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.

Review: Gil Thorp

Gil Thorp

Fuldapocalypse now turns its attention to the so-called “funny pages”, the coleacanths that linger in newspapers across the country. One of these living fossils is Gil Thorp, a sports comic that has been running nonstop since 1958. The comic has a simple premise. It follows the title character, a coach/athletic director of the fictional Milford High School, and his students as they play through the seasons and have off-the-field drama. (The name is a combination of real star players Gil Hodges and Jim Thorpe).

One thing in the strip’s favor is that it’s been timed to match each real sport in its real season. So you have baseball/softball in the spring, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. Of course, this means that the summer, when school’s out, leads to huge segments of nothing but non-athletic filler.

There have been several artists drawing the strip, none of them particularly good. This was an issue in one arc where two characters thirty years apart in age looked almost exactly alike, which drew some confusion-and this was reading the strips in hindsight. Beyond that extreme example, you have tons of barely distinguishable, interchangeable, moving-in-and-out characters.

Which brings me to the next problem, and one that shows why this particular type of comic strip has been mostly destroyed. It turns out that soap-opera style arcs told one three-panel strip at a time are not the most ideal way to tell a story. That the storylines themselves fall into an awkward melodramatic-yet-tame-enough-for-the-mainstream-papers uncanny valley and are frequently repeated can be forgiven/understood, even if it doesn’t help. But no matter the quality of the plots as a whole, the format just does not lend itself to good reading.

This was the first work of fiction I really binge-read in some time. And while I liked the goofy experience, there’s a reason why most other storyline strips like it have sunk into the depths.

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.

The Wheeze Kids Approach

The advent of free agency in North American sports brought about one particular form of win-now team building. Namely, grab a bunch of older veteran players with (theoretical) capability, and hope for the best. I’ve dubbed it the “Wheeze Kids” approach, after the nickname given to the 1983 Phillies. Built around a 42 year old Pete Rose, a 39 year old Joe Morgan, and a 41-year old Tony Perez, they made it to the World Series (only to lose to a young Cal Ripken’s Orioles).

Sometimes the Wheeze Kids approach succeeds. More often it serves as an expensive failure, albeit one that the players and their agents aren’t exactly too worked up about thanks to the paychecks. Whatever its worth in the actual world, I love assembling teams of “wheeze kids” in simulations, to see just how viable aging players remain.

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.

A Thousand Words: Two For The Money

Two For The Money

2005’s Two For The Money stars Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. It is one of the few movies about sports betting, and perhaps the only movie in recent history about sports betting “handicappers” who sell pick advice, or, as they’re known more derogatorily, “touts”. As someone writing my own fiction about touts, I knew I had to watch this film. What did I think about it?

First the plot. McConaughey is an injured college quarterback who goes from playing football games to predicting them. Pacino is a super-tout who values in his skill. The movie chronicles their rise and fall. It’s a classic, predictable narrative. Al Pacino does the stereotypical “Al Pacino Hamfisted Role”, but he does it well. His co-star is more erratic, and not in a good way.

Beyond that, the biggest issue I had was how it misrepresented touts. Now, I was fully expecting and prepared for sports-movie exaggeration (for instance, the way the main character’s picks zoom from great to poor so quickly and consistently). But this goes beyond that, treating the handicappers as sincerely trying to get the right pick and sincerely caring about the outcomes of the games. In reality, nearly all touts don’t.

They make referral deals with sportsbooks, meaning they have a vested interest in their customers losing. They will either cherry-pick or outright lie about their records to make them seem more impressive. And, most notably, they will pull the infamous “give half the callers one team and half the other” trick so that 50% will be ‘winners’. You get the idea. Honestly admitting to the inevitable losing periods doesn’t attract business. Neither does advertising the highest realistic win rate, which less knowledgeable people (ie, the people who’d fall for touts at all) would not consider impressive compared with “79% WIN RATE IN THIS CFB SEASON!”

The thing is, this movie could be equally dramatic, equally exaggerated, and equally able to pull off the “man’s descent into sleaze” plot if it treated its “handicapping” service in this way. There are a few times when it does get the image right, like its spot-on reenactment of over the top sports betting shows/infomercials. But far more often, Two For The Money misses when it didn’t have to. Which is a shame.