Boxing Stories

Carlo Rotella

If you read the sports section, James Fallows once observed, then nothing in the newspaper seems fresher to you when it's hot off the presses, and nothing goes stale as quickly. He's right. A day-old sports section is much staler than a day-old front page, and infinitely staler than a day-old comics page, which remains entirely fresh even if you read the next day's comics before you get to it. Who won or lost, who's two games out of first place in the division, who averaged 3.6 yards a all seems urgent the morning after it happens, and then suddenly and completely irrelevant a day or two after that.

If you read the sports section, you know this. But chances are that you're not familiar with the one exception to the rule. Boxing stories don't get stale. I'll explain why in a minute, but first we have to confront a hard truth: you don't know about this exception because you skip the boxing stories. Admit it. You skip them. Admit that you'd rather read about a sort-of-ebullient cleanup hitter's contract negotiations (short version: he's going to be making a lot of money for a long time) or the micro-minutiae of a basketball star's stunningly dull existence (ball, video games, money, call mom; repeat).

Not that there are so many boxing stories to skip. Boxing wedges its way into the margins of daily papers' sports sections only occasionally, usually for one of three reasons: 1) a big fight catches the attention of the general sports press, often because it features either Mike Tyson (who manages to convince one sportswriter after another that this time he may be serious, this time he may really have changed) or Oscar De La Hoya (who is still cute and famous, no matter how overrated he may be as a fighter); 2) a local fighter on the rise is about to challenge for a title; or 3) something very bad happens to a fighter, in or out of the ring.

Most general-assignment sportswriters don't know much about boxing, but they do seem to enjoy writing about it, perhaps because the fight world's built-in quality of anachronism (it's always 1926 at the fights) inspires them to indulge fantasies of being wisecracking, typewriter-pounding guys in snap-brim fedoras who crank up a two-piece phone and shout, "Honey, get me Rewrite!" For that reason, and because stylish delivery of the story often has to make up for both writer's and reader's disinterest in boxing for its own sake, writing about boxing in the daily paper tends to be extra-purple. Play a drinking game with your friends in which everybody has to drain a beer every time the word "gritty" or "grimy" appears in a #3-type story (the kind about something very bad happening to a fighter). Also, everybody has to drink when there's a punchy short sentence--put the over-under at, say, five words. Also, keep an eye out for purple paragraphing.

Know what I mean?


And punchy.

Everybody has to drink when that happens, too. You'll all be retching in no time.

Now, let me explain why boxing stories, in violent contrast to other sports-section stories, don't go stale.

It will help to have an example in front of us. I have one on my desk now, in the sports section of yesterday's New York Times. Most of that section's contents have already acquired the desolately superseded feel of abandoned homesteads overgrown by prairie grass. The Patriots came from behind to beat the Dolphins. The Redskins came from ahead to lose to the Buccaneers. Somebody returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown, the longest play in NFL history. The Los Angeles Kings blew out the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Los Angeles Galaxy (part of the trend toward ambiguously singular-plural team names, like the San Jose Liquidity or the Boston Crabbiness) won the M.L.S Cup. It all may have seemed exciting at the time, and it retained some interest on Monday morning when I read it as fresh news around a bowl of cereal, but by Tuesday it's a sere wasteland.

Then there's the boxing story, a sterling exemplar of the #3-type, by Geoffrey Gray. James Butler, a once-promising super-middleweight (which means he has to weigh no more than 168 pounds for a fight, which means that he could lay out any 350-pound football blimp or slap-happy basketball bad boy in about eleven seconds), has been charged with the murder of Sam Kellerman, who wrote and acted a little and dabbled in boxing, and was the younger brother of Max Kellerman, a fairly well-known television commentator on boxing.

The details are sad, but compelling. Butler came up the hard way, in the projects. His father wasn't around; his mother alternately went off partying and harshly disciplined her sons. Butler had talent, and he could hit, but he never mastered his power or himself. He made it as far as a title shot, but lost. He's known as a headcase, most famous for an incident in which he coldcocked a victorious opponent in the ring after the decision had been rendered and the gloves were off. Butler spent four months in jail for that assault, not his first visit to the joint. He was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but the medication made him sluggish and heavy, and therefore unable to fight, so he didn't take it.

Sam Kellerman, the son of a prominent psychoanalyst and an artist, attended Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University, and tried his hand at theater, television, and music. He also indulged a romance with boxing that brought him to the Kingsway Gym in Manhattan. Alexander Newbold, who trained both Butler and Kellerman there, made a policy of encouraging his fighters to get to know each other, and the two young men from different backgrounds became friends. Butler was staying with Kellerman in his apartment in Los Angeles when Kellerman was killed--bludgeoned to death from behind while sitting at his computer.

Butler turned himself in three days after Kellerman's body was discovered. His alibi sounds flimsy, and of course he can't make bail. If convicted, he's looking at 25 years to life. Unless the public defender assigned to Butler's case can prove he's mentally incompetent, they're going to put him under the jail, as my high-school social studies teacher used to say.

The story's not even recent news. Kellerman was murdered in October of 2004; Butler has been in jail for the past year. Jury selection in the case begins next week. That's the occasion for the long, well-written story in the Times. (Yes, "grimy" shows up in the opening sentence, so that's one beer you have to chug right there, but you're going to be disappointed if you're counting on this story to get you and your friends drunk.) And yet the story's not at all stale; in fact, if I reread it in six weeks or six months or six years it will still be fresher than the previous day's non-boxing sports news.

Why? Certainly not because of the story's novelty. It's a familiar #3-type story: bad kid trying to find his way to a better life meets good kid attracted to lowlife, hard knocks lead to harder knocks, things end badly. Of course, Butler's not typical, since most fighters don't suffer from psychiatric disorders, or kill people. Most of them just have an appetite for hitting, and that appetite finds expression even if they are raised by middle-class sweethearts far from the street life. The lurid freakishness of stories like Butler's helps attract the attention of editors and reporters, but it's a mistake to regard that freakishness as pervading the fight world. Nor is freakishness the secret ingredient that keeps a boxing story fresh. To the contrary, the freakish aspect of a boxing story can go stale, just as Mike Tyson's volatility or Oscar De La Hoya's cuteness can go stale. Tyson and De La Hoya are boxers (I use the term loosely in Tyson's case, at this point) so famous that, as commentators like to say, they "transcend boxing," which means that they're sort of like other famous athletes: news about them seems very fresh, then not so fresh, and the change happens fast.

No, what's eternally fresh about the story of James Butler lies in the nakedness of its encounter with ultimacy, with what religious people sometimes call "first things." Here's Butler's mother, for instance, talking about raising him: "Maybe I was too strict with him, too stern, I don't know. I wanted my sons to be strong because the world is cruel, it is chaos. If you are weak, you fall. I believe James fell." She sees right through the muscles, the toughness, the punching power, to the cracks in her son's foundation. The brutal penetration of her insight seems all the more potent because it comes from the guy's mother, for God's sake, and not from, say, an opponent's trainer. This kind of thing happens all the time in boxing stories. They're going along describing who did what, and then suddenly somebody's mom is explaining the underlying cruelty of creation, the chaos at the heart of the world.

And Butler's mother does not shirk her own responsibility for his fate. She allows that maybe she was too rough on him, and she knows she hurt him by often choosing night life over motherhood. "Ma was hanging out, know what I mean? I don't think James liked that, Ma out partying." Alexander Newbold, the trainer who tried to build camaraderie among his stable of fighters by getting them together outside the gym, also accepts blame. "This is my fault. If it wasn't for me, James would have never met Sam and all of this never would have happened." He's not taking responsibility for a blown defensive assignment or something like that, as upstanding characters in the sports section will occasionally do; he's taking responsibility for life and death.

Compare all this to what's going on in the rest of the sports section. For instance: "Guillermo Ramirez, a reserve player for the Los Angeles Galaxy, entered the M.L.S. cup on Sunday fresh off the most inaccurate shooting season in league history. But with the championship on the line, he did what no one else on the field could do--score." That's sort of dramatic, and there may in fact be a lesson about the subtle clockwork order of the universe hiding in there somewhere, but that lesson isn't in play in the story. The lesson remains so latent that it may not be there at all. Or, to turn from a news story to a profile, here's the father of professional football star Carson Palmer and college football star Jordan Palmer talking about how well things have turned out for Jordan at the University of Texas-El Paso. "Oh my God, my wife and I talk about that all the time. This isn't a place Carson would have wanted to come, but we're so thrilled for Jordan. It was the right place, time, and circumstance." This story might potentially offer a mirror image of the story of James Butler, a fatherless man who was in the wrong place and circumstance at the wrong time, but who cares? Happy quarterbacks, like unhappy receivers, are all the same.

Fight people, a tribe of heroic talkers, are not all the same, but they share a willingness to touch and articulate the ultimacy in their stories in ways that other sports figures usually can't. Reporters expect no less of fight people, and they put those lines in the story. It could be that Guillermo Ramirez sat around the locker room after the M.L.S. championship game talking about his theory of cosmic retribution and karmic balance, but nobody thought it belonged in a story about the Galaxy's victory. But a reporter writing a boxing story, especially a #3-type, would regard as essential a quote from a fighter's mother arguing for the fundamental chaos and cruelty of the universe. So it's not just that fight people can touch the ultimacy in their own stories; the genre demands that they do.

Boxing stories can make every other kind of sports story begin to seem like a mayfly in comparison--insubstantial, weak, and short-lived. Here's Don Turner, a boxing trainer, doing an Alexander Hamilton turn. "I know there's a lot of bad people in boxing. Boxing is like society, and the American public is basically bad people." When was the last time you heard a football coach say anything like that? Turner goes on: "When I was a kid growing up, I never dreamed that this society would come to what it has today. I know that there's always people out there who will try to steal Mike"--Michael Grant, a heavyweight prospect who eventually failed to pan out--"from me, and try to steal from both of us when we stay together. And those people should know what kind of person I am. I live an honorable life. When I'm wrong, I admit it and apologize for what I did. But I'll get in your face if I think you're wrong. And I'll come at you with a baseball bat if you try to take what's mine."

Okay, Turner's speech appeared in a magazine, not a newspaper's sports section, but the point is: that speech will never go stale. I've had it tacked to a bulletin board over my desk for years. Every once in a while I reread it and am reminded that boxing stories, perhaps alone among sports stories, are built to last.

(In April 2006, James Butler pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and arson in the death of Sam Kellerman. He was sentenced to 29 years and four months in prison.)

Carlo Rotella's
most recent book is Cut Time: An Education at the Fights, which received the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar, Harper's, DoubleTake, TriQuarterly, Raritan, American Quarterly, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and The Best American Essays. He teaches at Boston College.