"Million Dollar Baby" author left behind a
novel of caring and fighting in the boxing world
The man who wrote "Million Dollar Baby" died in 2002, before his story hit the big screen
and won Oscars and a global audience. Still, by all accounts he was satisfied.
He'd written for decades with no response but rejection slips. Then a literary magazine
published one of his stories. An agent read it and asked if he had more. He did and the
result was published in 2000 as "Rope Burns," the acclaimed volume of boxing stories that
includes "Million Dollar Baby."
He wrote under the name F.X. Toole, a moniker
fabricated, he said, in salute to the missionary saint Francis Xavier and Irish actor
Peter O'Toole. He was known in the boxing world as Jerry Boyd, a respected cut man and
trainer in Los Angeles fight gyms for many years. Though his writing is set in the world
of boxing, he kept it secret there until he was finally published.
When he died at
the age of 72, F.X. Toole left behind the thick manuscript of a novel, "Pound for Pound."
Edited by his agent and a freelance editor, the novel appears with an introduction by
fight fan and noir stylist James Ellroy. It carries the Toole stamp of lean,
conversational storytelling and dialogue rich in an American polyglot of tic and rhythm.
"Pound for Pound" occupies the same bruising terrain as Toole's short stories. The
primary actors are fight guys -- boxers and trainers. There is plenty of pugilistic lore,
but boxing is the setting, not the subject. For Toole the sport is a laboratory where
human fiber is tested, dissected and displayed under crisis conditions.
crystallizes Toole's deeply moral view of existence. His bad guys are one-dimensional,
relentless and unforgivable. Evil is almost religiously defined as the absence of light.
But "Good" is complicated and hard. His characters stumble, grope and struggle for it.
When it happens it is a mystery and a blessing achieved through the oldest of verities --
love, loyalty and commitment.
"Pound for Pound" centers on Dan Cooley, an aging
ex-boxer turned trainer. His auto repair shop in Los Angeles has a boxing gym out back.
The stoic Cooley has endured harsh losses, including the deaths of his wife and children.
But as the story opens he is a decent man maintaining his equilibrium with the clear
purpose of teaching and caring for his small grandson.
When the child is killed in
a traffic accident, Cooley loses it. All the contained pain of his life explodes in fury.
He dives into the bottle and plots a terrible revenge against the driver who did the deed.
Then he turns the rage against himself and the God he believes in and hates. He
methodically prepares for a gruesome suicide that will obliterate any trace of his
Meanwhile, far off in San Antonio, an old ring rival of Cooley's is
also a grandfather. But this rival, Eloy "The Wolf" Garza, is dying and the vultures
surrounding the sport are eager to strip all the hope and talent out of his grandson, a
gifted boxer. As a last, desperate attempt to save his grandson's dreams, The Wolf sends
him to Los Angeles to ask Cooley to train him for a professional career.
Predictably, the living grandfather steps up for the dead. Someone else's grandson
stands in for the lost child. But nothing comes easy for Toole's characters. There are
twists at every step. If goodness is to triumph it must out-connive evil. The savagery of
"Pound for Pound" is inextricably melded with profound sweetness. That's how F.X. Toole
saw the world.
Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell: Hand
Okay, I did not jump for joy at the news of yet another
addition to the mountain of books -- some excellent, many
silly -- about Muhammad Ali. And admittedly, hearing that
veteran sports reporter Dave Kindred's "Sound and
Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship" pairs
the great boxer with the late, grating sportscaster Howard
Cosell, I sneered. Yes, I am one of what Kindred calls
"the mean-spirited punks" who dismissed Cosell as
a pompous twit. It's not the first time I've been
wrong in several directions at once.
Kindred's perceptive book offers a deeper view.
"Sound and Fury" is a charmer with three good
stories -- the separate lives of Ali and Cosell, and the
tale of their scriptless collaboration to create media
Kindred's research is solid, but he also knew and liked
both men. His personal anecdotes and interpretations are
fresh and zesty. The book begins with a description of
Kindred literally crawling into bed with Ali to get an
interview in a noisy Las Vegas hotel suite crowded by
"the Ali Circus madhouse of perfumed women,
pimp-dressed hangers-on, sycophants, con artists,
sportswriters, and other reprobates." Of Ali, Kindred
writes, "I saw him naked. I am not sure I ever saw him
The sportscaster appears as Kindred is sitting at the
breakfast table in Cosell's beach house. "I saw in
the shadows across the room a ghostly shape that on
inspection turned out to be my host shuffling barefoot from
his bedroom, skeletal in a white undershirt and boxer
briefs. He was bleary-eyed. He had not yet found his toupee.
As Cosell noticed me, he raised his arms and struck a
bodybuilder's biceps-flexing pose. Then he spoke, and
this is what he said: 'A killing machine the likes of
which few men have ever seen.' "
Cosell laughing at himself wasn't Kindred's only
surprise for me. "Sound and Fury" snatches both
men out from behind the flimsy cartoons that often represent
them. Cosell was more than an arrogant poser. Ali is neither
Superman nor saint. Kindred's entertaining
prestidigitation reveals dynamic egos, remarkable gifts and
plenty of warts.
Turns out the unlikely duo had a lot in common. The handsome
young African American Muslim boxer from Louisville and the
homely older white Jewish lawyer from New York were both
bedeviled by stereotype and racism. TV demanded bland
accents, faces and vocabularies. But Cosell powered his
polysyllabic Brooklyn rasp and his non-Ken-Doll mug to the
hugely successful sportscasting career that allowed him to
escape the law practice he hated. The white America that
adored polite Joe Louis and gentle Floyd Patterson was not
ready to stomach the Louisville Lip, much less the radical
separatism of Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam.
Both men were driven by fear. Cosell had a horror of failure
and disrespect. The deeply religious Ali was awed by the
physical threat of the murderous Elijah Muhammad, then
leader of the Nation of Islam. Kindred argues persuasively
that the politically naive Ali's abandonment of his
mentor, Malcolm X, and his refusal to be drafted into the
U.S. military were in obedience to Elijah Muhammad.
Ali's willingness to appear on any show with Cosell was
an asset for the broadcaster. Cosell -- who had changed his
name from Cohen -- was the first to publicly agree to call
Cassius Clay by his new Muslim name. Cosell defended
Ali's right to refuse induction and attacked the New
York commission that stripped Ali of his license to box,
leaving the fighter unemployed and scrabbling for years at
the height of his athletic powers.
Kindred takes them from their disparate beginnings through
triumphs and hard times, and follows them into their
parallel decline in the 1980s. Cosell's feuds and rants
finally got him booted off television entirely. He lost
heart and health when his beloved wife died.
When Elijah Muhammad died, Ali embraced a milder form of
Islam, and the old aggravations evaporated from the public
consciousness. Not forgiven, but forgotten. Muted by the
Parkinson's disease that is probably the result of the
beatings he took late in his career, the depressed Ali
drifted into deliberate obscurity. When he emerged to light
the torch at the 1996 Olympics his global fame rekindled. To
get past grousers like me, Cosell's revival needed Dave
The boxing match that
broke America's color line in sports
In 1910, Jack Johnson shattered the color line that barred
black athletes from competing with whites. His punishment
for that defiance combined with his vivid, innovative talent
to make him a haunting figure in American sports.
Many of today's fight fans first learned about the
great black champion from Muhammad Ali, who hailed Johnson
as a hero and role model. In 2005, an remarkable two-part
documentary by Ken Burns, "Unforgiveable Blackness: The
Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," was broadcast twice on
PBS. The filmmaker launched a substantial movement including
political and labor leaders, as well as boxers, petitioning
President Bush to pardon Johnson from his federal conviction
under the Mann Act.
Every substantial history of boxing in America pays respects
to Johnson, and to the bizarre extravaganza that surrounded
his smashing of the original Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries,
in their July 4, 1910, bout. Still, as Wayne Rozen notes in
his introduction to "America on the Ropes: A Pictorial
History of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight," until now there
has not been a book solely about this match, which defined
Johnson and threw a harsh, clear light on the racial
conflict in the United States half a century after the Civil
Rozen's book is a gorgeous monster in size and content.
It is packed with amazing photographs, posters, cartoons,
clippings and other ephemera that help bring the men and the
era to life. Rozen's entertaining prose paints dynamic
and cranky personalities and the hurtling momentum of their
times. Though it is carefully researched and documented,
"America on the Ropes" reads like adventure. We
may already know the plot, but Rozen dishes up so much
engaging detail, so many obscure or raucous anecdotes, and
such a strong day-by-day progression toward the climax that
we live the nervy suspense as the big fight approaches.
As Rozen writes, "America was the land of opportunity,
a land where every man had his own shot at fame and fortune
. . . Unless, of course, he was black . . . Between 1901 and
1910, 754 blacks were lynched in the United States . . . In
1910 the social and political rights of blacks were less
secure than at any time since slavery."
In this volatile context, Rozen sketches the lives of
Johnson and Jeffries, and of the dashing promoter, Tex
Rickard, who orchestrated the historic clash. The story
gathers steam as the heavyweight champion, Jeffries,
retires, having enforced the color bar and refused to allow
any black fighter to challenge for the title. When Canadian
Tommy Burns took the championship, Johnson chased him to
Europe -- enduring humiliations remarkable even for that era
-- and then to Australia.
Burns had defended the title twice in Australia, but on Dec.
26, 1908, Johnson toyed with the out-classed Burns. The most
significant character watching in the huge crowd was Jack
London. Stopping off in Australia on his way home from
covering the Russo-Japanese War for American newspapers,
London reported the fight for the New York Herald. London
was as racist as most people in those days, and his
description of the white champion's humiliation at the
hands of Johnson blanketed North America in a matter of
days. The crucial paragraph was London's final plea for
Jeffries to come out of retirement and "remove that
smile from Johnson's face."
This inflammatory article and the press that followed
powered the storm that drove Jeffries and the nation to the
events in Reno on July 4, 1910.
Rozen's wonderful description of the Johnson-Jeffries
bout itself is illustrated by an impressive series of
round-by-round photographs of the ring action. The aftermath
is swiftly dealt with, but the author sketches each of the
fighters lives to their end. The book concludes with the
popular Mutt and Jeff cartoon strips that ran on the funny
pages of the nation's daily papers. The gritty ink
comedians play out their shady triumphs and absurd
catastrophes on the way to and from the big fight -- a wry
mirror for a grand, if grotesque, folly.
Katherine Dunn is associate editor of the Cyber Boxing Zone. She can be reached
All three reviews first appeared in the Sunday Oregonian on August 27, 2006.