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If you've read Laura Hillenbrand's fine book Seabiscuit, you'll have been struck by how far horse racing has fallen.  As she notes in her Introduction, Seabiscuit was covered more thoroughly in America's newspapers in 1938 than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini.  Horse racing mattered then and its popularity lasted even into the 70s, thanks to Secretariat and Seattle Slew, but it no longer does.  Perhaps it was killed by state lotteries and legalized gambling, perhaps by the deurbanization of America, perhaps by its own slightly seedy image.  But whatever the case, its salad days have passed.

Similarly, boxing has fallen on hard times.  The recent movie Ali reminds us of the time when the entire nation, indeed much of the world, chose sides and hung on the results of boxing generally and great heavyweight bouts in particular.  Back then, Hollywood used to make good fight films by the fistful--The Champion, Body and Soul, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, etc., even Rocky in the mid-70s.  They actually used to show us a terrific boxing movie in our grade school classes, Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Amateur boxing was huge, both the Olympics and, especially if you grew up in the Tri-State area (NY, NJ, CT), the Golden Gloves tournament.

Today--what with the variety of other, safer, sports options for poor minority kids; the various scandals surrounding Don King, the sport's most important promoter, and Mike Tyson, the sport's most talented heavyweight; the sheer brutality of the fighting, in an age when we shun brutality (unless it's on tv or film or in music); and, again, with the rise of legalized forms of gambling--boxing no longer enjoys the central place it once did in our sports pantheon.  I doubt many of us could even name the current heavyweight champ, let alone those in any of the lower weight classifications.  Where our feelings about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali once defined the racial tensions in the country and our feelings towards Ali's draft avoidance reflected a nation divided over Vietnam, today a Don King or a Mike Tyson is merely the butt of jokes.  Now you can read Daddy's Roommate or  Heather has Two Mommies in the classroom, but if you showed a boxing film there'd be hell to pay.  Once a vital part of the culture, boxing is now confined to the margins and its demise is little lamented.  All of which makes The Gloves a kind of delightful throwback, a book that reminds us of why boxing once gripped our imaginations.

Robert Anasi, who has been named a "Writer on the Verge" by the Village Voice, decided to enter the Golden Gloves at age thirty-three, in the last year that he was eligible.  It was something he'd thought about since he took up boxing in his twenties, mostly as a way to stay in shape, but with the chance to pursue a dream slipping away, he finally went for it.  He even signed on with a tough but talented trainer, Milton LaCroix, a man with a reputation for being difficult to work with--he's apparently alienated everyone involved in New York's boxing world--but also a reputation for turning out good, though unorthodox, fighters.

Mr. Anasi's chronicle, which combines elements of George Plimpton style participatory sportswriting with in-depth reportage, nicely captures both the qualities that make boxing alluring--the colorful cast of characters; the dedication required; the physical challenge; the savage beauty of a punch well thrown and a fight well fought; there's even an amusingly heartfelt paean to sweat--and those that make it repulsive--the genuine danger of injury; the exploitation of fighters by greedy managers and promoters; the serious questions that surround even the judging of an amateur bout and the draw for a tournament bracket.  As in all the best of such accounts, he succeeds in capturing this dying subculture in its entirety, warts and all, while conveying his obvious love for it.

He tells the stories of the people he meets along the way with great sympathy but also with brutal honesty, a combination that might only be possible from a Sarah Lawrence graduate who's also fought enough to begin experiencing neurological effects--memory loss.  Mr. Anasi subjects himself to the same tough but fair treatment as he seeks to understand his own obsession and what seems to have been a final bout victory but ended up a loss.  In the end he concludes that for all the problems that attend boxing, there is something uniquely worthwhile that occurs within the ring itself, a meeting of one man with another on terms of complete equality, a meeting that though it ends in victory for only one, ends in mutual respect between the two.

If you're a boxing fan, or used to be, you'll certainly love the book.  If you hate boxing you'll find much here to justify your hatred.  If you've never understood the attraction of the sport you will after reading it.  Most of all, if you like good storytelling, superior cultural reporting, and quality writing, you'll find them all here, and you'll enjoy them even if you don't care about boxing.  It's an impressive debut and if it wins the readership it deserves may well become a classic along the lines of Paper Lion, MuscleFriday Night Lights or Pat Jordan's A False Spring.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Sports (General)
Robert Anasi Links:

    -INTERVIEW : The Robert Anasi Interview: Pugilistic Survivor (Laurie Edwards, 03/09/2002, Culture Dose)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : The Gloves by Robert Anasi (FSB Associates)
    -ESSAY : How to Become a Boxer (Robert Anasi, October 2001, Maxim)
    -INTERVIEW : The Robert Anasi Interview: Pugilistic Survivor (Laurie Edwards,  03/09/2002, Culture Dose)
    -ESSAY : Writers on the Verge (Voice Literary Supplement, May 2001)
    -REVIEW : of The Gloves (Nita Rao, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Gloves (John Freeman, Denver Post)

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