In Falling Hard: A Rookie's Year in Boxing, Chris Jones recounts his first year at ringside. He gets dressed down by Don King, gambles his way through Vegas, meets the troubled guy who found Evander Holyfield's ear, goes to Muhammad Ali's birthday party, and witnesses Prince Naseem Hamed explode while Mike Tyson implodes. Like the sport itself, Falling Hard is equal measures of victory and defeat an intoxicating combination that leaves Jones down for the count more than once. Determined to stay objective, he instead becomes addicted to boxing's special brand of pain, and what begins as a simple curiosity soon escalates into an unhealthy obsession. Jones writes with the rhythm of the sport he covers: hard and fast, with the drama of fiction but the truth of journalism. Sometimes humorous, always suspenseful, Falling Hard is a travelogue for the fight game, boxing distilled to its essence by sportswriting's newest star.
|Publisher:||House of Anansi Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
Read an Excerpt
ALL WISHES GRANTED BUT ONE
* OTIS GRANT V. ROY JONES JR. *
NOVEMBER 14, 1998
Like Melville's ocean, or Twain's Mississippi, boxing calls to a young man. Its victims are not only those who forfeit their wits and dive into the ring. The sport seduces writers, too, dragging them down with its powerful undertow of testosterone. Many die a hideous literary death, drowning in their own hyperbole. Only a few Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Cannon, A. J. Liebling cross to safety. Awash in all that blood, they become more buoyant.
J. R. MOEHRINGER, "RESURRECTING THE CHAMP"
A WHITE TOWEL
Otis Grant finds himself flat on his back for the second time. A sonic surge washes from the cheap seats over the sportswriters at ringside, making it hard for us to think. White blood cells rush to mend eardrums that vibrate in panic, like fish electrocuted during a lightning storm.
Fuck me, it's loud.
Roy Jones Jr., the champion, seems unimpressed with the ovation but pleased with his handiwork. He glides to a neutral corner. A smirk crosses his face, and his gold trunks flash under the hot lights. Grant, the challenger, opens his eyes and wonders why he can't see. (The reason: a solid right, one of many significant blows sustained during the fight.) But instinct takes hold. He draws his knees to his chest, forces himself to exhale, climbs to his feet, and bounces at the ready.
"Everything okay?" the referee asks with seemingly genuine concern. Grant nods as though he's a drunk driver who's beenasked whether he's sober. Guts, not brains, give permission for the rest of his body to absorb still more punishment. The referee signals that the fight will continue. I am amazed. The other writers look uninterested. I wonder if they are acting, if they have learned to swallow emotion.
Ten rounds ago, Grant entered the ring to reggae's beats. He wore a black satin robe with the Canadian maple leaf on one sleeve and Jamaica's green and gold bands on the other. His corner included Russ Anber, his long-time manager and confidant; Howard Grant, his older brother; and Dewith Frazer, a former Jamaican champion and proprietor of the Jamestown Boxing Club outside Toronto. Cut man Bob Miller, his hands filled with swabs and grease, rounded out the crew.
It was the ever-loyal Anber, spit bucket in hand, who led the camp to the apron. A white towel was draped over his shoulder. He looked worried. His eyes darted about the makeshift arena, which hours before had been the bingo hall at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut. Earlier that same evening, the place had been filled with blue-haired people with hearts too faint for craps. Blotters were now exchanged for blood.
In the days prior to the fight, Anber had driven cigarettes into his mouth with chest-breaking regularity. Outwardly, the nicotine established a frantic cadence, but the smokes helped calm the teacher before he sent his favourite pupil to battle. "Roy Jones is the best in the world pound for pound," Anber admitted. "We know we have a monumental task in front of us. We've trained hard. We're ready. We're professional. We're going to give it our best shot. But we know it's going to take our best and a little bit more." Jones boasted a record of 37-1 with 31 knockouts. Anber hoped Grant would not be number 32.
Jones boldly followed Grant into the ring, accompanied by a massive entourage and his own rap music at a violent volume. The crowd had given the Canadian visitor a surprisingly rousing cheer, but its loyalties were made clear when Jones shimmied to the beat and began to strut. The building expanded in response, the way a bull does when it bursts from a rodeo chute. I gripped the table rattling in front of me as the air was sucked out of my lungs. I thought I was going to be crushed by the sensation. Implosion by ovation.
My first fight. Three rows of writers pen me in. Michael Katz, who acts as though he's the dean of the New York press gang, separates me from the ring. He's a squat man with an immense head, made larger by a poor-boy cap and a neck brace. Sitting behind Katz is like sitting behind a helmetless astronaut whose cranium seeks to fill the vacuum. Behind me sits a man who looks like a professor at a northeastern university. I recognize him as Thomas Hauser, biographer to Muhammad Ali and a writer of no small renown.
Bookended by legends, I feel completely out of place.
The media pack begins banging out massacre headlines, the wires predict disaster, and the opening bell hasn't even been rung. Jones is the heavy, heavy favourite. He has demolished all comers within the light-heavyweight division. (His one loss came via disqualification, when Jones knocked out an opponent who had fallen to his knees.) Grant, on the other hand, has come up from the middleweight ranks to make the fight. Though skilled, he is a relative unknown outside boxing's tight circle. The fat guys who matter don't give Grant a chance. Murder looms.
Like a dying man giving up the struggle, I surrender to the atmosphere. It pours into me and eases my sense of dread. Waitresses in short boxing robes ply the crowd with booze. Sports celebrities including Patrick Ewing and seven members of the New England Patriots find their platinum-plated seats. Holy shit, I think, as I scan the crowd. That's Magic Johnson. Autograph hounds hog the floor around him. Bad characters flash gaudy jewels and gold teeth. Gangbangers make arcane symbols with their hands. The air is thick with liquor and sweat. I breathe it in and try not to choke.
My pupils dilate, and my throat is dry. My hands tremble above my keyboard, shaking with excitement and fear. Come on, Otis, make these motherfuckers eat their words. Come on.
Anber gives Grant a couple of smacks on the ass before the two boxers touch gloves. The bell sounds. Jones and Grant test each other only slightly during the opening round. Few punches are thrown, fewer punches are taken. But Grant suffers one smart jab to his left eye, a Buckley's Mixture taste of the barrage to come.
Miller applies a cold compress to the eye between rounds. Anber dances in front of Grant: "To the left," he counsels. "Move to the goddamn left." But Jones is too fast, and he takes the next two frames handily. Grant's eye begins to swell and turn an unhealthy colour. Jones hears cries of "Showtime!" rise repeatedly from his animated corner. The champ is compelled to go in for the kill.
In the fourth round, he obliges. Jones catches Grant with a vicious right to the head. It's enough to stagger the underdog. Grant stumbles across the canvas. He teeters. The crowd senses an end and takes to its feet. But Grant somehow stays on his. Jones then misses with an uppercut, a black flash that would have ended the fight had it found the mark. Last seconds tick away. The bell rings with mercy. At the break, Anber tells Grant he can't take a punch like that again.
Grant responds to the challenge in the fifth round. He goes on the offensive for the first time. He said before the fight that he'd start slowly but then open things up. The latter part of his strategy finally materializes. A flustered Jones tries to match the left-handed Grant. He fights as a southpaw for part of the round is he scared? tired? but he soon assumes his more usual stance. Grant unloads a flurry of punches at the close of the round. A few of them land.
First the bell. Then comes the sixth.
Jones decides to conclude matters with a punishing left. It catches Grant hard. The punch distorts his face with pain and shock. He trips over backward and rolls to the canvas, his knees pulled up to his chest. Again the crowd stands. The guy sitting behind Magic Johnson can't see a damn thing. Anber looks ill, ready to faint. Worst fears have come true.
But Grant climbs to his feet, and Jones resumes the assault. The bridge of Grant's nose is cut. His cheek begins to darken into a deep bruise. Perhaps a second too late, the round comes to a close. Grant needs the ropes to find his corner. Anber talks to his fighter; his fighter wants to press on, to go the distance.
The seventh round is devoid of action. The eighth is a little better. Still, the bloodhounds in the bleachers begin to protest. Their outrage sickens me. I want the fight over.
The ninth round, however, is Grant's strongest by far. He goes on the offensive again and lands a couple of lefts and a combination. Jones looks surprised and begins to miss punches. A man in the crowd yells, "Attack, Otis, attack!" Grant obeys and wins the frame. A buzz cuts through the arena: No way ... Jones can't lose ... Impossible. I am flushed with belief. I am about to witness history, an epic upset.
To the tenth. First, Jones throws a hard right. Grant falls. "Everything okay?" the referee asks after Grant jumps to his feet once again. Grant nods sluggishly. He looks ready to work. Ready to throw himself back into the fray. The referee indicates that business remains unfinished. When from Grant's corner comes a towel.
Anber's white towel. It travels from his shoulder to the centre of the ring. The referee looks stunned. Throwing in the towel is forbidden in Connecticut. The referee kicks the offending object out of the ring and orders the boxers to come together.
But through the ropes steps Anber. The referee complains. Anber explains there will not be a knockout on his watch and shrugs. He embraces Grant. There is no final bell.
The crowd heaps abuse upon the vanquished before it celebrates the success of its hero. Bangers storm the ringside cameras in a futile attempt for airtime. "East Coast!" they yell until their stomachs begin to bleed.
Fuck me, it's loud.
IN THIS CORNER
Shortly after I decide to hitch a ride on boxing's coattails, I catch wind of this Otis Grant-Roy Jones Jr. fight. I don't know anything about Grant, because I don't know much about boxing. But he holds a Canadian passport, which is enough to pique my interest, and I've heard of Jones, so I know the fight must be a big deal.
The newsroom library holds a collection of old articles on Grant. The files tell a tale I'm only too happy to hear. Grant is the WBO middleweight champion and will have to move up two weight classes to meet Jones, who holds the WBA and WBC light-heavyweight belts. (Instant underdog.) Better yet, he is a schoolteacher when he isn't in the ring, with a well-earned reputation as a gentleman in a sport of thugs. (Easy angle.) It also seems the Jamaican-born, Montreal-bred Grant hasn't received the attention he deserves, which is the ribbon on a gift of a story. He probably has a lot to say.
Russ Anber makes the premise even more perfect. A young Burgess Meredith, Anber has managed Otis since 1981, when Otis was thirteen years old and Russ hadn't yet turned twenty. I know his name from his time spent with the CBC as a commentator. On the air, he's scrappy but owns a sentimental side. Fiery but a soft touch. I give him a call, and he's all for my attention.
I pitch the entire package to Graham, who is desperate for Canadian stories. He agrees we should cover the fight. Grant's chances are less than nil, but he's challenging for a pair of world titles. He's news. He's also a rare feel-good story in a do-bad sport. If he wins, he becomes a pugilistic fairy tale. If he's defeated, he becomes another broken heart. I can't lose.
I take a taxi to the sportsplex north of Toronto where Russ told me Otis would be working out. I find it nestled among warehouses and strip malls. Past the airport. A fifty-dollar fare from downtown.
Not knowing what Otis looks like, I walk right past him when I enter the gym. He's stretched out on a weight bench. A personal trainer named Billy is kneeling beside him. Billy has been assigned the task of adding twelve pounds of muscle to Grant's frame. Trouble is, Billy doesn't seem to like me. And he definitely doesn't want me watching Otis lift weights. "No offence," he mutters, "but no way." Otis doesn't seem to care, but I decide not to argue. I don't want my first boxing story to begin with a punch to my face.
With several hours to kill before watching Otis spar with a lanky kid named Eric Harding, I venture out to explore the neighbourhood, or at least what passes for one in the suburbs. It's very cold. I wander around, eyes streaming, fists jammed in pockets, until I find a dodgy pub, suitably rough to put me in the mood for boxing. Bud from the bottle, a warm meal.
I endeavour to keep my brain as hot as my stomach. I read over a few clippings from Otis's file and try to formulate some decent questions for our interview, which is slated to follow his sparring session. I don't really know how to approach things. I feel as though I know Otis from the stories I've read, and I've already cast him in a sympathetic role. At the same time, I don't want to insult him by suggesting he's out of his league. All fighters must have sizeable egos, or they wouldn't be able to do what they do. The mystery is how to stroke that ego while still extracting something vulnerable from deep within. Do boxers ever experience doubt? I wonder. As I settle up my bill, the first hints of a headache come.
Out in the frigid air again, I make my way to Dewith Frazer's Jamestown Boxing Club, in Unit 7 of another strip mall. A number of the other units are vacant, but near neighbours include the Fish & Bird Emporium, Brew-A-Batch Quality Beer, and Nick's Welding & Fabricating. From the outside, the gym looks like a similar operation, where a marginal living is earned through small sales and stubborn hope. It also looks warm.
Russ sees me walk in with a lost took on my face, figures he's found the right guy, and introduces himself. "Make yourself at home," he says. I try to appear knowledgeable as I poke around before settling into a chair in a corner of the club.
The place is made of cinderblock. A massive mural of Sugar Ray Leonard fighting Roberto Duran, as far as I can tell, covers one wall. The other walls are all fight posters and mirrors. Heavy bags wrapped with duct tape dangle at the bottom of chains. Speed bags hang low from the ceiling. There's a weight bench and a single, small ring.
Dewith Frazer surveys his domain. He appears to be a proud man. "I have broad shoulders," he smiles, and this seems to say it all. His office, just down the hall from the ring and across from the toilet, is packed with souvenirs acquired over a long tenure in the sport.
Otis arrives from the locker room and wants to begin his routine, but a TV crew has set up shop. Russ whispers in Otis's ear and he does his time for TV. After a few questions, he begins his workout. The crew leaves. It's down to me and the camp.
Otis's workout is precise and refined. It has the irresistible force of habit, with carefully measured stints of skipping and jabbing and sparring. Eric, who has a couple of inches on Otis, does well during the eight rounds of padded brawling. He's an awkward opponent quick, with a long reach. Russ, who sits with me while the fighters shower, tells me Otis will be much better by the time he fights Jones.
When the freshly scrubbed Otis appears, we adjourn to Frazer's office. Behind closed doors, Otis settles into one of the eight meals he downs daily in an effort to gain weight.
He doesn't sit in his chair so much as he drapes himself over it, his food in his lap, his feet spread apart. Russ is more erect, professional for the imaginary cameras. In different ways, both of them try to keep their nerves from surfacing. Otis has an air of relaxation, Russ carries decorum's shield. Neither technique works. The fight is clearly weighing heavily on both their minds.
Excerpted from FALLING HARD by Chris Jones. Copyright © 2001 by Chris Jones. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.