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Friday, February 11, 2011

George Kimball and John Schulian share their favorite boxing stories about Ali-Frazier, Stanley Ketchel, Bummy Davis

In a just-posted exclusive interview (PDF) with The Library of America, veteran sports journalists George Kimball and John Schulian describe what moved them to put together the new collection At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. “There’s an almost electrical charge to boxing that separates it from every other sport,” Schulian explained. “Boxing is elemental, visceral. It’s the closest thing to combat that most writers ever see.”

The editors spent a year culling through hundreds of pieces spanning a century in a process Kimball compares to “a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a particular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others.” Pressed to pick a favorite piece, Kimball retorted, “Come on, man. Which of your children is your favorite?” Schulian came up with three winners:
Schulian: I’ll give you three favorites: Mark Kram’s piece on the Thrilla in Manila is, to my thinking, perfect. I’ve long considered Kram was one of the great stylists in Sports Illustrated’s history, and this is his masterpiece. His language and imagery are rich and vibrant, and there’s a full-blooded quality to the emotion he obviously felt as he watched Ali and Frazier wreak havoc on each other. They had all come of age together, and now the writer was watching the fighters turn each other into old men who never should have fought again after this. There’s never been a story about a fight that was as powerful or moved me as profoundly. 
My other favorites are character studies of the kind of rogues who could find only one sport that would have anything to do with them—boxing. John Lardner’s “Down Great Purple Valleys” begins with the single greatest lede in journalism history: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Red Smith called it “the single greatest novel ever written in one sentence.” And the amazing thing is, the story just keeps getting better and better as Lardner unspools the short, crazy life of this go-to-hell middleweight. Fueled by booze and opium, wild about the ladies, and armed with a punch that once flattened Jack Johnson, Ketchel dwelled on the outer edge of boxing’s margins, and he paid for it. But, oh, what an unforgettable character. 
Bummy Davis, the “Brownsville Bum” immortalized by W. C. Heinz, was a different breed of cat, but just as wild and fearless and self-destructive and utterly mesmerizing. What separates the two of them is the circumstances of Davis’s death. Where the womanizing Ketchel gets played for a sap, Davis, who was a thumb-in-the-eye fighter, stands tall when armed robbers stick up the joint where he’s tending bar. One of the robbers calls Davis a “punch-drunk bum” and Davis starts swinging and the robbers start shooting. They’re still shooting when he chases them out the door with a bullet in him, and he stays after them until he falls on the sidewalk and dies in the rain. When Heinz paints the picture for us, it’s not mere sportswriting. It’s writing.
Read the full interview (PDF) with George Kimball and John Schulian.

Also of interest:
Related LOA books: At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing; A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings

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