Pound for Pound by F.X. Toole. HarperCollins, 2007. 416 pages.
Million Dollar Baby by F.X. Toole. Harper Perennial 2005. 256 pages.
What makes a fighter?
In his mid-forties, a time of life when the last thing most men look for is a punch in the face, F.X. Toole — his real name was Jerry Boyd — looks for an answer to that question. Since his boyhood, boxing had interested him. In the 1940s, he listened to the fights on the radio with his father. Later he watched the fights on television or at Madison Square Garden, which he once described as his personal Camelot. Toole followed the careers of various fighters, read whatever he could find on the great Irish boxers like Sullivan and Corbett, and admired both the winners and losers in the ring. But always the question haunted him — What makes a fighter? — and so he determined to find out in the one way that truly counts.
F.X. Toole stepped into a ring.
He trained hard, put in the hours shadowboxing, hitting the heavy bag, and sparring, but by his own admission he generally got pounded. He had trouble seeing without his glasses, he was older and slower than the twenty-somethings who danced with him in the ring, he had teeth cracked and inlays fall out. Eventually, as he writes in the introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he stopped sparring because he had to wear braces to correct a jaw condition, one unrelated to boxing. But he stayed in the game, serving 20 years as a corner man, cut man, and trainer. Open-heart surgery slowed him down, but his coronary problems never kept him from the ring for very long.
Toole had also been writing and seeing his work rejected for 40 years. Finally, when he was 70, Million Dollar Baby — the original title was Rope Burns — was published to critical acclaim. Toole lived two more years, dying before the release of the Academy Award winning movie while at work on a boxing novel. His last words were “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book.”
Toole ran out of time in his last fight, but the people who loved him, his children, and two men named Nat Sobel and James Wade, have given us his marvelous book.
Pound for Pound (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 978-0-06-088133-7) surely ranks as one of the great fictional accounts of what it means to be a boxer, what the sweet science takes — and sometimes how little it gives back — to its practitioners. In addition to its recreation of ringside action, Pound for Pound should also rank as an outstanding book for its writing, its characters, and its realism.
Pound for Pound gives us the portrait of two fighters, men who bob and weave, stick and move, but who fight their hardest battles outside the ring. Dan Cooley, who runs a body shop in Los Angeles with his partner, Earl Daw, “a dark-skinned black man” who had fought as a middleweight with Dan as his trainer, has lost his wife, his children, and even his grandchild to death by accident and disease. When his grandson darts in front of a car and dies in the beginning of the novel, we see Dan fall to pieces, trying to drink himself to death, wanting to take revenge on the young and innocent Hispanic driver, attempting but failing to kill himself. Through his memories, we learn of the various bouts he once fought, of the fighters he’s trained, of the sport that he had once loved so passionately.
Eduardo “Chicky” Garza y Duffy is a Texas middleweight with a troubled home-life. His grandfather, Eloy, once a champion boxer himself, now spends much of his time drinking and drugging, vices which worsen after Eloy’s wife Delores dies. Assisted by his grandfather, Chicky begins his own professional ascent in the ring, but two corrupt managers, one in Texas, the other in Los Angeles, take advantage of the young man’s ignorance and nearly end his boxing career.
What makes Toole’s book so special is not only his boxing acumen — he clearly knows the game — but his ability to put us into the shoes of the fighters and trainers, and their family. Here, for instance, he describes Chicky’s feelings for his grandfather:
“Chicky loved the old-timey Texas way Eloy spoke, his accent even more pronounced than El Paso’s great and charming golfer Lee Trevino. Once Chicky began to wear boots and a wide-brimmed hat, he quickly gave up the vato street talk of Victoria courts to sound as much like Eloy as he could. He soon sounded as Texas as guys with nicknames like Cooter and Cotton ... When the Longhorns were playing the Aggies on TV, Eloy talked to Chicky as if he were a peer and it made him feel like a man, like an hombre.”
Toole’s powers as a writer are highlighted by the ending of the novel, which was undoubtedly the part completed after his death. The story at the end of the novel comes together beautifully, but the descriptions, particularly of the fight scenes, lack the intensity of those found throughout the rest of the novel. Toole had the knowledge of a man who for thirty years had stood ringside, learning which cannot be reproduced second-hand. This contrast doesn’t diminish the book, but instead make us stand in awe of the skill and insight of F.X. Toole.
In Pound for Pound, Toole tells us what makes a fighter. In his introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he tells us why he loves this sport so much. As a trainer, he is giving a rubdown to a black heavyweight at the gym. Another man, a featherweight, paroled after serving time for rape and robbery, strung out on drugs, enters the gym and begins verbally abusing the “white racist power structure” and how he was the victim of white oppression.
“So there he was, going on about pigs. I should mention that my heavyweight had a white wife. When he asked the featherweight if he couldn’t see that I was white, and that maybe he should watch his jive-ass mouth, the featherweight didn’t miss a beat.
“‘Yeah, I see he white, but Toole be different.’
Magic. It’s why I’m in it. For the voodoo.”