Throwbacklist Thursday

Why does Sylvester Stallone wanna make more Rocky Movies? Because he can’t sing or dance. Also, Rocky movies usually strike money. (Not that everyone is a fan.)

Creed, the most recent entry in the forty-year old (!) franchise, raked in plenty of green during the holiday weekend. It provided miracles, too: Stallone did not cause audiences to cry “Gonna Fly Now” upon seeing his 70 mm kisser, while his Italian Stallion character remains mysteriously cured of the brain damage inflicted on him by Mensa-approved block of sirloin Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV.

Most miraculous of all, the film garnered good reviews. Our own Steve Fast said, “It was a surprisingly good recombination of the standard boxing movie clichés.”

You might wonder to hear that an aim-high bastion like the University of Illinois Press publishes on the sweet science. Then again, you may know that boxing, more than any sport, attracts the kind of literary-minded types we keep in our authorial stable. Pulling no punches, UIP books take you from the glories of the Polo Grounds to the tiny, cold kitchens of Palookaville.

rondinoneFriday Night Fighter: Gaspar “Indio” Ortega and the Gold Age of Television Boxing, by Troy Rondinone
Gaspar Ortega fought 176 pro bouts. Take that, Floyd Mayweather! El Indio made it through all that pugilism without ever being put on the canvas. A Zapotec, Ortego often wore a headdress into the ring, and his Mexican identity enraptured a generation of Mexican Americans who cheered on their “first champion.”

Ortega’s career ran parallel to Friday Night Fights, the most popular of the 1950s and 1960s TV boxing programs. Troy Rondinone follows the dual narratives through Ortega’s unlikely celebrity. Along with many other FNF mainstays, Ortega represented a remarkably diverse group of television stars compared to the solidly white faces served up by American TV. Rondinone also goes into the larger story of what fed the success of televised boxing, including the rise of television entertainment, changing attitudes toward race, expressions of Cold War masculinity, and the influence of organized crime.

otooleSweet William: The Life of Billy Conn, by Andrew O’Toole
The pride of Pittsburgh, Billy Conn had a long and successful career. He even appeared in the movies, the highest honor America could bestow in the prewar era. As good looking as Stallone and a lot taller, Conn was a stalwart in the fight game of his day.

But his bouts with Joe Louis defined how history remembered him. In this much-praised biography of Conn and his times, Andrew O’Toole chronicles the boxing, Hollywood, and army careers of “the Pittsburgh Kid.” O’Toole also conducts a clinic on describing a boxing match. He puts readers among the 54,487 fans at the Polo Grounds for the 1941 clash between Conn, king of the scientific boxers, and Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber and an agent of ring destruction. Ranked on every list of top ten bouts ever, the Conn-Louis tilt saw Sweet William—giving away 25 pounds—frustrate Louis’s thunderous attacks for 12 rounds.

Sensing Louis’s vulnerability, Conn tried to put the champ down. With an array of blows, Billy emerged from the clinch with his sights set on Joe’s chin. These blows were not the variety Conn’s critics had long ago dismissed as being “powder puff.” Louis was obviously shaken, if not hurt. The fans, sensing an impending upset, were on their feet, the volume of their cheers rising with each Conn punch.

Then Conn made a mistake as significant as Rocky V. While ahead on two cards, he gave up on science and tried to KO Louis.

With a broad grin creasing his face, Billy met Joe in the middle of the ring. The dancing had stopped; Conn was measuring Joe for the big blow. A minute into the round, Billy moved in with a terrific combination: a dozen or more punches furiously launched, most finding their mark. Still Joe remained standing and kept his right cocked, patiently waiting for the opening he knew would arrive. Then it came. Billy hit Joe with a left to the body and one to the head. . . . A devastating right hand to the mush stunned Billy visibly. For the first time all evening, a look of bewilderment filled his once-assuming eyes. He had lost his ring sense, and Joe knew it.

“I couldn’t knock out anybody,” Conn recalled in 1987. “And I tried to knock out Joe Louis.”

sullivan marcianoRocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times, by Russell Sullivan
Born Rocco Francis Marchegiano, the Brockton Blockbuster gave pro baseball a try before returning to the ring. He began his career putting sixteen straight opponents on the canvas and made the big time by clobbering an aged Joe Louis into retirement in 1951. Through no fault of his own, he inspired Sylvester Stallone’s conception of Rocky Balboa. Sly’s Hollywood tribute gives some indication of how a generation equated Marciano with his sport.

Capturing the Rock’s pugilistic accomplishments against the colorful backdrop of the Fifties fight scene, Russell Sullivan examines how Marciano’s career reflected the glamour and scandal of boxing as well as ethnic and racial tensions of his times. Boxing historian Bert Sugar put it best, as is often the case when it comes to boxing: “[Rocky Marciano] is like opening an old steamer trunk and being overwhelmed by the aroma of a long-ago era and its fragrant memories. In capturing Marciano and the 1950s as few could, Russell Sullivan has given Rocky his fiftieth win.”

sammonsBeyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society, by Jeffrey T. Sammons
At first glance you might ask: what country would want to adopt the values of boxing? It’s a ticky-tack beat-to-a-pulp sport of fixers and mob figures, with athletes being pounded into semi-sentience, and ill-disguised dramas of ethnic and racial tension staged to whip up the rage—and attract the money—of white America.

Jeffrey T. Sammons looks at all these things and many more as he explores the role the fight game has played in American society over the past 100-plus years. Sammons also gives us a good hard study of the business, an aspect of boxing often overlooked amidst the personalities and bouts that fill the sports pages. But don’t worry. All of the big names figure into the epic narrative laid out in Beyond the Ring. Of those names, none stood bigger than Muhammad Ali. As Sammons makes clear, Ali’s fights usually contested a lot more than a purse:

When [Ali] fought Ernie Terrell in February 1967 he was not able to hide his disdain or his meanness. Terrell was six feet, six inches tall and weighed 200 pounds, which gave Ali no reason to pity him; moreover, Ali viewed Terrell as a usurper. . . . Terrell criticized Ali’s stand on the draft and, like [Floyd] Patterson, insisted upon demeaning Ali’s religion and calling him “Clay”—a “slave name” Ali had come to despise. Above all, Terrell’s attacks on Ali simply came at the wrong time. He mirrored a society that sought to destroy Ali by making him a social outcast and denying him the right to make a living. Ali, in a wicked display of rage, taunted Terrell, punctuating each punch with the demand, “What’s my name?” In torturing and humiliating Terrell, Ali was striking back at his enemies.

roberts dempseyJack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler, by Randy Roberts
Dempsey got his start as a teen duking it out in saloon bouts with miners and lumberjacks. In this incisive, fast-paced biography, Randy Roberts charts the life and career of a man widely regarded as one of the toughest ever to enter the ring (or the saloon). Moving from Dempsey’s hard-hitting rise through his title defenses, and a post-retirement as an iconic representation of the old days, Roberts lays out Dempsey’s enduring legacy as one of the greatest and most popular fighters in boxing history. That includes Dempsey’s part in The Long Count, an American sports moment that even sticks in the knowledge banks of non-fight fans.