How appropriate that Budd Schulberg was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame less than two weeks before Saturday's Lennox Lewis-Vitali Klitschko heavyweight championship fight in Los Angeles. (If I were a TV sports announcer, I would have said, "How ironic.")
Schulberg wrote the classic 1947 boxing novel "The Harder They Fall," in which Toro Molina, "The Giant of the Andes," a huge fighter ("Six feet seven and three-quarters inches tall") of questionable talents from exotic Argentina, is built up through soft and fixed competition into a shot at the heavyweight championship. You might remember the 1956 movie starring Humphrey Bogart. He hasn't made another one since.
Klitschko is a huge fighter (6-foot-8!) of questionable talents from exotic Ukraine who is 32-1 with 31 knockouts against soft though presumably not fixed competition, mostly in Germany. Thanks to an injury to an even more lightly regarded Canadian named Kirk Johnson, he's a late replacement to fight Lewis for the title in Los Angeles on Saturday.
Sound familiar? Life imitating art? Well, yes and no. "The Harder They Fall" was actually based on the real-life story of '30s champion Primo Carnera ("The Ambling Alp" -- they could really nickname a guy in those days), who rode mob fixes to the title, as Molina does in the book. And Klitschko, 31, is not a dimwitted ring incompetent, which Molina was. In fact, he has a Ph.D. in kinesiology and says that if he'd had more notice before the fight, he'd have challenged Lewis to a game of chess as part of the publicity blitz. And though he's never beaten anyone of note and he quit on his stool with a shoulder injury against Chris Byrd to lose his little-regarded World Boxing Organization title, Klitschko does have a puncher's chance to beat Lewis.
The champ is 37 and hasn't fought since he beat up Mike Tyson a year ago. Athletes who take a pounding tend to decline quickly even without a yearlong layoff -- think running backs or middle infielders -- and Lewis wouldn't be the first guy to climb confidently through the ropes only to find that his hands can't answer the calls his brain is placing. He's also twice been knocked silly by ordinary opponents he took for granted, a danger in this fight too.
Lewis' win over Tyson seemed to be a nice career capper, a vanquishing of the last worthy opponent he had yet to beat, even if it was a badly faded version. But he fights on, and he seems to be chasing something, a legacy perhaps. Schulberg spoke about that to the Observer Sport Monthly of London in December: "He has the makings, he boxes well, moves well and has a very good jab and if he'd gone through six or eight hard fights he might have proved to be something," Schulberg said. "But he's getting towards the end of his career and who has he fought? Tyson when he's over the hill."
This idea, that Lewis' place in history was compromised by his lack of quality opponents, reminds me of the theory held by some fetishists of early rock 'n' roll -- stay with me here -- that if Carl Perkins hadn't been badly injured in a car crash right after he wrote and recorded "Blue Suede Shoes," he, not Elvis Presley, would have been the big star. That car crash was the best thing that ever happened to the modestly talented Perkins, who could dine out on his supposed missed opportunity for the next four decades.
Not having quality opponents was the best thing that ever happened to Lennox Lewis. If he'd had quality opponents, even opponents as good as the Tyrell Biggs types Tyson rolled through in the '80s, we never would have heard of him.
Schulberg also wrote the screenplay for "On the Waterfront," which means he penned the most famous words in boxing: "I coulda been a contender." With "six or eight hard fights," Lewis could have been a contender, all right. And nothing more.
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Tonya Harding, two-sport star [PERMALINK]
I don't understand why Tonya Harding is not insanely rich. It's not for lack of effort, bless her heart. She's tried darn near every way of making money short of getting a job, but while it seems increasingly unlikely she'll get to cash in Jayson Blair-style on her bad behavior, at least she's still in there punching.
Harding, owner of a decisive win over Paula Jones on Fox TV's "Celebrity Boxing," improved her ring record to 3-1 this week by outpointing Emily Gosa of Alabama, who was not only making her pro debut, she was pulling off the rare feat of participating in the first boxing match she'd ever seen. The bout took place in front of a select crowd of 1,800 at the Chinook Winds Casino.
Schnook? Oh, Chinook.
Harding "looked overweight and was clearly winded by the end of the first of four rounds," the Associated Press reported. "The entire fight barely elevated itself above a drunken street brawl." Clearly, the problem is that Harding lacks a good nickname. I suggest "The Skatin' Reprobate."
If there were a Tonya Harding reality TV show, I would do something I never do with reality TV shows. I would watch it.
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Another scribe in the boxing Hall [PERMALINK]
Honored along with Schulberg was Jack Fiske, who was for four decades the boxing writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and a mentor, often without intending to be, to many younger writers, including this one. I wrote the pugs from across the alley at the Examiner toward the end of Fiske's career a decade ago.
His twice-weekly column was faxed all over the world in the years before the Internet. He was a typical old newspaper man, blithely unconcerned with whether anybody liked him. I once bragged to him about some extraordinary means I'd gone to to get some interview or other, and he said, "Well, that was" -- a pause, thinking -- "stupid."
A local middleweight who'd been a hotshot amateur turned pro and started to lose. Fiske wrote that his manager-father, by encouraging him to fight on, "should be arrested for child abuse."
Fiske is in his mid-80s now and was too ill to attend the Hall of Fame ceremonies in upstate New York. The Chronicle, which under different ownership forced him out when interest in boxing withered, ran a brief story about his election to the Hall in January.
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