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Notes from the Literary Front
By Thomas Hauser
John L. Sullivan’s last fight (other than exhibitions) was in 1892. James J. Corbett retired from the ring in 1903. Bob Fitzsimmons followed a decade later. It’s safe to say that no one alive today saw them ply their trade. And with the passage of time, less and less is remembered about them.
A 35-year-old Iowa attorney named Adam J. Pollack wants to fill that void and restore the patina that once affixed to boxing’s early gloved heavyweight champions. In pursuit of that goal, he has authored biographies of Sullivan, Corbett, and Fitzsimmons. James J. Jeffries is due in early 2009.
Pollack is a graduate of the University of Iowa School of Law. He spent several years as a prosecutor in Iowa City with the Johnson County Attorney’s Office and now practices law as a criminal defense attorney (“a lot of drunk driving cases,” he says). He has a boxing background, having won the Iowa Golden Gloves in the 139-pound division when he was in law school. “But it was nothing to brag about,” he acknowledges. “I always had a better brain than body. I understood the sport well, but didn’t have the physical ability. I’m a better writer and coach than I was a fighter.”
As a coach, Pollack has seen two of his fighters advance to the quarter-finals of the men’s National Golden Gloves. That’s not bad considering the limited talent pool in Iowa. And then there’s Emily Klinefelter, who Adam has coached since the day she walked into the gym.
Emily, now 24, was valedictorian of her class at City High School in Iowa City. As an amateur, she won three U.S. Championships, four PAL National Championships, four Ringside World Championships, and two National Golden Gloves Championships. She also captured gold medals at the 2004 Women’s World Invitational Tournament in Taiwan (110 pounds) and the 2006 Pan American Games in Argentina (119 pounds).
Kleinfelter is currently managed by Cameron Dunkin and married to Pollack. She made her pro debut with a four-round triumph in Reno earlier this year.
Where his writing is concerned, Pollack explains, “My original idea was to write one book that covered all the heavyweight champions from Sullivan on. I had so many unanswered questions about these guys, and the books that had been written weren’t as thorough as I would have liked. Then I started researching and realized that the right way to do it would be a book on each champion. I’m committed in my own mind to at least three more books: James Jeffries, Marvin Hart, and Tommy Burns. After that, if it stops being fun, I’ll stop.”
“I want to take people back as though they were reading the daily newspaper reports, which is all that most boxing fans had in those days,” Pollack continues. “And I want people to know what it was like for the fighters in their time. I’m not doing it for the money. Writing every detail about obscure fights that took place a hundred years ago doesn’t sell a lot of books. I put thousands of hours into each volume and don’t get back minimum wage. But I make enough from my law practice to pay the bills. It’s a nice life. I’m happy.”
The heart of Pollack’s research is his reliance upon primary sources. He reads thousands of contemporary newspaper and magazine articles for each book. “Fortunately,” he says, “the University of Iowa has a good library and a good loan program. But it costs me a fortune to photocopy the microfilm.”
The Fitzsimmons book has the same strengths and weaknesses as Pollack’s two previous efforts. It’s exhaustively researched. There’s drama in the author’s telling of the brutal beating that Fitzsimmons administered to The Nonpariel Jack Dempsey in their world middleweight championship encounter. The build-up to Fitzsimmons versus James Corbett for the heavyweight crown is even more compelling. And there’s a very good account of Fitzsimmons’s loss by disqualification to Tom Sharkey in a fight that appeared to have been fixed with the primary villain being referee Wyatt Earp. At times, the writing is repetitious. But a reader who sticks with it will come away with a sense of time, place, and Fitzsimmons’s greatness. And more significantly, the book is a treasure trove of documentation gathered together in one place.
Take, for example, the account of Corbett-Fitzsimmons written by T. T. Williams in the March 18, 1897, New York Journal. Fitzsimmons took a horrible beating early in the fight, but rallied to knock Corbett out in the fourteenth round.
“I saw a face that will haunt me until time has defaced it from my memory,” Williams wrote. “There was no savagery in it, and some intelligence. There was a leer and a grin and a look of patient suffering and dogged courage. It was the face of a brave man fighting an uphill fight with lip torn and bleeding, nostrils plugged with coagulated blood, ears swollen, eyes half-closed and blinking in the sunlight, with every line and muscle drawn to an angle of suffering. Fitzsimmons’s face was not cruel nor passionate. It was clear; and never once did he lose his hope of success, his watchfulness over his opponent, his waiting for an opening. It was one face from the time that first blood was claimed and allowed in the fifth round till the victory was in his hands.”
Boxing fans should be grateful that Adam Pollack is writing these books. He’s performing a real service in furtherance of the preservation of boxing history.
* * *
My Life and Battles (Praeger Publishers) is an edited translation of articles by Jack Johnson that were published in France when Johnson was at the peak of his glory. Three years later (in 1914), an abridged version of the articles was published (also in France) in book form.
Translator Christopher Rivers acknowledges, “The memoir is not an entirely factually accurate account of the events of Johnson’s life and career.” Nonetheless, he calls it “a fascinating piece of self-mythologizing that provides substantial insights into how Johnson perceived himself and wished to be perceived by others.”
Geoffrey Ward (author of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson), is in accord, writing in a foreward, “[The manuscript] presents a portrait of Johnson as he himself wished to be portrayed. No man ever tended his own legend more assiduously than Jack Johnson did. And ‘legend’ is the operative word. His autobiographical writings are filled with exaggerations, embellishments, and outright inventions.”
Regardless, the book is an interesting slice of boxing history.
The same can be said of Clay Moyle’s biography, Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion (Bennett & Hastings).
In a career that saw hundreds of recorded fights from 1902 through 1925, Langford fought men like Joe Gans (who he defeated at age seventeen), Stanley Ketchel (they drew in a six-round non-title bout), and Jack Johnson (Langford lost a 15-round decision before Johnson became champion).
Barrel-chested and only 5-feet-7-inches tall, Langford was at his best as a middleweight. But the exigencies of boxing dictated that he fight heavyweights Joe Jeannette (on 14 occasions), Sam McVea (13), and Harry Wills (16) a total of 43 times.
“He was a real professional,” Wills said when their wars were done. “The kind of fighter you’d like to be but know that, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never make it. When Sam hit you in the body, you’d kind of look around half-expecting to see his glove sticking out of your back. When he hit you on the chin, you didn’t think at all until they brought you back to life. When he knocked me out in New Orleans, I thought I’d been killed.”
Because of the color barrier, Langford never had the opportunity to etch his name in history alongside those of boxing’s other gloved champions. But John L. Sullivan, who had drawn the color line during his own reign, declared in 1909, “Sam Langford is the world’s best. He can whip them all right now, one after the other.”
Jack Johnson opined, “Sam Langford was the toughest little son of a bitch that ever lived.” Once Johnson became champion, he refused to fight Langford again.
And Jack Dempsey conceded in his autobiography, “The hell I feared no man. There was one man I wouldn’t fight because I knew he would flatten me. I was afraid of Sam Langford.”
Moyle’s writing is cliché-ridden at times (“Sam Edgar Langford entered the world fists clenched on March 4, 1886”) and far from lyrical. But the book fleshes out Langford’s ring record. A few of his fights (most notably the battles against Gans and Ketchel) are nicely told. There’s horror in the recounting of Langford continuing to fight while blind in one eye and suffering from a cataract in the other. And there’s a moving retelling of the unsuccessful effort to restore Langford’s eyesight as well as the poverty that enveloped him as he grew older.
At book’s end, one has to agree with Moyle’s conclusion, “There was certainly no other boxer during this period who deserved a chance to fight for a world championship more than Sam Langford.”
It’s a shame he never got the chance.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org