Second Look Books: Sparring With Hemingway by Bud Schulberg (Ivan R. Dee, $25). This book review was first published in October, 1995.

“There are those who see boxing as a blood spectacle, deeply and fundamentally wrong, a sport that encourages one man to beat and harm another for money.”

Budd Schulberg is almost certainly an American original. His “old man”, B.P. Schulberg, helped create the movies around the turn of the century, along with other immigrants like Adolph Zukor and Louis B. Mayer, and as an aficionado of the fights, the “old man” inculcated his young son to the rough-and-tumble of the New York and then Los Angeles boxing scene in the 1920’s.  As he grew older, Schulberg turned naturally to writing, first as a screenwriter for such notable films as “The Harder They Fall” and the classic “On the Waterfront”. His novels include “What Makes Sammy Run?” and “The Disenchanted”. For many years Schulberg plied the journalism trade, writing for many fight magazines, periodicals, and regularly for New York Newsday.

“Sparring With Hemingway”, the present collection, offers about two dozen pieces of journalism written over a term of 40 or so years, pieces that appeared first in such diverse forms as Esquire Magazine, TV Guide and Boxing Illustrated. Some of the pieces, such as the longish ‘Sparring With Hemingway’, are fascinating, well written and universal in appeal.

Others reach us through their popular subjects such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Archie Moore and many of the legendary heavyweight champions of by-gone days such as Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. A few of the pieces are “day before the fight” toss-offs that read as if they were written hurriedly and under deadline, one-cigar and out the door. But for anyone interested in boxing, its history, lore, personalities and controversies, “Sparring With Hemingway” is must reading.  It is Schulberg’s first thesis that writers and boxing are naturally drawn to one another. He first pondered this connection as he met Norman Mailer in a bar at the downtown Montreal headquarters of Sugar Ray Leonard, then counting down to his crucial welterweight battle with Roberto Duran.  The marriage of boxing and literature, in America at least, took place as early as Jack London, who wrote racist tracts for dozens of eastern journals. Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway polished the form, and some of Hemingways’s best short stories involve boxing and boxers.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the English had a pure monopoly on both boxing and its literature, until being dethroned by a burly young America with its racist eye on Jack Johnson. When the white world threw Jim Jeffries at Johnson in Reno, Nevada, all the writers and celebrities of the day were there to watch, and the American national waited breathlessly for word that the crown in boxing would be worn again by a white man. Alas, Johnson badly mauled the aging Jeffries, toying with him, taunting him, punishing him with mirthful anger. Jack London was disgusted.  And thus the issue of race and ethnicity enters the ring. Several of Schulberg’s pieces take account of these weighty matters, and provide some of the most interesting reading in the book. In ‘White, Black and Other Hopes,’ ‘The Heavyweight Championship’ and ‘The Chinese Boxes of Muhammad Ali,’ Schulberg examines the relationship of society itself to the ring and the structure of classes in America that make the sport of boxing so alluring to the poor, the immigrant, the “outsider”.

It is poignant to see Schulberg, first in the early 1960’s, regarding the young Cassius Clay with a wary eye, mistrustful of the young black man’s “style,” his haughty ego, his self-mocking humor and his grace. By the 1970s, when the American government, deeply involved in a war in Asia, stripped Ali of his civil rights, leading to the loss of his rightful heavyweight crown, Schulberg has changed sides. He’s with Ali now. Tracking the movement of the great boxing writer is one of the most dramatic moments in the book.

And, finally, (and always and forever), there is the matter of the morality of the sport itself. There are those who see boxing as a blood spectacle, deeply and fundamentally wrong, a sport that encourages one man to beat and harm another for money. And there are those, this writer included, who love the sport because it involves two finely trained athletes in a supreme test of their skill, spirit and courage, fought under rules of ultimate restraint, and suggesting the deep tones of existence itself, with all its struggle, ferocity and perseverance.  There is nothing to suggest that this moral question will ever be truly resolved. As with most “insoluble” moral questions, the arguments persist, cradled in the ambiguity of the situation itself. Spectacles like the recent Tyson-McNeeley engagement, 89 seconds of multimillion-dollar farce, suggest that the game is sick. The truly great fights, The Sugar Ray-Tommy Hearnes slugfests, the Ali-Frazier battles, and the many great champs of the 1950s so aptly described by Schulberg, testify to the greatness of the sport in the face of one farce.

All this brings to mind the time I was living in Miami, a good fight town. I went to fights at the Civic Center Arena near downtown, catching good lighter weight boxers, and a few world-class matches. One night Carlos Monzon, the great Argentine middleweight, was set to fight the Mexican champion, a pretty good boy all right, a boy who could have beaten anybody in his path in North America, but who was stepping up in class. The arena was crowded and smoky and there were contingents of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Panamanians, and Cuban-Americans, along with a few Argentines in for the show. If you kept a sharp eye, you could spot a few Joisey types with their blonde bimbo girlfriends decked out in gold jewelry and diamonds. Carlos came out and showed his stuff to the boy from Mexico for two rounds, then started to box in the third, and then to slug in the fourth and took the kid out with a great combination.

It was a night to love, a night I’ll never forget. One can only image what it would have been like to see Benny Leonard or Kid Gavilan or Ezzard Charles on a good night. And I’ll never forget the night my uncle took me to Floyd Patterson’s training gym in Oceanside, California, where the champ was getting ready for Ingmar Johansen. Boxing is like that, a deep charge of experience.  Schuldberg’s book brings it all back home.