The Bell Tolls: Writers and Boxing
ROUND 1When I was nine I won a "mystery prize" at the summer fair, and instead of a shabby stuffed toy or Led Zeppelin T-shirt, I received a pair of leather boxing gloves. For months I was the envy of the neighborhood. With the bloated mitts on the spindles of my arms, I would stand on a hilltop and take on the world. I grew out of the gloves before I ever grew into them. I would be a writer not a fighter -- the pen was mightier than the sword and all that. Still, it never stopped me from wondering about the road not taken, this shadow-self I might have been.Writers have always had a fascination with boxing. A defining moment of Canadian literature came when the young Morley Callaghan thumped macho Yankee scribe Ernest Hemingway in a Paris match haphazardly refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, Richard Ford -- all have penned odes to the "sweet science of bruising." Now, in Toronto -- the barometer of literary hipness, it seems -- poets don gym trunks and slip between the ropes of warehouse rings to trade verses rather than blows.And just when you thought interest was limited to testosterone-fueled pens, along comes Joyce Carol Oates, whose apologia for the sport, On Boxing, has made her the High Priestess of Pugilism.Why do writers, practitioners of the most sedentary, cerebral of the arts, feel such sympathy for the public, physical spectacle that is boxing?ROUND 2Dino DeLuca savages a punching bag in Mac's Gym. Each of his powerful blows makes the breath catch in my chest. Paul DeLuca, his father and trainer, observes his technique and explains the finer points of managing a pro fighter.The Sooke natives live, breathe, eat, drink, floss their teeth on boxing. Even the family name sounds like a resounding body-blow: bob, feint, jab -- DELuca!Paul boxed with the Canadian Forces, dropped out to raise a family, but always kept a foot in the sport -- coaching, training, running a gym, promoting live and closed circuit matches and Tough Man challenges in town. Now he's concentrating on pushing Dino towards a cruiserweight title fight. How he stays focused is beyond me. As we talk, banzai cries from the downstairs karate school, a relentless guitar solo on the stereo, and the occasional explosion at an adjacent construction site serenade our conversation. "It's the biggest headache," he says of the promotional side of the business. Juggling eight matches for a Memorial Arena slug-fest invites the long arm of Murphy's Law. One boxer blows out a shoulder, another hasn't been training and must be scratched.Finally, on the eve of the big show, Ernie Valentine, Dino's opponent for the main event, gets turned back at the border when Canada Customs dredges up a rap sheet on their computer. Paul scrambles, calls in a favor, arranges a replacement from Vancouver.Breaking even is all he asks for at this point -- that and getting another win for his 25-year-old son."If something goes right and we make money, great, but that's not why we're here. Our money will come down the road. That's why Dino's in the gym six times a week. You only get out of it what you put into it."Dino agrees. "Boxing isn't a sport, it's a business," he says.And if his father is in management and promotions, then Dino covers receiving and distribution -- of punches, that is.He knows how to take a hit; he's boxed since the age of six and racked up 112 wins as an amateur. He also understands, since turning professional, that it's no longer a game."Let me put it this way: in the amateurs you're fighting for a $15 trophy. In the pros, when you're fighting some guy from the States or Mexico, if he doesn't win, he doesn't feed his kids, they don't call him back."Behind the pay-per-view glitz of a televised match lie long years of apprenticeship, of sacrifice, of disappointment."You can't just fall off a potato truck and expect a title fight," Dino explains.Like any garret poet, the boxer toils in obscurity, a half-year of sweating in the gym for a half-hour of limelight. The wages are comparable too: a novice fighter can expect to pocket $100 per scheduled round.Granted, the rejection letters smart a little more when they arrive. "In one fight a guy headbutted me and shattered my nose across my face. I was seeing three fighters, so I just kept trying to hit the one in the middle," Dino shrugs. "I've already had my two losses. I know what it's like to look up at a ceiling. I don't want that to happen again."ROUND 3It's a poor showing for Fight Night at the Memorial Arena. Rather than the expectant air of shared spectacle, the hollow chamber takes on a more illicit feel, like one of the prohibited "Prize Ring" matches of Regency England, in which boxers and audiences gathered in secret covens for bareknuckle duels that might last 50 rounds or more.Kept cool for the fighters, the arena has the beer and stale popcorny aroma of an abandoned refrigerator, and I feel as though I've just slipped into a strip club on a sunny Sabbath afternoon. I look up at the tombstone backs of empty seats and wonder what all the people who haven't come to witness the fights are doing tonight.There's no time for second thoughts, though, as the lights dim, the announcer works the crowd, the dry ice rolls down the aisles, and the first pair of boxers step into the ring."You don't defend it," Paul says bluntly.ROUND 4Still it's difficult to watch two men beat the stuffing out of each other -- especially when the stuffing is being splattered across your shirt sleeve. Shawn Elliott, a crag-nosed Oregon fighter, backs into the ropes, and suddenly his head snaps around, his face a rictus of disbelief, as though he's heard a familiar voice call from the rafter seats. His mouthguard squirts free and skitters across the press table. We shake bloody spittle from our notepads, lower our heads, keep writing.ROUND 5His arm raised to the lights, Dennis Kandeh erupts with joy. He hugs the ref, his coach, his opponent, anyone he can strap his arms around. He drops into Joe Louis poses and mugs for the flashing cameras. Seconds earlier, his punch-stunned opponent had sunk to his knees for the third time, as if in prayer or supplication, and Kandeh notched his first pro win. The long road of hope and glory had begun.Dennis made local headlines as one of the athletes from Sierra Leone who defected during the Commonwealth Games. The military government hadn't appreciated the athletes' public criticism of their absent living allowances and had hinted that the Welcome Wagon for the Olympic heroes might have bars on its windows. Most of the others have since moved on to England or the States, but Dennis decided to stay in Canada.He's glad he did. While it's still a little cold, Victoria is starting to feel like home. Or rather not like home; thankfully free, Kandeh says, of guns and civil wars and -- whatever you think of Glen Clark's politics -- military dictatorships.Now he works full-time at the local KFC and squeezes training sessions between serving up the Colonel's finest. "It's very hard, but I have to pay the bills," he sighs.He dreams of title bouts, of boxing under the flag of his new country, of continuing the long journey he began as a boy back in Sierra Leone. "I know I can do well if I get someone to promote me. That's why I'm trying to fight all the time so people can see my potential. Boxing has taken me to a lot of places -- the African Games, the Commonwealth Games."It's also taken him far from the home he can no longer return to. When he stands in the ring he can almost hear another, invisible chorus cheering him on, their voices drifting over oceans and continents."My friends, my dad and mom, my sisters -- they encouraged me so much in this sport. They were always there for me. I miss that."Round 6In the ring the card girls come and goBikini-clad -- and looking cold.ROUND 7Growing up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, Keith McKenzie often had to fight his way to school and back again. He refined his street-won skills to carry him to several Golden Gloves and kickboxing championships across the country.Now he runs Mac's Gym and teaches classes in recreational non-contact boxing, riding the recent wave of boxing chic. Students range from bouncers to bankers, and include an increasing number of women interested in fitness and self-defense.Dragooned into replacing an absent judge at the big match, Keith holds court at ringside, gladhands, gossips, feeds me insider tips on the bouts -- who has a wicked left hook, who a glass jaw."How do you spell his name?" Keith asks, completing the judge's sheet for the next bout. He grins: "I only got my Grade 9, so it's lucky I went into boxing!" I shrug as I scan my notes and programs. Spelling seems fluid in this sport; numbers -- records, points, the slow march of the clock -- count far more than words. It's enough to drive any writer mad. Over the evening one fighter's name transforms several times: 'Adamo, DeAdamo, and -- perhaps most appropriate to the lazy jabs he tosses -- Dead Ammo.During the intermission, someone cold-cocks Keith as he returns from the concession stand. Fans stand on their seats for a better view of this out-of-the-ring action. Keith retrieves his toque, abandons the hot dog, comes back rubbing his jaw. "Just a guy I scrapped with before," he shrugs as security tosses his assailant into the rain.What kind of world is this where even the judges are subject to random, ruthless punishment? Nowhere, it seems, is safe.ROUND 8Cast the bruising aside and boxing is just another case of Little Guys wanting to be Big Guys -- and maybe one day the Biggest Guy of All. Visions of title bouts dance in the heads of fighters, promoters, and agents. To carry through the lonely hours of training, the meager wages of undercard fights, they must blow themselves up with their own words, talk fast and loose in the future tense: "I'll go the distance. I'll knock him flat. I'll make it to the top." Every fighter's gonna be a champ -- you'd think that boxing has as many belts as Eaton's Men's Wear.Boxers' goals can be summed up in one crackling, neon word: Vegas. Just a discount fare away for most, Vegas remains a distant mythical land for a young fighter from Victoria or Sooke, as much a psychic territory as a spot on a map -- Shangri-la, El Dorado, "the Place of Gold.""He fought in Vegas," McKenzie says of an undercard boxer, and it doesn't matter how he fared, he's been There. That's enough. He's been to Vegas.That's how they say it too: Vegas, just Vegas, as though "Las" sounds far too close to "loss," the one thing that will bar them from the Promised Land.ROUND 9Trena Drotar is the last Mary Kay Girl you want to meet in a dark alley. Go four rounds with her and you'll need a makeover.This boxer-cosmetician is Paul DeLuca's latest protege. Soft-spoken, shy even, she trains with an intensity that's exhausting to watch. Listening to her schedule, I'm convinced there's more than 24 hours in her day: jogging, weight-training, calisthenics, punching bags, sparring, part-time work as an aerobics instructor, plus her moonlighting career flogging perfume and eyeliner."No sweat, no threat" -- it's not exactly Cosmo ad-copy, but Trena's a model of her coach's favorite motto.In the hours before her first pro match, Trena worries not only about defeating her opponent but also about getting too battered doing so. She has a Mary Kay convention the next day."They're totally shocked by my boxing," Trena says of her cosmetic co-workers. "Some of them are disgusted by it."Her parents weren't too thrilled either when, after four years in the navy, she tried on the gloves to keep up her fitness, then began pursuing a boxing career more seriously."My mom thought that I would be dead in the ring. If I was ever knocked out, that's it, I'm finished, I'm never waking up," she says. "I think it's a matter of not knowing Mr. DeLuca and where he's taking me. They don't know whether he's going to protect me or just stick me in the ring."It's a reminder of the intimacy between coach and athlete in this sport, how complete the trust must be. Paul and Trena watch each other as she trains and seem to know the other's thoughts. "It's an ESP-thing," she says.Paul admits that many coaches push their boxers too far, too fast, they see the gold ring and try to snatch it before it's time.Women's boxing, everyone tells me, is on the rise. Roseanne Barr loves it, they say. Don King is putting his money on it, and Don King knows. It's the rare match these days that doesn't include a women's fight.No longer just sideshow amusement, the midget wrestling of the fight family, women's boxing has matured. Trena feels accepted by the male boxers and the fans -- if not the general public. Still, she resists easy labels, refuses to consider herself a post-feminist pioneer in the land of ultimate machismo. She just wants to fight, and to win. And that's why Paul's grooming her to catch the rising wave of interest and prize money."Men say, 'It's not a sport for women,'" he says. "But I think boxing is changing. It's something people want to see. We do a lot of casino boxing down in the States, and they sure love those women bouts. There's a reason for that: the fights are more exciting. They have that pent up emotion to fight. I've never seen them not fight -- they just don't quit."The morning after Trena's first fight -- a convincing, clinical defeat of a more experienced boxer -- the phone begins ringing with offers. Someone already wants to set up a title match, but Paul declines."We're going to go at our own pace rather than the pace they want us to go. I want to take our time, get her experience, so when she does get to the top, she'll know how to control it," Paul explains. "There's life after boxing for her. I'd never throw her to the wolves."ROUND 10"A brilliant boxing match," Joyce Carol Oates writes, "quicksilver in its motions, transpiring far more rapidly than the mind can absorb, can have the power that Emily Dickinson attributed to great poetry: you know it's great when it takes the top of your head off."The bell sounds for the main event.Remember the scene in Rocky where he trains by pummeling sides of beef? Dino's ad-hoc antagonist, Ray Wilson -- that's Sugar Ray to you and me -- seems to have modeled his fighting style after that same beef slab. It's Method acting straight out of Theater 101 -- "I . . . am . . . meat!" -- and it's painful to watch. He tags Dino with a jab early in the first round, but that only seems to enrage the hometown favorite. His arms a threshing machine, Dino stalks Ray around the ring, thundering blows off head and body. The roped-in square seems to shrink to the size of a telephone booth. Then the most frightening moment in all of boxing. Out-boxed, out-powered, Sugar Ray sprawls into the near corner, his eyes glassing over as he slides towards some lesser level of consciousness.But his elbows catch in the ropes, and cradled there, he appears still ready to stand and deliver. Dino pounces, all animal instinct, pistons his gloves into the helpless body. The referee seems paralyzed for a moment -- a white towel falls to the canvas -- before he finally pulls Dino away and calls off the fight."He should have stopped it earlier," McKenzie says."He should have stopped it earlier," the ringside physician says."He should have stopped it earlier," Dino later admits.ROUND 11Dr. Peter Hastings is the first through the ropes to attend to Sugar Ray. He gets him seated, feeds him fluids, checks his pupils. Hastings oversees the safety of the boxers at the match, performing the pre-fight physicals, recommending when a bout should be called, checking the fighters after the match, and signing -- as he does for Sugar Ray -- 60-day suspension forms for boxers who have been knocked out.He's ambivalent about the dangers of boxing."Studies have come out that say soccer players actually get more damage over a period of time than boxers, because they head the ball a hundred times a week, while a boxer only gets hit a hundred times a year," he explains. "But when you get into the pros and they fight all the time, there is an increased chance of brain damage."If the promoters have matched the fighters well, he says, and the commission board has looked into the medical histories of the boxers, and a good referee is ready to stop a bout when necessary, then the match should be safe. Where regulations need to be tightened is in the suspension of boxers who have been knocked out."Right now, a person can be suspended for a month or two in Victoria, but other places like Alberta or California might not recognize that suspension, and -- boom! -- next week he's fighting down there."In the circuit of Pacific Northwest boxing, where border-crossing is a necessity for fighters looking for money matches, the suspension rules are easy to weave around. Whether pushed by an unscrupulous coach or faced with covering next month's rent, pro boxers often put themselves in danger by re-entering the ring too soon.ROUND 12Verbum caro factum est. "The Word was made flesh." So says the gospel of St. John. But can it be translated back again?When I watch a live bout -- unlike the cartoon hype of televised matches or Hollywood heroes -- it is like nothing I've ever experienced. It resists summary, metaphor, all the powers of the pen. "Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects," Oates writes. "But boxing is only like boxing."Neither bloodless box-scores, nor easy moral indignation, nor purple prose about (as one author put it) the "professors of pugilism" seem adequate to describe an event so thoroughly in and of and for and against the body.What I'm left with is the transformative power of the ring itself. Lit from above, viewed from below, striding out of a dry ice mist, the fighters seem like ancient titans. Within the next few minutes they will be forced into a self-knowledge more certain and more brutal than most of us will ever experience. They will know, however briefly, whether they are the best -- or the bested. ("Just walk up and go through the ropes," Dino suggests. "Every emotion possible -- you feel it.")Then, stepping out again, they will shrink before our eyes. Earl Mathews, Dennis Kandeh's defeated foe, emerges from the lockers, an ice-pack tucked into the neck of his baseball jacket and a shiner rising above his left cheek. He seems half-sized, all too human, and melts easily into the crowd. Just another day at the office, and not an especially peachy one at that.After the last bell, the sparse crowd drifts into the evening rain. Over the horizon fireworks begin to pop, giving a sense of distant celebration. Even for the winning fighters, however, the euphoria is short-lived. The next morning, they will be back at day jobs, in the gym, long miles on the road, new cities, new challenges. For some the neon dream is one step closer; for others, a dimming hope . All will feel the post-fight let-down, as aches and bruises settle into their flesh and the whisper of doubt is heard.But they have promises to keep -- that's what draws them to the ring and its lucrative dangers. And miles to go before they sleep. And miles to go.