Boxing Reads

Boxing Reads

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I'll be posting my thoughts on boxing books (and some boxing films).

Prose that Packs a Punch - F.X. Toole

F.X. ToolePosted by Emily Bullock Thu, April 23, 2015 13:02:31

I wondered: is boxing a metaphor for life? Do those fervid minutes under the glare of the lights over the squared ‘ring’ represent the deepest efforts of human beings to impose their will in their lifelong battle of win or lose, life or death? - Budd Schulberg, Ringside

For the last three years I have been reading books, lots and lots of books, about boxing. Not many readers can name a short story writer who has immersed themselves in a sport, but F.X Toole is such a writer. I found in Toole a writer who examined the sport from many different angles, taking his stories and characters far beyond the limits of the four cornered ring; short story after short story about boxing.

Rope Burns
, republished as Million Dollar Baby after the success of the film of the same name, is a workout for any fan of the short story. During my PhD research I was constantly asked the question Why Boxing? And my reply? Have you ever read Rope Burns?

If your answer is no then I would like you to allow me this space to introduce a collection of short stories that changed my writing life. The collection was both my first real introduction to the detailed study of short stories, and the first writer who made me realise that there was so much to be learned from reading about fighting; how writing could offer a vividly evocative portrayal of what Pierce Egan once called the ‘sweet science of bruising’.

Toole was himself a cornerman in the ring for many years, and his writing draws on the lives of the fighters he was surrounded by. It could be claimed that he followed the rule of 'write what you know', but this collection of stories does more than that. Joyce Carol Oates wrote of boxing:

Its most immediate appeal is that of the spectacle, in itself wordless, lacking a language, that requires others to define it, celebrate it, complete it.

Toole appears to be searching for answers from his fictional fighters: what is it that makes men and women box? What does it say about those who watch boxing? He uses the collection to explore many experiences. From the first person narration of 'Black Jew', a story that follows the traditional boxing theme of the underdog winner, to the third person 'Million Dollar Baby', the stories all pack a powerful punch of realism.

The collection details the wearing training, the physical hardships, but it also shows the brutal beauty in this. Toole's prose has some of the sparseness of Hemingway and the muscular energy of Mailer . 'Both were splattered with Hoolie's blood. The head of each fighter was snapping back, and the ribs of both were creaking as each unleashed his force. Big Willie suffered a flash knockdown, but he was up again by the count of two.' Toole is an honest writer, ruthlessly constructing, and breaking down, the psychology, as well as the physicality, of his characters. There is no gladiatorial glory on these pages or in these rings: it is all dimly lit gyms, cheap hotels and bad food.

Perhaps the most famous story in the collection is 'Million Dollar Baby'; adapted for the screen by Clint Eastwood & Paul Haggis. In part, it explores boxing's effect on the relationships between men and women. As Joyce Carol Oates observes, "the heralded celibacy of the fighter-in-training is very much part of boxing lore". Interestingly, Toole reverses the roles and the fighter is a woman in this story, although it is still the male character who is at its centre. Theirs is a platonic relationship (akin to that of father and daughter) between a man and a female fighter. But it is still the man, the trainer in 'Million Dollar Baby', through coming to know his fighter, who receives redemption from his own troubling past by setting the fighter free when agrees to end her life: 'Frankie quickly placed the syringe back in its case and returned it to his pocket. Now he was calm, the same calm he'd felt in his toughest fights (...) The brief shadow of a bird's wing sped high across the far wall and passed through the glass of the domed window.' (p100) So, rather than the fighter it is the observer who comments on and gains self-awareness through the suffering of others.

The idea of the 'witness' is one explored further in ‘Frozen Water'. The narrator is a trainer telling the reader about a boy’s life, but it is the people in the gym, those watching the boy, who learn to face their own weaknesses. The boy, named Danger, is ‘blood simple’ and dedicates everything to fighting, but he will never be any good. Through the boy’s constant defeats, the cruelty of how he bounces back each time, everyone else learns a little more about why they fight: 'Hymn train the boy free of charge knowing Danger couldn't fight a lick and never would. Danger try so hard and mess up so bad you laugh at first. Then you watch awhile, see his set jaw, and you think on that dream of his and you end up in the boy's corner same way Hymn did.' (p. 144)

If any weakness is to be levelled at the collection then perhaps it would be a certain sentimental longing for a hero that reverberates through the pages. But it is the classic tale of redemption, or of the outsider gaining self-awareness through the suffering of others, that often makes these stories so moving. Toole frequently returns to the theme that ‘boxing is a game of lies’ because life does not play by the same rules. He does not cajole or hold the reader's hand: his punchy prose, sparse descriptions, the physical energy of short sentences, and sparring dialogue, all require close reading. Often, Toole uses a flashback structure after he has shown us the thrown fight or the beaten boxer, to take the reader back to the beginning when there was still hope. He lays out the spectacle of the world of boxing and asks only that reader be witness to it:


Toole doesn't always break the conventional themes of the boxing story: the anxiety about women, the underdog, the crooked manager sacrificing young fighters on the altar of greed. But the realism of voice always rings true.

Throughout Rope Burns, there are tales of triumph and despair, humiliation as painful as any blow and soaring love more dizzying than a knock-out punch; psychologically real character studies that will enlighten any reader. You do not have to be a boxing fan to appreciate the visceral energy of Rope Burns. But I hope that the next time you flick through the television channels late at night and come across a boxing match that you might pause and watch for a moment. See a man, or a woman, land a punch, feel the shock of connection, a slight stirring of a primal spirit; consider what it takes to step into the ring and reflect on what we can learn from fighters and writers.

(Article originally published on Thresholds Short Story Forum)

My Top 5 Fight Scenes in Fiction

Top 5Posted by Emily Bullock Thu, April 23, 2015 09:54:05

When writing my novel The Longest Fight I also wanted to know what other writers had to say about the sport. What I discovered was a whole sub-genre, 'Fighting Fiction.' The best works I found used this most physical of sports to reveal something deeper about us all - a desire to win, to remain standing at all costs. But a poignant truth shines through their fiction, that life isn't always a fair fight.

'Million Dollar Baby' by F.X. Toole

A short story, about a female boxer, from Toole's collection Rope Burns. The fight scenes reveal the horrendous injuries that can occur in the ring, but don't let this brutal reality put you off. A beautiful friendship between female fighter and male trainer also unfolds. The battered characters are lost and lonely, it is boxing that brings them together; providing companionship and redemption.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

In contrast to 'Million Dollar Baby', this is a novel of gaping loneliness; the very landscape of rotten trees and sun bleached streets is suffused with it. The lack of dialogue tags can make it hard to follow at first, even putting the reader outside in the cold, but soon the rhythm will take you - like ducking punches. Tully, the main character, might be a winner in the ring but he's a loser in life. Each fight breaks a bit of his life apart until you will be rooting for him to lose, to walk away.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

I'm about to break the first rule of Fight Club by talking about it. Pick a fight in this novel, any fight, and you'll be confronted with low down, dirty, underground scrapping; no Queensberry rules or skilful displays of technique amongst these men just raw rage on the page. The narrator isn't named, neither are the men in the fight club: ‘Only in death will we have our own names since only in death are we no longer part of the effort. In death we become heroes.’ But there are no heroes here, only men who feel impotent in the world they find themselves in, who are searching for a father figure, for a leader.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Not a boxing story but with constant references to boxing and fight scenes throughout the novel. It is a story of black lives in 1940s America. This novel contains the most heartbreaking of fights. As a young boy the narrator is blindfolded and pushed into the ring to entertain a crowd of drunken white men, and fight for a school scholarship - a tragic moment of enlightenment when he first sees the prejudice in the world around him. Ellison's narrator is also unnamed, establishing him not just as an individual but as a voice of many; 'I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.'

The Professional by W.C. Heinz

This is as close to sports reportage as you can come in fiction. A journalist tags along to watch a fighter in training. What follows is a wearing regime of sparring bouts, and physical endurance. You find yourself longing for the fight and the big win. The monotony of the training regime is realistic, not all punch and glory under the bright lights of the ring. All that training, all that preparation, and no guarantee of a win - frighteningly true to life.

(Article originally published on We Love This Book)

The Reading List

Reading ListPosted by Emily Bullock Thu, April 23, 2015 09:49:58


Biskind, Peter, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (London: Bloomsbury, 1998)

Boddy, Kasia, Boxing: A Cultural History (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2008)

Burnett, W.R., Iron Man (New York: The Dial Press, 1930)

Butler, Frank, Boxing in Britain (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1972)

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (California: New World Library, 2008)

Chandler, David, John Gill, Tania Guha, and Gilane Tawadros, eds, An Anthology of Writings on Boxing and Visual Culture (London: The Institute of International Visual Arts, 1996)

Courtenay, Bryce, The Power of One (London: Penguin, 2007)

Dundee, Angelo, and Bert Sugar, My View from the Corner: A Life in Boxing (USA: McGraw Hill Professional, 2008)

Egan, Pierce, Boxiana, or Sketches of Modern Pugilism (London: George Virtue, 1830) Google ebook

Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man (London: Penguin Books, 1965)

Gardner, Leonard, Fat City (London: University of California Press, 1996)

Heinz, W.C., The Professional (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001)

Holt, Richard, Sport and the British (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)

Jones, Chris, Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing (London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2002)

Jones, Thom, The Pugilist at Rest (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)
Jung, C. G., The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London: Routledge, 1991)

Kent, Graeme, Boxing’s Strangest Fights (London: Chrysalis Group plc., 2000)

Kohan, Martin, Seconds Out (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2010)

Mailer, Norman, The Fight (London: Penguin Books, 1991)

Melzack, Ronald, Patrick Wall, The Challenge of Pain (London: Penguin Books, 1996)

Moncure March, Joseph, The Set-Up (1928), <> [accessed 10 July 2012]

Murch, Walter, In the Blink of an Eye (California: Silman-James Press, 2001)

Newton, A.J., Boxing (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005)

Oates, Joyce Carol, On Boxing (London: Pan Books Ltd., 1988)

Palahniuk, Chuck, Fight Club (London: Random House Publishing, 2003)

Polley, Martin, Moving the Goalposts (London: Routledge, 1998)

Remnick, David, King of the World (London: Picador, 2000)

Saabye Christenson, Lars, The Half Brother (London: Arcadia Books, 2003)

Sampson, Kevin, Away Days (London: Random House, 1998)

Scannell, Vernon, Collected Poems 1950 – 1993 (London: Robson Books, 1993)

—— The Fight (London: Peter Nevill Ltd., 1953)

Schulberg, Budd, Ringside (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 2010)

Shapiro, Anton, Chasing the Crown (Milton Keynes: Author’s House, 2010) Kindle ebook

Silverman, Jeff, ed., The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told (USA: Lyon Press, 2004)

Smith, Adam, Beautiful Brutality (London: Transworld Publishers, 2012)

Staudohar, Paul D., ed., Boxing’s Best Short Stories (London: Souvenir Press Ltd., 2001)

Storey, David, This Sporting Life (London: Random House Publishing, 2000)

Theroux, Marcel, A Blow to the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 2006)

Toole, F.X., Million Dollar Baby (London: Vintage, 2005)

—— Pound for Pound (London: Random House, 2006)

Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey (California: Michael Weise Productions, 1998)


Baldwin, Clive, ‘Everything in him had come undone: violence, fear and the limits of performance’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London, Birkbeck College, 2011), 102-142

Batty, Craig, ‘The Physical and Emotional Thread of the Archetypal Hero’s Journey’, Journal of Screenwriting, vol.1, no.2 (2010), 299-306

Bunce, Steve, ‘Far From Vegas: The Grassroots Boxers Going Toe-to-Toe Round Britain’, The Independent Magazine, Saturday 1 June 2013

Durham, Michael, ‘A short talk with a first novelist’, LIFE Magazine, August 29 1969, <> [accessed 20 December 2011]

Hazlitt, William, ‘The Fight’, New Monthly Magazine, February 1822,

<> [accessed 20 December 2012]

Jones, D.A.N., ‘Fighting Men’, London Review of Books, vol.6, no.2 (1984), <> [accessed 27 March 2013]

McRae, Donald, ‘Carl Frampton v Jeremy Parodi’, The Guardian, 18 October 2013, <> [accessed 23 October 2013]

—— ‘Orlando Cruz: I wanted to take out the thorn inside me and have peace’, The Guardian, 18 October 2012, <> [accessed 5 November 2012]

Moehringer, J.R., ‘Resurrecting The Champ’, The Los Angeles Times, 4 May 1997, <> [accessed 5 April 2012]

Smith, Gary, ‘The Shadow Boxer’, Sports Illustrated, April 18 2005, <> [accessed 15 November 2012]

Trickett, Alex, ‘Brutal Blow for Boxing’, BBC Sports Online, 10 October 2001, <> [accessed 21 April 2013]

Other Media:

Boxing at the Movies: Kings of the Ring, BBC4, 6 March 2013, 10pm

Barry McGuigan: Sports Life Stories, ITV1, 27 March 2013, 9pm

Champion, dir. by Mark Robson (United Artists, 1949)

Cool Hand Luke, dir. by Stuart Rosenberg (Warner Brothers, 1967)

Fat City, dir. by John Huston (Columbia Pictures, 1972)

From Here to Eternity, dir. by Fred Zinneman (Columbia Pictures, 1953)

‘Losing to Win’, It’s My Story, BBC Radio 4, 10 July 2011, 1.30pm

Million Dollar Baby, dir. by Clint Eastwood (Entertainment in Video, 2004)

On the Waterfront, dir. by Elia Kazan (Columbia Pictures, 1954)

Raging Bull, dir. by Martin Scorsese (United Artists, 1980)

Rocky, dir. by John G. Avildsen (United Artists, 1976)

The Fighter, dir. by David O. Russell (Paramount Pictures, 2010)

The Set-Up, dir. by Robert Wise (RKO Radio Pictures, 1948)