Will Stenberg

James Braddock

Heavyweight Champion of the World

By the eighth round against Louis,
his spirit had worn thin, his body
that strode clean in the ring now badly
blooded. These are the deep waters,
he heard his heart sing — I am flooded.
The crowd gaped as one massive mouth
at his dumb courage. None of his parts
could find harmony — always
a fighter’s end — but oh Mrs. Braddock,
though there was not much left
of your boy, what was left
was swinging.

Mickey Walker

Welterweight Champion of the World
Middleweight Champion of the World

It was my idea to fight the big guys.
I learned my trade where hobos ride the rain.
Fighting’s real: there are no lies

and there’s nothing more honest than pain.
I became a diamond from head to toe.
Let me put it to you plain:

There was nowhere else for me to go, so
I went back and forth from the bottle to the ring.
It helped I found the heavyweights too slow.

It’s so long since I thought about these things.
I was born dead with a black eye, so what’s to fear?
Twice they crowned me king.

Took up painting, went crazy. My burden never got much lighter.
My name was Edward Patrick Walker. I was a fighter.

Fritzie Zivic

Welterweight Champion of the World

Give them your head
choke them
hit them in the balls
trip them
backhand them
rabbit-punch them
suffocate them
drown them in their own blood
block them
destabilize their mind
blind their eyes
open their cuts
disfigure them
stifle their aspirations
bite and thumb them
back up
make them dizzy
hurt them from every angle
and if you see red spread red
until they’re slipping around it
don’t let the poets fool you
you’re fighting
not playing the fucking piano.

Henry Armstrong

Featherweight Champion of the World
Welterweight Champion of the World
Lightweight Champion of the World

Grandfather owned the plantation where my grandmother lived.
She was one of these proud women. She was one of these African
    ladies and all like that. She was his slave.
Father, Henry, passed for white, but married mother, who was
a Cherokee Indian. She worked herself down and died. Fifteen kids:
    she was weary in her hair, her nails, her teeth.

Her name was America. Dad died early too, got the rheumatism
from cutting up those cows in the cold, then consumption bitterly
    ended him. Goodbye Daddy.
I worked on the rails for a while, until I saw a headline that said,
    was all I needed to see.

I punched my way through everything that stood between my
family and all that money: through the color line, through three
    weight-classes, through the shadow of Louis.
I would get in close to my opponent and dig everything out of them,
let their spirit, heart and will spill to the canvas, remembering
Grandma’s hands so scarred from the pecan trees.

Emile Griffith

Welterweight Champion of the World
Middleweight Champion of the World

What I think about when I think about Paret:
his head lolling back
like a flower in a rough wind. The feeling of his hard body
yielding. The taste of his sweat
spraying, the way the ropes trapped him,
the sudden fear in his eyes, rising like a strange moon,
the way he fell, a spent animal.

And what I think about when I think about Paret
is a little boy in Cuba, learning to fight,
every sparring match and training session
bringing him closer to his death
which resided, even then, in my hands,

but the truth is I didn’t kill him
for calling me maricón
which many people have
because my clothes are tight, because
I designed women’s hats, because
sometimes I fuck men. I killed Benny Paret because
his guard was down and I am a boxer,
so I kept punching



Author’s Note

I’ve tried to remember what first brought me to the boxing gym. I can’t. Maybe a punch took that memory. Somewhere around then I had started writing a script about a boxer, but I don’t recall which came first, the writing or the fighting. I don’t think research was my primary motivation. It was something else, a stirring in the blood maybe, when I saw that sign and that staircase leading up to that room that rang with the smack of leather and the pitter-patter of jump-ropes and the stuttering triplets of the speed-bag.

My progress was slow and I never got very good. I’m a writer, musician and bartender; no trade in that trifecta is famed for its physical specimens. But something about boxing held me in a clinch and didn’t let go. It still hasn’t.

It was when I got off the pads and started sparring that boxing set into my bones and took root in my heart. It’s a terrifying experience when you start out. Someone is coming towards you with the intention to do you harm, and you can’t escape; you are roped in. You lose all of your training, your animal instincts take over, your punches are wild and stupid and you shell up, panting, overheating, wanting to puke, taking hits all over.

But if you continue to drag your body through the ropes, day after day, something happens. In time the repetition allows you to find a measure of clarity in the mayhem: to think, analyze and react with intention in what your neurochemistry is interpreting as an extreme and dangerous situation. This profound dichotomy, this internal balance of fear and calm, is the pinprick of light that becomes your north star. Up until then, you are just brawling. After that, you are boxing. Clarity and intention in crisis: that is the practice, that is the sweet science.

Boxing is a totally immersive experience, and integrative too. Your body, mind, and that spiritual facility that boxers call “heart” all have to be fully engaged. And if any one of these is not in harmony with the others, the whole thing falls apart.

Within the ring, you are not an employee, not a son or daughter, not a husband or wife, not a citizen, taxpayer, commuter, consumer or community-member — all your roles and functions within society are outside of the ropes, in the void, in the big nothing. None of that exists. All that exists is the opponent in front of you. You don’t exist yourself, because you are not a self: you are a set of actions, a verb. What you are doing is what you are.

It’s the only complete peace I have ever found, in that sliver of war.

Practicing boxing also made me want to learn as much as I could about the history of the sport, and in short order my reading list became overtaken by boxing bios, treatises, studies. Of course, some of America’s finest writers have been fascinated by pugilism — the naked humanity it exposes is a lure to artists — and I read a lot of fantastic writing, as well as a lot of garbage. I loved it all.

I also quickly found that reading about 20th century boxing history is reading about the history of America’s various ethnic underclasses. Jews, Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Croatians: the only groups who produced large crops of fighters were groups with something to prove and limited paths to financial success. As some of them began to enter the middle class, they produced fewer and fewer fighters. That’s hardly a tragedy, so why does it make me sad?

Maybe I’ve come to believe that we need fighters like we need poets and painters. Boxing allows us to follow and sometimes adore warriors outside of the context of force, coercion and sectarian strife that often accompanies the warrior. The martial virtues that are intrinsic to human society are all there, but in a ritualized form, roped off and on display. At a boxing match, we can still revere Achilles and, like the ancients, conflate virtue with glory.

Perhaps my favorite book was called “… In This Corner!” by a journalist named Peter Heller. In the 1960s and 70s, Heller traversed the nation doing interviews with all of the surviving boxing champions he could find, going back to Willie Ritchie, World Lightweight Champion, 1912–1914. Then Heller removed his questions, effectively creating dramatic monologues from the mouths of these fighters.

I fell in love with the rough, colorful cadence of their speech, with the stories of poverty, triumph, degradation, brutality, dignity, tedium, drinking, despair, joy, salvation, loss and love. I fell in love with the unique perspective of these men who had chosen to walk through fire for a shot at immortality. I fell in love with the clamorous babble of the gathered voices until they were all talking in my head at once, coming out of Jewish ghettoes, black ghettoes, Irish slums, prison cells, taverns, nursing homes, all talking, all explaining, all not explaining, all trying to say the unsayable, why we fight, and what for, and what it gives to us, and what it takes from us and never gives back.

So I wrote a poem for each fighter of the 42 featured in that book, starting with Willie Ritchie and ending with The Explosive Thin Man, Alexis Arguello. Sometimes I used a phrase or two from the fighters themselves, re-contextualized and reimagined in verse. Sometimes I went around their monologues entirely, writing from the perspective of a trainer, a fan, or a dead witch they prayed to. Often my mission was something like: how would this pugilist have written had he been a poet? How can I capture the rough grain, the hard beautiful miles in the way he talks, and put it into a poem? Why did old boxing writers refer to the rounds in a fight as “stanzas”? Can I show that, can I find the poetry in this unforgiving sport which, when you strip away the romance, has tended to leave its practitioners brain-damaged and broke? Can I hammer out a tribute to these men with no cartilage in their noses and hands that never stop throbbing, who went from the dirty shadows of poverty to the golden stage of American success without a single lesson on how to comport themselves there? Who were they, these paragons of masculinity often riven with fear, trauma, and the undying hopes of the impoverished child? What do they say about men and masculinity? Race? Class? How are these things tied up in boxing? Can I show at least some of this?

I have no idea, but the book in which I attempt to do so, “No Comebacks,” will be released by Yellow Lark Press in December. I am very pleased and proud to present five of these poems here today.

Will Stenberg is a poet, musician and bartender who grew up in a small logging town in the wilds of Northern California and currently resides in Portland, Oregon. His first collection, “No Comebacks,” is forthcoming from Yellow Lark Press in Austin, Texas.