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Boxing Writing That Pulls No Punches

Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage By Budd Schulberg
Ivan R. Dee, 368 pages, $27.50.

Back in the early 1990s, The New York Times asked if I might be interested in leaving my football beat to become the boxing writer. The decision was easy — boxing had always been the most lyrical beat in the sports dodge — and I was not disappointed. The surge of excitement at a heavyweight championship fight, in a darkened arena hazy with cigar smoke, knowing that one punch can change the course of two men’s lives — boxing is the kind of sport that cries out for a literary hand. Even after 40 years in the business, I loved those ringside moments. They remain my most illuminated remembrances of sports writing. It’s no wonder the ring has attracted writers from Norman Mailer to Damon Runyon to Westbrook Pegler.

But in writing about boxing, I also discovered what happened to the people I grew up with in Brooklyn — that is, the ones who didn’t go straight. And now, in reading the nonagenarian Budd Schulberg’s collection of many of his boxing writings, I recall with a smirk just what it is about this nutty sport that is, as Budd describes it, like “fencing, only with pain involved.”

It’s not that unusual that Schulberg, the man who wrote the screenplays “On The Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd,” as well as the seminal Hollywood novel, “What Makes Sammy Run,” would make boxing a part of his life. Check out, for one thing, his description of the kinship between writers and fighters: “You’re out there under the bright lights feeling naked and alone.” Schulberg pulls no punches, even with those close to him. And he was close — indeed, he even managed a fighter over the years, and sparred with more than a few. He was close enough to Muhammad Ali to accompany him in a car as they made their way to Madison Square Garden for the first Ali-Joe Frazier brawl. He was compassionate enough for boxers and their managers and trainers to confide in him, and he was trusted enough so that even the suspicious and venal Mike Jacobs — the feared promoter of many of Joe Louis’s fights — gave him some insight into his workings.

A thread throughout this collection is his concern for fighters once they come to the end of the line: “… there’s always that night, if you must fight on into your late thirties and forties, when suddenly the magic’s gone and all that pretty fistic fight music becomes a terrible silence,” he writes.

In fact, Schulberg has been railing to get a union, pensions and medical plans for boxers. He is no dilettante but an expert on this game he loves, yet he sees the intrinsic problem of a sport whose most famous inhabitants are those who can hurt other people the most.

He also sees the humor and irony of such personalities as Bob Arum, the Harvard-educated promoter, and his nemesis, the street-and-prison-educated Don King, whose coif once prompted Red Smith to describe his hair as “by General Electric.” The verbal sparring between the two fascinates and engages Schulberg, who dutifully takes note.

For those of us at a certain age, boxing had its Jewish heroes, as well, which made it an incongruous yet fascinating activity. And, certainly, throughout the book is a Jewish vein — going back to Schulberg’s early memories of attending fights with his renowned father, B.P. Schulberg, head of Paramount Studios. B.P.’s hero was the man he called, always, “the great Benny Leonard.” And young Budd — whose father’s pals included Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier, and Cary Grant — opted for heroes in the squared circle instead of the silver screen.

Schulberg describes the parallel lives of the early movie moguls and the Jewish boxers — many of them from families of European Jews, brought up in, or brought to, Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Interesting. To him, the movies and boxing were “both offering a way out of the stifling ghetto of the lower East Side.” I would have liked to see more of this in “Ringside.” He does have one chapter titled “When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport,” but it is merely a few pages long in this 368-page heavyweight collection.

About a fifth of the book is given over to his 1950 Collier’s magazine profile of Jacobs. I was concerned that this was mere padding, even for a figure so important that the sportswriters labeled the area around Madison Square Garden “Jacobs Beach.” But Schulberg, who was as much a working journalist as he was a literary man, unearthed mounds of information on this man whose family had emigrated from Poland to Ireland to here. Schulberg got hold of a birth certificate, and he collared friends and enemies to talk about the most important promoter of his time. New journalism indeed. Before Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, Schulberg could create a drama out of a man’s life — an ability he still has 50 years later.

Gerald Eskenazi is a longtime sportswriter for The New York Times, as well as the author of 15 books.

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