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Authors: Budd Schulberg

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Sparring With Hemingway: And Other Legends of the Fight Game

BOOK: Sparring With Hemingway: And Other Legends of the Fight Game
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Sparring with Hemingway
And Other Legends of the Fight Game
Budd Schulberg

Contents

Preface

Sparring with Hemingway

White, Black, and Other Hopes

The Great Benny Leonard

Stillman’s Gym

Hollywood Hokum

The Heavyweight Championship

Where Have You Gone, Holly Mims?

No Room for the Groom

Marciano and England’s Cockell

A Champion Proves His Greatness

The Comeback: Sugar Ray Robinson

Boxing’s Dirty Business Must Be Cleaned Up Now

The Death of Boxing?

The Chinese Boxes of Muhammad Ali

In Defense of Boxing

Journey to Zaire

Leonard-Duran

Ali-Holmes

The Welterweights: Sugar Ray and “Hitman” Hearns Walk with Legends

The Gerry Cooney Story

The Eight-Minute War: Hagler-Hearns

Sugar’s Sweet, Marvin’s Sour

Historic Night in the Ring: Holmes-Spinks

They Fall Harder When They’re Old: Tyson-Holmes

Spinks’s Magic Act Is Not Enough

The Second Coming of George Foreman

Foreman-Holyfield: The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Don’t Fall

Tyson vs. Tyson

The Mystery of the Heavyweight Mystique

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Index

A Biography of Budd Schulberg

FOR FIDEL LABARBA
and “Golden Boy” Art Aragon, best men at my wedding thirty years ago, and to Muhammad Ali, José Torres, Roger Donoghue, and Archie McBride, my own top-ten heavy in the 1950s, sensitive and articulate men in their brutal chess game of a sport, world champions, contenders—and lifelong friends.

And for the late world-class hustler Hal Conrad, a major player in Ali’s triumphant return from exile, with whom I go all the way back to the Joe Louis days and those after-hours’ seminars.

For the memory of Jerry “Blackie” Lisker, my boss at the
New York Post
, who leaned over my shoulder in the press room after how many title fights: “Budd, gimme your best stuff—just don’t miss the first edition!” Hardest work and most fun I ever had. Thanks, Blackie.

To my old man, B.P., who took me to the fights from age ten and made me feel that visits to our Hollywood home by world champs Tony Canzoneri and Mushy Callahan (not to mention Jack Dempsey) made a more serious contribution to our cultural development than visits by Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. And finally to B.P.’s namesake, his grandson Benn, my fifteen-year-old, born the year Ali retired with his record third world heavyweight championship—my ringside companion at title fights from the Garden to Vegas, continuing a family tradition in the closing years of the twentieth century that began in the great Benny Leonard days at the other end of the centennial era.

And for my twelve-year-old daughter Jessica, who tapes the fights for me in my absence and, while writing her poetry, composing on the piano, or swatting a tennis ball for her Westhampton team, is patiently awaiting her turn.

Preface

W
HY ARE WRITERS
so drawn to championship prizefights that they will cross continents and fly across oceans to be present at these spectacles?

I was pondering this again some years ago as Norman Mailer and I met at the bar of the Montreal headquarters of Sugar Ray Leonard, counting down the hours to the crucial welterweight title fight with the stone-fisted Panamanian, Roberto Duran. Norman and I traded observations, speculations, breathless predictions as we have been doing ever since a long night in Miami when we dissected until dawn Cassius Clay’s curious dethroning of the curiously misnamed Sonny Liston.

Sonny had been the centerpiece of a highly charged gathering in Chicago where he had destroyed the brave rabbit Floyd Patterson in a single round, in a fight scene that could have doubled as a summer writers’ conference. In addition to Mailer, who was at his most provocative that week, one could sit in on literary seminars attended by Jimmy Baldwin, Ben Hecht, William Saroyan, and George Plimpton, where Pulitzer Prize judges and ring officials could be denounced with equal intensity.

This marriage of literateurs and hard-core fanciers of the Sweet Science started long before Jack London, Ring Lardner, and Ernest Hemingway. It goes back at least three thousand
years, all the way to Homer, who covered the Greek Games where boxing was respected to the point of worship as a liberal art. In 1184
B.C.
, in the last year of the siege of Troy, Homer was writing a blow-by-blow of the epic battle between Epeus and Euryalus, the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier of their day.

          Amid the circle now each champion stands,

          And poises high in air his iron hands:

          With clashing gauntlets now they fiercely close.

          Their crackling jaws reecho to the blows …

Three thousand years later poets were still setting down their quills to see and often report a stirring boxing match. In the bareknuckle days of English glory, when prizefights were officially forbidden but stoutly supported by The Fancy, Lord Byron would eagerly push away from an epic poem, hop into a barouche-and-four, and urge his coachman on until they reached the tavern some sixty miles from London where the next great fight for the belt was about to take place. Byron was there, cheering his favorite on, when Gentleman John Jackson relieved Daniel Mendoza of his unprecedented crown by swinging “The Jew Champion” around by his long, thick hair. With Jackson as his boxing instructor and close companion, Byron was at ringside for John Gully’s savage sixty-four-round battle with Pierce the Game Chicken. Indeed, Byron hung out at the Horse and Dolphin, the Toots Shor’s of its day, where the suave, educated black American fighter Bill Richmond held sway. He was there when the match was made between the British idol Tom Cribb and Richmond’s protégé, the formidable ex-slave from Virginia, Tom Molineaux. When the rematch in Leicester drew an unruly crowd of 25,000, Lord Byron was one of the first to reach the grounds. He pasted clippings of the fight on his famous screen.

For a vivid description of a big fight, British nineteenth-century style, there is William Hazlitt’s essay on Thomas (the Gasman) Hickman’s contest with Bill Neate, “like Ajax, with
Atlantean shoulders fit to bear the pugilistic reputation of all Bristol.” The Gasman, in turn, in Hazlitt’s celebrated prose, was compared to Diomed, “light, vigorous, elastic, his back glistening in the sun as he moved about like a panther’s hide.”

From Homer to Hazlitt, Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Bernard Shaw, from London and Lardner to Hemingway, from A. J. Liebling and Nelson Algren to Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, and Joyce Carol Oates, from Athens to Zaire (where even Dr. Hunter Thompson found his way), we seem irresistibly drawn to these ceremonial combats.

We find ourselves at one with John Milton, that most unexpected of fight fans, who wrote in
Samson Agonistes:

          I sorrowed at his captive state,

          but minded

          Not to be absent at that

          spectacle.

Let’s get it on! the old master seems to be saying if we translate him into twentieth-century vernacular. I’ll be looking for him, along with the ghosts of Homer and Lord Byron, at the next writers’ conference at Caesar’s Palace, or MGM Grand, or wherever the next epic encounter captures the imagination of the writers who see The Fight as a microcosm, an intensification of the life forces we struggle to understand.

Sparring with Hemingway

I
HAD JUST PUBLISHED
my novel on the fight game,
The Harder They Fall
—having managed somehow, after the unforeseen success of
What Makes Sammy Run?,
to hurdle that old second-novel bugaboo. When the new book made the
Times
best-seller list and sold to the movies for Humphrey Bogart, the fact that my two young sons and their mother were suffering from familiar Bucks County winter complaints suggested that a warm-weather vacation was in order. I picked the southernmost spot in the United States: Key West.

Key West had come to mind because my taste in resorts ran to isolated places with deep-sea fishing—the Hemingway kind of place it was. Yes, I had read of Hemingway’s connection with Key West, how he had moved there and built there in the early ’30s. And of course I had read his Depression novel
To Have and Have Not,
with its haunting, dirgeful opening and its evocation of the violence of wasted lives and the desperation of a tough old salt fighting his losing battle for survival.

There were no poets in Key West then, no overpopulation of literary types, no gay bars and shoppes and quaint tours of local landmarks, including the Hemingway House. The place on Whitehead Street was just a nice, comfortable, sprawling house where the writer had lived before moving on to Cuba with No. 4 wife, Mary—while No. 2, nee Pauline Pfeiffer, still
spent her winters in what was simply her house and not “The Hemingway House.”

On the one little public beach on the island (the navy seeming to have gobbled up all the rest) we had met what turned out to be the best possible couple to know in Key West, Betty and Toby Bruce, whose children were of an age with ours. Betty was tiny, funny, tomboy-tough, and feisty, and Toby was her perfect running mate, a skinny little beak who looked as if he had just hopped right out of a comic strip. And comic he was, with a twinkle in his eye and a quip on his tongue, bubbling over with ribald innocence. Betty, we discovered, was that rarity, a true Conch, born on the island of Barbados of parents who had pioneered Key West in the 1880s. Toby had met her when he came down from Piggott, Arkansas, with Pauline after she married Ernest. Toby had practically built the Hemingway House, putting up the brick wall with his own small, work-toughened hands, installing the pool and serving as general overseer. In fact, Toby had become indispensable to Hemingway, as his Man Friday running interference against celebrity-seekers, and able to double as boat pilot, hunting and fishing guide, secretary—you name it, and Toby could do it with a flourish. “Hey, mon, what you know bad?” was his trademark greeting. He was such fun to be with while doing everything so neatly nice, including making the best bloodies I ever drank.

I thought of the Bruces as two adorable little people who lived with two adorable little children—right out of a folksy nursery rhyme. It was comical, too, because the Morenos, Betty’s mother and father, lived just across the driveway—in a quiet, gracious, and spacious Key West house built in the grand Bahama style. Mrs. Rosina Moreno was a genteel Southern lady, very proper in her ways, while Betty rebelled by dressing and acting like a rough ’n’ ready hoyden, her little house as delightful a mess as Mrs. Moreno’s was pin-perfect.

One bright morning in old Key West brought ripples of
excitement. The news was, “Papa’s coming to town!” Yes, the Great One, Mr. Key West himself, coming back for a visit to the island outpost he had virtually put on the map. Toby hurried over to our digs, “the southernmost house,” the Casa Cayo Jueso, with the announcement: He and Betty and Pauline were throwing an impromptu cocktail party for Papa and Mary in the Bruces’ little patio. “Good,” I thought, a chance to meet the walking legend. We would talk about the work I had admired from college days and the subjects we had in common: Scott Fitzgerald, tarpon fishing, boxing …

Browsing through his marvelous
Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories
to bone up for my adventure, I sipped a little Metusalem, a rum taste I had acquired from “Papa” via Toby, who seemed to enjoy a steady supply from Cuba. Then, high on expectation, I went forth to meet the self-styled and generally acknowledged “champion of American letters.”

It was one of those sun-bright late afternoons of Key West winter, when an unblemished canopy of blue sky stretched to the far horizon. But there was one small, totally unexpected dark cloud: As I came into the patio, looking forward to a good time talking and drinking, Toby brought me a no-nonsense Metusalem, saying, “I hope it goes all right. Papa’s on the warpath. Been lookin’ for you since he got in.”

BOOK: Sparring With Hemingway: And Other Legends of the Fight Game
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