Review: Diggstown

Diggstown

Leonard Wise’s Diggstown is a 1978 novel about a small town in the Deep South that is obsessed with boxing to the point that it’s named after a local who became a world champion. It’s also about an attempted swindle by a scam artist from up north that leads to boxer Honey Roy Palmer having to run a gauntlet of ten Diggstown dwellers in the ring. A colorful sports thriller, it nonetheless works a lot better as a comparably low-stakes sports novel than when it tries to be a serious thriller.

This unsteady wobbling also applies to its treatment of sensitive and difficult topics. For a 1970s book set in the south, I was pleasantly surprised to see it being tasteful and well-handled in terms of race. Yet the same cannot be said about it regarding its sex scenes. Those are not tasteful or well-handled.

The book also tries to be too setting-focused, taking its time before it finally gets to the climactic boxing matches. Yet once it gets there, those are as well-written as any other good sports fiction. You could do a lot worse than this book if you like boxing or old thrillers.

The Journeyman

In sports, “journeyman” often just means a lower-tier player. This is certainly the case in the individual sport of boxing, where “journeyman” is often a polite way of saying “tomato can”. But in team sports, “journeyman” often means a peculiar kind of athlete.

The two most stereotypical journeymen in baseball were pitchers Bobo Newsom and Mike Morgan.

From their Baseball Reference pages, I can say that that’s a lot of uniform numbers. The baseball player who currently holds the “record” for most teams played with is Edwin Jackson. So this kind of super-journeyman has to have a certain quality. They must not be bad enough that they simply drop out of the big leagues altogether after a comparably short and disappointing career, but they also can’t be good enough to have one team try and hold onto them. On that point, while free agency has allowed journeymen to move elsewhere on their own terms, the shuffled-around player definitely existed long before that-just ask Bobo Newsom himself, or all the other pre-1976 (when free agency began) baseball journeymen.

Some journeymen have unique skill sets. Jesse Orosco is perhaps the best example. With a pitch that was close to unhittable by left-handed batters, he became a “LOOGY” (Left Handed One Out Guy) who pitched into his mid forties as someone who showed up, threw to one or two batters, and then left the game.

To me, the journeyman offers a unique literary opportunity. The character can thrive at their sport and play for champion teams. But they aren’t a dominating superstar and live life on the edge in a way that said dominating superstar doesn’t. And they could go from a winner one day to a loser the next. The possibilities are massive.

WMMA5 Style Archetypes

One of the best things about WMMA5 is that you can credibly make people from many different styles. True, you can make balanced “mixed martial artists” or “freestyle” fighters, but where’s the fun in that? Meanwhile, those with a background in traditional or kick boxing, to say nothing of grapplers/wrestlers, are pretty self-explanatory. And combat sambo, which is very close to MMA already, just means a balanced fighter. But there are some more exotics that I’ve found fun to use.

  • Sumo wrestling. Not just for male heavyweights, the pushing nature of sumo means MMA fighters with a background in it trend towards what’s derogatorily called “wall and stall”, where they try to win decisions by pushing and trapping their opponent against the cage/ropes.
  • Shootfighting/pro wrestling. These I move up the “creative attacks” (punches/kicks, submissions) up a lot, to symbolize their stylistic, showy background. Otherwise they’re grapplers.
  • “Practical Fighters”. A catch-all term for those who’ve trained in legit military/law enforcement unarmed fighting. The opposite of the shoot wrestlers, these have very low “creative attacks” ratings, to symbolize their focus on boring but practical solutions.
  • Brawlers. Untrained goons, I’ve frequently given them “arm choke” ratings slightly higher than ‘normal’, because basic choke submissions are the most intuitive. Their strength often exceeds their skill.
  • Points fighters. Both people from combat disciplines that punish you for hitting too hard and other ones who just go for the “striking decisions”. Usually highly mobile, points fighters have high skill but (comparably) little strength.
  • Hillbilly fighters. I have one creation whose stated style is “Hillbilly Fighting”. The attributes have him being a balanced fighter with a penchant for kicking his opponents in the head.

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.