Throughout its history boxing has attracted a dazzling range of literary voices, from the sportswriting ranks and beyond. Surely, though, the fight game has never had a more vivid countercultural presence than the one George Kimball has provided at fights big and small for the past 40 years. Now Kimball, 67, has joined with longtime SI contributor John Schulian to produce At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, a superb new anthology that proves that the sweet science has left both men with a heightened literary sensibility as well as an appreciation for a crisp left hook.
In their 517-page collection Kimball and Schulian showcase such literary heavyweights as Jack London and Norman Mailer as well as sportswriting icons A.J. Liebling, Jimmy Cannon and W.C. Heinz. But there are surprises, too: H.L. Mencken on Dempsey-Carpentier, Village Voice writer Joe Flaherty on Sonny Liston, novelist Katherine Dunn on a woman who likes to knock people out.
Stories of great fighters abound—there are six pieces on Muhammad Ali alone—and with them come tales of great fights, including Mark Kram's classic on the Thrilla in Manila and Pat Putnam's dissection of the Hagler-Hearns brawl, both of which first ran in this magazine. But some of the best stories are understated and focus on lesser-known lifers, like Pete Hamill's touching portrait of trainer Cus D'Amato and Pete Dexter's tribute to the modest Philadelphia gym where he used to spar.
Kimball's own story belongs in this last category, even if he has seldom done anything quietly. To identify him as simply "a boxing writer" would be like saying Ben Franklin flew kites. An Army brat, Kimball was a true child of the 1960s, arrested enough times at antiwar protests to merit an FBI file. He caroused with Hunter S. Thompson; ran for sheriff in Lawrence, Kans., on a pro-marijuana platform; wrote beatnik poetry; and was a regular at the legendary Greenwich Village literary bar, the Lion's Head. In the 1970s he was sports editor of The Boston Phoenix, the alternative weekly at which he gave Mike Lupica, among others, his start. Kimball moved to the daily Boston Herald in 1980 and spent the next 25 years writing a pointed, irreverent column covering golf, baseball, football and, of course, boxing. Along the way he bent elbows with Bill Lee, warred with Roger Clemens and was married (in 2004) with the Reverend George Foreman presiding.
Through it all Kimball has been a natural raconteur, gruff, optimistic and tireless. That didn't change when, shortly after his retirement, his esophageal cancer was diagnosed as terminal and he was given six months to live. That was in 2005, and since then Kimball has produced five books, including Four Kings, the definitive account of the celebrated middleweight rivalries of the 1980s. A collection of Kimball's boxing pieces, Manly Art, was released last week.
At the Fights is a fine complement to Kimball's own work. It depicts a world of men (and a few women) from hardscrabble beginnings, dedicated trainers, crooked promoters, and losers often more compelling than the winners. One of his own pieces graces the collection, but as the past five years have proved, he is more than a writer—he is a fighter.