Blog Image

Boxing Reads

About the Blog

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

Prose that Packs a Punch – F.X. Toole

F.X. Toole Posted on 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.

, 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

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

(Article originally published on Thresholds Short Story Forum)

My Top 5 Fight Scenes in Fiction

Top 5 Posted on Thu, April 23, 2015 09:54:05

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.

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.

Leonard Gardner

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.

Chuck Palahniuk

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.

Ralph Ellison

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.’

W.C. Heinz

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 List Posted on Thu, April 23, 2015 09:49:58


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

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

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

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

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

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F.X., Million Dollar Baby (London: Vintage,

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[accessed 20 December 2012]

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

Donald, ‘Carl Frampton v Jeremy Parodi’, The
, 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]

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]

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)

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)