Literary Hub

Why Are Writers Drawn to Boxing?

In 1923 Paul Gallico, a young New York Daily News reporter, approached heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey with an idea for a story. New to the sports beat, Gallico worried that he couldn’t write about boxing “graphically or understandingly” without having experienced it firsthand, so he asked Dempsey if they could spar. His only request was that the champion not aim for the body. “I explained that I expected to survive and said my only serious doubt was my ability to take it in the region of the stomach,” Gallico wrote. “I asked the great man if he might confine his attentions to a less unhappy target.” Dempsey obliged the journalist and knocked him out with “a good punch to the nose” in just over a minute. Gallico wrote that the knockout was like an “awful explosion within the confines of my skull, followed by a bright light, a tearing sensation and then darkness.”

*

Ten years ago I was a young-ish reporter myself and in the midst of an early midlife crisis. I had spent the first part of my adulthood as a devoted pacifist and decadent, my head either in a book or a bottle of whiskey, but by 33 the old answers—drinking, smoking, lazing about, responding to all hostility with irony—weren’t satisfying me anymore. I was bored to tears. Convinced that the cure to my paralysis would only be found in throwing myself into a new life, I decided to run in the exact opposite direction from where I’d been moving for a decade. I had never been in a fight, had always been repulsed by the idea, and had always seen combat sports as proof of humankind’s refusal to grow up and be civilized. But I also saw, however faintly, that there were extraordinary sensations to be found in fighting, that to fight would be to feel life deeply. So I decided to start my experiment in transformation there. After 33 passive years, I suddenly needed to know what I would do if someone hit me in the face.

*

Paul Gallico is part of a great lineage of writers who tried their hand at fighting. Albert Camus was an amateur boxer. Norman Mailer sparred with light heavyweight champion José Torres. Ernest Hemingway tormented Ezra Pound by forcing the poet to put on gloves and try to hit the much larger novelist in his Paris apartment. And George Plimpton, who turned Gallico’s hand’s-on approach to sports journalism into a career, also boxed a former champion for a story, in his case light-heavyweight Archie Moore, who bloodied the writer’s nose.

*

At the root of the sympathetic connection between writing and fighting lies solitude. Fighters have their trainers and cornermen and opponents, and writers have their editors and publishers and subjects, but in the end both are out there on their own, wrestling with themselves every time. Ask any trainer and they’ll say a fighter’s greatest obstacle isn’t his opponent but his own fear. The same is true for writers. The terror of physical destruction and the terror of the blank page are the same thing.

Within days of attending my first fighting class, I was hopelessly in love.

*

Within days of attending my first fighting class, I was hopelessly in love. Soon, time I used to spend watching old movies and cultivating meaningful human relationships was being spent at the gym or watching videos of mixed martial arts fights and trying to unpack their mysteries. For years I had been happily reviewing movies and writing about local politics, but now, for reasons I couldn’t quite understand, fighting became my muse, the thing I wrote best about, the lens through which I could comment on the world. Like Joyce Carol Oates and Budd Schulberg and Homer before me, I found artistic inspiration in one of the cruelest, most self-destructive things human beings do.

*

“All the great poets should have been fighters,” Muhammad Ali once said. “Take Keats and Shelley, for an example. They were pretty good poets, but they died young. You know why? Because they didn’t train.” But Ali was wrong. John Keats, who I’d always assumed was the most delicate of all the Romantic poets, was actually an enthusiastic street fighter. And Lord Byron, the Romantic’s Romantic, trained with one of the greatest boxing champions of his era. He even sparred on the morning of his mother’s funeral—not out of cruelty or a lack of sentiment but because fighting is a balm for the spirit, the “blessed safety valve,” as Arthur Conan Doyle called it.

Ali may have had a point about Shelley, though.

*

Writers are forced by occupation and inclination to sit at a screen all day plumbing the depths of their own brains: moving words around in a desperate attempt at creating meaning, parsing the tiny subtleties of this phrase or that, driving themselves mad and blind in the search for the perfect sentence. For a certain kind of writer, the lure of fighting is the opportunity to escape from a life spent drowning in these abstractions. Write enough words in your life, engage in enough internal arguments over syntax, stare at the same paragraph and the same wall for days on end, and a punch to the head can start to sound like relief.

*

My love affair with fighting reached its peak seven years after it began, when I walked into a cage in suburban Long Island and fought my first mixed martial arts fight at the age of 40—the inevitable conclusion to my long experiment in self-re-creation. Though I had discovered over my years of training that I had a certain flair for fighting, the great question of my life was still waiting to be answered: How would I respond to getting attacked by someone with malice in his heart? And while standing in a cage no less, in front of hundreds of drunken strangers, half-naked, in Long Island?

To actually fight an artist is to experience beauty in your bones and your flesh and in the adrenaline shooting through your nerves.

*

In 1916 the once-infamous but now largely forgotten poet Arthur Cravan boxed former champion Jack Johnson in an exhibition bout in Barcelona. Cravan, whose achievements as a boxer amounted to little more than declaring himself the light-heavyweight champion of Europe after he was the only person to show up at a rookie boxing competition in Paris a year earlier, had agreed to fight the greatest heavyweight of his era in order to earn enough money to buy a boat ticket to New York and dodge military service and the trenches of World War I. His fight with Johnson lasted six rounds, with Cravan alternately clinging to the former champion and keeping himself out of punching range, before Johnson finally got one solid shot in, causing Cravan to fall to the canvas in a heap, at which point the crowd realized the fix was in. As they began to riot, Cravan quietly slipped out a side door of the arena and boarded a ship bound for America, where his experiments in aesthetic transgression and cultural provocation would soon inspire the Surrealists and the Dadaists and the Situationists and countless other aesthetic movements interested in erasing the line between life and art.

*

When Paul Gallico sparred with Jack Dempsey, I’d bet he wanted to understand not only what it was like to fight but also what it was like to be an artist whose work was appreciated in the moment, unmitigated by time and distance, knowing immediately if he had made his connection or missed the mark. As a writer, I felt this same desire and envy whenever I sparred with a truly brilliant fighter. You can watch a fight and admire its beauty, even be moved by it, but this is only the passive appreciation of the observer, like listening to a piece of music or staring at a canvas or reading a book. To actually fight an artist is to experience beauty in your bones and your flesh and in the adrenaline shooting through your nerves. To feel sublimity. Poets and novelists would sacrifice every earthly delight to be able to get that deep into the blood of their audiences.

*

It wasn’t until I was standing in the cage that frozen night in Westbury, Long Island, that I learned my opponent was, like me, and like Camus and Byron and Cravan before us, a writer. His fighting nickname, the ring announcer told the crowd of 800 waiting to see him bash my head in, was “The Poet.”

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