Fighting Talk: Boxing and the Modern Lexicon
Random House, $30.00,
Bob Jones – aka Sir Robert – has written an engrossing book on the fight game. It is satisfying intellectually and emotionally. It involves an original take on boxing, an activity that has been celebrated by writers from the time of Homer to the present day of Joyce Carol Oates. The book will become a classic, or deserves to become a classic, in this long and distinguished literature. The central conceit of the book is that boxing is a metaphor for life. So the jargon of the square ring has become a lexicon of life.
Jones has identified more than 330 boxing terms (a prodigious work of scholarship in its own right) that have become as natural to our speech as the multitude of phrases coined by Shakespeare. And as he examines these boxing terms, Jones gives us a blow-by-blow analysis of their origin, how they came to mean what they mean and their relevance to the history of the fight game: “Putting the gloves on”, “Come out swinging”, “Counter puncher”, “Donnybrook”, “First blood”, “Put up a good fight”, “Punched from pillar to post”, “Toe to toe” ….
I got to know Jones when we were students at Victoria University of Wellington in the 1950s. We were members of the boxing team that competed in a winter tournament in Dunedin. My fight, against the Auckland University boxing blue and later academic and Maori activist Pat Hohepa, was the first of the night. Hohepa won comfortably. As we showered, we could hear the crowd roaring during the next bout. I rushed out to see Jones smashing his opponent into a bloody pulp. At the end of the fight, the crowd threw coins into the ring. The two boxers, fierce enemies only seconds earlier, scrambled around the ring gathering the coins into piles with their gloves still on … “Bringing home the bacon.”
“Ringside seat”, “roll with the punches”, “sneak-punch”, “southpaw”, “spoiler”, “sunday punch”, “telling blow”, “put up or shut up”, “soft touch”, “straight from the shoulder” … . Many years later Jones, now a successful businessman, decided to promote a skilful Wellington boxer, Rex Redden, to become a world champion. Redden fought a series of carefully planned fights in packed Wellington Town Hall. These fights were plugged with a mounting hysteria by the local sports journalists. A final warm-up fight against a Fijian journeyman southpaw (a left-hander) Mansor Ali was arranged before the title shot. The Town Hall was packed with judges, politicians and other establishment types wearing dinner suits in the English tradition. The excitement in the hall as the fighters came into the ring, went through the age-old rituals of introductions (“in the blue corner …”) and instructions from the referee was the most intense I have ever experienced. The bell rang. Redden made the sign of the cross in his corner. Before he was finished with the ritual, a thunderous haymaker smashed into his jaw. I was seated at ringside directly in line with Jones. As Redden slipped unconscious to the canvas, like an ocean liner sinking to the bottom of the ocean, I saw a look of horror, shock and anguish on the face of Jones. This was the single most dramatic sports moment I have ever experienced … “Beaten to the punch.”
Jones has brought the passion of the practitioner, inside and outside the ring, to the writing of this book. He has an affection for fighters and the passion that drives them to be contenders in a brutal sport that is endured and never played. He knows the history of boxing with a scholarship that is impressive in its range and empathy. The scholarship is always informed with a detailed knowledge of practices of every facet of the fight game. He was, for instance, a friend of the great trainer Angelo Dundee, the brains behind the boxing genius of Mohammad Ali. Jones frequently visited Dundee at the training camps before Ali’s biggest fights.
All these qualities come alive in the discussion of the phrases in the boxing lexicon. Take, for example, the last phrase in the lexicon: “Work out”. Jones identifies the first use of this word outside the ring in 1929, two years after a newspaper used it to describe the training routine of a particular boxer. So far, so good. But then Jones digs into the history of the word and the practice itself and tells us that its first reference is in Plato’s “Laws”: “If we were training pugilists … would we go straight in to the fight unprepared by daily workouts against an opponent?” Jones further notes that this argument was used in ancient Greece as an argument for training soldiers rather than relying on untrained volunteers. Brilliant.
The championship rounds of the book are the 400-page “Fighting Talk” section that discusses the lexicon. This is Mohammad Ali “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” stuff. There is the story, which jolts like a jab to the jaw, of executions being delayed a few hours so that condemned men could go into the darkness of their eternity knowing the outcome of the first Dempsey-Tunney heavyweight championship bout in 1926. A long essay on the zen of boxing, which complements the lexicon, is a tour de force of insight, scholarship and wit rather like a combination of the Ali “rope-a-dope” tactics and the great fighter’s penchant for punching to the head … “It’s a knockout.”
Spiro Zavos is a Sydney journalist and reviewer.