January 25, 2007
A punch-by-punch guide to life
"Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage," by Budd Schulberg (Ivan R. Dee, $27.50).
In a town where industry types seek multihyphenate status, Budd Schulberg is among the only legitimate triple threats, a true literary lion as adept as a novelist and journalist as he is as a screenwriter.
Schulberg is about to receive the Thomas Ince Award, named for the film pioneer, at the Backlot Film Festival, which takes place Jan. 30 through Feb. 3. In addition to this honor, Schulberg just came out with a new book, "Ringside," a collection of his boxing journalism, written over a lifetime of love for the sweet science.
Schulberg, 92, is most famous for his novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?" which introduced the world to Sammy Glick, a loathsome Hollywood wannabe who steals credit whenever he can but ultimately ends up "wandering alone through all his brightly lit rooms" in a mansion like Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane in "Citizen Kane."
Schulberg has noted that, as a result of the publication of "Sammy" in 1941, he became the probably the only person ever attacked by both John Wayne and the Communist Party. Wayne didn't like the book because he felt that it denigrated Hollywood. The apparatchiks of the Communist Party, which Schulberg had joined as a young man in the 1930s, didn't like it because they saw it as a capitalist screed.
Indeed, in a phone interview from New York, Schulberg goes so far as to say that the party reacted "violently" against the book.
If Schulberg's literary debut led to his temporary estrangement from Hollywood, where he had grown up as the son of Paramount executive B.P. Schulberg, it did not affect his association with the fight game.
In "Ringside," he writes about how, as a 7-year-old boy, he put together a scrapbook on Benny Leonard, perhaps the greatest Jewish fighter of the past century. Leonard was a family friend, as was Mushy Callahan, born Vincent Morris Scheer, a Jewish newsboy from Boyle Heights. Like Leonard, Callahan was a pro boxing champion during the 1920s, a golden era for Jewish boxers, who dominated the lighter weight classes between the first two World Wars.
Schulberg first stepped into a ring as a child. He never fought in the Golden Gloves, but he did work out with a boxing trainer. Many years later in the 1950s, he, too, served as a trainer, co-managing heavyweight contender Archie McBride, a subject he discusses in one chapter of his book.
Unlike some boxing writers, Schulberg knows his way around a right cross. Consider this passage about the bout between former Olympic champions Pernell Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya, the Golden Boy from East L.A.: "Since the Whitaker style is to feint and sucker opponents into attacks and then counterpunch from unorthodox angles, Oscar's more conventional aggression was often being smothered as he fell victim to Whitaker's unexciting but efficient game plan."
Schulberg devotes a number of pieces to De La Hoya and other contemporary fighters like Mike Tyson (whom he refers to in the dedication as his "fellow pigeon fancier") and Evander Holyfield, but he always brings in a historical context that reflects his longstanding fandom.
For instance, in his write-up of Felix Trinidad's fight against defensive specialist Winky Wright, Schulberg compares Wright to boxing pioneer Daniel Mendoza, a Jew, whose innovations to the sport included the concept of footwork and sophisticated defensive maneuvers, such as bobbing, weaving, feinting and parrying.
While the book is by no means focused on Jewish fighters, Schulberg brings in Jewish references in unlikely places. For instance, he was on the scene sleuthing at the first fight between Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, and Sonny Liston, when Clay "hid ... in a Jewish old people's home where the supposedly anti-Semitic Cassius endeared himself to the clientele. 'Such a nice boy,' an old lady told me. 'I can't picture him hurting anyone. We all hope he wins.'"
Schulberg also concludes the book with a 33,000-word article, first published in six installments in Collier's Magazine in 1950, on Mike Jacobs, yet another Jew, who was the leading boxing promoter in the 1930s and 1940s. The profile is fair-minded and compassionate, even though it depicts a man whom some may have viewed as the Sammy Glick of boxing. It was not for nothing that Jacobs was known as the Macchiavelli of Eighth Avenue.
Yet Schulberg also shows how Jacobs integrated the sport by signing Joe Louis to an exclusive contract a decade before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson. It also shows the ingenuity and work ethic of the ever-industrious Jacobs, who had grown up in poverty on the New York City waterfront.
As in novels like "The Harder They Fall," where he had an aspiring playwright slum as a press agent, and in his Oscar-winning screenplay for "On the Waterfront," in which he maps a bildungsroman worthy of Prince Hal and Jesus onto the tale of Marlon Brando's ex-prizefighter, "Ringside" contains Schulberg's mix of erudition and street authenticity. He knows all of the boxing and ghetto slang. At the same time, he can come up with exquisite metaphors.
In an example of this, he compares the Madison Square Garden debut of aging light-heavyweight Archie Moore to that of opera icon Enrico Caruso in prose reminiscent of Damon Runyon: "If Caruso had had to tour the tank towns in moth-eaten opry houses for petty cash while third-raters unfit to carry his music case were pulling down big notices and the heavy sugar at the Met, he would have become as cynical and money-hungry and unthrilled as Archie Moore seemed to feel in the Garden last week."
Whether it's exposing the corruption of boxing, as he did in "The Harder They Fall," or shedding a light on the unsavory aspects of Hollywood in "Sammy," Schulberg has never lacked for courage.
To this day, some still feel that Schulberg unfairly stereotyped Jews in creating the most unethical of all schemers in Sammy Glick. Those critics fail to recognize that, in "Sammy," the lead character victimizes a roster of other Jews, all of whom are portrayed favorably.
Though these days he speaks slowly, with a bit of a slur like an old fighter, Schulberg is as active as ever. He is working on a new edition of a book, "Writers in America," with a new chapter on John O'Hara.
He once talked about founding an organization called Fighters and Writers, and in "Ringside" he articulates the essential similarity between the two professions: "When the bell rings, it's sort of interchangeable. You're out there under the bright lights feeling naked and alone. And what you do or fail to do out there can make or break your reputation for life."
That is probably truer of boxers than writers.
While Schulberg named names during the McCarthy period, he had circumstances that most would view as mitigating.
Unlike many Communist Party members, Schulberg had actually visited the Soviet Union and had watched as most of the writers there were either "killed or sent off to concentration camps." Moreover, the Communist Party had tried to stifle his creative freedom with "Sammy," all of which led to his "total disillusionment with the party."
It may be that a writer's life and reputation can change in time and that Schulberg's will only improve in the new millennium. Along with Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling, he will always have a place in the pantheon of great writers, whose expertise was not limited to the subject of boxing.
The Backlot Film Festival will take place from Jan. 30-Feb. 3 at the Fine Arts Theater, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 360-0455, and the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 4117 Overland Ave., Culver City, (310) 253-6625.