Photo: Will Hart, HBO
It's boxing season! I've been doing a lot of fight coverage lately for Stiff Jab. Last week I checked out the press coference for Sergio Martinez-Miguel Cotto, which is set for the Garden this summer.
Photo: Rich Kane, Golden Boy
In a dark Times Square bar, I listened to Bernard Hopkins, newly dubbed "The Alien," hype his upcoming title bout with Beibut Shumenov. Long may you reign, Alien!
And over the weekend I tagged along with some Russian buddies to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to watch young Slava "Czar" Glazkov take down the aging Tomas Adamek in a great night of fights that also featured beautiful boxing displays by South African-Malawian Isaac Chilemba and a still-sharp Kermit Cintron.
Now it's back to work at Atlas Cops and Kids, where we have nine boxers still in the running for the Golden Gloves finals at the Barclays Center, including Earl "Flash" Newman, the defending heavyweight open champ, who makes his tournament debut tonight at Bishop Ford.
The new Threepenny Review is out! I'm very proud of my essay Colorless, Odorless, Tasteless, about the miserable year I spent peddling vodka.
All photos courtesy of Raquel Ruiz, except where noted
Congratulations to all the 2014 champions, and thank you to the boxers, trainers, fathers, refs, judges, bartenders, pit bulls, labrador retrievers, ice-covered pine trees, and friendly people of Spokane. At the bottom of this post, I acknowledge some people who have been especially kind and inspirational.
This was a light year, perhaps because of the lack of headgear for the men, the decline of regional programs, or just because everyone is too broke to schlep to Spokane.
Here's a recap of my tournament coverage for Stiff Jab:
DAY ONE: The Headgear Issue
It might be a while before I get out to another tournament. There's a way in which the story I was following - the Olympic debut of women's amateur boxing - is over. Now we go back to the perennial tale of women athletes trying to make it work in an often indifferent world. Mark Ortega's nice piece on Mikaela Mayer highlights this struggle. Kind of gives you the blues.
Pro boxing gives you the blues, too, but it's more of an aesthetic, impersonal depression. At pro fights, you aren't helping trainers with the spit bucket, dancing with the refs in the disco, and giving the boxers lifts to the airport. The experience of covering amateur tournaments is at times confusingly intimate. Sometimes I feel like I need headgear, too.
I am there as a witness, not a judge.
Amateur boxing has now moved to a pro-style, 10-point must system, which is a good move. Although I prefer boxers to sluggers, I do think the weight of blows needs to be considered, as does willingness to engage. The 10-point must system won't stop superior boxers from triumphing, any more than it kept Sweet Pea or Willie Pep down.
If a boxer is moving laterally, she should be scoring much more often than her opponent. As Naazim Richardson once said to me, "If you have to stop to throw a punch, you're not a boxer." The onus is on the stick-and-move boxer to prove that she has control of the rhythm of the bout and to display excellent defense in the exchanges.
Defense is still sadly lacking in the women’s game. Defense is what makes boxing beautiful and gives fighters long careers.
One thing to note about the new rules is that, of five judges at ringside, two cards are randomly thrown out. Thus it is quite possible to lose a fight by a 2-1 split decision but win it 3-2 had all the cards had been considered. (This system was put in place to make it harder to bribe judges, although it just means you would have to pay off four judges instead of three. Azerbaijan should find the cash somewhere.)
Using the figures from the USA Boxing press releases, I count 144 bouts that went to the judges. A third of these, 49 bouts, were split decisions. This percentage was lower in the preliminaries, when there were many mismatches, but it climbed to as high as 50% in the semis and quarters!
No one likes being judged. Although I agreed with the wins for Queen Underwood and Malik Jackson, does Mikaela Mayer deserve a simple “L” for her disciplined boxing, or Shawn Simpson for his slick counterpunching? The more hoops AIBA jumps through to produce a fool-proof judging system, the more we reveal judging's essential emptiness.
This reminds me of what W.G. Sebald wrote in Austerlitz about castles. I'm going to type out this long passage, because typing out the work of masters is good for a writer in the same way that watching tapes of the greats is good for a fighter:
Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance - and Antwerp was an outstanding example of that craft - clearly showed how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defenses, built in successive phases as a precaution against any incursion by enemy powers, until the idea of concentric rings making their way steadily outward comes up against its natural limits. If we study the development of fortifications from Floriani, da Capri, and Sanmicheli, by way of Rusenstein, Burgsdorff, Coehoorn, and Klengel, and so to Vauban and Montalembert, it is amazing, said Austerlitz, the persistence with which generations of masters of the art of military architecture, for all their undoubtedly outstanding gifts, clung to what we can easily see today was a fundamentally wrong-headed idea: the notion that by designing an ideal trace' with blunt bastions and ravelins projecting well beyond it, allowing the cannon of the fortress to cover the entire operational area outside the walls, you could make a city as secure as anything in the world can ever be. No one today, said Austerlitz, has the faintest idea of the boundless amount of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses of the professional vocabulary of fortification and seigecraft, no one now understands its simplest terms, escarpe and courtine, faussebraie, reduit, and glacis, yet even from our present standpoint we can see that towards the end of the seventeenth century the star-shaped dodecagon behind trenches had finally crystallized, out of the various available systems, as the preferred ground plan:
a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately stikes the layman as an emblem of both absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power. In the practice of warfare, however, the star-shaped fortresses which were being built and improved everywhere during the eighteenth century did not answer their purpose, for intent as everyone was on that pattern, it had been forgotten that the largest fortifications will naturally attract the largest enemy forces, and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive, so that in the end you might find yourself in a place fortified in every possible way, watching helplessly while enemy troops, moving on to their own choice of terrain elsewhere, simply ignored their adversaries' fortresses, which had become positive arsenals of weaponry, bristling with cannon and overcrowded with men. The frequent result, said Austerlitz, of resorting to measures of fortification marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically inviting the enemy to attack it, not to mention the fact that as architectural plans for fortifications became increasingly complex, the time it took to build them increased as well, and with it the probability that as soon as they were finished, if not before, they would have been overtaken by further developments, both in artillery and in strategic planning, which took account of the growing realization that everything was decided in movement, not in a state of rest.
(translation by Anthea Bell)
Covering all these tournaments has been more educational than grad school and slightly less expensive. I would like to thank some of my professors...
Photo by Sue Jaye Johnson
THE BOXERS: Thank you for risking your bodies for our enjoyment, and thank you for showing us what strength looks like in a woman. Christina Cruz was the first boxer I interviewed, and it is thanks to her that I got into coaching again at Atlas Cops and Kids. Champions Marlen Esparza and Queen Underwood are great ambassadors of the sport who have not stopped pushing themselves to improve.
Thanks to Pat Manuel for the ride to Oxnard and all the laughs. I wish him luck on his quest to make the men's team for Rio, not only because it takes great courage to be a trans athlete but because he is a very good boxer, pure and simple. What happens outside the ring is only interesting if what happens inside the ring is beautiful.
On that note, I am grateful for the inspiration of Tiara Brown, Claressa Shields, and Mikaela Mayer, the three US women whose boxing I most admire.
Christy Halbert knows more than anyone else about women's boxing, and she has been a great mentor to me. I have learned so much from watching Al Mitchell and Jason Crutchfield corner: in addition to their technical knowledge of the sport, these men love their fighters like sons and daughters. I wish I spoke Spanish so I could chill more with Coach Pedro; I think he is good for our program and I hope he stays and helps us rebuild it. And I am blessed to be in the gym every day with Aureliano Sosa, who is steadily churning out champions at Atlas Cops and Kids.
I took this picture of little Reuben at one of our club shows
THE BOXING FAMILY:
It takes a village to throw a tournament. I first met Rowdy Welch when he was working the glove table at the Trials, and he has steadily fed me hysterical pull quotes and old school boxing wisdom. Delilah Rico is a warm, motherly presence who tells it like it is. Vivi and the crew at the Spokane Quality Inn Valley Suites were incredibly kind and made this trip financially feasible. And the love David Esparza, Mark Mayer, and Hazzauna Underwood show for their fighting girls is a beautiful thing to witness.
I never imagined I would meet so many great writers on this road. What a pleasure to watch Ariel Levy work. Like most boxers, she is far more dangerous than she appears. Sue Jaye Johnson is a profound storyteller who works equally well with images and words and noticed Claressa before anyone else. I am grateful every day to work with Gautham Nagesh and Anna John of Stiff Jab, a blog whose high literary standards I admired long before I was invited to contribute. And what can I say about Raquel Ruiz, except that she is a miracle. Save up for bail money when I come to Sacramento.
Chef Jack Riebel is the best cook I know, and I know some cooks. For many years, Jack was the chef at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, where my husband plays every Christmas with the Bad Plus. It was an absurdly glamorous experience to spend the holidays there, listening to the Plus, eating Jack's food, and being waited on by his wife Kathryne, one of those rare professionals who still views service as an art. Drummer Dave King's little son Otis could not pronounce "Chef Jack" and called him "Fresh Jack"; the name stuck.
Once I even worked the kitchen. It had been years since I'd done this professionally, and my performance on the leek and potato soup was similar to what Sosa, the head boxing trainer at my gym, said recently about my hand wrapping skills: "OK, but slow and fearful."
All good things come to an end, and so did Fresh's time at the Dakota. He moved on to help found Butcher and the Boar, a tremendously successful BBQ/bourbon/beer garden concept that landed Fresh in the finals for James Beard Chef of the Midwest.
This Christmas, Fresh announced he was moving on yet again, to consult for a new restaurant in Loring Park. Somehow I had still never eaten at B & the B, so I made him take me and Kathryne. The food was exquisite, much of it kissed by the wood grill, all of it bearing Fresh's distinctive signature: earnest, bold Americana meets French refinement.
Rare duck breast paired with foie gras boudin, served with "waldorf" garnish of pureed apple, celery, walnuts, and raisins. Also superb were the Texas-style jalepenos stuffed with peanut butter, mussels michelada with Fresno chili and smoked paprika, gorgeous lobster grilled cheese, and two items that I literally could not stop eating until they were all gone: the turkey braunschweiger, which is a kind of pate, and the grilled oysters, for which Fresh generously supplied the recipe (below).
In addition to being a great creative cook, Fresh is a wonderful leader. Here he poses with his staff, who were all a little sad, news of his departure having just hit the grill.
12 of your favorite, meaty, deep cup oysters, shucked
1 batch of oyster butter (recipe below)
¼ C toasted breadcrumbs. (Optional)
Make oyster butter and reserve at room temperature.
Light grill or preheat gas grill.
Place a teaspoon of oyster butter on each oyster, sprinkle with breadcrumbs if using.
Place oysters on hot grill and cook until butter has melted and bubbling. Move oysters around to avoid flare up. Some flare up will occur, no worries
When ready remove and serve with lemon wedge. Allow oyster to cool slightly as the shells are going to be very hot..
1 lb butter
½ c grated parmesan
1T fresh thyme
2 lemons zested
2 T minced chives
2 T minced garlic
salt & pepper to taste
Worcestershire sauce to taste
Tabasco to taste
Butter may be made ahead and kept refrigerated up to two weeks or frozen indefinitely. Butter should be tempered before use. (Note: I'm not exactly sure what this last sentence means, as I have only ever tempered chocolate before. I found a description of tempering butter here.)
Happy New Year from the Spiral Staircase! Over here, we ring in the new year with a little chanting to the yogic deity Shiva, who destroys the old to make way for the new. He is the god of yoga, austerity, and the father of Ganesha, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles and patron saint of writers.
In 2014, Shiva has promised to help me write more, party less, and not waste so much time on the Internets.
One great devotee of Shiva - and proof that "well behaved women seldom make history" - was the 12th century saint Mahadevi. Here's a brief bio from the wonderful Penguin Classics compilation Speaking of Shiva:
"At ten, she was initiated into Shiva-worship by an unknown guru. She considered that moment the moment of her real birth.
"The form of Shiva at the Udutadi temple was Mallikarjuna, translated either as 'the Lord White as Jasmine' or as 'Arjuna, Lord of goddess Mallika'. 'Cenna' mans 'lovely, beautiful'. She fell in love with Cennamalikarjuna and took his name for a 'signature' in all her poems.
Image of Mahadevi from a temple constructed at her birthplace
"She betrothed herself to Shiva and none other, but human lovers pressed their suit. The rivalry between the divine lover and all human loves was dramatized by the incidents of her own life. Kausika, the king of the land, saw her one day and fell in love with her...he persuaded her, or rather her parents, partly by show of force, and partly by his protestations of love...
"It must have been a trying marriage for both. Kausika, the worldling, full of desire for her as a mortal, was the archetype of sensual man; Mahadevi, a spirit married already to the Lord White as Jasmine, scorning all human carnal love as corrupt and illegitimate, wife to no man, exile bound to the world's wheeling lives, archetypal sister of all souls...
"Like other bhaktas, her struggle was with her condition, as body, as woman, as social being tyrannized by social roles, as a human confined to a place and time. Through these shackles she bursts, defiant in her quest for ecstasy.
"According to legend, she died into 'oneness with Shiva' when she was hardly in her twenties - a brief, bright burning."
157 by Mahadevi
If one could
draw the fangs of a snake
and charm the snake to play,
it's great to have snakes.
If one can single out
the body's ways
it's great to have bodies.
The body's wrong
is like mother turning vampire.
Don't say they have bodies
who have Your love
white as jasmine.
I'm out in sunny Oxnard, California this week with my boxing team as they fight in the PAL National Championships. I've started a new blog for our gym, where I will be featuring different young fighters every month and, hopefully, getting the kids to write things in their own words about fighting and life.