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Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing

by Chris Jones

One thing about the Sweet Science upon which all initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better.” When the great A.J. Liebling wrote that in1955 it was as a rebuke to all those fighters and fight writers who complained that boxing’s best days were behind them. Howling after antiquity, Liebling called it. Of course, he could howl with the best of them. He longed for the days of bare-knuckle Ike Weir, the Belfast Spider, or Pierce Egan, the Thucydides of the English prize ring.
Liebling wasn’t only a beautiful writer, he was perceptive enough to understand that boxing would ever be thus and that, nearly 40 years after his death, some of the howling would be for him. I don’t know about fighters and fight writers, but speaking for fight readers I’ll say that as long as we lack Liebling, boxing will never get better.
It’s not that there aren’t some formidable boxing writers at work today: New Yorker editor David Remnick; Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt; the novelist and poet and sometime fighter Steven Heighton. No, maybe it’s boxing that’s the problem – is it just me or does fight writing nowadays seem to be more or less a matter of trying to explain just what’s wrong with the sport?
With Falling Hard, Chris Jones gamely steps up to join the greats in the writing ring. He weighs in with a keen eye and a robust sense of humour. He’s quick on his feet, and packs a tough-guy idiom that would have made Damon Runyon proud. Looks like the kid can’t fail.
Let’s begin with what we might call the straight story. In 1998 and 1999 Jones covered seven fights for the National Post. He travelled to Las Vegas, Montreal, New York, Detroit. He saw Davey Hilton, Jr., Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield. To bone up on their pasts, he read all kinds of press clippings. He sat through seven weigh-ins and endless press conferences. Don King told him he was handsome. Muhammad Ali invited him to his birthday party. He interviewed the guy who retrieved the chunk of Holyfield’s ear that Tyson chewed off. Jones’s own diet wasn’t that good, and he drank a lot. At ringside his shirt got splashed with fighter blood. He tried dabbing the blood with Sprite, but it didn’t come out. He went to more press conferences.
He could have left it there. If he had, I might be able to report that, despite its thick Runyonskin and the surfeit of press conferences, Falling Hard delivered some artful reporting, plenty of picaresque colour, a penetrating intelligence, and a percussive wit.
But. Somehow, somewhere, Jones decided that straight wasn’t the way to go. He needed purpose, structure, an arc. Bend the story into an arc and you’re not just reporting, you’re adding torque, dimension – you’re leading the reader on a journey. Where to? Why, to the exalted upper slopes of professional boxing, where champions stand in bright light wearing outsized belts.
That’s the up, but every arc has its down. Well, what if, once you’re up there, it all turns out to be one big brutal, corrupt, pathetic, klieg-lit scam? Throw in a journey within (because of course, as Jones reminds us early on, “to love fights is to hold something dark inside”), and, hey, you’re looking at a coming-of-age paradise-lost kind of trajectory. Sure.
The inner journey is the one I wish he’d actually taken. Why do we love fights? What is that dark something? Too bad, but these are questions Jones never seriously pursues, finally leaving them to rest with an overblown fantasy of harming a stumbling drunk on a train.
Otherwise, I’d like to say I was pleased to accept the whole seduction story Jones spins. That in the innocent fall of 1998 boxing charmed him into a long “instant of naive clarity” in which he believed high-stakes fighting occupied some kind of higher ground. That it had “riches” to “steal”. That it could turn “paupers” like him into “heroes” like … who?
To anyone who’s paid even passing attention to the sorry state of boxing in the last 20 years it’s just not plausible to imagine any heroes. That’s why, as Sweet Science turns to Bitter before Jones’s very eyes, it’s impatience you feel rather than empathy. Mike Tyson’s “a bad man and a brute.” “Boxing will never change. It has always been rotten. Dirty. Suspect.” “It’s a function rooted in violence: how much good can come from it?” Okay, then. Boxing is ugly and it breeds ugliness. Here endeth the lesson.