There is a sensation in reading Manly Art: They Can RunBut They Can't Hide, a new compilation of George Kimball's recent boxing writing, of attending a concentrated clinic on the topic, delivered by one of its most prolific, best-regarded professors.
"Being a dinosaur in the business isn't something I waste a lot of time dwelling upon."
Kimball, the former Boston Herald beat writer, splits time between sharp criticism and sober analysis. He feints and bobs as always, and his facility in hacking through hype to access the reality below hits you like a Pacquiao cross. To wit: "Cotto's bewildered face by the time it was stopped in the eleventh round looked like that of a man who'd been bludgeoned with the business end of a claw hammer."
And for good measure: "Monet displayed more unbridled aggression approaching a lily pond with a watercolor brush in his hand than has Foreman in some of his masterpieces There must be a dozen rabbis in New York that punch harder than Yuri Foreman."
Kimball, so devoted to chronicling the ring, has done well in ignoring the classical tenets of retirement, which, nominally, he has been enjoying since 2005. Manly Art is being released in tandem with At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, an anthology which he co-edited with John Schulian (his previous effort, Four Kings, a meditative history of the swirl in which the boxers Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Durán shared prominence, was the subject of Kimball's previous Gelf appearance). Which is an appropriate progression for Kimball. This is a man, after all, in whose home you can find pictures of Muhammad Ali holding Kimball's now-grown children poolside at Caesars. And he is continuing to write while fighting terminal cancer; his prognosis in 2008 gave him six weeks to two years.In this interview, conducted by email and edited for length and clarity, Kimball tells Gelf why boxing lends itself to storytelling like no other sport, why the online medium suits him, and what The Fighter got wrong.
Gelf Magazine: What's the state of boxing in early 2011, George?
George Kimball: It almost frighteningly resembles the state of boxing in early 2010, alas. The heavyweight championship is in the hands of the same three guys, none of them Americans, with no American boxer in sight capable of altering that. Tomasz Adamek is getting ready to fight another overweight heavyweight, HBO and Golden Boy are about to sell you another Bernard Hopkins fight, Showtime is still bravely plodding ahead with its super-middleweight tournament, Manny Pacquiao is about to make another $20 or $30 million for fighting a probably-unworthy opponent, and BoxRec still ranks Floyd Mayweather the world's best boxer even though he hasn't, you know, boxed for almost a year. Is this like Groundhog Day, or what?Gelf Magazine: Many of the pieces culled in this collection focus on a single boxer, but really work to evoke a sense of time and place. What is it about boxing that lends itself to such storytellingsuch outsize drama on the level of the individualin the way that few other sports do?
George Kimball: Allow me to quote from Colum McCann's foreword to the other book I have out nowAt The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, which John Schulian and I edited and the Library of America published:
Language allows the experience, and what you have with a fight is what you have with writing, and they each become metaphors for each otherthe ring, the page; the punch, the word; the choreography, the keyboard; the feint, the suggestion; the bucket, the wastebasket; the sweat, the edit; the pretender, the critic; the bell, the deadline. There's the showoff shuffle, the head spin, the mingled blood on your gloves, the spitting your teeth up at the end of the day.
It may be oversimplifying things to point out that it is such an individual pursuit. There are no teammates to lift you up or let you down, and of course there's the usually unspoken but ever-present element of danger in boxing that makes a term like "courage" more literal than in its application to other sports. Read, for instance, Mark Kram on the Thrilla in Manila and you might never again be tempted to write about a golfer "bravely holing a four-foot putt."
I suppose that besides boxing and writing there are other things like, say, bullfighting in which those same elements are manifest, but the writer who could get inside the head of the bull hasn't yet been invented, so the dramatic analysis in that case is going to be pretty one-sided.
George Kimball: Absolutely. For one thing, when you're writing for a boxing website, say, you can sort of assume a certain degree of sophistication about the sport on the part of the reader that might not be the case with a newspaper reader, where you necessarily have to provide more background and explanation. And of course with a paper, you're usually limited for space. Online, you can go long when the subject merits it. And deadlines can be a bit more relaxed. You don't want to be an hour behind a competing website in getting your fight wrap posted, but you're not going to bring the printing presses to a screeching halt or send the Teamsters into overtime if you take an extra 10 or 15 minutes.
Gelf Magazine: In his foreword, Carlo Rotella writes that, as a boxing writer, you are the last of a certain kind of breed. Do you feel that way? Is it a weighty distinction?
George Kimball: I might be among the last, but I won't be the last man standing. Michael Katz has been at it even longer than I have, and there are still some pretty good boxing writers still working for newspapers who've been at it nearly as long as Katz and I have. I don't know that this is some kind of weighty responsibility. I do feel a certain nostalgia when I think about hanging with Pat Putnam and Eddie Schuyler and Katz at the Galleria Bar at Caesars and thinking that younger guys who cover fights today never get a chance to share that sort of camaraderie. But being a dinosaur in the business isn't something I waste a lot of time dwelling upon.
Gelf Magazine: Boxing continues to enjoy cinematic mintinglatest in The Fightereven as it loses luster as an American spectacle, or as the career of choice for young and hungry athletes. How do you explain this dichotomy?
George Kimball: Don't even get me started on The Fighter. I covered pretty much Micky Ward's entire career. I'd have been much more comfortable with the film if they'd just changed the names and presented it as a work of fiction. There are so many things in the movie that didn't happen, or at least didn't happen the way they claimed they happened, and so many actual aspects of Micky's careerthe three Gatti fights, for instancethat did happen but aren't in the movie that it was fraudulent, in my view. It was at the very least bad history. Claiming it was a true story, or even "based on a true story," is ridiculous. The worst part of it is that most moviegoers now think Micky actually did win a world titlethe welterweight title, yetin the Shea Neary fight.
To me, the most salient aspect of Ward's career was the fact that he is so universally respected as a blue-collar, blood-and-guts fighter despite the fact that he lost the only world-title fight he was ever in.
Gelf Magazine: You wrote quite unfavorably of the impossibly-hyped Cotto-Foreman Yankee Stadium bout. Was the anticlimax of the fight a product of that hype, do you think?
George Kimball: Inevitably so. That fight wasn't the worst mismatch of the yearin fact, it may not have been the worst mismatch of the monthbut the way they tried to sell it, and the stadium, like it was the eighth wonder of the world, did sort of insult your intelligence. As wretched a job as Arthur Mercante Jr. did that night, both writers and the promoter should probably be thankful for it. It was outrageous enough that it gave us something interesting to write about a fight that otherwise wasn't terribly interesting at all, and from Bob Arum's perspective, the referee's performance commanded so much of the focus that nobody paid much attention to what a bill of goods the public (and, deservedly, the Yankees) had been sold.
Gelf Magazine: Could it still be considered a boon for the sport on the whole, for one match to have achieved that level of attention?
George Kimball: Sure, but as overhyped as it was, this fight was treated as a much bigger deal in New York than it was elsewhere. Though they were no more competitive than Cotto-Foreman was, Pacquiao's two fights in Cowboys Stadium the same year (2010) got a lot more coverage nationally. New York sportswriters get a bit carried away with themselves when it comes to things like the new Yankee Stadium.