside, but
you also bring your own education to ringside.
I'm currently in something like the thirtieth grade of a formal
education that began at the Ancona Montessori School, and somewhere
along the way I picked up the habit of research. Visits to ringside and
conversations with fight people inspire visits to the archive to pursue context
and understanding. The archive of boxing includes a library of edifying and
sometimes elegant writing that reaches from the latest typo-riddled issue of
Boxing Digest all the way back to a one-punch KO in book 23 of the Iliad, but
it also includes many thousands of fights on film and videotape. Seeing a
bout from ringside sends me to the VCR with a stack of tapes to study the
styles and stories of the combatants, or to consider analogous fights
informed by a similar principle: bomber versus tactician, old head versus
young lion, showboat versus plumber. I get the tapes in the mail from Gary,
an ascetic in outer Wisconsin, and from Mike, a scholar in Kansas with a
good straight left who sounds just like a young Howard Cosell (except that
Mike knows what he's talking about). Gary and Mike trade tapes with a
motley network of connoisseur collectors, fistic philosophes, and aggression
freaks who convene on the Internet to argue over such arcana as whether
John L. Sullivan could have coped with Roy Jones Jr.'s handspeed. If the tape-
traders' network can also provide a copy of a bout I attended (not always
possible, since I often cover tank-town cards that escape the notice even of
regional cable and video bootleggers), I review it to see what cameras and
microphones might have caught that I did not.
Even if it begins in the gym, a ringside education has to reckon
with television, which has dominated the fights since it rose to power in the
1950s. That's when boxing began to become an esoteric electronic spectacle
rather than a regular feature of neighborhood life (and that's when A. J.
Liebling was moved to write a definitive and already nostalgic defense of
seeing a fight in person, 'Boxing with the Naked Eye'). From ringside, you
can see the signs of television's dominance. Bouts begin when the network's
schedule requires them to begin; extra-bright lights make everything appear
to be in too sharp focus. Announcers, producers, and technicians have a
roped-off section of ringside to themselves. Camera operators with shoulder
mounts stand outside the ropes on the ring apron, trailing cables behind
them as they follow the action. They interfere with the crowd's view of the
fighters, but the inconvenience makes a sort of sense: a few hundred or a few
thousand attendees put up with a partially blocked view so that millions,
potentially, can see everything.
Not only does TV money dictate the fight world's priorities, TV
technology also promises to turn you living room into ringside. These days,
cameras and microphones can bring spectators at home closer to the action
than would a ringside seat. When you watch a fight on television, a corner
mike lets you horn in on a trainer's whispered final instruction to his fighter
before the bell, and you can see the fighter's features distort and ripple in
slow motion from three different angles as he gets hit with the combination
the trainer warned him about. Some part of me knows that this is all deeply
intimate and therefore none of my business, even as I pause the tape and
then rewind it so I can write down exactly what the trainer said and note the
precise sequence of punches.
But television hides as much as it reveals. For one thing, it tells
you what to watch. It does not let you turn around to look at the crowd,
whose surging presence you can hear, and smell, and feel on your skin at
ringside. It does not allow you to look away from the terrible mismatch in the
ring to watch for flashes of shame behind the boxing commissioners'
impassivity. It also muffles the perception of leverage and distance, the sense
of consequences, available at ringside. You often can't tell how hard the
punches are; occasionally, you can't tell what is happening at all. After
eleven Zapruderine replays, you still ask, Was that a hard shot or a glancing
blow? Did it knock him down or did he stumble? Returning to a fight on tape
can fill in or correct my understanding of what I saw in person from ringside,
and I'm grateful that the boxing archive on videotape has allowed me to see a
century's worth of fights that I could never have seen in person, but I don't try
to score a fight unless I was there in person. I thought John Ruiz was robbed
when judges gave the decision to Evander Holyfield in their first fight, but I
only saw it on television, so I can't be sure. Had I been at ringside, I might
have concluded that Holyfield hit so much harder than Ruiz that he deserved
to win rounds in which he landed fewer blows.
The apparatus of television is not always equal to the task of
connecting action to its meaningful context. Television seems to get you
close enough to see almost everything and taste the flying sweat, but its
appeal lies primarily in cool distance. There's a basketball game on one
channel, a tragic romance on the next, a ten-round bloodbath on the next,
and in each case the camera does the equivalent of following the ball, tracing
broad emotions and basic narrative contours. For reasons that have as much
to do with business as technology, television can't or won't capture the off-
the-ball struggle of four against five to create or advantageous angles to the
basket, or the nearness of another sleeping body in a bed, or the slight
changes in distance a smart defensive fighter constantly makes between
himself and his opponent to neutralize the other man's developing punches.
That leaves it up to the on-air announcers to connect action to
meaningful context. Talking from bell to bell, they model and parody the
processes of education at the fights. When the HBO crew works a bout, for
instance, Jim Lampley divides his time between describing the action and
mock-crunching the opaque CompuBox numbers that purport to quantify the
bout's progress. Larry Merchant, the professorial one, offers boxing lore and
the occasional historical or literary reference. Mostly, though, he makes a
smelling-a-bad-smell face I associate with French public intellectuals and
explains that the guy who isn't winning is the more egregious example of how
men are no longer men in this debased age. George Foreman, who used to
hurt people for a living, is the most sympathetic to the fighters, but wildly
erratic and often plain wrong in his commentary. I'm always in some
suspense as to how long he can hold back from expressing his obsessive
fear of being touched on the chest: 'That's how you take a man's power.'
When moonlighting active boxers like Roy Jones Jr. or Oscar De La Hoya sit
in on a broadcast, they seem to be running their thoughts past an internal
Marketing Department before articulating them. By the time the profound and
useful things they could be telling us about boxing have made it back from
Marketing, thoroughly revised, all that's left is press-release haiku: 'Well,
Jim, I think they're / Both great, great competitors / And very fine men.' I
always start out rooting for the announcers to break free of the bonds of the
form — they are, after all, offering ways to get something out of boxing, which
is what I'm doing in this book — but I soon end up wishing they would shut
up so I can hear as well as see the electronic facsimile of the fight.
They don't shut up, though, and anyway, television is a weak
substitute for being there, so I go to the fights. It's better to sit close, and
nobody sits closer than ringsiders (who feel the petty little pleasure of having
the big spenders and celebrities seated just behind them), so I cover fights
for magazines and newspapers. I pick up my credentials at the press table,
hang the laminated badge around my neck, and make my way to ringside. At
a local club fight, nobody stops me to check my badge; I find an empty press
seat at the long table abutting the ring apron and say hello to other regulars.
In Massachusetts, where I live now, that means Charlie Ross, the gentle old-
timer who writes for the apoplectic North End paper, the Post-Gazette; Mike
Nosky, a mailman who moonlights for RealBoxing.com and briefly managed
a cruiserweight out of Worcester named Roy 'House of' Payne; and Skeeter
McClure, who won a gold medal as a light middleweight in the 1960
Olympics, and who used to head the state boxing commission before a new
governor's cronies squeezed him out. At a casino or a big arena like Madison
Square Garden, ushers and security guards look over my badge at
checkpoints controlling access to ringside, where several rows of tables and
seats have been set up to accommodate a small mob of functionaries,
reporters from all over, and television people.
In a club or at the Garden, the prefight scene is always
fundamentally the same. The ring girls, in bathing gear and high heels, have
draped other people's jackets around their shoulders to keep warm. Guys in
suit and tie from the state commission walk back and forth with great
conviction, glad-handing and trying to look busy. The referee for the first bout
bounces lightly on the ropes to test the tension, then straightens his bow tie.
(My favorite local refer is Eddie Fitzgerald, a smiling gentleman with flowing
white hair who breaks fighters out of a clinch as if making room to step
between them to order a highball. He taps them briskly on the shoulder as if
to say, 'Gentlemen, there's no need to fight.') The promoter walks by, flush
and tight, usually managing to make his priciest clothes look like a forty-
dollar rental. He stops to rub important people's necks and shoulders; he
points across the room with a wink or a grin to those who don't merit a stop;
he looks over the crowd filling up the hall, pressing in on ringside from all
around. Cornermen and old fighters stand in clusters, talking about the time
Bobby D got headbutted by that animal out of Scranton. Photographers
check their equipment and load film, like infantry preparing to repel an
assault. Print and on-line reporters hang around gossiping. Some of the
deadline writers have plugged in their laptops to begin laying down
boilerplate. It's always safe to open with something like this:

They said the old pro from Providence couldn't take it anymore.
They said he had taken too many beatings, too many shots to the head.
They said he was old. Tired. Washed up.
All washed up.
All he had left was a heart as big as Federal Hill.
Thump thump. Beating with the will to win. Thump thump. And the
pride to carry on.
Thump.
Beating.

If the old pro wins, heart conquers all; if the other guy wins, the hard facts of
life KO sentiment again. Either way, the lead works. Soon the sound system
will play the ringwalk music for the first bout of the undercard, the first two
fighter through the crowd to the ring, and it will be time
for the hitting. Then the writers can finish their stories.
At ringside, you feel yourself to be at the very center of
something, but you are actually in a gray borderland between the fights and
the world. The action in the raised ring happens far away, even when the
clinched fighters are almost on top of you, the ropes bowing outward
alarmingly under their weight so that you and the others sitting just below all
put up your hands at once, like people getting the spirit at church. But
neither are you part of the crowd, exactly. At a major fight, ringside expands
to a breadth of fifty feet or more and becomes a populous little district in its
own right; the crowd, a largely undifferentiated mass, rises into semidarkness
somewhere behind you. The people up there paid for their seats (or were
comped by a casino, which means they overpaid for their seats); they expect
to be entertained. At least in theory, everybody at ringside has a job to do:
staging the fight, governing its conduct, bringing news of it to others.
The distinction can collapse, though. At a local fight, ringside can
shrink to a couple of feet wide or less. Once, at the Roxy in downtown
Boston, when a union carpenter out of Brockton named Tim 'The Hammer'
Flamos was fighting Pepe Muniz from Dorchester, an especially enthusiastic
supporter of Flamos worked his way forward from his seat down to ringside
until he was standing between Charlie Ross and the judge seated to his left,
bonking their heads with his elbows as he shouted for Flamos to punch to
the body. When Flamos pressed Muniz into the ro on that side of the
ring, the guy reached up with incurved hands and helpfully pointed to the
exact places on Muniz's torso he had in mind, his index fingers nearly
touching the straining flesh.

This book pursues a ringside course of study at the fights. It follows the
progression of humane inquiry, from mystery to learning to mystery again.
Learning at the fights, following the lessons out through the ropes
into the wider world beyond boxing, you regularly arrive at the limits of
understanding. All sorts of people wrap all sorts of meaning around the fact of
meat and bone hitting meat and bone (until one combatant, parted from his
senses, becomes nothing more than meat and bone for the duration of a ten-
count). The fight world's specialized knowledge supplies the inner layers of
that wrapping: lessons in craft, parables of fistic virtue rewarded or
unrewarded, accounts of paydays and rip-offs. Boxing self-consciously takes
form around the impulse to discipline hitting, to govern it with rules, to master
it with technique and inure the body to its effect. Fight people like to repeat
aphorisms, like 'Speed is power' or 'Styles make fights,' that domesticate
the wild fact of hitting. They have plenty of extra-fistic company in this
undertaking because the resonance of hitting extends far beyond the fight
world's boundaries. Scholars and literary writers and even crusaders calling
for the abolition of boxing wrap it in more layers: not just the conventions of
show business and sport, but also social and artistic and psychological
significance. And they keep coming because there's always more work to
do. takes constant effort to keep the slippery, naked, near-formless fact of
hitting swaddled in layers of sense and form. Because hitting wants to shake
off all encumbering import and just be hitting, because boxing incompletely
frames elemental chaos, the capacity of the fights to mean is rivaled by their
incapacity to mean anything at all. There is an education in that, too, since
education worthy of the name knows its limitations and does not explain
things away.
The book begins with introductory courses in the first three
chapters, which feature initiations into the fights and trace the traffic between
formal schooling and a fistic education. I'm not sure what it says about me
and my day job that they also lead in one way or another to college students
getting whacked in the eye. The middle three chapters, advanced electives,
extend the line of inquiry deeper into the fight world and the careers of
seasoned campaigners, who, just as much as spectators, struggle to make
hitting mean something. The last three chapters, senior seminars, arrive at
limits imposed by age, frailty, and the stubborn meaninglessness of hitting.
Toward the end of the book, many of the fighters and their counterparts
outside the ring are older — wiser, maybe, but also more damaged.
I do not set out to be comprehensive or chronological; I treat
boxing as I have found it at ringside and as it persists in memory. The effect
of persistence, the way a fight lives in me and I make use of it, tends
eventually to silt over the original experience. I bury a fight like a bone and dig
it up from time to time to gnaw on it. After a while, tasting mostly my
memory of the original meal, but the exercise has contemplative value, and
it's good for the teeth. Any sort of bout, not just famous ones, can demand
such return visits. Some important fights and fighters appear here, but so do
obscure set-tos between journeymen almost nobody has ever heard of.
Boxers, whether testing themselves against an opponent or shadowboxing in
the mirror, are always reminding me that you can get an education out of
whatever you find in front of you, wherever you find it.

Copyright © 2003 by Carlo Rotella. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
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