Boxing’s popularity is linked to its tradition, so a trip down memory lane in in order.
Paul Gallico was born in New York in 1897, graduated from Columbia in 1919, and began work soon after as a writer for the New York Daily News. Ultimately, he became the paper’s sports editor at a time when heroes like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, and Bill Tilden roamed the American landscape and were creating what was known as “The Golden Age of Sports.”
Gallico’s introduction to the harsh realities of boxing came in August 1923 when he attended his first training camp. Jack Dempsey was in Saratoga Springs, readying to defend his championship against Luis Firpo.
[Photo credit: CBS Denver]
“My burning curiosity got the better of prudence,” the 6-foot-3-inch Gallico later wrote, “I asked Dempsey to permit me to box a round with him. I had never boxed before, but I was in good physical shape having just completed a four-year stretch as a galley slave in the Columbia eight-oared shell.”
How did the sparring session go?
“I knew the sensation of being stalked and pursued by a relentless professional whose trade and business it was to injure men,” Gallico recounted. “I saw the quick flash of the brown forearm that precedes the stunning shock as a bony leather-bound fist lands on cheek or mouth. I learned too that, as the soldier never hears the bullet that kills him, so does the fighter rarely, if ever, see the punch that tumbles blackness over him like a mantle with a tearing rip as though the roof of his skull were exploding and robs him of his senses. There was just that – a ripping in my head, then a sudden blackness, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting on the canvas with my legs collapsed under me. I held on to the floor with both hands because the ring and the audience outside were making a complete clockwise revolution, came to a stop, and then went back again counterclockwise. When it was over, I escaped through the ropes, shaking, bleeding a little from the mouth with a vicious throbbing in my head.”
Thereafter, Gallico ruefully acknowledged, “A man who has been tapped on the chin with five fingers wrapped up in a leather boxing glove and propelled by the arm of an expert knows more about that particular sensation than one who has not.”
Gallico left the Daily News in 1936 to become a fulltime fiction writer. His goodbye to the world he’d previously known came in a series of essays published first in magazines and then in book form under the title A Farewell to Sport (Alfred A. Knopf, 1938). He lived for much of the next few decades in South Devonshire, England, and later in Mexico, Lichtenstein, Monaco, and France. He married and divorced four times (twice to baronesses).
Gallico’s writing about boxing was on a par with the best of what he wrote. He was able to distill the sweet science to its gritty essence. Eight decades later, many of his observations still ring true:
* “A fight is a fight, and there is rarely anything pretty about it. When the gong is struck, two men are unleashed against one another for purposes of destruction. Rules change and vary, but the basic idea remains the same. Two men are trying to do to one another as much injury and damage as they possibly can within an allotted time.”
* “I like my prizefighters mean. Cruelty and absolute lack of mercy are an essential quality in every successful prizefighter. I have never known one who wasn’t ruthless and amoral. It is childish to believe that this can be put on and off like a mantle. The gentle lambs outside the ropes are never much good within. Much later, when they are older and retire from the ring, the mean streak may become more deeply submerged. But the life that a prizefighter lives is hardly conducive to softening his character. His brutality and viciousness are carefully cultivated.”
* “If there are any friendships among fighters, they manage to cease inside the ropes. Men whale away at one another with complete and unmerciful ferocity while the fight lasts, afterwards grin at one another through blood and sweat, shake hands, and that is that. I have asked many fighters how they felt about this, how they could bring themselves to cripple a friend and knock him out if they managed to get him going. None of them were able to give me an intelligent answer or any kind of answer beyond, ‘I dunno. It’s different when you’re in the ring. We got no hard feelings afterwards.’ Well, I suppose the manufacturer or merchant cuts his pal’s throat just as cold-bloodedly with a ‘Sorry! Business, you know.’”
* “By the nature of your work [as a sportswriter], you know both men involved intimately. In a way, you are fond of them, perhaps fonder of one than the other. It is a dangerous business on which they are about to embark. It may result in disfigurement, blindness, even death, not to mention the financial importance to both parties. It is a good deal like having an appointment to go see a friend have an accident.”
* “The changes worked in fine-looking clear-eyed youngsters who adopt the ring as a profession are sometimes shocking to observe. You see them at the start, fresh and unmarked, and you live through their gradual disintegration. The knotted ears and the smashed noses are the least of their injuries. Their lips begin to thicken and their eyes seem to sink deeper and deeper into the cavernous ridges above them, ridges that are thickened and scarred from battle. Many of them acquire little nervous tics. Their voices change to husky half-intelligible whispers. Their walk is affected. And worst of all, sometimes they cannot remember or they say queer things. The industry laughs and says: ‘Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s punchy.’”
Gallico didn’t like fight managers. He called them “the most shameless rapacious, and unmoral crew in the world,” adding, “The only pity is that the fight manager cannot be more decent and honest with his bum and content himself with cheating his rivals in business. A few of the men who own and operate stables of fighters are decent and reputable, but the majority are not. Some of the sheer cold-blooded heartlessness shown by so-called human beings who have the health, sanity, and lives of other human beings in their charge is sickening. A manager will coddle and protect a champion or money-making fighter because he is his meal-ticket and a valuable piece of property which he doesn’t want to see damaged because he will be out-of-pocket. But he will send a run-of-the-mill club fighter out round after round, cut, dazed, semi-conscious, bleeding badly from wounds, to take a further beating or get knocked out. If there is any feeling of humanity or mercy in their dark souls, they keep it for themselves.”
A Farewell to Sport also offers Gallico’s take on some of the heavyweight champions of his time. Regarding Gene Tunney, he wrote, “When the typical denizen of the fight world said bitterly, ‘Tunney thinks we’re not good enough for him,’ he was quite right. It was exactly what Tunney thought. And they weren’t good enough either because it doesn’t take much to be better than the average citizen of Cauliflower Alley. No one will ever get to the top of a game as essentially foul and unprincipled as prizefighting with absolutely clean hands. Tunney was in many ways an idealist. He was always ambitious and preferred the company of pleasant people to toughs. But he had the great strength of character to take that little stroll through the sewer when there was no other way.”
As for Primo Carnera, who rode a trail of fixed fights to the heavyweight championship of the world, Gallico opined, “There is probably no more scandalous, pitiful, incredible story in all the record of these last mad sports years than the tale of the living giant, who was made into a prizefighter and developed into the heavyweight champion of the world by a group of American gangsters. Then, when his usefulness as a meal ticket was outlived, he was discarded. This unfortunate pituitary case was a poor simple-minded peasant by the name of Primo Carnera, the first son of a stone-cutter of Sequals, Italy. He stood six feet seven inches in height and weighed two hundred and sixty-eight pounds. Yet never in his life was he anything more than a freak and a fourth-rater at prizefighting. He was born far too late. He belonged to the twelfth or thirteenth century, when he would have been a man at arms and a famous fellow with mace and halberd, pike or bill. At least he would have fought nobly and to the limit of his great strength, properly armed, because Carnera was a courageous fellow to the limit of his endurance. In those days, he would have won honor afield and would have gotten himself decently killed or, surviving, would have been retired by his feudal lord to round out his days and talk over the old brave fights. The carrion birds that fed upon this poor, big, dumb man picked him clean. They left him nothing, not even his pride and his self-respect. That was probably the cruelest thing of all.”
Gallico also embraced humor in his writing.
“Max Baer,” he observed, “achieved something notable when he sold more than one hundred percent of himself to various parties in return for ready cash. He excused himself on grounds that he thought he owned a thousand percent of himself.”
The most lyrical boxing writing in A Farewell to Sport is reserved for Jack Dempsey:
* “He began as a rough tough nobody, a hard, mean, life-battered hobo, a kid with little or no education, bitter, disillusioned, restless, and vicious, digging food out of an equally hard rough world in which there was never any softness or decency, a tramp, a bum, and a misfit at heart.”
* “Dempsey looked the part [of a fighter]. He had dark eyes, blue-black hair, the wide but sharply sloping shoulders of the puncher, a slim waist, and fine symmetrical legs. His weaving shuffling style of approach was drama in itself and suggested the stalking of a jungle animal.”
* “Dempsey had a valuable and unimited fund of natural cruelty, tremendous courage, speed and determination, and good hitting powers. He was never a good boxer and had little or no defense. His protection was aggression. Dempsey never boxed anybody. When the bell rang, he ran out and began to attack his opponent, and he never stopped attacking him, trying to batter him to the floor until the bell ended the round.”
* “Dempsey seemed to have a constant bottomless well of cold fury somewhere close to his throat. He had a smouldering truculence on his face and hatred in his eyes. He was utterly without mercy or pity, asked no quarter, gave none. He would do anything he could get away with, fair or foul, to win. He is accused by many of having been a foul fighter. Dempsey himself never denied it. Either it was a fight or it wasn’t. He had no advantage or protective armor that was denied his opponent.”
Gallico didn’t always get things right. He couldn’t shake the image of Joe Louis’s twelfth-round stoppage at the hands of Max Schmeling in 1936 from his mind. Writing after The Brown Bomber dethroned James Braddock to claim the heavyweight crown (but before Louis-Schmeling II), Gallico proclaimed, “Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship of the world when he was on a downgrade. He will not hold it long.”
[Photo credit: Mearsons Online]
All of us make mistakes.
A Farewell to Sport is beautifully written and a tribute to the craft of sportswriting. The athletes that Gallico wrote about meant a great deal to him, as he acknowledged in saying goodbye:
“Sportwriting has been an old and good friend and companion to me. One does not barge ruthlessly out of such a friendship. Rather, one lingers a little over the good-bye, sometimes even a little reluctant to leave, and uncertain, turning back as some old well-loved incident is remembered, calling up again the picture of vanished friends, having one’s last say, lingering as long as one dares before that final irrevocable shutting of the door.”