Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How lucky? Howard, Dempsey and Cash

I have been thinking about Johnny Cash, Robert E. Howard and Jack Dempsey. I never thought much, until lately, why it is that I like the things that I like. I mean, what could a punch-drunk bard like myself gain from studying and enjoying real artists who create real art?  Yep, even though I am moved by that creative steam engine called Americana I am just as amazd that I have had the good fortune to recognize and experience it. But, how did it happen? Must have been a mistake. You see, I'm one of those wanna-be sports warriors; good enough to compete with anyone at almost anything but not quite good enough to be anybody worth mentioning and, like the composer Salieri in Amadeus, I am capable of recognizing greatness in others rather than achieving it for myself - at least so far. I think the same goes for literature and music. I have managed to carve out a little respect writing stories, poems and criticism and, without embarassing myself, can thump the low end with my electric bass. So, while it is true that I aspire to the heights of those mentioned above I recognize that I will likely never create anything half as beautiful as their most mundane accomplishments let alone the genius they are capable of. And that leaves me...in awe of three people.
Let's take Robert E. Howard as an example. I wrote an article, Born to Edit Boxing Stories, for a print publication called The Cimmerian. I hadn't realized, even as I was writing what should have been a kind of cathartic release/confession, just how unlikely it was that I ended up a fan, and caretaker of, Robert E. Howard and his literary legacy. Seriously folks, I'm not much in the way of a caretaker for myself let alone of  the legacy of one of America's greatest authors and creative minds. Currently, I am writing the introduction to what will be the definitive collection of Howard's boxing fiction. It's a pretty big deal, make no mistake, and yet I feel none of the anxiety I should feel. I know the stories, I know the author's intent and can make literary connections that no one has yet made but still...we're talking about me, Chris Gruber, that is steering this ship into portage. I'm not some natural wordsmith, born to the trade like some offspring of Oates and Hemingway whose genetic disposition paves the way to literary and critical stardom before they've shed the placenta. It's me- Chris Gruber, a simple guy who is as likely to be hiking or mountain biking, hitting the heavy bag or doing pull ups, as he is to be typing furiously at the keyboard, trying to convey some kind of undiscovered knowledge to the masses. It just doesn't compute and yet here I am...thank you Robert E. Howard.

I remember my friend, Bill Stephens, haranguing me daily in high school about Robert E. Howard. He would verbally berate me for not acknowledging that I was wasting my time reading and admiring a hack like Howard when I ought to be bowing down at the classical Fantasy feet of Tolkien. I like Tolkien, alot in fact, but he in no way came close to the kind of visceral reading experience I obtained from a Howard short story. I wrote several essays in high school English class about Robert E. Howard fiction and each time the teacher would attack my paper in the most humiliating way, going so far as to suggest that I was making up, entirely, everything I had written - you know, how Howard's stories are allegorical statements of profound significance, yadda, yadda, yadda. Nevertheless, I kept on keeping on and now we're here - with me explaining how Howard's boxing fiction served as a kind of canvass upon which he could paint some of the most remarkable American fiction ever produced. American fiction, inspired by the Great Depression, rural poverty, and of course, boxing during the Golden Age of Sports. Or, at least that's what Ring Lardner and other contemporaries kept saying.

I also remember the first time I ever heard a Johnny Cash song. My cousin Todd had invited my brother Sean and I to Pekin, Illinois to drink and be merry as only close cousins can do. We drove through farm fields, mud bogs, you name it and the whole time the merriment was cloaked in this divine music. It was storytelling at it's best set to a musical score that made me melancholy and reflective. So, I did what any young man who had had a little too much on his mind, and tongue, would do - I jumped out of that moving truck. I needed some time to think about what it was that I was hearing. Until I heard those mournful Cash tunes, I had hated country music - or so I thought. Here was this guy, crooning and moaning, shouting and yodeling - he was saying something that I hadn't heard before but I knew instinctively was pure Americana. I understood it at the DNA level, you know what I am saying? Before too long, my brother and cousin figured out that I had jumped ship and came back looking for me. I stood up, waved my arms so they could see me - a new man with a new perspective and a white hot desire to consume that which I knew was tailor made for me: Johnny Cash, the Dean of American music. Thanks, Johnny Cash.

During my research of Robert E. Howard and his interest in boxing I was able to indulge a fascination I have had with the great boxers of the past. I studied the lives of some of boxing's most colorful and successful adherents, from Jim Jeffries to James Braddock, and spent a great deal of time thrilling to the adventures of that most enduring American Icon - Jack Dempsey. The manner in which he lived his life is both an inspiration and a caution and, in the end, it is a story of strife and success that represents the very fabric of perceived American greatness. From the humble beginnings of his Colorado days as Kid Blackie, where he was forced to fight for bologna strips just to survive, a nobody going nowhere fast to the incredible heights of world champion and movie star, a fearsome, scowling warrior who was tenacious, rugged, and most inportantly determined to "make it" no matter the cost. Finally, even after his roller coaster youth had passed him by, the nation bore witness to the man and his exploits and despite his reluctance was annointed by the masses as an American Legend. What a boxer, what a man, what a life. Thanks Jack Dempsey.
What amount of  star crossing voo-doo was worked that I might find myself enamored of these men, intimately aware of their lives and willing to chronicle those instances that set them apart as men worth studying, worth learning from, and ultimately, worth telling others about? Fortune, perhaps? Maybe - but whether or not it be fate or some other power, what is clear to me is that I am fortunate to have had these men and their endeavors as a kind of backdrop to my own life and can distill my own experience through the looking glass of their lives. They are American and so am I and their lives and work speak to me. How lucky am I, really?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dreams in the Fire and Dead River Revenge

Who's up for a good cause? Who loves new fiction? How about anthologies featuring well known writers and fledgling bards alike? If you answered "YES" to any of the questions above I encourage you to head over to Mark Finn's LULU page and get yourself a copy of Dreams in the Fire, a collection of stories and poems inspired by Robert E. Howard. Written entirely by REHupans (current and former members of an Amateur Press Association called, appropriately enough, REHupa.) This book hosts the work of some very well known authors: James Reasoner, Mark Finn, Charles Gramlich, Bob Weinberg, Angeline Hawkes, Christopher Fulbright, Don Herron as well as many others whose names you won't forget after having read their fiction and poetry.

Edited and produced by my pal Mark Finn and I, this collection is very near and dear to our hearts as all proceeds benefit Project Pride, the organization that owns and cares for the Robert E. Howard home in Cross Plains, Texas. This book boasts stories and poetry in many different genres but they each draw from the same creative wellspring  - Robert E. Howard's fiction. Get it. Enjoy it. Help preserve a literary landmark.

Oh. Yeah, silly me, I almost forgot. Allow me to indulge in the smallest way - I've placed my first short story in this collection. It's called, Dead River Revenge, and it's an epic story of revenge that is equal parts frontier-historical, action, and horror fiction. I had always wanted to write about my home state of Illinois, especially that area in which I was raised, and with this story I turn history on its head. The folks who live near Illinois Beach State Park, in Beach Park, Illinois will get a kick out of my presentation of the real Dead River. If you are a fan of native mythology, frontier history, and good ol' fashioned action you just might like this story. Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Klitschko wins!!!

This fight started exactly as I had predicted. Both boxers were seemingly instructed to read my blog entry prior to the fight wherein I gave my keys to victory for each fighter. Haye tried desperately to get inside while Klitschko worked hard to maintain the desired range. This scenario played out for each of the 12 rounds with varying degrees of success for each fighter. What is certain is that these two fighters did not want to mix it up. They both were content to play the cat and mouse game all night and I think this is what rankled most fans. I didn't learn anything about Haye in this fight that I hadn't already known; that is to say he is a very good boxer with good speed, a decent chin, and a mouth that writes checks his body and heart can't cash. He's a really good heavyweight that has no shot, ever, of beating either of the Klitschko brothers.

I did learn something about Wladimir; once thought to be a quitter, robotic, unable to adapt and unwilling to continue when the fight turned against him - he showed flashes of resilience and determination that I wasn't sure he really possessed. There were several exchanges initiated by Haye that found Klitschko reeling back defensively, eyes wide and clearly flustered. And yet each time the momentum began to swing toward the desperate, lunging Haye, the Russian would calmly repositioned himself and fired off that devastating jab. He seems to have found a confidence that had been lacking throughout his career. The knock on him wasn't about his skills (nor Haye's) but rather his reluctance to take a chance and finish his man. He had many opportunities to take advantage of Haye's mistakes but settled for safe, but effective, stalking. He used  a great jab, even better foot work, and an occasional powerful straight right or hook to keep Haye honest - and it worked well for him.

The fight was much closer than most media outlets like ESPN would have you believe. Haye clearly won 4 rounds and there were two or three rounds that were close enough to go either way. I had Klitschko winning and doing it the way I said he would - minus the finishing KO. This fight was ugly at times - see Haye's tactic of falling to the ground in clinches as a way to escape infighting - but it also was clearly a fast paced heavyweight fight. These guys threw a lot of punches for heavies - too bad for us that not all of them had TNT written on their gloves.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Klitschko vs Haye

There's a significant heavyweight fight tonight. I mentioned this in my last post but I would be remiss if I did not have something more to say about this fight.  So...

The national media has been slow to pick up on this fight but have finally grasped the top rope and thrust this contest (belatedly) onto the front page. While the overall popularity of boxing continues to wane there has been a sharp increase in the interest surrounding what used to be the sport's most heralded division - the heavyweights. Those of us who love the sport can thank the trash-talking, brash, irreverent challenger, David Haye, for this renewed spark of awareness - even if the national media was slow (very slow) to pick up on it.

Why should we thank Haye, who has made a spectacle of himself  by publicly challenging, goading, attacking, and maligning the reigning heavyweight champions, Ukrainian brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko? Because, despite his embarrassing antics and lack of quality opponents he has managed to give us a reason to watch - hype or not, he has created a real grudge match.

Most pre-fight confrontations are staged affairs where emotion and pageantry are manufactured in an attempt to hype boxing matches that in another era would have sold themselves on merit alone. In any other era, a heavyweight fighter like Wladimir Klitschko would have dominated headlines the world over with each fight, no matter the opponent or circumstances. Klitschko (55-3), the younger of the two brothers, is a supremely gifted heavyweight whose accomplishments are as impressive as those of Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes. He has not lost a fight since 2004 and has successfully defended his title ten times. With a KO over the obnoxious but talented Haye, he can enter the pantheon of great heavyweights who own at least 50 KOs over their opponents.

Sadly, modern boxing faces a real problem when it must sink to the same promotional level as professional wrestling to entice viewers to plunk down a PPV fee that is appalling. Nevertheless, Haye's non-stop verbal assault upon the Klitschko brothers appears to be a brand of genuine and heart felt personal hatred not seen since, well, maybe ever - and everyone loves a real grudge match. Hey, didn't I just say that?

Whether he was confronting Wladimir at charity functions or sporting T-shirts picturing Haye beheading the brothers with a bloody knife, the Brit has consistently spewed a brand of venom that seems wholly out of context with the fight or the man he will face in the ring tonight.

By contrast, "Dr. Steelhammer," a normally quiet and non-descript personality, has begun to respond to the vitriol in an uncharacteristically emotional way. He has tried to portray an outward calm at promotional events, but his steely reserve has begun to crack like an emotional facade made of plaster, rather than steel as his nickname implies. While English may not be his native language it is evident in his replies to the English speaking media that Klitschko is harboring a level of anger that might encourage him to forgo his normal, plodding, plan of attack for something far more violent and risky. He seems like a man who wants to hurt Haye, not just win, and at 6'6 and 245 pounds he has the tools to do what Hayes has loudly promised to do to him: literally execute his opponent in the ring.

Klitschko                                          Haye
Record - 55-3 49 KOs                     25-1 23 KOs
Height - 6'6 .                                    6'3
Weight - 245 lbs.                              215 lbs.

The Punch-Drunk Bard's Pick
This fight has excitement written all over it and that's saying something from two of the sport's most boring, but efficient, boxers. 

What Haye Must Do:  Haye is an excellent boxer with quick feet and decent hand speed whose power is underrated in this fight. He must get inside - if he doesn't he will eat jabs all night and end up another KO victim by round 10. He can't just lunge forward, he has to move in and show angles. Once in he can't just content himself with getting inside and avoiding Klitschko's killer jabs, he has to throw - short left hooks and chopping rights; keep the pressure on early and then hope the giant begins to tire. If he does, Klitschko will begin to make mistakes and he will expose his suspect chin more often as the fight goes on. Despite Haye's clear athleticism his only chance is to pressure his opponent and I fully expect we will see him try to do just that.
What Klitschko Must Do: Klitschko must be able to withstand the early pressure Haye will bring. He has to use his size to his advantage, especially early on, by controlling distance with his jab and his feet. He must overcome the desire to go for the early KO. As usual, it will be his jab that is a key component but, more than in other fights, it will be his feet that will see him to victory because Haye is a sharp, fast boxer who is an excellent counter puncher. Maintaining the proper distance to launch that jab is crucial. Simply throwing it will not work against Haye as he must work himself into position with solid footwork. Early on Klitschko must follow his jab with an occasional right hand to get Haye's respect. Once it lands I expect Haye to go into survival mode. Klitschko is probably the most athletic man of his size to ever enter a ring and this will be evident as both boxers move in the ring like light heavies.

The Prediction: I think Haye has riled a tiger and now must back up the years of trash talk. If Klitschko's chin were not an issue this would be an easy pick. But it IS an issue and I think the champions chin will be tested early. I think Klitschko has enough experience, athleticism, and power to endure Haye's initial attacks. If he let's the moment, the home crowd, and the incessant needling of his opponent get to him we might see an upset, a la Lamon Brewster. Having said all of that, I think Klitschko will endure a trial by fire for two rounds before settling in and dominating Haye in the middle rounds. He will use his jab to frustrate the smaller man and after some wild exchanges we will see Dr. Steelhammer deliver a crushing straight right that sends David Haye into retirement. Klitschko by KO round 6

There's a Heavyweight Championship Fight Tonight : bet You Didn't Know

One of the things I am fond of in life is boxing. I have been an ardent fan of the sport since I was a child. (Read about it in my essay "Born to Edit Boxing Stories" written for The Cimmerian,Volume 2 Number ) Watching boxing on network TV in the early 80s provided me more than mere entertainment - it gave me something to experience and aspire to. It has also provided me with one of me deepest regrets but I'll get into that another day. For now, I want to breakdown the Klitschko/Haye clash and the wayward heavyweight division.

In just a few hours the most anticipated and important heavyweight boxing match in almost 7 years will take place in the cavernous Imtech Arena, in Hamburg Germany - and most Americans have no clue it is taking place. How can this be? We're talking about the most anticipated heavyweight match up in years! That's right - the HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD!!! It's still one of the most recognizable titles in the world, right up there with the Queen of England and Mr. President. So, why won't America be tuning in to HBO PPV at 9 PM tonight? That's easy - no one watches boxing anymore. Well, at least not the heavyweights. Ask your average mug on the street who Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, or the recently retired Oscar De La Hoya is (small men all) and just watch their face light up with recognition.

The heavyweight division has fallen on hard times - just ask most fight fans. One could give any number of reasons why what was once the world's most coveted title, the Heavyweight Champion of the World, has lost most of its luster. Most significantly, there are more sports for promising athletes to choose from that aren't as physically punishing or dangerous and pay much, much better. Think of it this way, you can be the 12th man on an NBA roster and your compensation places you at the top 1% of the world's paying professions. True, an elite heavyweight boxer can rake in some serious cash but anyone outside the top 5 in this division is left out of the serious money. The payout for a decent pro heavyweight who is good but not great, someone akin in skill to the 12th man on an NBA team I just mentioned, will be absurdly low. You'd make more money learning to program in C++. In the NBA, you might tweak an ankle, dislocate a finger, but it is a rare day in most sports where you can spend 36 minutes being punched in the face. The point being - boxing is a tough sport, for tough, desperate people and it has been that way since its inception. With so many other potential avenues to success we are seeing fewer people willing to endure the spartan training conditions necessary of even the most average participants.

Historically, the heavyweight division lured some of the most athletic and determined large men on the planet to take up the sport of boxing in the hopes of earning huge sums of money as well as global fame that would endure long after the man had passed from this life. It's true that a heavy can still make money but fame, global fame, is a bit harder to come by these days as public perception of boxing has waned. The new global sports icons like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Tiger Woods are products of an efficient marketing strategy employed by a united group of interested parties - something that the sport of boxing does not have. The phrases "united governing body" and "professional boxing" do not go hand and hand and appear to be mutually exclusive. Ah well, and yet I love the sport and respect all its children, professional or otherwise.

So, here I am, writing about a boxing match held in Germany and featuring a Ukrainian giant and loud mouthed, athletically gifted Englishman. I suppose the question of the day is, 'why?' Because there are still enough fans of the sport out there to keep the sport relevant. A far cry from the Golden Age of Boxing, the late 1800s to the early 1900s, but better than dead.

Round One: the first post

Welcome to the home of the Punch-Drunk Bard. This is my online journal about writing, boxing, and the great outdoors. I won't kid you - I'm trying to become a regularly published author. To that end I have decided to launch this here blog and fill cyberspace with my thoughts on the things mentioned above. I'm hoping, of course, that some publisher will stumble across my blog and be filled with awe at what he/she reads. While that scenario isn't likely to transpire I can make your reading experience less tedious by refusing to include those inane comments about my every day life (unless there is a good story waiting to be told.) You know what I mean: boring posts about the food I ate last night, my last bowel movement, or the nifty shirt I almost bought. Rest assured - I will fill this space with lively commentary on the subjects that are near and dear to my heart. I am new to this blogging thing and hope that the learning curve is not too steep for my old legs to climb. Please, if something I've written stirs an emotion, by all means leave a comment - unless it is so filled with profanity that I end up lacing up the gloves to search you out for a beat down. I'm really looking forward to this experience. I'm hoping you get as much out of it as I do.
Christopher Gruber
The Punch-Drunk Bard