The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside

The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside


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Weighing in with a balance of the visceral and the cerebral, boxing has attracted writers for millennia. Yet few of the writers drawn to it have truly known the sport—and most have never been in the ring. Moving beyond the typical sentimentality, romanticism, or cynicism common to writing on boxing, The Bittersweet Science is a collection of essays about boxing by contributors who are not only skilled writers but also have extensive firsthand experience at ringside and in the gym, the corner, and the ring itself.

Editors Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra have assembled a roster of fresh voices, ones that expand our understanding of the sport’s primal appeal. The contributors to The Bittersweet Science—journalists, fiction writers, fight people, and more—explore the fight world's many aspects, considering boxing as both craft and business, art form and subculture. From manager Charles Farrell’s unsentimental defense of fixing fights to former Golden Glover Sarah Deming’s complex profile of young Olympian Claressa Shields, this collection takes us right into the ring and makes us feel the stories of the people who are drawn to—or sometimes stuck in—the boxing world. We get close-up profiles of marquee attractions like Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr., as well as portraits of rising stars and compelling cornermen, along with first-person, hands-on accounts from fighters’ points of view. We are schooled in not only how to hit and be hit, but why and when to throw in the towel. We experience the intimate immediacy of ringside as well as the dim back rooms where the essentials come together. And we learn that for every champion there’s a regiment of journeymen, dabblers, and anglers for advantage, for every aspiring fighter, a veteran in painful decline.

Collectively, the perspectives in The Bittersweet Science offer a powerful in-depth picture of boxing, bobbing and weaving through the desires, delusions, and dreams of boxers, fans, and the cast of managers, trainers, promoters, and hangers-on who make up life in and around the ring.

Contributors: Robert Anasi, Brin-Jonathan Butler, Donovan Craig, Sarah Deming, Michael Ezra, Charles Farrell, Rafael Garcia, Gordon Marino, Louis Moore, Gary Lee Moser, Hamilton Nolan, Gabe Oppenheim, Carlo Rotella, Sam Sheridan, and Carl Weingarten.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226346205
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/06/2017
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 794,226
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Carlo Rotella is director of the American Studies Program at Boston College.  His books include Playing in Time:  Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories and Cut Time: An Education at the Fights, both also published by the University of Chicago Press. He writes for the New York Times Magazine, and he has been a regular op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe and radio commentator for WGBH. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, the Believer, Washington Post Magazine, and Best American Essays. Michael Ezra is professor of American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University. His books include Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon and The Economic Civil Rights Movement: African Americans and the Struggle for Economic Power. His work has been published by Deadspin, Al Jazeera, Politico, and the Guardian.

Read an Excerpt

The Bittersweet Science

Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside

By Carlo Rotella, Michael Ezra

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34620-5



Donovan Craig

People will tell you that fear and pain are the worst things you have to deal with in life, but this is wrong. Fear is energy. Fear can sharpen you, and people even get addicted to it. Pain also has its uses. It's the easiest thing in the world to understand, and because it's so clear, it's a powerful teacher. Sometimes, because people mistake pain for the valuable things it reveals, they will begin to look for it, especially if they think there's not enough of it in their lives.

The main danger, the most implacable adversary you face in this world, is not fear or pain but confusion. Nobody ever got addicted to being confused or sought it out for its own sake. But part of the danger of confusion is that people get used to being confused and eventually they forget what it feels like to be unconfused or if, in fact, they've ever seen clearly at all.

Confusion was my vocation for many years. I was a stockbroker, and back in 2000, during the last gasps of the dot-com bubble, I had a penthouse in downtown Atlanta that I couldn't afford, a wife I shouldn't have married, and a job I couldn't stand. Most people might once or twice in their lives become grimly aware that large impersonal forces control their destiny. I was reminded of this all day, every day, by the dozens of red, white, and green stock symbols blinking on the screen in my office. In addition, the business skewed all communication toward closing the sale, which means that it didn't matter what I said, just that I said it in the right tone of voice and to enough people.

I was a pretty good closer back in the day, but I began to realize that, although I spent most of my waking hours on the phone, I never talked to anybody about anything. I just kept going around and around with them. "Blah, blah, blah, fear and greed, yada yada," ask for the sale, "blah, blah, blah, you're going to miss it, yada yada," ask for the sale, etc. Over and over. The object was to keep them in a specific frame of mind until enough hot buttons got pushed or enough little bells rang that a switch in their mind flipped and they bought.

You could make a lot of money doing this, and it could also drive you a little crazy, make you a kind of highly functioning psychotic; that's what happened to me, at least. Eventually, I began to recognize the same manipulative games of persuasion I was playing on the phone at work were everywhere, pushing and pulling me the way I was pushing and pulling everybody else. In my heart of hearts, I considered myself a con man, and eventually the world felt like one huge con, a jabbering cloud of half-assed rhetoric, brute propaganda, and the lies and low cunning of the marketplace. All of it was for the sole purpose of chasing money, with that game being the biggest bamboozle of them all.

Thankfully, I lived within walking distance of the only honest place I knew, the boxing ring. There was a small gym run by a man named Johnny Gant, whose claim to fame was that he had once gone eight rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. Atlanta was a hotbed for boxing, and Johnny's gym was where everybody came to train. When I found out about it, I started going in after work and on Saturday mornings, and, although I had boxed during college, it was at Johnny's gym where I really learned what the sport of boxing was all about.

I started boxing late. I was almost eighteen when I had my first amateur match, but I'd been a fan my whole life. As a kid my great hero was Jack Dempsey; later I liked Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, and Julio Cesar Chavez. I always liked the fighters who were aggressive and indomitable. I grew up in a small town in South Georgia where nobody else cared about the sport and only a few people even had cable, so I followed boxing mainly by reading about it in books, magazines, and newspapers. It was easier to mythologize the sport back in those days and project what you wanted or needed onto your idols. While my friends wanted to throw touchdowns, hit home runs, or play in a band, I always looked up to boxers. I wanted to be tough, like the fighters I read about in The Ring magazine or An Illustrated History of Boxing, a beautiful, oversized book with giant photographs from all the great old fights. My most prized possession back in those days was a well-used paperback copy of Jack Dempsey's book Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense in which Dempsey explained the mechanics of punching, how to train your body to get the most power out of it, and how to always be on the attack, looking for the finish, even when defending. I read this book so many times that this last part became the closest thing I had to a worldview.

* * *

When the bell rings, anxiety disappears and you experience a sense of relief, a denouement long delayed, as societal constraints come off and you meet, maybe for the first time, your basic self. You get a similar sensation in a street fight, but usually a street fight is over so quickly that you don't have time to appreciate it. In a boxing match, and even more so in the many hours of sparring that fighters go through in the gym, you have time to appreciate what's going on and to understand the nature of physical violence and your reactions to it. I drank up my time in the gym. Outside the gym, I was an onlooker to my own life, swallowed up by the world. Inside Johnny's, it was different. There, I could see a clear and direct line between what I did and what was going on around me. Like Hamlet in reverse, when I boxed, the barriers between thought and action disappeared.

A good sparring partner is rugged and tough, has good stamina, and is just dangerous enough to keep the other fighter on his toes, but not so dangerous as to represent a real threat. I fit the bill, so I always got a lot of work when I hung around Johnny's gym. Over the years, I sparred with a lot of really good boxers and a few who were actually world class.

Two of the best fighters I trained with were rising stars when we started working together in the ring. O'Neil Bell was a cruiserweight with ten knockout wins in his ten pro fights. Steve Cunningham was the 178-pound national amateur champion who was about to turn pro. Because all of us were about the same weight, and I had a reputation around the gym as being a good worker, we three trained together frequently. It was hard keeping up with them, of course, but it made me feel good after a long day of self-imposed moral emasculations (guys in the gym would ask me what I did for a living and I would tell them, "Lie") to be able to hang in there with two legitimate up-and-comers. Plus, I took pride in feeling that I had pushed them a little, which I tried to do every time we were in the ring.

Bell fought like a miniature George Foreman, throwing heavy, clubbing punches that got harder to take the longer you were in there with him. Steve, by contrast, was all technique and physical grace. The trick with O'Neil was to keep him on his heels, because once he warmed up, he'd start killing you. With Steve, I always tried to keep him hemmed in a corner and crowd him in order to make it an in fight, where I had an advantage with my shorter arms and propensity to throw lots of hooks.

When they sparred each other, it was better than half the matches on TV. I'd tell people that I could see O'Neil and Steve fighting each other for a title one day. Although that never happened, they both became world champions. O'Neil even unified the cruiserweight title when he stopped Jean-Marc Mormeck, becoming only the only second man besides Evander Holyfield to hold all of the division's belts.

Sometimes people would see me working with the pros and ask me why I didn't go pro myself. I was making good money at the time and couldn't bring myself to stop just to box professionally, but I would fantasize about the idea, especially if I had just done well against somebody I knew was a good pro. An ancient trainer named Pops set me straight one day. I asked him after a particularly violent session with O'Neil whether or not he really thought I was any good. "Boy," he said, "you're good enough to get yourself hurt."

* * *

The most famous boxer I was ever up against in the ring is Roy Jones Jr., in 2006 as he was gearing up for a comeback fight against Prince Badi Ajamu. After dominating boxing and barely losing a round or even getting hit cleanly for fourteen years, Roy suffered two devastating one-punch knockouts in a row, first to Antonio Tarver, and then to Glen Johnson. Roy lost his reputation for being invulnerable, and now people were asking whether he was shot. It was one of the quickest turnarounds in the public perception of a fighter I can ever remember and offers a cautionary tale about what happens when people fetishize your talent.

I was surprised by how hard he hit. His punches were so crisp and sharp they felt like electric jolts, zzt, zzt, zzt, even when they landed on my arms. He never threw the jab and worked pretty much everything off the lead right hand; maybe one fighter in a thousand is able to pull this off. By the time I was in the ring with him, Roy's defensive reflexes had started to slow, but he still had supernatural offensive hand speed. He was so fast that I usually couldn't even see him start his punches and could only pick them up after he was pulling back his fist after he'd thrown a punch. It was useless to try to slip or dodge his shots, so all there was to do was keep a tight defense and try to block as many as I could with my arms and gloves. It was clear to me that Roy was a different animal than what I was used to and that I had no business in the ring with him. That's the only time I ever felt that way. Roy had a bad habit of letting himself get caught along the ropes, and with me it was no exception. Whenever I'd get him in the corner or along the ropes, I'd whale away with hooks to the body. One time he chortled out to the gym in his best Muhammad Ali impression, "Joe Frazier! This boy thinks he's a white Joe Frazier!" "Man," I thought, "I just got trash talked by Roy Jones Junior. Pretty cool."

Roy and I sparred on two separate days, and something very strange happened during those sessions. About three years beforehand, I had slipped a disk, and my lower back had bothered me off and on ever since. I'd gotten it under control by doing lots of core exercises and being sure to warm up whenever I did any kind of physical activity, but it would occasionally go out and really give me problems. About a minute into the first round, Roy hit me with a left hook to the body that was so sharp and accurate it made me do a quick, half-wincing semi-convulsion as I involuntarily jerked my upper body over to one side before recomposing my defense. After three rounds, when our sparring was done and I got out of the ring, I realized that Roy's body shot had thrown my back out again. The next time we sparred, I warmed up well and dosed up on Tylenol, but my back was still tricky. About a minute into the first round, he hit me with the same punch in the same place, and I had basically the same reaction. Except this time, when I got out of the ring, I realized that for the first time in three years my back didn't hurt at all, and it has never hurt since.

* * *

There's an old myth that some boxers like to get hit. I don't think this is the case. What they like is the ancient rush that one animal gets when it kills another. And this is so intense that they don't notice getting hit. Once someone experiences this, he becomes secure in his ability to take the other guy's best shot. Of course, it is a dangerous delusion, to feel that you can't be hurt. But it's an easy one to fall into when you've had a big strong man, a trained athlete, try as hard as he can to hurt you, and you realize that he hasn't.

Of course, as any fighter who hangs around long enough finds out, everyone can get caught. In twenty years, I've been hurt by three punches, and they were all the result of being overconfident. One was against a fighter named Walter. You hear about boxers who feel like they have bricks in their gloves? That was Walter, but he was very methodical and I could beat him to the punch all day long. One time, though, I got careless with Walter and walked into a right hand. My legs went stiff, and I toppled over like a statue forward into the ropes. I instantly bounced right back up, embarrassed and completely alert (sometimes a shot like that will actually wake you up). This was the only time I ever got dropped in sparring, and at the time it felt like the hardest punch I ever took.

Years ago, when I was a middleweight, I was sparring with a crude beginner named T. J. Wilson, who was about six feet five and 240 pounds, young and athletic. I was having my way with him when he suddenly did something I never expected: he switched his stance and hit me flush with a left. My knees buckled, which surprised me because it had never happened before.

The next thing I remember was hitting the heavy bag. I found out later that I hadn't gone down, that I had sparred another round with T. J., and that nobody in the gym had any idea I was even hurt. I'd gotten out of my sparring gear, into my bag gloves, and hit the bag for I don't know how many rounds before waking up. I never let my trainer know what had happened, but I did stop sparring with fighters who outweighed me by eighty pounds.

The third of the hardest punches I ever took was against a fighter named Ronald Cobb, who, like me, was an amateur light heavyweight out of Georgia. He had a reputation for knocking everybody out with a poleax of a right hand he threw with a shrug straight from the shoulder. When I fought him the first time, he hit me with everything he had and I didn't blink. In the fight, I was aggressive and had him hurt a time or two, but I was impatient, defaulting to brawl mode, and lost a close decision. After the fight, I was unimpressed with Cobb and his dreaded right. I didn't see what the big deal was about him. I felt like I should have knocked him out when I had him hurt and was disappointed that I hadn't. The next time we fought, I was even more determined to blow through him. During an exchange, I caught him with a clipping little hook, and he took a short stutter step back to the ropes. Here's what happened next as it went through my mind:

"He's hurt! Get this motherfucker ... Wow, what a nice pool. I love swimming. The sun feels so nice and warm and the water is wonderful. So crystal clear. Maybe I'll do a backstroke or even swim down to the bottom. How nice that I can do whichever one I want. I'm so free. Happy, happy, happy, yum, yum. Perfection. Life is wonderful. Hold on, something's not quite right. How did I get here? This is all beautiful, but wasn't I just doing something else? What was it? OH SHIT!"

I came to as the referee was standing over me waving the fight off. I said that Walter's felt like the hardest punch I ever took. The really hard ones, the ones like Ronald Cobb's right hand, you don't feel at all.

* * *

Here is some of what I learned about how to fight over the years. The three basic principles of effective punching are deception, effective weight transference, and placement. Ideally, a blow will utilize all three, but any one of these is enough to knock somebody out.

If a man is expecting to get hit, if he can see the punch coming and steel himself to its impact, then it's unlikely the blow will knock him out. It's better to hit a man with a lighter punch that he doesn't see coming than a heavier shot that he's prepared for.

A good way of deceiving your opponent as to the timing and placement of a blow is to "hide" the punch inside a series of lighter shots. Keep your hands up and chin down, tucked behind the lead shoulder, and commit to starting and finishing exchanges with your opponent. It's within these exchanges that most damage is done in the ring, especially if you are the shorter man. Tall or short, whether you have reach or not, the great nullifier of an opponent's superior hand speed is a consistent and steady jab.

By feinting to one part of the body and throwing to another you can catch your opponent unaware or make him defend the wrong part of himself. Feinting should be done with the shoulders and head and not just the arms.

Body punching both drains your opponent and makes feints more effective. In addition to setting up a knockout blow to the chin with a sustained body attack, a rarer and more elegant knockout technique is to feint to the head and deliver a well-placed and accurate left hook to the opponent's liver when he doesn't expect it. It's also effective to throw a light combination to the head, getting your opponent to raise his guard, and then shoot a quick, precise left hook touching the short ribs just under the chest, as Bernard Hopkins did to finish Oscar De La Hoya. This shot, when landed correctly, is the single most unpleasant blow to take and is the only punch that I know of that is so incapacitating it will make a trained professional quit.


Excerpted from The Bittersweet Science by Carlo Rotella, Michael Ezra. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Bittersweetness, Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra
Good Enough to Get Hurt, Donovan Craig
Throwing in the Towel, Gordon Marino
The Real Million Dollar Baby, Sarah Deming
Why I Fixed Fights, Charles Farrell
Plaster of Torrance: Unwrapping the Meaning of Antonio Margarito, Rafael Garcia
Darius, Hamilton Nolan
Post-Primes and Career Arcs: Navigating Boxing’s All-Time Rankings, Michael Ezra
Bernard Hopkins, Prefight and Postfight, Carlo Rotella
Toxic Non-Avengers: Boxing’s Quarter Century of Acceptable Losses, Gary Lee Moser
What Boxing Is For, Sam Sheridan
The Myth of Dempsey-Wills, Carl Weingarten
My First Stripe, Robert Anasi
Jimmy Bivins and the Duration Championship, Louis Moore
The Masters of Stylishness, Gabe Oppenheim
Roy Jones Jr.’s Long Good-Bye, Brin-Jonathan Butler

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