All posts by David Curcio

Ali’s Last Fight

Drama in the Bahamas: Ali’s Last Fight

by Dave Hannigan
Sports Publishing, 2016

reviewed by David Curcio

51bn64anucl-_sx329_bo1204203200_In Drama in the Bahamas: Ali’s Last Fight, Dave Hannigan eschews the usual narratives that dominate the literature on Ali, generally comprised of sycophantic biography, vilifying exposé, or exhaustive, blow-by-blow accounts of Ali’s most famous bouts. Instead, he turns his attention to the swift, ignominious (and unnecessary) decline of this once-towering figure while subtly laying down the gauntlet (especially to fans of the current boxing scene) in the shape of an indictment of the sport in general. Since its inception over a century ago, boxing has been under various forms of scrutiny, with state commissions banning, reinstating, and amending its legality (more often due to financial and legal concerns than for the protection of the fighters). But the

brain trauma caused by the sport can no longer be ignored

brain trauma caused by the sport can no longer be ignored Muhammad Ali has come to exemplify the traumatic brain injury brought on by a game in which the goal is to render one’s opponent unconscious, or at least knock him down with enough force that he is unable to stand up. Despite Ali’s remarkable ability to absorb blows, the repeated, brain-addling blows to the head he received over the course of his twenty year career and sixty one fights number in the tens of thousands.

The book starts out with Ali’s loss in 1980 to Larry Holmes. At 38, he had grown soft, and was already showing signs of Parkinson’s Syndrome (different from Parkinson’s Disease but still diminishing to motor-function) and what is broadly classified as Dementia Pugilistica. He frequently slurred his speech, his movements were slower – this lean machine who averaged around 215 pounds in his prime was into the mid 230s. The fight was a devastating spectacle. Ali moved as if in slow motion, his punches lacking all their previous power. The speed and reflexes that, more than anything, had made him a great fighter had vanished. In the words of Mark Kram, Ali had fallen to “embodying the remains of a will never before seen in the ring, a will that had carried himself so far – and now surely too far.” Ali lost by a TKO when his trainer, Angelo Dundee, refused to let his fighter answer the bell for the eleventh round.

Even the World Boxing Commission wanted him to stop fighting, going so far as attempting to revoke his fighting license in Nevada and New York. Even England refused to sanction another Ali fight as the British Boxing Board did not want one of its fighters to face the washed up ex-champ. But Ali wanted a rematch. “I’m a long way from a shambling wreck,” he told the BBC before delivering a poem in the form of a challenge to Holmes that we will never hear as it was so slurred that the BBC opted not to air it.

The book drives the message home, in no uncertain terms, how badly the public were ready for an Ali retirement – sportscasters, writers, friends, even his wife pleaded with him both publicly and privately to call it quits. For fear of being party to what would surely be the his final downfall, no promoter wanted any part of the spent fighter. Then a Muslim by the name of James X Cornelius stepped in. His resume was not impressive: complete unfamiliarity with the fight game and deep in debt to boot with the reputation of an untrustworthy charlatan with an FBI warrant out for his arrest. But he was certain he could make the fight happen in the newly sovereign islands of the Bahamas.

aliberbick94xu7The fighter chosen as Ali’s opponent was Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican who came to America by way of U.S. employment on the military base at Guantanamo Bay. Details of his childhood, including his year of birth, are murky. We do know he was a deeply religious man who claimed to have had “visions” by the age of sixteen, preferring to return to his room after fights to settle in with his bible than to celebrate with the usual misbehaving. He learned to box in Cuba and had his first professional fight in 1976, The manager Doc Kerr could see through his powder puff punching and poor form and groomed him through the ranks to become the Canadian heavyweight champion. Upon his victory against John Tate as an undercard for the first Leonard-Duran match in 1980, he took a page from Ali’s book upon his victory, parading around the ring and demanding a shot at Holmes (who beat him in a unanimous decision a year and a half later). Still, Berbick had garnered enough credibility that Cornelius was able to orchestrate a fight with Ali in Nassau, Bahamas set for December 11, 1981, exactly eight months after Berbick’s defeat by Holmes, and fifteen months after Ali’s.

In comparing the two fighters, it should come as no surprise that Hannigan instills little menace in either.

If Berbick was more or less a lucky tomato can, Ali wasn’t much better at this point.

If Berbick was more or less a lucky tomato can, Ali wasn’t much better at this point. early as 1970 his long-time doctor Ferdie Pacheco was injecting Ali’s hands with cortisone and Xylacene before fights to dull the pain, and by 1977, could not condone sending the fighter back into the ring. After Ali’s fight with Earnie Shavers, Pacheco said of the bout “He won the fight, but his kidneys lost the decision.” When Ali asked him a year later why he said he was “all washed up,” Pacheco replied “I don’t. What I do say is you should not be fighting,” adding portentously to the promoter Bob Arum, “In two or three years we’ll see what the Holmes fight did to his brain and kidneys. That’s when all the scar tissue in the brain will further erode his speech and balance.” X-rays discovered two years after the fact revealed other symptoms, including an enlarged third ventricle. Ali found a new doctor named Harry Demopoulis who would provide him with a glowing bill of health.

The setting of the Bahamas did not seem to motivate either fighter. Neither were particularly diligent about training: Ali was down to a third of his usual roadwork and sparring, instead enjoying the lax atmosphere of his camp while the notoriously undisciplined Berbick was referred to more than once by the press as a bum and a tomato can. Despite the idyllic island setting, promotion became a nightmare when Cornelius was unable to come up with the cash for Ali’s advance of a mere $100,000. It was time for Don King to step in, who departed for the Bahamas post haste.

The frustration and hesitant support from Ali’s corner can be positively painful to read about. Angelo Dundee, out of fealty or nostalgia (who can say?) believed that, while his legwork was gone and Ali was “only half of what he used to be… half is good enough to beat Berbick.” He added that money held no interest to the fighter. This was his way of erasing the terrible specter of the Holmes fight that continued to haunt him. Dubbed by Bert Sugar as “The Trauma in the Bahamas,” the fight was fast approaching, and Ali began using Thomas Hearns (one of the undercards) as a sparring partner. Hearns spoke with guarded confidence of Ali’s abilities, though other attendees of the sessions were less generous. A wag from NBC quipped, “He floated like an anchor and stung like a moth”; a reporter from the Montreal Gazette described his coverage as a “death watch”; Ray Arcel called it “a damn shame”, promoter Dan Duva referred to it as “a disgrace”; and even Don King said “As a fan and a friend, I’d rather he didn’t [fight].” The two fighters, however, saw it as a win-win prospect. Berbick believed that, win or lose, the fight would elevate his status and credibly with the boxing world. Ali, meandering in non-sequiturs during press conferences, generally concluded with a declaration that the fight was a means of paying homage to Allah.

Cornelius found help from a wealthy American backer with deep ties to the Bahamas through a proposed casino and a lucrative money-laundering scheme named Victor Sayyah to put up the $450,000 he believed was sufficient to move forward without King’s intervention. But as fight day arrived, Berbick was still owed his money, as were judges who flew to the Bahamas on their own dime. The fighters, including the undercards, expressed outrage over the organizers’ failure to attend to the most basic aspects of preparation. They’d neglected to provide new gloves for the fighters and, having forgotten to acquire a bell, stole one off a nearby cow.

tumblr_mxo2wlexcg1rnxl9do1_1280The fight was both a disaster and dull at the same time. Berbick was almost twenty pounds lighter than Ali, who was unable to shed the weight he had planned and was a puffy 236. Slow and plodding, perhaps the fight’s most memorable moment was Berbick’s begging the referee to stop the fight in the middle of the seventh, so much punishment was he inflicting on the former champ. Ali lost by unanimous decision. When asked at a press conference if he believed his skills may have gone, he responded “They have gone. Not may have gone. They have gone.”
This was an admission of the diminishing skills all fighters experience, not an acknowledgenmnt of anything else being wrong. When Berbick was chewed up and spit out by a young Mike Tyson in 1996, he too had already begun showing signs of brain damage. He’d become erratic, fabricating bizarre and highly improbably excuses for his losses and contriving outlandish conspiracies against him. Turning to crime, including sexual battery, housebreaking, and larceny, he was summarily deported back to Jamaica where soon he was again back on the lam.

The story reads like a coda – which in a sense it is – not only to a great career and captivating personality, but to a time that served as a kind of wake-up call to the public. Like the recent Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, Hannigan’s book is exhaustive in its research, providing a narrative of a later chapter in the life of this twentieth century icon. Unfortunately, with Ali’s passing last June, it will be a hard sell to the casual fan who wants action, trash talk, and courageous stories of standing up to the system and who will probably grab more fawning reads such as David Remnick’s biography, Life Magazine tributes, or Joyce Carol Oates essays instead of facing the hard truths about how their favorite athlete arrived at the state in which he lived out his remaining thirty two years. But to anyone truly interested in the darker chapters of Ali’s life and the dangerous nature of his chosen field, it is essential reading.

Rocky III and the Beginning of the End

Rocky III

Reviewed by David Curcio

51cFkLvMlLLFrom the opening credit sequence, it is difficult not to get at least a little pumped for Rocky III, the first of a series of codas to Rocky’s fairy tale. In a recap of the climactic fight from Rocky II, the ravaged Balboa and Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) tumble to the canvas at the same moment, effectively knocking each other out (in slow motion, naturally). The fight has been long and bloody, the count’s begun… but wait! Rocky is stirring, he’s getting up! As the count reaches roughly nine and three quarters, he rises to his feet, wobbling, teetering, and the new Champ.

It is perhaps the oddest, most unlikely outcome to a fight ever conceived

It is perhaps the oddest, most unlikely outcome to a fight ever conceived- especially a fight that would have been stopped by any sensible referee several rounds prior. But with the 80s in high gear, this extended fairy tale had become a cartoon, and not meant to reflect anything resembling boxing or, for that matter, reality. Then a whistle of fireworks explodes into an unholy amalgamation of neon, halogen, and pyrotechnics to blast Rocky’s name across the screen, and with the first stabbing guitar strains of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger belting out the opening montage, who cares about reality? We’re in it for the long haul, already sucked into this fantasy world. Clips flash by as Rocky defends his title, knocking out challenger after challenger with wild, spastic roundhouses before taking dainty bows (or are they curtseys?) like a lumpy Lord Fauntleroy, his hair as quaffed as his bespectacled cop in Tango and Cash. But he is also seen advertising credit cards and automobiles, appearing on The Muppets, and generally screwing off to further endear himself to the public. Rocky is a brand name now. As his opponents fall, an ominously pissed-off figure in the personage of no less than Mr. T is seen storming out of the arena. Meet Clubber Lang, an up-and-comer training alone in his small apartment, running through the slums, and knocking out opponents only to push the ref aside and continue his beatings. (This perversion of the most basic rule of boxing could actually give a ten year old boy – take me for example – the notion that there is a semblance of realism here.) Nevertheless, while Rocky may still be on top, he’s slacking. He’s getting cocky, and by the fadeout of Survivor’s power-rock classic, the good guy and the bad guy are pretty well established. (Though even a ten year-old knows Rocky’s the good guy – his name is in the film’s title.)

Living in a mansion with Adrienne (played by Talia Shire and her perpetually worried brow) and her slovenly, hanger-on brother Paulie (Burt Young and his perpetual stubble), Rocky Balboa drives around his grounds in a fancy golf cart with his son as he blows through his money and brain cells (see Rocky V and Creed). This is less worrying in the moment as his speech and vocabulary have grown admirably since the last installment, possibly due to his newfound affluenza (or the haircut). While Burgess Meredith’s grizzled, snarling Micky still manages and (presumably) trains him, Rocky’s growing soft, mentally complacent, ready to gather his chips and leave the game. If only it were that easy.

But before the drama kicks in, some action please. A fundraising exhibition match that amounts to an ominous pitch for the then-emerging World Wrestling Federation (This is where the fight game is headed?, a little voice seems to whisper) introduces the public to the young Hulk Hogan. He is Thunderlips, a name that serves only to confirm the deliberate pansexual personae of WWE wrestlers, likely and perhaps unconsciously adapted from the original Liberace of wrestling, Gorgeous George (also a major influence on Muhammed Ali, who’s braggadocio and feminized descriptions of himself as “pretty” and “beautiful” made its way into modern wrestling and 80s glam rock). Presumably more entertaining than Hogan’s 2012 sex tape with Bubba the Love Sponge’s estranged wife Heather Clem (who must pick her men based on the absurdity of their names), the two toss each other around the ring as the Hulk’s media image is cemented. And we didn’t even know what Gawker was yet. Who would have guessed he would have his own eponymous children’s cereal within the year?

Balboa’s Cinderella-like (sorry Braddock) rise to fame leads to the unveiling of a life-size bronze sculpture in his own likeness at the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. While it has become a Philadelphia landmark, at the time it was a royal snub to the city’s own Joe Frazier, central to what many would consider boxing’s last great age and one year retired at the time of the film. Conceived of, written into the script, and paid for out-of-pocket by Sly “Mr. Modesty” Stallone himself, this makes it all less surprising. Moved and teary, he feigns unworthiness: “It’s beautiful,” he remarks (see previous sentence). In front of the adoring crowd, Rocky announces his plans to retire (the actor was already 36 at the time). Then a gravelly flow of angry heckling rises above the mob.

One cannot underestimate Mr. T’s popularity in the mid-80’s.

One cannot underestimate Mr. T’s popularity in the mid-80’s.Having cemented his tough-guy cred as bodyguard to Ali, Frazier, Leon Spinks, and others, Stallone offered him the role of Clubber Lang after seeing him on television’s “America’s Toughest Bouncer” ( a short-lived reality show that doesn’t even have its own wiki page). An early proponent of bling, mohawks, and feather earrings, he began his showbiz career as a villain, incorporating his catchphrase about pitying fools that was to become his staple as he remodeled himself as a friend to children through television appearances on kid’s prime time and anti-bullying PSAs on Saturday morning cartoons.

Presumably modeled after a loose amalgamation of Sonny Liston and Muhammed Ali (a terror-inducing presence and the inability to just shut up for just one minute, respectively), he begins to heckle and harangue Rocky, demanding a shot at the title. It takes but one, relatively tame suggestive comment directed at Adrienne during this most auspicious of occasions to throw Rocky into a frenzy: “You want it, you got it!” he yells, wriggling as Micky and Pauly, neither of whom could so much as lift a croissant, manage hold him back. Generally, there is a bit more to scheduling a Heavyweight Title fight, wherein negotiations between promoters and managers can take months or even years, state sanctioning rules can hold up bouts indefinitely… but screw it. Such details would make for some seriously boring cinema, so without further ado, the fight is on. With minimal training and Micky on his death bed (actually a bench), Rocky is swatted about like a mouse and kayoed in the second round. To top off a really crap day, Micky dies moments after the fight.

To top off a really crap day, Micky dies moments after the fight.

Poor Rocky is feeling despondent. He goes for a motorcycle ride, throws his helmet at his bronze likeness (careful Sly, you spent a lot of your own money on that thing!), and ends up in his training gym where, like all angry people do in movies when there is a speed bag around and they’re upset, punches it with all the menace of Don Knotts. Then out of the shadows emerges his old nemesis Apollo Creed. Just what was he was doing in a darkened gym besides waiting around on the off-chance that Rocky may show up remains a great cinematic mystery. But with Mickey dead, Apollo offers to train Rocky for a rematch, both out of the goodness of his heart and his desire to see Clubber Lang take a good clubbering himself (Clubber was rather rude to Apollo at the first fight). Within a couple of minutes old rivals become good friends.

The Stallion is treated to an impassioned speech by Apollo wherein he is told that, back when the two of them were fighting, Rocky had “the eye of the tiger.” While I have never gazed deep into the eye of an actual tiger, audiences will recall that, during the first two films, Rocky wore the worried expression of a guy who doesn’t know how he ended up where he did and is fairly certain he doesn’t belong there. The line comes off as a shill for the film’s soundtrack (or perhaps it was the other way around – it’s a chicken-and-egg question not worth pursuing).

The obligatory training montage for the rematch (and be grateful there is only one as I counted no less than three in Rocky IV) eschews raw eggs and running up the art museum steps for the gym and long runs on the beach as Gonna Fly Now once again assaults our auditory dignity. While every movie montage portends the obvious victory to come, the fighters’ Iron John training relationship carries more undertones of homoeroticism than a Jean Genet novel, with roadwork culminating in the two splashing about the waves and jumping up and down in an embrace like two giggling girls whose just found out they can have a sleepover. Then the screen freezes with the ding of a bell and it’s Welcome to Madison Square Garden. While the seventy five year-old Sinatra’s rendition of Bad Bad Leroy Brown at the same venue carried of more ludicrous action and threats of permanent brain damage than this fight, spoiler-alert etiquette forbids me to reveal the victor and once-again Heavyweight Champ.

Back in the darkened gym, Rocky and Apollo decide to have one last rematch of their own: right here, right now. No crowds, no ref, no doctor, no time keeping, and no bell. But again, what kind of geek really notices these picayune details? As the two simultaneously throw their first punch, the picture morphs into a paint-spattered, palette knife-slashed nightmare of a Leroy Neiman image of the mid-action freeze frame. That’s immortality, and in case there’s any doubt that we’ve reached the end of some kind of trilogy, it is abolished by the absolute certainty that another installment is not far off. So watch out, you Pinkos.

Movie Review: The Set-up 1949

This is the inaugural essay in an ongoing series by the sad young men at Boxing Over Broadway discussing various boxing films ranging from the good, the great, and the abominable. Check back periodically as we begin to catalog the greats (and duds) of this rich, vibrant genre.

 

The Set-up, 1949. dir. Robert Wise

Reviewed by David Curcio

Set-Up PosterRobert Wise’s The Set-up opens with a hovering shot over the seedy side of a nameless city. Clubs with names like “Paradise” and ‘Dreamland” loom like oracles over a bustling street corner. A kid runs around hawking newspapers and brazenly eases into a crowd where a middle aged guy is doing the same. The kid takes over fast, and when the the older guy tells him he’s gotta make a buck too, the kid replies, “Aw, go take a walk!” It is not a friendly world for the old and middle aged.

It is not a friendly world for the old and middle aged.

So too with boxing, and The Set-up gets this better than any film about the sport before or since.

On the surface, The Set-up looks like the prototype of the age-old tale of the aging fighter, long-past his prime who, due to the workings and exchanges of managers, gangsters, and other venal scumbags, must throw what is certain to be his last fight. But to the surprise of the thugs waiting to collect, he puts pride before personal safety and manages to win by a knockout. This trope can be seen as recently as Bruce Willis’s character in Pulp Fiction and in the popular comic book series Daredevil, where our hero’s father’s is murdered for winning a fixed fight. But The Set-up delivers an added blow to its otherwise straight forward combination: our over-the-hill pug is never let in on the fix.

Robert Ryan is Bill “Stoker” Thomson, a marked-up thirty five year-old matched against endless waves of cute twenty-three year-old hopefuls. His relationship with his long-suffering wife is becoming increasingly strained on account of his routine beatings – each worse than the last – in the ring. “One punch away,” he tells her with unrealistic hope and optimism, and from her response,“You’ll always be ‘one punch away’

“You’ll always be ‘one punch away’

,” it is clear that he’s been singing this tune way too long. Pathetically delusional and half punch drunk, Stoker is still convinced he has a shot: if he can win this $500 purse he’ll have a shot at Martinez! A shot at Martinez would in turn lead to a shot at the Pittsburg Windmill himself, Harry Greb. To hear him tell his wife he will return victorious is like hearing a child with a plastic shovel announce plans to dig to China, but a lot sadder. In a last ditch effort to change his mind, she suggest he work the docks, go on relief… anything except continue this masochistic delusion. Like the cowpoke at high noon, there is no talking him out of it. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Robert Ryan
Robert Ryan

The Setup, however, is as much about the sleazy, corrupt world of boxing at large, and this tale serves as a microcosm for all that has plagued the sport from its earliest days. As intrinsic to the sport as the fighters themselves are the money-grubbing vultures, the rabid spectators screaming for the blood to spill, and the fickle public who, like everyone in this world of real-life feints and deception, are waiting for their own payday. Stoker’s cigar chomping, lowlife manager, Tiny (played with a down-at-heals desperation and a wide nasty streak by George Tobias), and the mincing, thinly-mustachioed gangster with the ominous moniker of Little Boy (played with genuine menace by Alan Baxter) set up a series of bets in which Stoker will go down anytime after the second. And why cut Stoker in at all, they reason, if he’s going to lose anyway? It’s a lock: he just has to stay on his feet for two rounds.

Remarkably, the film’s fight sequences were shot in real time,

the film’s fight sequences were shot in real time

with three minute rounds and actors who knew what they were doing. Robert Ryan held the college heavyweight title during all four of his years at Dartmouth, and from the first shots of his feet circling the ring we know that we are in the presence of an experienced fighter, albeit one whose ankles are beginning to sink closer to the canvas with age. His body is still a finely tuned machine – like a late-career Gene Tunney, he is tall, slightly lanky, with the deltoids, lats, and calf muscles needed for the game (compare that to Stallone’s Rocky, with his giant biceps better suited for holding a 150 pound machine gun than a pair of gloves).

setupboxersFrom the opening bell the air hangs heavy with something more sinister than anticipation. Little Boy’s shifty eyes dart from the ring to the slobbering Tiny as Stoker lifts himself up after each knockdown, glides around the ring alternately stalking his young opponent, absorbing and slipping punches, and giving as good as he gets. If we look at a few of the great boxing films – Raging Bull, Body and Soul – a degree of believability is lost with them. Where emphasis in their case is placed squarely on the visual (as it should be in film), the fights nevertheless feel overly choreographed – camera work so saturated with the flash of camera bulbs and closeups of sweat and blood spraying across the screen in slow motion – that it actually lifts us out of the fight and into the realm of the purely cinematic. Every blow seems to land; the drama of a body hitting the canvas in slow motion feels tired to the contemporary viewer – surely the impact would be the same if not greater if we watched the action unfold in real time? But The Set-up gives us both. A film noir that revels in dark alleys, bright street corners and the blinding ring, combined with closeups of a bout that will not allow us to forget the deadly implications for our unwitting hero.

Originally a poem by Joseph Moncure March, The Set-up whitewashes the original source material in casting a white actor. But the film’s scenes of young hopefuls shows a color blind group supportive of one another (even the lithe, token African American, who resembles the Cuban fighter Kid Chocolate and is the one college boy of the group).

Finally, the sport would exist in a vacuum if not for the spectators, who, for better or worse, incite the action and react to every blow with expressions ranging from the delirious to the calculating. Some are here for blood, others for money, many for both. Women otherwise prim and composed scream “Kill ‘im!” like mad banshees; bookmakers look from the ring down to their charts, stubby pencils at the ready; slobs waiting for a bloody knockout pour popcorn down their throats. It is a sport for the intellectual who can understand the game for its grace and methodology, as well as for the louts out for blood like attendees at the Circus Maximus. As one looks at the sad turn the sport has taken in the past twenty plus years and the rise of MMA fighting, it seems the latter crowd has spoken as to what the people want in a bout, something folk singers Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan sang in their respective songs on the death of Davey Moore at the hands of Sugar Ramos in 1963:

“We just meant to see some sweat,

There ain’t nothing wrong in that.

It wasn’t us that made him fall.

No, you can’t blame us at all.”

“For the fighters must destroy as the poets must sing,

As the hungry crowd must gather for the blood upon the ring.”

-From Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and Phil Ochs’ “The Ballad of Davey Moore,” respectively.

The-Set-up-30903_4The Set-up may be a boxing film, but one needn’t be a fan of the sport to enjoy it. In fact, one who abhors the violence of the game as well as the evil workings behind the scenes may feel vindicated by it’s sleaze and brutality – that is, if they can take their eyes and minds away from Milton Krasner’s silvery cinematography long enough to even contemplate these moral quandaries. Fight fans may be less than riveted by the straight forward dilemmas of the plot (which are sure to get wrapped up by the end of the film – it was highly unusual for the ratings codes to allow a film’s hero of to get knocked off). It is the fight scenes themselves that carry the action and anticipation of a real bout.

At the heart of the story is not the fight, not the fix, but the effect the game can have on a marriage. It is arguable that the film’s end – (“I ain’t fighting anymore,” he tells his wife) is a minor copout. Of course he won’t be fighting anymore, the mob has seen to that with the help of a brick.

“The Heidi Chronicles”

At Trinity Rep, Providence, RI

Reviewed

by David Curcio

“Valuing happiness is not necessarily linked to greater happiness. In fact, under certain conditions, the opposite is true. Under conditions of low (but not high) life stress, the more people valued happiness… the higher their depressive symptoms.”*

In an interview with Vivienne Benesch, the director of The Heidi Chronicles at the Trinity Rep in Providence, she pulls an unusual quote, made by the main character, from a highly quotable play: “I’m afraid I haven’t been happy for some time.” With this line, Benesch reveals her vision of the play as a study in the search for happiness, with its backdrop of militant, idealistic second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s and the insufferable self-obsession of the 80s, when money rendered such ideals a lot less pressing.

Angela Brazil as Heidi Holland Photo Mark Turek
Angela Brazil as Heidi Holland
Photo Mark Turek

Heidi, played with blushing earnestness by Angela Brazil, is an art historian with a focus on arcane female painters from the Madonnas of the Renaissance to “the present day.” With her focus on the ways in which women portray themselves (and other women) through the ages, she seems to be looking for the ways these pictures of women in liminal moments – at once inviting us in while remaining slightly aloof – might reveal something about herself, and maybe they do. Like these woefully underrepresented artists and their subjects, Heidi is forever skirting the esprit de corps without fully engaging. Like Zelig, she’s a witness when it all goes down but never an active participant. From a college “Students for McCarthy” mixer to “Consciousness Raising” feminist retreats to baby showers in apartments on Central Park West and power lunches with her executive friends, Heidi remains an outsider.

Angela Brazil as Heidi Holland and Rachel Christopher as Susan Johnston Photo Mark Turek
Angela Brazil as Heidi Holland and Rachel Christopher as Susan Johnston
Photo Mark Turek

The looming question is why Wendy Wasserstein’s play, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, is relevant today. For all of the (fantastic) cast’s enthusiasm, it feels a bit dusted off, and a dismal reminder of how little progress feminism has made. Director Benesch laments that “we will probably never be post-feminist,” and if we define post-feminist as a meaningful reaction against the contradictions and black-and-white thinking of the second-wave feminism of the sixties and seventies, or as the notion that second-wave feminism is so assimilated into our society we assume it has “won” (a phenomenon also referred to as Enlightened Sexism), she is at least partly right. Feminism as a movement is protean, with definitions and goals that are forever shifting with the political, financial and social climate of the day. With ongoing wage discrepancies, the dearth of women in executive positions, the all-out war on birth control, abortion and HPV vaccination, and a presidential frontrunner who attributes much-deserved criticism by a female journalist to her period, can this battle ever end, let alone be won?

Heidi art for webBut I think Heidi already knows this. As a woman who looks at paintings for a living, she sees the subtle shades of gray that compose the world, and her militant friends’ taunts “either you shave your legs or you don’t” demand self-definition based on arbitrary black-and-white thinking that Heidi cannot accept. Her two male friends, one a handsome, sensitive homosexual doctor and the other a philandering blowhard, represent the breadth of the male sex in Wasserstein’s universe: either a perfect but unattainable specimen or a (surprisingly ernest) scumbag who’s always up for a romp. She remains friends with them throughout the play’s span of twenty one years, but they show little change or growth. Peter is steady and compassionate, but ultimately a crushed cynic in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Scoop takes Heidi’s virginity at a college mixer and appears and reappears over the years with the same frequency as Peter – a friend perhaps, albeit one who forever wants to get in her pants just one more time despite his marriage. He’s played with a believable, endearing schmuckiness (if there is such a thing) by Mauro Hantman.

The idealism of the seventies caving to the self-absorption and financial highs of the eighties is embodied in Heidi’s friend Susan, a “lingerie burning” radical turned Hollywood Power exec. In an exclusive restaurant where Diane Keaton is dining a few tables away, she tells her lunch companions, “Equal rights is one thing. Equal pay is one thing. But winning because you’re a woman is something else!” And with that kind of dough, who has time to think about equality? The shift from idealism to self-absorption begs the question: were Heidi’s peers this shallow all along, and does money just allow them to embrace it?

As I sat in the theater I wondered what the intended audience might be. Vivienne Benesch says that “any play with this many funny, smart women can be an eye-opener for men.” A bit of condescension from the director – as a man, it should sting, but it doesn’t. Just what kind of bimbos does Benesch think us men hang out with? While executed seamlessly, the production is ultimately a nostalgia piece for the baby-boomer set, who can first have a good laugh at the funny ways they dressed and then a serious reflection on whether their lofty ideals were really attained.

The brilliant, spare sets and one thousand percent believable costumes (by Lee Savage and Tracy Christensen respectively), and the charismatic, wholly believable performances across the board were not enough to save this production from its worn material. Happiness, Heidi’s ever-elusive ideal, is presented in the play as life’s greatest of mysteries. It is therefore apposite to paraphrase Heidi’s friend Scoop, the jagoff philanderer, who provides Heidi with the maxim that if one aims for a six out of ten in life, there will be no disappointments. It is when one shoots for the ten that things get depressing and despair can set in. The play’s ending shows Heidi as a single mother. Is this a cop out? Does it perpetuate the notion that only by having children will a woman be happy, or does it acknowledge a genuine, biological maternal instinct, the fulfillment of which brings meaning to this life of an observer? Scoop might ask if this a six or a ten, and I wondered the same. But did feminism ever address the key to individual happiness, and does Heidi’s motherhood provide satisfactory closure to these twenty nine years? Sadly, it translates more as an admission that the progress we were hoping for never really happened and that hopefully the next generation will fix it.

*From Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness.

by Iria B. Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L. Anderson, and Nicole S. Savino, Nicole S. in

Emotion, Vol 11(4), Aug 2011.

The Heidi Chronicles is playing at the Trinity Rep in Providence through January 3rd. www.trinityrep.com

Richmond Barthé’s Boxer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by David Curcio

RichmondBarthe-boxerDeep within the Metropolitan Museum’s American galleries and flanked by two mid-twentieth century paintings (one depicting a guileless, dour clown; the other a ferocious acrobat) stands a statue, rendered in bronze, of the great Cuban featherweight Kid Chocolate. Born Eligio Sadiñas Montalvo in 1910, Kid Chocolate was a Super Featherweight who gradually moved up in weight divisions to become Cuba’s first world champion, all the while living hard and indulging freely in women and booze. When he moved to the Junior Lightweight division in 1931, he knocked out Benny Bass for the title. At the end of that same year he moved up in weight again, challenging Tony Canzoneri as a Lightweight to lose in a 15 round decision.

Standing at about a foot and a half, the sculpture was created by the African-American artist James Richmond Barthé when he was 41 years old. Born in 1901, seemingly under a lucky star, Barthé left his impoverished childhood in St. Louis, Mississippi behind him when a wealthy family of benefactors took him under their wing when he was fourteen. With their financial support and political pull, Barthé attended the Art Institute of Chicago – a rare instance of a young black man gaining access to formal artistic training at a time when most colleges were not accepting black students. Though he garnered lucrative work as a portrait painter within Chicago’s affluent black community during his time at the Art Institute, he nonetheless became restless. New York – the world’s artistic epicenter – was beckoning, and so he left upon graduation for uptown Manhattan to join the Harlem Renaissance and its jazz-fueled nightlife which, along with the Great Depression, was in full swing.

Kid Chocolate
Kid Chocolate

Somewhere between a plodding Giacometti figure and the swift, frantic advance of Ernst Barlach’s sword-wielding Avenger is Kid Chocolate’s display of the controlled and graceful but brutish energy of the pugilist in mid-swing. Head tucked, body bouncing on the balls of the feet with the lead foot forward, right arm crooked for a body shot or a swift uppercut and a rangy left arm hanging for a split second at his side, the figure seems ready to deliver a hook with a quick pivot of the feet. Barthé created the Boxer from memory, making the accuracy of musculature, facial features and the fighter’s stance even more impressive. Form has been exaggerated to the point of distortion: rangy beyond belief, the Kid’s waist is almost impossibly narrow in comparison to his broad shoulders. His hair, quaffed, oiled, and set in a pompadour, revels in detail the level of which would not be out of place in a hairdresser’s style book. His light bounce suggests a light sparring session or shadow boxing exhibition. In almost every aspect Barthé’s preoccupation with the fighter’s physical beauty is evident.

As a homosexual living in an age hostile to both gays and African Americans, Barthé would not have been able to portray the male figure with any degree of sensuality without being labeled mentally ill, perverted, and criminal. By the 1930s, with boxing firmly established as the country’s most popular sport, daily reports on fights in newspapers were ubiquitous, along with images of fighters in art and advertising. At a time when to be homosexual came with great risk, gay artists looked to subject matter that allowed them to revel in the physicality of the male figure while sticking to popular, marketable subject matter. To the left of The Boxer at the Met is Paul Cadmus’ 1936 painting in tempera on masonite Gilding the Acrobats. The nude, muscular male athlete applying gold gilt to his body with the help of two other men (one also in a state of near undress), shows the ways artists used athletics as a means of sexualizing and fetishizing the male figure.*

From July of 1931 to December of 1933, Kid Chocolate held the Junior Lightweight title, all the while maintaining a lifestyle closer to that of a New York bohemian than that of a champion. Sometime in 1932 he contracted syphilis, the deadly by-product of his social milieu, and on Christmas day of 1933 he lost the title to Frankie Klick (that he may have fought with the after-effects of syphilis wasn’t known until after the fight). A few months later he was kayoed in a rematch with Canzoneri, prompting a brief retirement. The following year he returned to the ring with a vengeance, fighting 50 bouts and winning 47 before finally retiring for good in 1938 with a record of 135 wins, 10 losses and 6 draws, He returned to Cuba to live a quiet life, his wild days now behind him. No longer wealthy, it was not until the late 70s that the Cuban government recognized his contribution to Cuban athletics and provided him with a pension. He continued to live in the house he bought for his mother, where he died in 1988.

Sugar Ray Robinson considered Kid Chocolate the fighter he most admired for his stylish movement, balance, and slick flair within the ring. Barthé was equally admiring of Chocolate’s flair, comparing his light, graceful style to that of a ballet dancer. (This was not an unusual comparison. Over the years countless fighters – most famously Marvin Hagler – have dabbled in ballet to hone these same qualities.) Barthé’s bronze can be read on many levels: a strong, albeit exaggerated study of the male form; a veiled work of homoeroticism; and – in the accuracy of the features – as a portrait. Most importantly, the work stands as an imposing testament to Chocolate’s grace and beauty, now frozen in time for eternity.

*Of course this was not always the case, and I am not suggesting that all athletic imagery from the early-mid twentieth century is thinly-veiled homoeroticism. One only has to contrast these images with the boxing pictures of George Bellows, whose interest lay the social spectacle of the sport, as well as in the action, movement, and contortions of, as he put it, “two men trying to kill each other.”

The Company of Men – Leonard Gardner’s Fat City

by David Curcio

Last month the redoubtable New York Review of Books reissued Leonard Gardner’s novel Fat City. Even for a publisher widely acknowledged as reviving out of print masterpieces and curiosities, this has been heralded as a major event by countless writers influenced by Gardner’s curt, direct style and his ability to suggest the inner workings of cyclical and tormented minds with a staggering economy of prose. He is likely counted as a “writer’s writer” for his ability to reveal his characters’ inner lives without the well-worn trope of endless internal monologues to which so many lesser writers fall prey.

Let us make no mistake: Fat City is not a boxing novel

Let us make no mistake: Fat City is not a boxing novel as so many capsule reviews would have us believe. Readers seeking the sweat of the gym, the blood of the ring, or corrupted promoters would do better to look to W.C. Heinz’s The Professional, Jack London’s The Game or, better still, the many great biographies of fighters in the canon of boxing literature. The subject of Fat City is regret and the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure; and of the horrid, wholly invented revelation among young men that the die of their life has been cast when it is only just beginning.

 

Fat City
Fat City

At the heart of the novel is Billy Tully, a twenty-nine year-old ex-fighter tormented by the belief that “he had given up his career too soon.” Broke, drunk, and abandoned by his wife, he fleetingly pins his hopes on a young fighter named Ernie Munger in order to revive his own life that he already believes “was coming to a close.” At The Lido Gym in Stockton, CA, Tully begins to train the young Munger. Ruben Luna, the gym’s paterfamilias and a genuinely altruistic individual, is the bright spot in this grey urban landscape, though even he is not without his demons as he (rightly) blames himself for the death of one of his fighters years before. After a day of training, the young Ernie, “bruised, fatigued and elated, felt he had joined the company of men.” We long for this three-way relationship to blossom.

And it is the relationships of men – with each other and with women – that give shape to this novel of the constant tension between union and isolation. Billy lives his life regretting every moment that he didn’t appreciate his wife. Ruben is married to a widow with children and, while he is happy (enough) in this union, his eyes still wander, and the fear of pregnancy dampens intimacy. Ernie – in all likelihood a virgin when we meet him – tries desperately to sleep with Faye, the woman he is dating on the eve of his first fight: “To appear in the ring tomorrow without ever having won this other battle seemed presumptuous and dangerous.” When he does manage to sleep with her in his car that night, the rain that follows serves as a pathetic fallacy with ominous overtones: the car won’t start, he goes knee-deep in mud to get it to move as Faye loudly voices her regret and to top it off, she is impregnated. Although Billy tells Ernie (who, to his immediate regret, marries Faye) “you never appreciate [marriage] until it’s gone,” their first night portends the oppressive feeling of being trapped that directly follows.

The narrative zooms in to focus on Billy and Ernie and then pulls back again to reveal a wider cast of characters and a microcosm of a city crawling with future has-beens: Ruben, his hopeful amateurs, and Ernie’s Mexican opponent Arcadio Lucero. These men feel to us like life’s losers because they have already convinced themselves that they are. Working the fields picking cherries with the migrants, the drunks, the derelicts and addicts, they suffer from feelings that a life without meaning is to not exist at all. With nothing but time on their hands, fact and fantasy blur until all that’s left are memories, as when Billy bemoans being left by his wife, or drunkenly recounts his heroics in the ring despite having ultimately lost. But only in the ring can these men prove to themselves that they are alive. This, however, is a luxury difficult to attain, as we learn from the broke, violently ill Arcadio Lucero as he travels north to fight Ernie, and who fights because it is the only thing he knows how to do. So just what does a man need to do to prove to himself that he’s alive? To the men of Fat City, life exists solely in the past: in fights that were fought and are now forgotten; in happy times before the wife walked out; in days of what now feel like freedom before Faye became pregnant; in a life without guilt before the fighter was killed. They find redemption in helping others or solace in benders spent in squalid hotels. Ernie, now resigned to an unhappy marriage, is too young to throw in the towel, and so hinges his small hopes on a future in the ring.

As Ruben brings four protégés to and from a fight, there follows a lengthy, elegiac passage in which a young fighter named Wes, kayoed in the first round, reflects upon his fate: “…he should have known all along that he was nothing. Boxers were men in other towns, in big cities far from this car parked in the darkness alongside the highway between fields of vegetables.” The contrast of a dark night in the middle of nowhere with the idealized fantasy of a brightly-lit arena filled with cheering crowds and urban sophisticates exemplifies Gardner’s ability to conjure the thoughts associated with the sinking feeling that we have been put in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, and that this cosmic error has already destroyed any meaning life may have once held.

Stage Review: “Miss Penitentiary”

At The Boston Playwrights’ Theater

Reviewed by David Curcio

Laura Neubauer’s new play Miss Penitentiary at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre is a heavy-handed briefing on Feminism 101. As a crash course in women’s subjugation and objectification, its target audience seems to be those who cling to the beauty ideals found in magazines like In Shape or Penthouse, which is to say no one who would see this play in the first place.

In an unspecified time, a bleak prison holds an unspecified number of female inmates, portrayed here by five charismatic, likable actors. While Orange is the New Black has brought women’s prison out of the age of 70s exploitation films, there is something unsettling in our heroines’ incarceration, as if a sinister, Handmaid’s Tale-like patriarchy may be behind this. But the absence of men is palpable. The program informs us that the only crimes committed were being born female: “A prison of insecurities built by and for the women.” (Right off the bat this is a little more background reading than a play should require.)

 

Miss Penitentiary
Miss Penitentiary

As the prison’s annual beauty pageant approaches, one lucky winner will go free. Here is where the tropes of sexism, objectification and the commodity of beauty are forced upon the inmates (and, in turn, the audience). As the actors don masks, Greek chorus-like, and drone such phrases as “Our looks have an expiration” or (regarding new shoes), “Harden your feet and harden your heart,” we are reminded at every turn of the mundane, superficial trappings of Beauty.

On a stage comprised of a bare wooden floor with black tape fanning out to describe the prison bars’ shadows in receding one-point perspective, the older, lean, mean Mama Beast presides over the four other girls, some of whom are up for parole. We never learn where this eligibility comes from or why others are lifers, but then not much is clear here. The play opens as the women languidly scrub the floors (you almost expect them to burst into “It’s the Hard Knock Life”) and suddenly everyone is in a tizzy over the approaching pageant. Time to get pretty and, like cigarettes, lipstick, rub-on tans, and even body parts (e.g. teeth that have been knocked out in brawls) become a commodity. The pre-game competition is on.

The lingering question is just who the judges are. We’re all familiar to some extent with the standard format of a beauty contest, and our participants play to it well as vapid questions and advice rain down upon them in preparation from the chorus. There is the obligatory talent section, that half-assed acknowledgement of the mind behind the face, although here (and, we assume, in all pageants) the question is “But do you look good when you’re doing it?” along with the maxim to stay away from such un-sexy work as business and accounting. Sage advice for women’s continued subjugation in the workplace. An amalgamation of advertisements, expectations and disappointments is put in the bluntest of terms where the stakes are highest: if you want to win, you’d better know your place.

The inmate Fanny (played with humor and a tangible humanity by Caitlin Gjerdrum) is a lesbian, a drug addict, and illiterate, who begins taking reading lessons from her lover DD. As she prattles on about a divide within herself (queer/straight; drugged/sober) she hones into the revelation that her intellect may in fact save her in this battle centered on lipstick, hair wax, and “jelly tits.” It’s like an invisible hand emerges from the stage to whack the audience over the head with feminism’s most basic tenet.

So we leave knowing what we knew before: Naomi Wolf was right about the undue pressures of beauty placed upon women and that pageants are meaningless if you have to look good while showing off your “talents.” As the chorus warns “Be careful who you trust. You can trust us, but you probably shouldn’t,” the familiar, insidious message to stay pretty, pay attention to everything but trust no one (advertising, boyfriends, husbands, and especially other women) is reasserted. As this warning comes to fruition, the crown goes to Fanny, the least superficially feminine of the lot, who in turn passes it on to DD. Although women are looking out for each other and forced competition is rejected, the whole charade ultimately devolves into a massive catfight – over what it is unclear, for the pageant has ended. Perhaps competition is already heating up for next year.

The not-for-profit Maiden Phoenix company should be lauded for its efforts to bring women’s stories “in the hopes of breaking down stereotypes” to Boston, and I for one am excited to see more of their productions. But with Miss Penitentiary some of us might just prefer to sit with Fanny as she finds larger life messages in Shel Silverstein, ignoring the hollow messages from on high that remind her to eat half grapefruit each morning and repeat her (obviously pointless) daily affirmations.

Miss Penitentiary is directed by Alyce Householter and runs from Oct. 2nd through 17th at The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. For more information visit maidenphoenix.org.

The Boxing Lithographs of George Bellows At The Boston Public Library

by David Curcio

George Bellows said, “I don’t know anything about boxing, I am just painting two men trying to kill each other.”

George Bellows said, “I don’t know anything about boxing, I am just painting two men trying to kill each other.” What underlies the attraction to such violence? As a reenactment of Freud’s postlapsarian, atavistic death instinct outlined in Civilization and its Discontents, boxing flies in the face of the great human tragedy wherein we exchange the destructive impulses of the id for the safety—and neuroses—of civilization, providing a vicarious forum for these unconscious urges to play out. A less pessimistic reading is of the sport as theatre in its purest form, stripped of all artifice.

George Bellows
George Bellows

The Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Prints Department is home to the entire catalog of George Bellows’ lithographs, produced between 1916 and the year of his death in 1925 at the age of forty-two. Of these 193 prints, sixteen depict boxing, bearing witness to an age when the sport, as one reporter wrote, “dominated everything.”1In the first half of the twentieth century, fights carried enormous political weight in regards to national identity and made daily headlines, with salaries of successful fighters dwarfing those of other celebrities. Important bouts at once fomented racial tensions and advanced integration, paving the way for the civil rights movement to follow decades later. Not even someone who claimed not to “know anything about boxing” could feign ignorance of important fights and fighters during this golden age.

Bellows arrived in New York in 1908. Studying under Robert Henri, the founder of the Ashcan School of urban realists, he set out to portray the vice and squalor—largely ignored by the art viewing public—of the metropolis at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

Bellows arrived in New York in 1908. Studying under Robert Henri, the founder of the Ashcan School of urban realists, he set out to portray the vice and squalor—largely ignored by the art viewing public—of the metropolis at the dawn of the Industrial Age. More than any other member of the group, Bellows focused on social issues including poverty, war, capital punishment, and lynchings. With its legality under fire in New York during the late teens, boxing, the dark shadow of the YMCA’s virtuous promotion of a healthy masculine ideal, was also a social issue. With thousands of immigrants and natives alike clamoring to compete for the paltry purses derived from fighting, it was, as David Remnick writes, “a game for the poor…who risk their health for the infinitesimally small chances of riches and glory.” 2

Bellows claimed that he was “not interested in the morality of prize fighting” and that “the atmosphere around the fighters [was]… more immoral than the fighters themselves.”

In Europe, lithography was popular among artists since its invention in 1796, but was considered a strictly industrial endeavor in the United States during the early twentieth century. Bellows wrote of his wish “to rehabilitate the medium from the stigma of commercialism,” and elevate it to a fine art form in its own right.3 For those unfamiliar with the process, a limestone plate is drawn upon with greasy pencil, charcoal or ink-like media to create a range of marks and tones. Based on the principle that oil and water don’t mix, the stone remains damp during the inking process so the greasy drawing material rejects the water but retains the ink prior to printing. Like his European precedents and contemporaries, Bellows considered lithography a means to recreate his drawings in surprising new ways. His prints soon piqued the interest of American print collectors previously interested exclusively in etchings.

Counted Out

 

Bellows’ apartment on Broadway was situated across the street from Sharkey’s Athletic Club where, as in other “Prizefighting Clubs” throughout the city, bouts were held in dank basements populated by petty criminals, gamblers, and gangsters. Before long, Bellows could also be counted among the attendees (partly out a desire to experience the dissipation of the city, partly out of his great admiration for Eakins’ boxing paintings). Unbound to the sport’s proscribed rules, fights in these clubs could last for hours, sometimes resulting in deaths. Bellows claimed that he was “not interested in the morality of prize fighting” and that “the atmosphere around the fighters [was]… more immoral than the fighters themselves.” Unlike the anonymous, distant crowds of Goya’s bullfighting lithographs 4, Bellows situates us ringside where we ourselves become the spectators. In Counted Out (1921), we are horrified to be counted among the leering, bloodthirsty crowd, instead empathizing with the felled fighter, his vitality ebbing like the Hellenistic Dying Gaul 5. Attraction and revulsion never reconcile, but uncomfortably coexist.

 

Stag at Sharkey's
Stag at Sharkey’s

In a suspended moment of histrionic fantasy, the two fighters in Stag at Sharkey’s (1909) rush, swing and defend, creating a single mechanized juggernaut within a High Renaissance composition. Each boxer lifts a leg absurdly high off the canvas as the other leg extends back to an impossible length. The two heads meet in the center while the cowing referee’s arm describes a line extending upward to end at one boxer’s elbow, forming a triangle’s apex, then drops back down along the shoulder, head, and his opponent’s outstretched leg. The dark basement contrasts with the illuminated pugs and spectators, while silvery tones define muscle that, according to Bellows, constituted his primary interest in the subject (prompting the dubious quote regarding his lack of interest in the sport). The omission of ropes on the viewer’s side of the ring places us squarely within the “amoral atmosphere.” Despite our complicity in its violence, Stag remains one of America’s most recognizable and coveted prints.

With its full-fledged legalization in New York, the “noble art of self defense” moved to large, glamorous venues, and Bellows’ boxing prints and paintings soon achieved culturally highbrow status

With its full-fledged legalization in New York, the “noble art of self defense” moved to large, glamorous venues, and Bellows’ boxing prints and paintings soon achieved culturally highbrow status. Boxing had become a passion of the working class and intellectual alike, underscoring Bellows’ rejection of the artist as an “effete academic.”6 There is no timeline or chronological charting of the sport’s rise or legal bumps within the prints—he drew stones of legal prizefights and illicit bouts intermittently, some to which he traveled out of state to record either for newspapers or his own edification. We must rely on telling depictions of crowds and surroundings to confirm the location and legality of the fight.

 

Preliminaries to the Bout
Preliminaries to the Bout

As ticket prices soared, purses grew to astronomical sums. As crowds spanned all ethnic and socioeconomic divisions, gates exceeded all expectations. Bellow’s interest in and knowledge of boxing only grew as he received commissions to portray famous fighters. Sometimes focus was places upon the crowds, the fight almost an afterthought. Preliminaries to the Bout (1916) commemorates the first title fight to allow women to attend, with men in top hats and society women in furs occupying the foreground, relegating the bout to a distant blur.

 

In late 1919, Bellow’s printer began grinding the lithographic stones to a smoother finish, allowing for more detail and tonal range. It was in these delicate tones that Bellows composed his second most popular print. Dempsey Through the Ropes (1923) immortalizes the greatest sports upset to date, wherein the seemingly unstoppable Jack Dempsey (whose salary tripled that of Babe Ruth during their roughly concomitant careers) was knocked out of the ring during a fight with the challenger Luis Firpo. While the mayhem that ensued in front of a crowd of 80,000 ended in a knockout by Dempsey, the spectacle made for world headlines.

 

Dempsey Through The ropesBellows wangled a front row seat to the fight (portraying himself in the lower left corner of the print) as a member of the press for an unpublished newspaper illustration. The fight remains controversial in that journalists in the front row illegally pushed Dempsey back into the ring. In what is certainly a bit of fiction, Bellows said of the incident, “Dempsey… fell in my lap. I cursed him a bit and placed him carefully back into the ring.”7 Photographs and newsreels show that Bellows was not among the crushed reporters, all of whom had typewriters. Joyce Carol Oates writes that the print “is a work of imagination, not journalism,”8 and Bellows’ daughter Emma confirms that her father worked from memory, frequently drawing directly on the stone. Indeed, there are many aspects of the print that call into question the accuracy of the scene, particularly the referee shown in mid-count a split second after the punch, his arm again used as a device in creating a triangular composition). Even the wildly famous Dempsey lacks distinguishing features (though Bellows did show care in achieving likenesses in other commissions). Of his sixteen boxing prints, only six of the fighters are identifiable. The rest are likely anonymous figures based on Bellows’ anatomical studies. While he always portrayed the same referees, none are recognizable. But anonymous, real, or imagined, his fighters retain humanity in their predicaments, frozen for eternity within a single, devastating moment.

 

While we may understand Bellows’ attraction to boxing, we continue grapple with the imagery’s lasting appeal. Impartial to race and status, the prints exhibit an admixture of social classes at a time when the masses were desperate for a quick ticket out of poverty. But as the New Yorker’s John Lardner wrote, “the longer you stay in it, the less you have.”9Bellows captured not just the brutality of two humans in combat, but the desperation and defeat of a sport at its most glamorous and most abhorrent. One explanation for their endurance lies in the viewer’s identification with these most basic of human emotions, whether acknowledged or repressed.

 

To view the Bellows Lithographs from the Wiggins Collection at the Boston Public Library, contact Karen Shafts at the Print Department at kshafts [at] bpl [dot] org.

 

1 Margolick, David, Beyond Glory: Joe Luis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink (New York: Alferd A. Knopf, 2005), 344

2 Quoted in Century, Douglass, Barney Ross (New York: Schocken Books, 2006), 20

3 Chotner, Deborah, et al., Bellows: The Boxing Pictures (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1982), 67

4 Brown, Johnathan and Susan Grace Galazzi, Goya’s Last Works (New York: The Frick Collection, 2006), 161

5 Galata Morente, or “The Dying Gaul,” Roman marble copy of a lost Hellenistic Sculpture thought to have been executed in bronze, 230 – 220 BC

6 Childs Gallery, George Bellows: Master Draftsman and Lithographer, e-catalog

7 Morgan, Charles H., George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, Reynal and Company, 1965), 263

8 Oates, joyce Carol, George Bellows: American Artist (Hopewell, New Jersey, The Ecco Press, 1995), 59

9 Quoted in Guzzardi, Joe, A Fresh Look at Joe Louis (Lodi News Sentinel, Feb. 21, 2008) 24

 

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