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One Tough Baby
January 31, 2005
It may be the most troubled of sports, but boxing still packs a punch in Hollywood. The latest fight film, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, just may be the greatest ever
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January 31, 2005

One Tough Baby

It may be the most troubled of sports, but boxing still packs a punch in Hollywood. The latest fight film, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, just may be the greatest ever

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You come away from this movie called Million Dollar Baby feeling as though you just watched a hell of a fighter who never makes you think about all the rounds he sparred, all the roadwork, all the lonely hours before he wrapped himself in the crowd's roar. There's Hilary Swank as a hard-punching trailer-park refugee and Clint Eastwood as her never-seen-the-mountaintop trainer, two dreamers trying to fill the empty places in their lives with hardscrabble nobility. You've got Morgan Freeman, too, playing a washed-up main eventer who needs only his one good eye to see the size of their hearts, and how primed those hearts are for breaking. And it all seems so easy, with those glossy names and their Academy Award talent, and that's where Million Dollar Baby fools you, because easy is the last thing it ever was.

Getting the movie made was a four-year ordeal that didn't become a mortal lock even when Eastwood signed on in 2004 to star and direct. There was still all kinds of wheeling and dealing to be done after that--nothing as bad as Don King and Bob Arum eyeing each other's jugulars and reaching for their sharpest cutlery but enough to have everybody who loved the project back on their heels.

And yet they were in the fast lane compared with the writer upon whose short stories the movie is based. It wasn't just that F.X. Toole died before he could learn that Million Dollar Baby was finally in front of the camera. It was that his one shot at Hollywood represented a lifetime of waiting.

Toole spent his last 22 years working with fighters, tending their cuts and mainlining the brutal, beautiful truth about boxing that he put into words he wasn't sure anyone else would ever read. He didn't sell his first story until he was 69. The San Francisco literary journal Zyzzva paid him $35 for The Monkey Look, a story about a cutman's revenge on a fighter who's trying to cheat him. Toole took the editor a gooseberry pie, the kind his mother taught him to make. And that might have been that if he hadn't knocked out a New York literary agent with the pure American vernacular of his story, starting with the first sentence: "I stop blood." The agent, Nat Sobel, called and asked if he'd written anything else.

There was a long answer to the question, one that stretched over four decades, but the short one, the right one, can be found in Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, the book that transformed Toole, at 70, from literary tomato can to champion. It was 2000, and suddenly he was being praised in all the right places, doing readings and interviews, talking shop with big hitters like Joyce Carol Oates and James Ellroy. And love it though he did--nobody ever paid more dues--he always went back to the world in which he found Maggie Fitzgerald and Frankie Dunn and Eddie (Scrap-Iron) DuPris, the characters that were his alone before Swank, Eastwood and Freeman climbed into their skins.

But nobody in any gym in Los Angeles knew an F.X. Toole. Then they'd hear about the guy's close-cropped white hair, and the beard and glasses and nice clothes, and the only old dude who fit that description was Jerry Boyd. Yeah, they'd been knowing Jerry Boyd since that day in '78 when he became the whitest white boy who ever set foot in the Olympic Gym before it got turned into a parking lot.

Boyd was 48 years old, and the writing game had him beat, and he was seeking sanctuary in a black and Latino province. He looked around, and then he approached Dub Huntley, who had turned to training in the late '60s when a detached retina rendered him a former middleweight contender. Boyd wanted an education in the ring, and he was willing to pay. Huntley said it wasn't necessary, although he didn't think his charity would last long. "When I went home that night," he says, "I told my wife, 'I'm gonna run this white boy out of the gym.'"

Never happened. Huntley put Boyd through the hell he put every fighter through: punching mitts, big bag, speed bag, jump rope. But he couldn't make Boyd quit, and Boyd was nine years his junior, a middle-aged man with a head for boxing and the patience to teach others what Huntley taught him. Somewhere along the line, he learned how to care for cuts, too. And pretty soon Huntley had himself a partner in the corner, handling worthy L.A. fighters like Antoine Byrd and Hector Lopez. "I can't see things too good," Huntley says, "so Jerry saw them for me. 'Dub, he's dropping his hands.' Or, 'Dub, he ain't turning his feet.'" When you rely on a man that much, and he never lets you down, the only thing you can become is friends.

Huntley learned a lot about Boyd in their time together. Some of it had to do with Boyd's bad ticker and how open-heart surgery had sent him back to the Catholic church. And some of it had to do with his three children and his three busted marriages, the second of which was annulled a week after the honeymoon. But mostly Boyd talked about living the kind of life that led to rum running and risking everything for a torch singer's kiss. He came out of L.A.'s South Bay as a gambling-den bootblack, and studied acting in New York. He drove cabs and tended bar, fought bulls in Mexico--got gored twice--and had half his right ear bitten off in a street fight that ended when he almost ripped out one of the other guy's eyes. He worked as a private investigator and packed a gun because, as he told his oldest son, Gannon, "If somebody's going to take me out, I'm going to take them with me."

The only secret he seems to have kept was his writing. When he was finally a published author--after 40 years of rejection slips for novels, short stories, children's stories, screenplays, stage plays, poems and songs--he feared spooking his fighters and his P.I. clients. So he borrowed from Francis Xavier, the 16th century Jesuit philosopher-saint, and actor Peter O'Toole, a rogue of long-standing. But his pen name didn't spare him a moment of truth in the gym.

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