Review: Sporting Blood

Sporting Blood

Carlos Acevedo’s Sporting Blood is a nonfiction chronicle of boxers at their worst. Not at their worst in the ring, but at their worst out of it. His writing is excellent and well-handled (legendary boxing historian Thomas Hauser praises him in the foreword, no easy feat). It’s just the book can get a little repetitive.

There’s some interesting entries, like a 1920s prizefighter prolonging his career through quack medical surgery. But so much of the book is just one entry after another detailing how a boxer got beat up, lost his brain, lost his temporary money, lost his prestige, and sank back into the terrible life he came from. And then there are the stories of how many of them had terrible upbringings-the tale of boxing trainer Tony Ayala Sr. and how he treated his sons was especially disturbing. (Sadly but unsurprisingly, one of them became an absolute monster).

This isn’t the author’s fault, but it does make for melancholy reading. And it also details why the talent pool of American boxers shrank so dramatically after World War II. Because given a choice between that and another career, athletic or note, who would want to subject oneself to the vicious free-for-all of boxing?

The Advantages of Boxing Fiction

Boxing (or MMA, or any other individual combat sport) offers a few advantages when it comes to literature. The first is logistical. A boxing match can theoretically happen in any place big enough to fit a ring. Thus they can be, and have been staged in areas from small rooms to gigantic stadiums. Other sports require a specialized field, but officially sanctioned boxing matches have been held everywhere from mansion lawns to prisons.

The second is personal. While there are important trainers/promoters/managers/cut specialists, boxing is a clash between individuals in a way that any team sport is not. The character implications of this are obvious. Finally, the inherent shadiness of boxing makes it a perfect setting for a thriller or mystery story.

Review: The Professional

The Professional

A tale of middleweight contender Eddie Brown, The Professional is a novel by legendary sportswriter W. C. Heinz. What’s interesting is comparing it to Malamud’s The Natural, as they take extremely different paths but arrive at the same level of quality. This deserves more explanation.

Malamud did not know much about baseball. Heinz knew boxing inside and out. Book Roy Hobbs is an ass that you’re not supposed to root for. Book Eddie Brown is meant to be a decent, sympathetic figure in a bad sport. The Natural loved making flourish and mysterious performance shifts depending on the plot. The Professional is grounded and realistic to a fault. The Natural is a third-person book. The Professional is a first-person book. The prose is blocky in both, but while Malamud is excessively flowery, Heinz is very Hemingway-esque (not surprisingly, that author loved the book). And yet both come across as being stilted, pretentious, and dated.

Its main characters are not very good. Brown is not a bad protagonist but he can’t make up for the faults of the other two, which are massive. The two other central figures are Brown’s hideous Mary Sue of a trainer/manager and the first person sportswriter narrator, who fits the “character as camera” archetype I’ve seen in other negative reviews of first-person books.

As for the book itself, it consists of realism-as-padding, outright padding, and expects the reader to treat the technical decline of boxing as some great tragedy. I could be a little harsh on it because it would be far more novel and revealing to a 1950s reader who only knew boxing from television and the pulps (not surprisingly, there’s a scene where Heinz, via one of his mouthpieces, swipes at them for their inaccuracies). But to someone much later who’s read a lot of excellent nonfiction on the sport, it just felt plain and empty.

Review: Friday Night Fighter

Friday Night Fighter

Troy Rondinone’s Friday Night Fighter is the story of both a boxer and a time period. It is the story of boxer Gaspar Ortega. It is also the story of a huge-in-its-day sporting event, the time when boxing aired en masse on network television and attracted a viewing share comparable on the low end to the NFL playoffs today. It is the story of a far more unified sport than the later “alphabet belts”.

Rondinone’s writing is excellent and Ortega, a boxer who appeared on television many times, is arguably the perfect figure for this age. On one hand, he was much more than a small journeyman who appeared on television a few times. On the other, he wasn’t the kind of already-immortal figure that everyone already knows about (ie, Marciano, Patterson, Liston). A contender who never got to actually wear the belt, he illustrates the time period exactly.

Another impressive element of this book is that it rarely sinks into Good Old Days nostalgia despite boxing being the one sport where it’s the most viable. It makes it clear that boxing gave up on network TV because network TV gave up on boxing, with viewership substantially down even before Benny Paret’s death. Yes, TV played a role in diluting the talent pool and closing down the old clubs and gyms that served as the fighter pipeline, but so did simple demographic change. And it doesn’t hesitate to tackle the sleaze in the sport.

The best complement I can give to this book is that it truly takes the reader into another time, and that’s something a lot of history books just can’t manage. Friday Night Fighter is one of the best works of sports history that I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.

The Tiers of Fighters/Opponents

So, boxing (and to a lesser degree mixed martial arts, though that is an inherently higher-variance sport) has developed a sort of tier system for its numerous fighters. Title Bout Boxing, through its auto-scheduler enabling you to run numerous simulated matches, is good for determining just how good fighters in one tier can fare against those in another. What I’ve found is that cheap thriller opponents can also fit into these categories.

  • Tomato Cans. The bottom of the barrel. They’re set up in deliberate squash matches, most often for the purpose of artificially inflating a fighter’s record. Or providing a spectacle. Tomato cans are always ranked as “0” in Title Bout Boxing, and the only way they can defeat any kind of significant fighter is through an injury/cut/occasional fluke knockout.
  • Journeymen. The middle of the pack. These are the low-tier filler fighters which everyone has to pass through, and which define the median that people diverge from. In Title Bout, they’re ranked 0-2, and aren’t quite as hapless as tomato cans against clearly superior opponents.
  • Gatekeepers/Trial Horses. These are fighters intended to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Barring the above lucky moments, they aren’t expected to credibly challenge for a title themselves. But they can determine if a prospect is all that or not. In Title Bout, they’re typically ranked 2-4.
  • Fringe Contender. This is where the lines start to blur. In-game, they’re a 5-7 ranked fighter who can occasionally win against superior opponents “legitimately” (I’ve found that being able to win via decision is a mark of legitimacy, as are knockouts/TKOs that aren’t due to cuts). Often they’re genuine champions by national/regional standards.
  • Contender. 7+ ranked fighters in-game who can consistently win legitimately, even at low percentage chances overall, against other contenders. I chose the game’s 7 rating as the line because that’s the in-game rating of Ingemar Johanssen, widely considered one the weakest world champions ever.

As always, perspective is important. Even tomato cans are better at punching than any normal person, and the difference is simply a matter of degree. Someone good by lower standards can still be the equivalent of a tomato can against an all time legend.

Review: Inside The Ropes

Inside The Ropes

Charles E. Van Loan’s Inside The Ropes is a 1913 collection of stories involving boxing. While this is quite different from the original fare I was expecting to review on Fuldapocalypse, so is, well, almost everything else covered on this blog. Eleven stories cover all kinds of boxers.

The stories are well written and frequently humorous, although they obviously contain anachronistic 1910s language. And, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, 1910s views on race. But what really struck me was how many of his descriptions of boxing and the culture around it still ring true today. And I’m not talking about the rules being still mostly similar, or how boxing is still ultimately about people punching each other.

I’m talking about the “loss stigma” in boxing that simply does not appear in any other sport, including mixed martial arts, to nearly the same degree. Nobody hates Babe Ruth just for losing three World Series. Nobody hates Tom Brady just because he lost three Super Bowls. But lose three matches in boxing, and your status drops dramatically. Lose one match and it drops. I’m also talking about a delightful observation, and one that is applicable to other sports, about how people always claim to want to see advanced technical fighters but really only shell out the money for those who demonstrate raw physical strength.

For people who like boxing and/or sports stories in general and don’t mind the old-timey language and writing style, I highly recommend this book. It’s also available in digital form here as it’s a public domain work due to its age and obscurity.

A Thousand Words: Title Bout Championship Boxing

Title Bout Championship Boxing

The Title Bout Championship Boxing computer game, released first in the early 2000s, is very strange. It’s had development stop (and start, and stop), had the rights change hands, and yet the initial, stable version can still be legally bought and updated. Even in gameplay terms, it’s the kind of game that I like but I can see why many others wouldn’t.

It really can be summed up as like an MCOAT for boxing instead of military equipment. All you can do is set up the parameters and watch the simulation go forth, with a combination of characteristics and luck simulating the outcome of the matches. This leads to a very deep but very narrow type of game.

So yes, you can simulate Tyson vs. Ali, but save for giving vague and not necessarily follow-able instructions, you really can’t do much except watch. For “normal” players I can see the limitations. But for someone like me who likes seeing different outcomes for their own sake, it’s a very fun and enjoyable game.

Another Theory For Boxing’s Decline

There have been many good explanations for the decline of boxing’s popularity in American popular culture. (I say in popular culture, as many big fights continue to draw big crowds and make big bucks). The usual and well-founded ones range along the lines of…

  • General sleaziness (which is not a new thing-an amusing example of this is how even by the 1960s, the sport’s reputation had shrunk to the point where new strips in the Joe Palooka comic didn’t actually show him boxing).
  • The division of the sport into many rival fiefdoms, from the “alphabet soup” sanctioning organizations to promotions and confusing weight divisions.
  • The sport being confined to niche premium television (it’s a chicken-egg question whether this was a mistake that walled off its customer base or a reasonable solution because its base and relationship with network television was declining anyway).
  • Competition from other sports, not just in terms of viewers but also in terms of what athletically talented people want to pursue. Just look at the career paths of Ken Norton Senior and Junior. This has also affected the other major American classic sport, baseball. Tom Brady was a talented baseball player in high school who was drafted by the Expos and Patrick Mahomes’ father was an MLB pitcher.
  • Because of the first three points and a fairly unique obsession with perfect records, an abundance of noncompetitive squashes, with actual quality fights hard to set up.

The last point leads into a new theory I saw floating around the internet-which is that the mass of lopsided fights leads to lopsided odds that are neither competitive nor fun. A big favorite gets the winner very little money (especially once one considers sportsbook limits) and big losses if their opponent does pull a Buster Douglas. A big underdog is highly unlikely to win.

This is an especially tough problem in a sport that has been closely tied to gambling for its entire existence. Boxing isn’t as fused to betting as, say, horse racing is (In my personal, albeit limited experience, the only people who care about non-Triple Crown races are gamblers), but I’d say it’s definitely more so than the other major sports. While I don’t think poor odds are the only reason it’s fallen out of favor, it certainly doesn’t help.