Truman Capote, a boxing fan himself, once said of Jack Kerouac’s free-wheeling style, “That isn’t writing at all, it’s typing.” I don’t agree with Capote’s assessment of Kerouac’s work, but the quote’s a good one and points to the difference between writing and apprentice writing. Go to any big-time fight and you’ll see rows and rows of press. Most of the so-called writers are so busy talking they miss every nuance of the battles raging in front of them. Some of the so-called writers, fingers poised at their keyboards, pound out fight results with overwrought sentences full of over-worn adjectives. The few real writers are easy to spot. They’re not just watching; they’re observing. They’re writing between rounds, scribbling hard during the minute of rest so they’ll be free to observe when action resumes. Moments after the final bell rings, the typists press SEND. The real writers work late into the night, sometimes into the week, struggling, refining, until their art is worthy of boxing’s art. Springs Toledo’s superlative collection of fight essays The Gods of War is boxing writing.
The book is broken into three parts. In the first, titled Immortals, Toledo weaves history and culture and philosophy through fights and fighters, old and new. The stance of the Jews against the Romans at Masada works as a harbinger for Barney Ross’s final bout, a heroic stance (and he did stay standing) against the massacre named Henry Armstrong. The American Revolution works as a juxtaposition for our country’s less-than-rebellious crop of modern heavyweights. A discussion of man’s mortal coil serves to heighten the heroism of prizefighters, whose courage become contagious. And in this sport that’s more than sport, fighters are distinguished from all other athletes who “talk of sweat and tears but not blood.” Toledo punctuates this hard truth: “Strip away their size and ability to run and jump or hit a ball, ignore the bloated salary and celebrity, and something surprising might come into focus—their fields and courts are playgrounds.” In the squared circle, the canvas may give, but the stakes are too high for play.
In part two, The Liston Chronicles, Toledo describes the humanity of this often-vilified fighter, as well as his boxing acumen, pulverizing the misconception that Liston was a mere clubber. On The Big Bear’s loss to then Cassius Clay, Toledo writes, “Barbarosa, one of history’s great warriors, fell off his horse and drowned under the weight of his armor in a shallow river. Sonny’s fall was just as anticlimactic. It was downright meek.” Even war gods fall like mortals. Toledo goes on to dissect Liston’s style, putting him in hypothetical contests against heavyweight legends, making a strong case that despite his aberrant losses to Ali, Liston’s physicality (“The punches he landed downstairs on Leotis Martin sounded like bowling balls dropping on wet salami.”), skills (“At times Sonny’s skillful slips and counters could make James Toney raise an eyebrow.”), and ability to mask pain (“Blood poured like lava, but from the expression on Liston’s face, it looked like he was playing poker.”) would have posed dire problems for boxing’s biggest men. On Liston, as on all the practitioners he features, Toledo writes with respect and admiration and love. Yes, love—in these essays the writer is, thankfully, not ashamed to cover his keenly-observant journalistic eye with the lens of an adoring fan who recognizes boxing’s visceral and existential charms.
Part three comprises the bulk of the book. It’s Toledo’s top-ten countdown to the god of war. At the heart of Toledo’s list is the impossible-to-answer question, Who is the greatest? Toledo sets up a substantive scoring rubric with a nod to the intangibles, then provides an in-depth profile of each fighter. Other sports have quantifiable measurements by which to judge their heroes, but boxing’s various yardsticks are often more subjective (how can one calibrate will and heart, essential ingredients for the successful fighter), less definitive, and so more interesting. Beyond his skillfully-crunched numbers, Toledo understands how the interrogative trumps the declarative when ranking fighters. “The idea of boxing remains as pure as the idea of bravery. It remains as compelling as any collision with something at stake. It stirs questions.” The list of ten often surprises, always justifies. It sets a foundation for debate. It forces us to ask questions, and to question our own top-ten lists of mortals who achieved immortality when they laced on their gloves.
With The Gods of War, Springs Toledo joins the select group of real writers who understand boxing and elevate boxing to the height it deserves. Echoing playwright (and fight fan) Eugene O’Neill’s words about writing—“I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered.”—Toledo writes in his introduction, “And here we are, still squinting in the cheap seats hoping to see something sublime.” O’Neill stammered eloquently. Springs Toldeo squints like a marksman. His observations, set forth in powerful prose, open our eyes, helping us recognize the sublime in boxing, the sublime that’s always there, from the elegant simplicity of a perfectly-timed hook to the brutal complexities of epic wars waged by our greatest pugilists.
Adam Berlin is the author of the recently published boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). His other novels are The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits J Journal: New Writing on Justice. For more, please visit adamberlin.com.