Friday, January 23, 2015

Boxing's Last Chance Saloon: Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own and Scream: The Tyson Tapes

I've long been fascinated by boxing, no doubt stemming from having spent my childhood watching televised boxing in the 1950s and 60s with my dad, who, as a ringside photographer in Chicago and Detroit during the 1930s and 40s, shot photos of any number of fighters like Joe Louis, Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. So I have fond memories of watching fighters like  Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Kid Gavilan and Carmen Basilio, on TV every Friday night, as well as local boxers like Art Aragon, Carlos Ortiz, Lauro Salas, and Pajarito Moreno on Wednesday and Saturday night live from the Hollywood Legion Stadium (presented by Lenny Bruce's pal Hank Weaver) and the Olympic Auditorium. I continued watching, following it fairly closely through the era of Ali, then Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, up to early Tyson. I also watched, but was usually disappointed by most British boxers, with the possible exception of the Sheffield boxer Herol Graham, known, during the 1980s, for being unhittable until a glass-jaw contradicted that notion, turning the canvas into his best friend.

Still, it's the precision and intelligence of fighters  that I've always liked, which is why I've always preferred boxers rather than battlers. It was only during the Tyson's era that my interest really began to wane. It seemed that boxing had turned into even more of a spectacle- though I suppose that began The Rumble In the Jungle- and, in addition, more blood thirsty than ever. Maybe it was Tyson's remarks about wanting to make his opponents suffer, or watching what amounted to vengeance fights. In the UK, boxing, for me, reached its saturation point in the Eubanks and Benn and Eubanks and Watson fights. The atmosphere in those fights was genuinely scary.  Moreover, by that time it had become normal for a fighter to bad mouth his opponent. Perhaps that also had started with Ali, though no one after Ali did it with the same panache and humour. Suddenly fighters and fans alike seemed to be baying for blood, as if they were watching animals rather than humans fight. Boxing was never pretty but suddenly it had turned downright ugly.

Having said that, I still enjoy reading about past fighters, particularly from the era when I first started watching the sport. And there are a number of such books to choose from, most, if not all, typified by an  strong emphasis on style, a quality they share in common with their subjects. Amongst my favourites are  classic texts by A.J. Liebling (The Sweet Science), Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Fall) and Mailer (The Big Fight), but also Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing), Katherine Dunn (One Ring Circus), W.C. Heinz (The Professional), F.X. Toole (Rope Burns), as well as Jose Torres and Geroge Kimball. And, of course, my favorite boxing novel, Leonard Gardner's Fat City (also my favorite boxing movie).

To that list of books I'll gladly add  Jonathan Rendall, having recently read Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own (1997) and the posthumously published Scream: The Tyson Tapes (2014). Both provide an inside look into the sport, from everyday, even low-life, aspects to how it functions at the highest level.  Rendall, an Oxford-educated Brit, died a few years ago, at age 48, was legendary amongst journalists. His ability as a writer matched by his inability to meet a deadline. Yet he could conjure up the atmosphere of the sport with the best of them, a sport that he, like myself, loved and hated in equal measures.

In between the above two books he managed to grind out two others. In 1999 there was Twelve Grand: The Gambler as Hero. An offer he couldn't resist: a publisher fronting him £12,000 to gamble with as he saw fit on the condition that he would write about it.  With an obvious nod to his literary hero, Dostoyevsky, Rendall recounted his adventure with humour and pathos. He then parlayed that book into a three-part Channel 4 TV series, and, of course, another twelve grand. In the TV series he travelled to various race courses and gambling sites in Britain, Las Vegas and Australia, always observing, always involved in whatever action happened to be going down, including a two-day relationship with a woman he picks up in a casino.

Then there was Garden Hopping in 2006, about the search for his birth mother- a search that ended in disappointment. He also penned a drinking column for the Observer, entitled The Last Chance Saloon, as well as writing for the Times, The Correspondent, The Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday. Clearly, Rendall had problems when it came to drinking and gambling, which led to some tricky situations. Like the time a Sunday newspaper commissioned him to interview boxing trainer Brendan Ingle, which ended in Rendall hiding out in a sauna to avoid some thugs who wanted to beat him up. Or in This Bloody Mary... when he's held hostage in a hotel by some menacing security guys who demand money from him.  The opening sentence of The Last Bloody Mary... captures Rendall's writing style and full-tilt manner perfectly: "It was a few hours after Frank Bruno attacked me at Betty Boop's bar in the lobby of the MGM Grand that I decided to get out of boxing."

This Bloody Mary... was good enough to win the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, previously awarded to Angela Carter, John Le CarrĂ©, Ted Hughes and Dorris Lessing.  Rendall not writes about boxing, but he writes about about writing about boxing. Which is unusual. Or maybe I'm partial because I share with Rendall an appreciation of the nimble Herol Graham and his shadow Prince Naseem.  Not only does Rendall enjoy hanging-out with old-timers like the East Ender and former champion Jack Kid Berg, as well as an assortment of insiders, might-have-beens and never-would-bes, but he wasn't afraid to actually manage  the formidable and stylish Colin McMillan, which he writes about in some detail.  Sad, funny, obsessive and insightful, This Bloody Mary... gives you a picture of the fight game that few other books offer. And worth reading if only for Rendall's search for the legendary Cuban boxer Kid Chocolate, whom he eventually finds living in distressing circumstances in Havana:
"Kid Chocolate sat down on one of his chairs and opened his mouth to speak. But rum trickled out instead through his cracked lips stained with tobacco, like lava suddenly spewed from a long-extinct volcano. His voice when it emerged was a hoarse whisper, and he formed words with difficulty, each syllable accompanied by the widening of the eyes and a grin, as if greeting every tortured sound as an old, forgotten friend."

Scream: The Tyson Tapes once again displays Rendall's double-edged attitude towards the sport, but he demonstrates this in a totally different way. Unlike This Bloody Mary..., Rendall is anything but the centre of the narrative.  In fact, he's barely present at all. Edited after Rendall's death  by the always perceptive sports and music writer Richard Williams, it offers, through a number of voices, a total picture of Tyson, not missing out on any of the latter's ups or downs. You come away from the book feeling pity for the former heavyweight champion,  who, given his early years, seemed to lack the most rudimentary social skills, relying, instead, on a jail-house mentality that demanded he use others before they could use him. Which both he and they did, including his former friends and boxing team, as well as the women around him. Rendall lets them all speak for themselves, with everyone contributing a different take on Tyson. In the end it's a rather touching if not totally sympathetic portrait of a once great fighter.  Rendall, like a gaming table version of Hunter Thompson crossed with an adventurous Jeffrey Barnard, died too young, having produced too little.  But what he did produce is well worth seeking out.


BISH said...

Enjoyed your post. Have read 'Bloody Mary,' but will have to track down 'Screams.'

BISH said...

One of my favorite boxing novels is The Sweet Summer by William Kelley (who wrote Witness) ... Well wqorth tracking down ...

Woody Haut said...

Haven't read The Sweet Summer, but I'll definitely try to track it down. Thanks.


OT: The world is all eyes and ears for May 2. The MayweatherVsPacquiao Megafight will be epic, that's for sure!