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Boxing pulsates through Carlo Rotella’s soul (and other insights from an interview)

 

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Carlo Rotella

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 18, 2017) — Carlo Rotella brings a historical perspective to his writings on boxing. He examines changes during the postindustrial age and how they’ve affected the sport.

 

He’s a keen observer of the intricacies of boxing, and has written extensively on the sport while also maintaining a busy schedule in academia. Rotella is the director of American Studies at Boston College.

Professor Rotella earned his Ph.D. from Yale University. He’s penned stories for The New York Times Magazine, including this recent op-ed piece (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/opinion/want-to-visit-the-jazz-age-try-fight-night-in-vegas.html?_r=0https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/opinion/want-to-visit-the-jazz-age-try-fight-night-in-vegas.html?_r=0), columns for the Boston Globe, as well as articles for The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post Magazine, Slate, The American Scholar and Harper’s, among others. His work has been featured in The Best American Essays anthology.

His first boxing book, “Cut Time: An Education at the Fights,” was published in 2003, setting the stage for thoughtful commentary and reporting in the years since.

“Boxing is not just fighting,” Rotella wrote in one passage in Cut Time. “It is also training and living right and preparing to go the distance in the broadest sense of the phrase, a relentless managing of self that anyone who gets truly old must learn.”

For Rotella, Larry Holmes was an instrumental figure in his future work chronicling boxing in books and other mediums. As he recalled in a 2001 interview with The Boston College Chronicle about visiting a gym that the ex-heavyweight champ owned in Eaton, Pa, “Going down there to watch him train, I had a chance to see a master craftsman work at his craft. That, as much as anything else, got me interested in writing about boxing.”

In a recent interview, Rotella, who grew up in Chicago’s South Side, reflects on his earliest memories of boxing, his current book project, how boxing illuminates societal changes, top boxing writers, Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s tainted legacy and more.

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What first piqued your interest in boxing growing up? Was there a clear-cut moment, fight, boxer, movie, etc. that sparked your lifelong interest in the Sweet Science?

Boxing was on TV in the 1970s, when I was a kid. I saw some of Larry Holmes’s big fights, and then, 20 years later, I found myself at my first academic job at Lafayette College, in his hometown, Easton, Pa. He was still fighting then, in his forties, and there wasn’t all that much to do in Easton, so I started hanging out at his gym. That’s how I got into writing about boxing.

How is boxing a revealing tool to illuminate sociological changes and trends in American society (and other nations) across the decades?

That’s a big, complicated subject, but one of the ways to come at it is to recognize that boxing is deeply connected to work rather than play, and that boxing reached its peak in this country at the height of the industrial era. It was once woven into the fabric of daily life in ways that it isn’t now. Like a lot of other things in the postindustrial era, it went from being an everyday feature of the neighborhood landscape — the boxing gym was part of a set of institutions that included saloon, church, union hall, etc. — to being an esoteric electronic spectacle put on by a handful of experts. Something similar goes for the pay structure: boxing is kind of a parody of a postindustrial labor market, with a handful of fighters and a triple handful of promoters, managers, and other business people making almost all the money and everybody else doing something less than breaking even.

Can you describe how you prepared your first book, “Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt,” organized the research and sought out those you interviewed? What was most interesting about it? Most challenging?

Only part of that book was about boxing, but I learned a good deal about women’s boxing while I was working on it, which I was overdue to catch up on. I spent a lot of time in Erie, Pa., working on that book, and the most marketable fighter in town at the time was a woman named Liz McGonigal who was barely five feet tall and had long blond hair and was getting a Ph.D. in psychology. Listening to factory workers rhapsodizing about how she reminded them of their hard-as-nails grandfathers suggested to me that something was going on there, bigger structural pieces of social and cultural history in motion, that I should try to figure out.

 

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Carlo Rotella’s upcoming book

 

Along with Michael Ezra, how have you narrowed down the authors for this upcoming project (set for April release), “The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside?” Who are the authors?

Our criteria were pretty simple: we looked for people who knew what they were talking about and could write. There were a couple that got away that we really wish we could have had — Frank Lotierzo, Rich O’Brien from Sports Illustrated, the trainer and former fighter John Scully — but we mostly got who we wanted to get, and were surprised by a few writers we hadn’t known about before. In addition to Mike and me, the lineup includes Robert Anasi, Brin-Jonathan Butler, Donovan Craig, Sarah Deming, Charles Farrell, Rafael Garcia, Gordon Marino, Louis Moore, Gary Lee Moser, Hamilton Nolan, Gabe Oppenheim, Sam Sheridan, and Carl Weingarten. There was no way we could offer them anything like what they deserve to get paid, but we could offer something that’s actually even rarer in the fight press these days, which is careful, thorough, patient editing. It was a real pleasure to work with these writers as they revised and polished their work to a high shine, and they were extremely generous in their commitment to this book. We asked for a substantial original piece from everybody (it’s a book of new essays, not reprints), and the contributors did us the honor of giving us their best work.

What is the mission of your latest book?

The Bittersweet Science is either the glorious last stand or the amazing comeback of good boxing writing.

What’s, in your view, the best-ever pro bout in Boston? Is it somewhat unheralded?

I couldn’t tell you, but I have a weakness for the kind of matchup in which an overprotected local hero runs into a guy who was brought in to lose to him but who, because he has been in with a higher class of fighter, suddenly realizes he might actually be able to pull off a win. Watching a guy who’s 7-13 upset a guy who’s 9-1 can be a lot more interesting than watching big shots play it safe.

For you, who are three to four must-read boxing writers nowadays? Why?

Charles Farrell is the most original and challenging fight writer working today, and he’s talking about stuff that most others don’t go anywhere near: how the business works, how what happens in the ring reflects what happens around it, how the heroic version of writing about boxing misses or falsifies most of what makes it interesting. He’s a one-man antidote for sports-talk sentimentalism and fake-literary posturing. And, as Farrell himself points out, when it comes to technical analysis Frank Lotierzo is the best in the business. He’s great on breaking down fighting styles and strategies. Mike Ezra, my co-editor on The Bittersweet Science, brings a historian’s command of evidence and argument to thinking about boxing that’s sorely missing in most of what I read in the sports press.

Is “When We Were Kings” the best boxing documentary ever made in your view? Is it near the top? If it’s another one, what’s No. 1? Why?

I’m in the minority who don’t love it. I found it all right as a document of the moment but not all that compelling in its treatment of Ali and Foreman. If you don’t seek complexity in your characters, you don’t find any. Of course, I don’t have a documentary to propose in its place as best ever. I tend not to be all that compelled by boxing movies, documentary or fictional. There’s actual boxing out there; why bother with movies?

Do you approach your essay/column/book writing from a scholarly perspective more so than a journalistic/pundit’s view? Or do you feel you have a combo approach?

I hope I don’t approach anything from a pundit’s point of view. I regard that label as basically pejorative, suggesting a lack of legwork more than anything else. I don’t know whether I’m more academic or journalist. I think of boxing writing as primarily an essayist’s craft, which has its own priorities.

When was the first boxing fight you saw live at a venue? Who fought?

Good question. It was probably a tank-town card in the Lehigh Valley, so likely it was in Bethlehem or Allentown. I don’t remember the exact card, but I can promise you that any shifty effete outlanders from far-flung exotic locales like Altoona or Reading who had the temerity to invade the valley got what was coming to them from manly local bruisers.

When was the last one? Who competed?

Ward-Kovalev in Las Vegas, which I covered for the NY Times op-ed section (cited above). A very good fight, contested at a high level throughout (there was more effective feinting by both men in that fight than I’ve seen in a long time), and one that I hope will produce a rematch. Ward’s likely to have the upper hand if they do fight again, having already gone through the hard rounds in which he got to know Kovalev’s power and worked out ways to deal with it, but it’s still a good matchup.

Did the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout create big present and future problems for pay-per-view TV? Did it damage the possibility of increased viewership via PPV for the coming years?

It certainly wasn’t the first time Mayweather’s crew engineered a prohibitive mismatch against a much smaller guy who was safely over the hill. It’s part of what makes Mayweather the greatest money fighter of all time (measuring risk to reward), and more power to him, though it’s also part of what prevents him from being the all-time great in the ring he wants to be recognized as. Outpointing a shot Pacquiao isn’t much of an all-time credential, especially when Mayweather wants to compare himself to Sugar Ray Robinson, whose non-undefeated record in February 1943 alone — 2-1, splitting with Jake La Motta and beating California Jackie Wilson between the two bouts — is more impressive than any three or four years of Mayweather’s undefeated career. Pacquiao has fought much tougher competition and has a far more distinguished record than Mayweather, and to my mind he’s the more accomplished fighter, but he had almost no chance in that fight, which was held more than a few years and pounds beyond his prime. But there’s nothing new about any of that. Why would this fight, of all overhyped mismatches, suddenly cause the public to become suspicious of pay per view?

Who’s your favorite movie director? Why?

I don’t think I have one. I tend to be partial to individual movies and to genres (almost anything featuring swordplay and archaic speech will do), but not so much to directors. Favorite writers, yes, many; favorite directors, not really.

***

Word association time: What words and/or phrases immediately comes to mind when I mention the following…?

Muhammad Ali – For all the praise that has been lavished on him, much of which he deserves, he was underrated in at least two areas: functional strength and fouling acumen.

George Foreman – I kind of enjoy how crazy he could get on the air when he was calling fights. He has a thing about not being touched on the chest, for instance, and every once in a while he’d get fixated on that and start ranting about it: “Never touch a man’s chest when you’re working his corner! That’s how you take his power!” and so on. Way more interesting than the usual color-commentator blah blah blah.

Sonny Liston – If both fights with Ali were fakes, not just the second, it does something interesting to the canonical Sixties, sort of unwinding the whole thing from one loose thread.

Howard Cosell – He rarely seemed to have any idea about or interest in what was happening in the ring in front of him. The real drama was his struggle to do his pointless job (why do we need him to tell us mostly wrong things about what we’re seeing on the screen?) against the tendency of his own mayfly attention span to lead him elsewhere. If you go back and watch the last round of Holmes-Cooney, he barely even notices that the fight has been stopped. Then, afterward, he obtusely asks Cooney why he seems so depressed. When he visits Holmes in his locker room, Holmes is so violently impatient to be out of his odious company that there’s no point in Cosell’s attempting to interview him.

Sugar Ray Robinson – A very rare case in which the person generally acknowledged as the best ever may actually be the best ever.

Mike Tyson – Short prime, short wind, short fuse. Short arms, too. But he turned out to be a thoughtful and even somewhat interesting guy once he stopped fighting.

Bernard Hopkins – The most accomplished fighter of our time, and the distinction rests heavily, as Mike Ezra has pointed out, on the strength of what he did in his post-prime, which is especially impressive.

Roberto Duran – Maybe the last short-list pound-for-pound all-time great I’ll see in my lifetime. He came along just in time to have enough fights and enough major fights to qualify, something that’s almost impossible under the current business model of boxing stardom. He would have been among the very best in any era.

George Kimball – I got to know him late in his life, and I really enjoyed spending time with him. A well-read, funny, thoughtful guy. He also knew a lot of publicans in Dublin, which came in handy when I went there for an academic conference.

Marvin Hagler – Years ago, when I was on assignment on the road and staying in a motel full of hustlers, with all kinds of criminal noise coming from the parking lot and hallways, I couldn’t get to sleep until I happened on a rerun of Hagler-Mugabi. It was like a reassuring bedtime story, a reminder that all was right with the universe. I slept like a baby.

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