In no small way thanks to the gobalisation of media coverage, there’s an intense fascination for sport (less as a personal physical activity and more as a spectator activity). It’s an embedded part of the culture that we should exercise and when young, show off our sculpted bodies (when we have them). This is translated into athletic performance where the best push the limits and achieve results we ordinary folk can only dream about. We see all life captured in the games we play, no matter what the level. Around the local pitch or court, we play among ourselves or watch the people we know, vicariously savouring the victories and enduring the defeats. This doesn’t change when we watch national or international sport. It’s still “people” playing — they’re just better trained and more skillful. Of course it’s not all about the sport. There’s often money at stake. Winners pick up salaries or prize money, the promoters and stadium owners want their cut, the punters bet on the outcomes. And when you have so much money involved at a national or international level, you can find corruption. What was pure and innocent at an amateur level gets involved with drugs to enhance performance and bribery to throw a match. What was beautiful becomes sullied.
I cut my teeth on stories like “The Croxley Master” by Arthur Conan Doyle and “Fifty Grand” by Ernest Hemingway. There’s a fairly common thread running through such stories that while the majority of the fighters, their trainers and the rest of the team are honest, there can be elements of trickery involved. In Conan Doyle’s story, the qualified doctor is trying to trap his young medical student into working for a pittance as the Master’s family offers covert support, while betting patterns shift rapidly in Hemingway’s story as one fighter aims to throw a fight. I suppose the drive to cheat comes from desperation or greed. Fighters may have put in all the hard work but find the long-term goals elusive. Perhaps they hope they can shade the odds a little in their favour if they bend the rules. Million Dollar Baby by F X Toole (pseudonym of Jerry Boyd) is a blast-from-the-past collection courtesy of Open Road Media. Although one of the stories is specific to a particular moment in history, the rest have a timeless quality and are as fresh today as the days the were written. There are also non-fiction elements that illuminate the darkness hidden from view in the gyms and locker rooms.
In “The Monkey Look” we’re into the eternal problem of how you should react as a victim of dishonesty. Here a cut man who works wonders in the corner finds himself being stiffed on his percentage fee. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Hoolie claims the fight with Big Willie is only worth fifty thousand. That matches us up to the Hemingway in spirit although there’s a lot more money at stake in this fight, both directly and indirectly. Hoolie has already proved unreliable and he’s taking a big risk for a short-term gain in trying to scam an experienced man. It’s never the right way in business, even when it’s the fight business.
“Black Jew” is a delightful story about a Jewish promoter who sets up a fight between his own young fighter and an older man who’s said to be washed up. To encourage the opponent to lose, he’s put in a scruffy motel where the central heating is dysfunctional and the food no better than you get in jail. The final indignity for the opponent is being denied training time. The promoter sets up a medical and pays the driver to take the scenic route. Not surprisingly, this works like negative psychology and the opponent gets the notion he should maybe beat the shit out of this young hopeful. Except, to give himself the energy, he’s going to have to pay out of his own pocket to get something decent to eat. That $15.90 (plus taxes) really rankles.
“Million $$$ Baby” is the basis of the film Million Dollar Baby (2004) featuring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank. The moral dilemma is sharply laid out but, perhaps because of the performances, I think the emotional power of the film is greater. This is not taking anything away from the story. There’s enough in the opening half to set up the pay-off, but seeing the joy of the fights balances out the terrible nature of the aftermath. “Frozen Water” is the second major strand in the film Million Dollar Baby as Danger (Jay Baruchel) comes into the gym to play out his fantasy of being a boxer. This is a tragic, tear-jerking story about the inadequacy of a bully who has no idea how strongly protective the gym owner will be if he picks on Danger. This is as affecting on the page as it was in the film.
“Fightin in Philly” is a story about living with the fix. Every objective observer around the ring can see that your fighter won, but when the judges have taken the money, the verdict goes the wrong way. And not just by a small margin. By an insulting margin. That’s when it’s hard. You take what little money comes your way for losing and swallow your pride. Yet, in the quiet years of retirement, there will be times when you can feel proud of the way you lost, how you gave better than you got and were only beaten by the money. “Rope Burns” is a longer piece which is set in LA at the time the police were caught on video beating Rodney King. It nicely captures the tension before and immediately after the verdict. It shows the senselessness of violence and the potential strength in the community to deal with its problems. “Holy Man” charts the rise and fall of a Great White Hope who rises, gets into alcohol and drugs, then gets serious about drying out and commits to making it to the Big Time. “Midnight Emissions” should have been edited down to the core story which is very good. This would have removed the repetitive passages on training heavyweights.
Overall, Million Dollar Baby is an excellent collection of boxing-related thriller stories, all told in crisp, no-nonsense prose that gets to the point with the power of an uppercut.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Here’s a sample for you to read: Million Dollar Baby by F.X. Toole: “Training a Heavyweight”.