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Literary Notes: “Grimmish” (Book Review by Thomas Hauser)

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Grimmish by Michael Winkler (Westbourne Books) is strange book. And an intriguing one. The book focuses on a one-year period in 1908-1909 when boxer Joe Grim toured Australia engaging in fights. Winkler describes his writing as “experimental non-fiction.” Experimental fiction with a factual underpinning would be more accurate.

Grim (ne Severio Giannone) was born in Italy in 1881. His family came to the United States when he was ten. Fighting was in his nature. He was famed in his day for the ability to endure punishment and being virtually impossible to knock out.

Boxrec.com credits Grim with 179 known bouts between 1899 and 1913 resulting in 17 wins, 33 losses, 6 draws, and scores of “newspaper” defeats. He entered the prize ring well over three hundred times and was battered by myriad opponents whose names have been lost to history and also by Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Gans (twice), and Jack Johnson. During and after his ring career, he was committed to facilities for the treatment of mental health issues. He died in Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases in 1939 at age 57.

Winkler views Grim through the eyes of a first-person narrator and a man who may or may not be the narrator’s much older uncle. The book opens with a pseudo-review by the author himself that functions as a preface, foreword, introduction – call it what you will.

In this opening, Winkler warns readers of “the question of authenticity and the impossibility that this presentation of Grim will bear much or any connection to the flesh-and-blood fighter Joe Grim. The inclusion of extracts from contemporary newspaper accounts,” he adds, “lends context, although less tenacious readers may find they impede progress. There is no narrative arc, close to zero love interest, skittish occasional action, incident rather than plot.”

All true. And I might add that there are passages in Grimmish involving a talking goat where I had no idea what Winkler was trying to accomplish.

That said; through a collection of fragments and vignettes, Winkler crafts a compelling impressionistic portrait of Grim.

“Joe Grim,” he writes, “reminds us of where the bounds of the normal are drawn, and stands conspicuously and spectacularly outside that compass. Without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.”

Other thoughts advanced by Winkler include:

*         “Grim’s philosophy in its entirety – or more than a philosophy, which implies a distance between self and thought however small; his tao, his raison d’etre, his self – was simply this: I can take more punishment than they can deliver.”

*         “Grim withstood hundreds of blows every fight. He was a one-off, the ultimate boxing outlier. But his metier was resilience rather than resistance. He absorbed and accepted. His contests changed in a profound sense, becoming not about winning or losing, but hinging on whether or not he could endure the punishment meted out. And on that score he invariably triumphed. Grim became a spectacle rather than a fighter, but he was popular and he made a living.”

*         “There was always a third person in the ring, but the role of the referee was neutered by Grim’s resilience. The crowd had paid, quite explicitly, to come and see if Grim could endure the beating, and no referee had the imprimatur to stop that fun.”

*         “Try picturing a baseball bat swung with great force into your exposed ribs, under the armpit. Try to conceive of a well-aimed mallet landing erratically just above your left ear, and you with no means to stop it. Imagine these things are happening to you in front of a crowd baying like starved dogs. Imagine a single vicious punch to your face, and then multiply it by many hundred, and then think of the cheering that each punch drags from thousands of jeering onlookers. Then we have some gesture towards understanding Grim.”

Winkler also recreates Grim’s voice:

*         “I think of myself as a travelling artiste. The crowds love me, and then they speak of me once I’ve gone, and that adds value to my days on the planet, somehow.”

*         “In that boxing time, I am outside of time. Six rounds, three minutes each, and in that span I belong to that span only. There is no connection to clock time, to earth time. And that is how I live, with and for those ripped out portions where time has no dominion. Six three-minute rounds, five one-minute breaks, twenty-three minutes that are as long as you need them to be, or they can be devoid of time altogether.”

*         “I stand in front of the hardest hitting men on the planet, and then the promoter still tries to f*** me sideways on fight payments as I make my way home. It is a pitiful racket and I have been in it too long, and I have no other path ahead, and that is that is that.”

*         “I worry that I am outside the scope of nature. I am not just at the edge of my species, but over the margin. I do not belong. I worry that one day my fighting might end, and that without the pain I will have no map to find myself.”

Pain – “the rich realm of pain,” Winkler calls it – is a recurring theme throughout Grimmish. At the beginning of the narrative, he concedes, “The sustained depiction of physical violence is likely to alienate some, while others may weary of the defiant wallowing in the sludge of masculinity. [But] there is likely to be a readership, however small, that finds within these covers something sincere and worthwhile.”

This pain isn’t confined to the prize ring. There are tales in Grimmish of men mutilating each other with hot poker irons in tests of will and the ability to endure pain. Other fragments include:

*         ” What is the thing we call pain? It is something that captures the attention of the sufferer but otherwise has no meaning. It makes no sound, has no colour or smell, occupies no physical space. And yet at its most extreme, pain becomes the only thing of which the sufferer is aware, bigger for the victim in that instant than any object in the universe.”

*         “Some might think that the glory of pain is that it teaches you things. And I say as one who might know, if there is enough of it then pain is just pain. A lot of pain is a lot of pain, and it is not a friend and not a teacher and not a guide and not a redemption. It is just pain.”

*         “My audience wants to travel with me on a pain journey, so I give them as much as they need. And for the rest, I block blows, I absorb the force of punches through my neck and spine, I stall and distract, I allow myself to be knocked down in order to intensify the spectacle and to wear some extra seconds off the clock. It is a show, and my body is the stage and the instrument, and that is why they pay, and that is how I get to eat well and put money in my name into the bank.”

And some parting thoughts from Grimmish:

*         “Interesting what humans will pay for, what we actually like. When James Corbett went to England, they wanted to entertain him and their idea was to take him to a rat pit and have a champion bulldog kill a thousand rats in a thousand seconds.”

*         “Anybody can learn to box. But to fight, it is different.”

*         “There’s a trick to life. I think you’ll find it, even if you have to wait until you’re very old. Just keep looking. You’ll probably get there in the end.”

If you’re intrigued and want more, read Grimmish.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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 A Conversation With Acclaimed Journalist and Boxing Analyst Mark Kriegel

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If you’re a storyteller, and Mark Kriegel is certainly that, then boxing is the perfect passport.

A multi-skilled journalist who works for ESPN on several platforms, Kriegel’s video essays for Top Rank promotions, which are fewer than 200 words, are popular, and sets the New York City native apart from the crowd.

“I do think when those essays work, I’m able to boil down the theme of the fight into something that’s really small,” he said. “I’ve learned more about writing in the last two years because of those essays than I had in the previous decade.”

Kriegel added: “It’s because of those essays and because they really force you to make choices and they force you to cut out whatever is extraneous,” he said. “If it doesn’t matter in the story line, it goes. I’ve never been able to be that ruthless with my own words until I started writing these essays. Learning how to write for television has given me more discipline than I’ve ever had before in terms of the word and selecting the right word.”

Because boxers are willing to speak with the media, their stories are often worth telling.

“Boxing is the most organic form of storytelling, even more than the theater. Boxers are more honest than most other athletes, even when they’re lying. Boxers generally remain accessible,” said Kriegel, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree from Columbia University. “Fighters need the storytellers because there is no league. The fighter’s story is more important than his or her record or even his or her belts. The story is really what we’re tuning in for.”

The sweet science can be a sideshow, but it’s still usually compelling.

“There’s a lot not to like about boxing, but that’s also why it makes for great storytelling,” said Kriegel, a two-time New York Times bestselling author. “Some days I think it’s a sport. Some days I’m convinced it’s not a sport. Boxing is better for the storytellers than it is for the fighters. That’s a guilty confession.”

By the nature of boxing, there are two combatants in the ring and because of this, there is conflict.

While fans watch and journalists cover the sport, everyone wants to see who prevails, but it’s often the back story that seems to bring out the fans’ rapture.

Who doesn’t want to see a young man or woman battle his or her way out of a hardscrabble life and reach heights reserved for a chosen few?

“What makes for a good story is conflict. Boxing is formalized, ritualized conflict. It’s a staged, managed conflict. It’s elemental. It’s two guys basically naked in the ring going at each other,” said Kriegel, who began his career as a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald and the New York Daily News where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the Feature Writing category. “Because of the way it’s physically constructed, you’re going to see the nature of each character exposed. If you’re a storyteller, boxing does all the work for you.”

There is something pure and fundamental about boxing. “The other sports are metaphors for what boxing actually is and that’s combat. The difference between MMA and boxing, apart from the modes of combat, is that unlike MMA, boxing has a past,” Kriegel said. “It has a history. It’s a corrupt history, but it’s a very romantic one.”

It’s likely Kriegel came to be a writer because of his father, Leonard Kriegel, who is 88 and still lives in the same apartment on Eighth Avenue, two blocks from Madison Square Garden.

The elder Kriegel’s story is a remarkable one. Born in 1933, he was a polio victim at a young age, but this didn’t stop him from becoming an accomplished writer and teacher.

“My father is from the Bronx. He lost the use of his legs when he was 11 because of polio,” Kriegel said. “He’s a professor at City College. Most of his work and his teaching is American Literature. Which meant American male Literature. He was a very charismatic, crippled man writing about the nature of masculinity and it informed almost everything I’ve ever written.”

Kriegel is the author of four books including a novel, “Bless Me, Father,” which was based on a front-page column he wrote for the New York Post.

Esteemed writer Nick Tosches, who penned numerous books, had a hand in Kriegel’s development as an author.

“He wrote these fantastically stylized biographies,” Kriegel said of Tosches, who wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin and Sonny Liston, to name but a few of his subjects.

Kriegel’s initial biography was published in 2004 and titled, “Namath: A Biography,” followed three years later by “Pistol: The Life Of Pete Maravich,” and five years later by “The Good Son: The Life Of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini.”

“I’d done a newspaper piece on Mancini in the [New York] Daily News. I owed the publisher a book on Michael Jordan, which I wasn’t too excited about doing, and this idea of Mancini kept coming back to me,” Kriegel said. “It wouldn’t leave me alone and I wouldn’t leave Ray alone.”

The book’s genesis took shape at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, California, with Kriegel, Mancini and the actor Ed O’Neill, eating and drinking until the small hours.

“Ray’s relationship with his father was more straightforward. He was out to redeem his father and that was beautiful,” Kriegel said. “There aren’t that many happy stories in boxing.”

Mancini promised his father, Lenny, a lightweight contender who was injured in World War II that he would win the championship he never did.

After scooping up the World Boxing Association lightweight belt in May 1982 from Arturo Frias, Mancini gave the belt to his father.

In a nationally televised title fight six months later at the outdoor ring at Caesars Palace, Mancini stopped Duk Koo Kim in the 14th round. The 27-year-old South Korean suffered a severe head injury and died five days later.

There are ups and downs in every person’s life, but it was extremely difficult for Mancini to accept what happened to Kim.

Though he retained his title and was pleased with that, Mancini said there was nothing good about that fight.

Three months after the November bout, Kim’s mother committed suicide because of what happened to her son and because family members were bickering over the money he earned.

Since time heals all wounds, Kim’s son, Kim Chi-Wan, eventually forgave Mancini, but it took nearly three decades.

It’s been said the 1980s was a Golden Era for boxing, and it was, but where does the current crop stand for Kriegel?

“There aren’t enough good fights. You can make an argument and it’s perfectly reasonable that the 1980s was [the Golden Era] because you had the Four Kings [Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler] and they fought each other,” he said. “[Muhammad] Ali and [Joe] Frazier fought their trilogy in far less time than it took [Manny] Pacquiao and [Floyd] Mayweather Jr. to get together for one. By the time they did, neither was in their prime.”

While there are outstanding boxers plying their trade right now, there are also problems.

“I really admire Mayweather a lot. One of the unfortunate byproducts of his era is the emphasis on the perfect record,” Kriegel noted. “To me a fighter’s career doesn’t become a truly dramatic proposition until he or she loses. The great plague on boxing right now is all these undefeated champions. I see a bunch of perfect records, but I don’t see many perfect fighters. The loss is what makes it dramatic.”

Kriegel said in an earlier time, Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr., both undefeated, would have fought each other multiple times and taken on all comers the way Oscar De La Hoya and the recently retired Shawn Porter did.

Pete Hamill, a national treasure, was Kriegel’s dear friend and mentor.

What does Kriegel take away from his time with Hamill, who passed away in August 2020?

“He made the idea of New York so romantic,” said Kriegel of Hamill, who was a journalist, writer, novelist and editor. “He made the idea of boxing romantic. He was a great and generous teacher. A really wonderful teacher. He was the kind of writer I wanted to become.”

Kriegel became a sportswriter by circumstance. “The [New York] Post turned me into a sports columnist out of desperation,” he said. “I never really took to becoming a sportswriter. I always felt ambivalent except when it was covering boxing. Boxing was the only sport I really loved covering and still do.”

It’s the elements in and around boxing that spark Kriegel’s imagination.

“The same stuff I loved about covering cops and criminals and courts, I found in boxing,” he pointed out. “I mean that you could actually find great moments of humanity. Boxing had all the stuff that I had been looking for. Thematically and in terms of content: fame and masculinity, good and evil. They’re all great dramas.”

Luckily, Kriegel found boxing and boxing found Kriegel. It’s a perfect match.

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Vonda Ward: Much More Than a Highlight Reel

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Anyone who can beat 235-pound Martha Salazar three times is someone who can flat out fight. An ex-basketball player named Vonda Ward defeated her three times (all by decision).

Salazar was an immensely popular and talented female fighter out of San Francisco, CA by way of Jalisco, Mexico. On November 8, 2014, she won the WBC world heavyweight title against Tanzee Daniel by unanimous decision. She lost the title in March 2016 to Alejandra Jimenez in Mexico and retired the following year.

Bottom line: Martha Salazar was a pioneer in legitimizing the heavyweight division in Female Boxing.

“Some girls like to play soccer. Some like to play tennis. Some play volleyball. But we don’t play – we box. So, it’s a very big difference between other sports knowing that someone else is going to hit you. So we want everybody to feel secure, safe, and know that this is what we do, this is what we are and no one can change us.”  — Martha Salazar

Vonda Ward

The 6’6” Ward played basketball at Trinity HS in Garfield Heights, Ohio, and was twice named Ohio’s “Ms. Basketball. She made the prestigious Parade All American team twice and was named an All American by USA Today. In 1991, she joined the University of Tennessee basketball team coached by the legendary Pat Summit.

During her four years at UT, Ward started 49 of 125 games, averaging 6.7 points and 5.6 rebounds while blocking 98 shots – still the 10th most by a Tennessee player. During her time there, the Lady Vols put together a 122-11 record and won three Southeastern Conference championships. Ward was a member of the 1995 squad that played in the NCAA championship game, losing to perennial powerhouse Connecticut. Ward then competed with USA Basketball as a member of the 1993 Jones Cup Team that won the Bronze in Taipei.

vonda

After college, Vonda played for a professional basketball club in Aschaffenburg, Germany and then the ABL’s bootstrap Colorado Xplosion. Injuries cut short her pro basketball career, so given her muscularity, size and athleticism, she was attracted to boxing.

In 2000, her first year of competition, Ward, nicknamed the “All American Girl,” was 10-0 including eight first-round knockouts. None of her opponents lasted beyond the second round. While her fluidity was not especially smooth, she compensated by leveraging her size and a deceptive mean streak (inside the ring) to beat down her opposition. She simply was physically superior to her competition. She was no female Ivan Drago but her defined-sculpted body made her very intimidating.

Ward was 18-0 when she fought the ever-dangerous 5’9” Ann Wolfe on May 8, 2004. In the opening round, Wolf scored the most astounding KO in female boxing history and one of the most spectacular of all time, male or female. Ward had jumped forward into the impact of Ann’s overhand punch, and the result left her unresponsive for several minutes. She was then immobilized and stretchered out of the ring.

Most would have retired at this point, but Vonda wasn’t “most.” Seven months later, she returned to the ring and knocked out Marsha Valley in four rounds in Cleveland.

She went on to win four more bouts, finishing her career with a record of 23-1 with 17 KOs. In her next-to-last fight, in February of 2007, Ward won the inaugural WBC female heavyweight title, defeating Salazar for the third and final time by unanimous decision.

This is the part that is always overlooked. Unfortunately, Vonda’s career continues to be defined by her spectacular and scary KO and not her 23-1 record with 17 KO’s. It’s always about the highlight reel.

Vonda Ward announced her retirement in 2010. She is now a personal trainer working out of King’s Gym in Bedford Heights, Ohio. Known for giving back to her community, she often reminisces about the late Pat Summit and what could have been at Tennessee. She was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

For most, Vonda will be remembered for the Wolf knockout. For this writer, however, she will be noted as a rare female athlete who was able to compete at the top level of two different professional sports.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com and welcomes comments and posts.

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Don King Keeps On Truckin’ and That Portends More Junk

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There are two ways of looking at Don King. There was a day when the former Cleveland street hustler was the pre-eminent boxing promoter in the world. That he is still swinging away at the age of 90 is a wonderful thing, a tribute to his perspicacity. But it’s worth remembering that although King was the driving force behind some of the most storied fights in history, he also foisted a lot of junk on the boxing public. And nowadays, now that his bankroll has atrophied, pretty much all that’s left is the junk.

As a purveyor of junk, King appears to have outdone himself with his forthcoming show in Warren, Ohio. Granted, the main event of the Jan. 29 card, a rematch between cruiserweight title-holder Ilunga Makabu and his South African countryman Thabiso Mchunu, is a good match between fighters with seemingly comparable skill sets. And the supporting bouts might well be entertaining. But that’s entertaining in the way that a train wreck is entertaining.

The co-feature between Trevor Bryan (pictured) and Jonathan Guidry is a travesty, or at least a travesty from the standpoint of how it’s being packaged.

Bryan, who hails from Schenectady, New York, is undefeated (21-0, 15 KOs) and owns a share of the WBA world heavyweight title (the other piece is owned by Oleksandr Usyk). However, he has yet to fight a top-10 opponent and no one really knows how good he is. What we do know is that he is prone to slothfulness. He carried 267 ½ pounds for his last bout against ancient Bermane Stiverne which was 31 pounds more than he had carried in his previous engagement.

In defense of Bryan, this was his first fight in 29 months and many gyms were closed during the pandemic. Moreover, the suet around his waist was entirely in character with King-controlled heavyweights of yesteryear. During the mid-1980s when there was a revolving door of heavyweight title-holders and the term “alphabet soup” was born, love handles were standard. Jack Newfield postulated that King’s heavyweights became so demoralized by his chicanery that they lost all incentive to stay in shape.

That brings us to Jonathan Guidry whose 17-0-2 record was forged against opponents with a combined record of 108-118 at the time that he fought them. The 32-year-old Guidry, who has carried as much as 270 pounds on his 5’11” frame, hails from Dulac, Louisiana, deep in Cajun country, where his regular job is harvesting shellfish from the waterways of his parish.  He is trained by his 45-year-old brother, Martin Verdin, an active boxer with a 23-20-2 record, but for this fight he moved his tack to Houston to train under Bobby Benton who has also trained Regis Prograis.

Trevor Bryan’s original opponent was Mahmoud Charr, the perpetual WBA “Champion in Recess” who purportedly could not get a visa to travel from Germany. Jonathan Guidry was already on the card, penciled in to fight beefy, 42-year-old Alonzo Butler.

The WBA has a rule that a boxer must be ranked in the top-15 to compete for a world title. When Charr, who last fought in November of 2017, was lopped off the bill of fare, the incorrigibly shameless Panama-based sanctioning body boosted Guidry to #13 in its ratings. The folks at boxrec, where King has no influence, are not as sanguine. At boxrec, Guidry clocks in at 256.

The undercard, we are informed, will feature “boxers knocking on the door of stardom.” Presumably that includes the grizzled Butler whose new opponent is 13-1 Ahmed Hefny, an obscure 37-year-old fighter from Queens, New York, whose nickname is “Prince of Egypt.” Butler vs. Hefny is one of four scheduled 10-round NABA title fights. As currently constituted (there will inevitably be last-minute changes), these match-ups include only one competitor under the age of 30, that being 27-year-old welterweight Cody Wilson, a product of the West Virginia Toughman circuit.

A press release concocted by Don King is always full of goo. “The world’s greatest promoter, Don King, has come through with another spectacular championship night of boxing,” says the release for the Jan. 29 card. The receipts, we are informed, will benefit “homeless, poor, and downtrodden people.” Canelo Alvarez, it’s said, will be there to scout Ilunga Makubu who is on his short list of future opponents. (If Canelo turns up in Warren, Ohio, I will eat my hat.)

There are times that I think that a Don King press release is calculated to create a backlash on the theory that all publicity is good publicity. A movie universally panned as among the worst ever is almost certain to develop a cult following.

If King’s show is replete with memorable moments and you miss it, don’t blame me; I said the show was potentially entertaining. But if you enjoy boxing because of the artistry displayed by the top performers, then you would be better served by averting your eyes.

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