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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.”