Read an Excerpt
One Ring Circus
Dispatches from the World of Boxing
By Katherine Dunn
Schaffner Press Copyright © 2009 Katherine Dunn
All rights reserved.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
School of Hard Knocks
Photographer Jim Lommasson, whose photos grace the cover and interior of this book, spent years visiting and shooting boxing gyms all over the country. Wherever his assignments took him he would scout out the local boxing gyms, befriend the denizens, and find a way to shoot.
I'd seen him around the Portland gyms, but didn't know about his project until one day in 2003, when he came to my place and spread his wonderful photos out on a table. He was creating a book that would honor, not the competition, not the stars, but the gyms themselves.
As he talked it became clear that we shared similar views on the nature of boxing gyms. When Lommasson invited me to write some of the essays that accompany the photos in his 2005 book Shadow Boxers, he gave me a chance to say things I'd been thinking about for a long time.
One day many years ago, I rode my press credential into a busy boxing gym and was shocked to see a hard-punching monster known as Frankie "The Preacher Man" doing push-ups in the ring with his year-old son sprawled on his back. Amid the din of ringing bells, drumming speed bags, and smacking leather, the baby slept, his long lashes fanned across chubby cheeks, rocking in the smooth rise and fall of his father's powerful shoulders.
The coach said Frankie had been bringing the child in at least twice a week for months, babysitting while his wife worked. Frankie had an idea that if he went on doing push-ups this way as the child grew, he'd keep getting stronger. Figuring Frankie was eccentric, I asked if it was a nuisance having the baby around. The coach gave me a sideways squint as though I was the weird one. "Nah," he said, "the guys look out for him."
Like all things human, boxing is complicated and full of contradictions. Whenever you get to thinking you know it all, something smacks your ear to refresh your humility. By then I'd been reporting on the sport of the busted beaks for a while. I'd seen plenty of evidence that boxing is deliberate science — the opposite of the scared, mad frenzy we associate with back-alley brawls. "Lose your temper, lose the fight," the saying goes. But my notebook had been splattered with blood at ringside, and I had typed quote marks around plenty of tough talk. The sport is packaged and peddled as mayhem because that's what sells, and with all my arrogance, I was still buying the hype. I hadn't hung around the gyms where boxers spend a thousand hours for every minute in an actual bout. The difference between the gym and the klieg-lit show ring is the difference between a garden and the sprig of celery in your Bloody Mary. They're related, but they're not the same.
In the decades since The Preacher Man's baby jolted me, I've seen a lot of boxers bring their children to the gym. Despite the sport's grueling work ethic and ferocious demeanor, it's not unusual to see a preschooler in the corner, cheerful with a coloring book, or skipping a shortened rope. I'm no longer surprised to sit down next to an open gym bag and find an infant inside, snoozing peacefully on a nest of sweat-stained leather gloves. I've seen a five-time world champ in three weight divisions laughing on his knees on the floor, changing his youngest son's diaper. Still, it's always a revelation to see fighters hovering eagerly around a baby, hear the baritone cooing, watch the bruised knuckles counting tiny toes, and the swelling pride when Dad chooses one of them to mind the fragile bundle while he's in the sparring ring beating one of his colleagues blue.
This is not to claim that boxers are all sweet messengers of light, just that they are full-fledged humans, not cartoon thugs. The big guys don't consider it odd to have children in the gym because they've been there themselves since they were mere tykes. The gym is home. For many it's the safest place they know. If the toddlers are around long enough, somebody will start showing them how to move and what to do with their left hand.
There are gyms that cater only to professionals, but most boxing gyms are about kids. Serious adult and teen boxers, whether amateur or pro, are walking billboards for the gym, proof of the coach's skills, teaching assistants, and models for how to do it right. A healthy gym probably has at least half a dozen little guys for every grown-up. It's the youngsters who keep the gym and the sport alive.
The coaches like to get kids early, somewhere around eight or ten. Boxing is a demanding set of skills, as unnatural and precise as piano or quantum mechanics. It takes years to learn the basic moves and more years to develop finesse. Training shapes the growing body, sculpts bone and muscle, hones reflexes and stamina, and builds the necessary self-discipline. The more urgent reason, of course, is to get kids off the street before they get tangled up in drugs or gangs or other forms of destruction.
Not long after I encountered The Preacher Man's baby, I was perched on a bench in a different gym watching a small but impressive nine-year-old exercising his talents in the ring. When the boy finished and was getting ready to leave, he came over to show me the puppy hidden in his jacket. In the standard lame adult way, I asked what he wanted to do when he grew up. I expected a line about wanting to be a world champ. He said, "I'm gonna get me a string of bitches and be a flash pimp." He was calm and grave saying it. I couldn't tell if he was serious or pulling my smug middle-class leg. Either way he rattled me. Fight gyms are generally pretty mellow, but you shouldn't forget what's waiting outside.
Boxing is the oldest of the martial arts, and there have been stretches over its 5,000-plus years when it was considered a skill for the privileged. The nobles of Achilles' Troy and Hannibal's Carthage trained in the sport. Europe's titled gentlemen learned fencing and boxing in the same exclusive schools. Oxford and Harvard used to field formidable fighters in intercollegiate competition.
The United States popularized boxing both as a sport and as a way to make a little money. Baseball and boxing were the national pastimes through the middle of the 20th century. In an era of bootstrap individualism, training in one-on-one combat made sense even for the comfortable and educated. Summer was for sandlot baseball, winter for the indoor sport of boxing. Every substantial town had professional fight cards. Amateur boxing programs were supported by high schools, colleges, churches and newspapers, city halls and police departments, charities and the military. Coaches and gyms were everywhere.
But real dedication to the ring is always the province of whichever group has it hardest. The history of the professional sport in this country is written in waves of immigration. Successive generations of Jewish, Nordic, Irish, Italian, Middle European, Soviet, and Latin emigres march through the record books. Long before Jackie Robinson peacefully integrated baseball, the great Jack Johnson forcibly integrated boxing, and black athletes came to dominate whole weight divisions for decades at a time.
After World War II, the cultural focus and the money shifted to corporate team sports. By now, early in the 21st century, the establishment has turned its back on boxing. Still, it survives, as it always has, in hard-core boxing gyms that play a vital role in their communities. They are in stern blue-collar neighborhoods, in slums and sleaze and bombed-out blocks where nobody should live. They are where the rent is cheapest because a boxing gym is no way to make money. They are where the fighters are — the struggling classes, the strivers.
Gyms are in storefronts or garages or basements or up two flights of stairs above the tavern or, more rarely each year, tucked into spartan community centers. They may be warehouse-sized or small enough to heat with one light bulb and a featherweight skipping rope. Some are kept clean and reeking of disinfectant. Others just reek. A few have multiple rings and a battalion of leather punching bags, cupboards full of sparring helmets, gloves, ropes, team uniforms, and video equipment for studying tapes. For some the lone heavy bag is a canvas duffel stuffed with rags. The ring is a mat on the floor and instructions to imagine ropes.
Each gym is a one-room schoolhouse with students ranging from kindergarten through pugilistic college working side by side. As in any other school, what counts is the teacher. Coaches are the heart of boxing gyms. They vary widely in ability and temperament, and are prey to the full spectrum of foibles. But they try. With notable exceptions, they are former boxers who refuse to abandon the game. The adrenal surge of boxing is addictive even in the reduced dosage of teaching and working corners. There is power in being The Coach. There's also enormous responsibility. Coaches will tell you they are just "trying to give back" to the sport and the community.
My friend Lee coached for the city parks department for thirty years and, now that he's retired, he volunteers as an assistant coach. He says he lost his first dozen or so amateur bouts as a ghetto kid and was never very good. "But I stuck with it," he says. He loved the sport and the gym and the trips. "We traveled all over and saw things and met different kinds of people that I never would have had a chance to experience." Lee is a quietly inspiring teacher whose former students often come back to visit. On road trips, he made sure his teams detoured for museums. "When I started coaching," he says, "all I knew was how my coach treated us."
Coaches attend seminars and take written tests every year to maintain their certification to teach amateurs. But they learn from each other. They start by hanging out and then helping out — imitating the coaches they respect. They may always be volunteers in somebody else's gym, or they may start one of their own.
The head coach sets the tone in every element from which posters go up on the walls to how many push-ups and crunches are enough. Is profanity tolerated? Is sparring viciously competitive, or technical and scholarly? Then there's technique and style. Boxing styles are as varied and distinctive as singing voices or a painter's "hand." A boxer's style is determined by physique and personality and who taught him. Aficionados can often tell a fighter's educational roots by his style. One may be from the Cus D'Amato School of peek-a-boo defense and power hooks, while another is an example of Detroit's famed Kronk Gym with the jab coming up from below. The coach imprints his own aesthetic on his students and some are more successful than others. If your coach doesn't know how to block or slip punches, your defense will have major problems.
When his fighter is a professional, the coach is called a "trainer" and earns ten percent of the boxer's pay for a fight. Only a handful of the thousands of professional boxers can actually earn a living in the ring, so most trainers earn scant nickels per hour of teaching time. Most coaches work a day job and then spend hours in the gym in the evenings. Many pay out of their own pockets for the rent, electricity, heat, and water to keep the gym open. The coach loads boxers into his own car and drives hundreds of miles on his own dime to get them competition. He often ends up feeding his boxers, paying for hotel rooms on the road, pitching in to buy equipment. Coaches are dead serious about keeping kids busy and out of trouble. They see boxing as a lifeline for those in deep water. Odds are they know from personal experience.
Coaches take pride in their trophies. When their boxers win, they win. But if they've been around a while, every gym and every coach keeps another more private scorecard with two lists: The Lost are those who left the gym and ended up in jail or dead. The Saved are those who went on to college or got decent jobs. They keep distant count of the hair salon impresario, the electricians, truck drivers, printers, social workers, the real estate salesman, the car dealer, the restaurant owner, the construction worker.
After years on this beat, I have my own lists. The Preacher Man hung up his gloves long ago and moved away with his family. But I've kept track of the small boy who said he wanted to be a pimp. He had talent and charm and he worried his coaches sorely. In his teens he got loose and spent time in juvenile detention. When he was released the coaches got him back. He became a state Golden Glove champ and graduated from high school. They celebrated but didn't let go. He started college. Then I was out of touch for several years, so when I ran into one of his coaches a while back I was scared to ask. The kid's OK, though. Nowadays he's pouring all that charisma into teaching sixth grade, and he loves it.
A coach's friends are other coaches. Who else can speak their language? If they are lucky, their wives are active partners: the gym record keepers, competition judges, hug and first-aid dispensers, chaperones, organizers of cake sales and raffles. When coaches retire from whatever occupation has paid the bills, they have more time to spend in the gym. If they do their job properly they create a few new coaches to take their place when they are gone.
The hype of boxing is true enough. The sport is hard and only the brave endure. The game is brutal, but its core is strangely gentle. Students come on their own time, after school or work. There's no extra credit, no activity bus to get them home afterwards, no college scholarship to reach for. A few have dreams of stardom — a world championship, big bucks. Most just want to hold their own on the playground, or earn the respect of their family, their pals, or their mirror. They are drawn first to the toughness, wanting strength and skill to defend against the outside world. But they stay for the secret tenderness at the heart of every good boxing gym.
Fight guys rarely talk about it, but it's visible everywhere. They cling to the rugged-warrior image and use steely shorthand to describe it. The guy who reaches into the kid's mouth between rounds to take out his mouthpiece, tips the water bottle so he can drink, holds a rag to the kid's nose so he can blow, swabs the sweat and blood from his face, massages his neck, puts ice where it hurts, all while offering strategic advice and urgent admonition, that guy with hands as gentle as a worried mother is just "working a corner."
In part this physical tenderness is a practical response to wearing gloves. Anyone with huge puffy mittens on his hands can't blow his own nose or tie his own shoes, so those who are not gloved-up help those who are. But there's more to it than that: The flat fact is that a boxing gym is a place where men are allowed to be kind to one another.
There's not much shouting in a boxing gym. A coach may have a whole group of boxers do calisthenics together, but the actual teaching is done one-on-one like the fighting. The coach talks only to the particular kid he's working with for that 15-minute or half-hour stretch. Each lesson is tailored and personal. Then the coach sets the kid to practice what he's learned and moves on to the next boxer. The coach will drift by and comment or make corrections in the course of the workout.
At any time a gym may have a dozen or more people of all ages, sizes, races, and genders — a nine-year-old preparing for his first bout working next to a seasoned pro focusing on his fiftieth match. Each is absorbed in his own process. They stake out a working area to pound combinations into a bag or shadow box or skip rope, careful not to slop over into someone else's space. The work sessions last three minutes, like the rounds of a fight. The gym bell ends the round and they have one minute to rest, stretch, swig water, swap polite nods or wisecracks with the guy at the next punching bag. The bell rings again and work resumes. No two are doing exactly the same thing at any time. Each is focused on his or her private meditation on adversity.
In a world of absent fathers, boys, and increasingly girls, find reliable authority in the boxing coach. In gang turf, the gym is staunchly neutral ground. If home and streets are fraught with chaos, order still prevails in the gym. The violence is ritualized and contained in the ring where there are rules and bells, protective helmets and a coach in the corner, watching carefully. Outside the ring, nobody is hard on you. You have to be hard on yourself. It is a discreet subculture with its own language and aesthetics. A crisp nose-flattening jab is a thing of exquisite beauty. There is a clear etiquette. Violations of courtesy are dealt with briskly. Respect is earned and accorded.
But a boxing gym isn't always a peaceable kingdom. Even in the best gyms there are occasional rivalries and paranoias, injured feelings and divided loyalties. You hear tales of some idiot who got mad and slugged a civilian in a gym and was permanently 86'd. There's an old story of a pro fighter who brought a gun into the gym and seriously wounded his trainer. That shooter is, of course, in jail.
Excerpted from One Ring Circus by Katherine Dunn. Copyright © 2009 Katherine Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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