Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blue Collar Blues or Rehab with Dr. Drew? – David O. Russell’s The Fighter

by Binnie Klein
As a late-in-life fight fan who has even sparred in the ring a bit with my intimidating but protective heavyweight coach, I was predisposed to like The Fighter. I’d also recently re-watched Russell’s Three Kings, an underrated, politically astute satire about fear, the army, and Desert Storm which the director called “the insanity of consumer culture crashing into contemporary warfare.” The film was tailored around the stories of actual soldiers and military technical advisors who had to watch the slaughter of Iraqi civilians after the ceasefire. The most memorable line from the film occurs when George Clooney’s character tries to teach a panicked soldier how to go in shooting: “This is how it works; you do the things you’re scared of. The courage comes after.” No one is a more convincing existentialist philosopher than George Clooney. I’d follow him into war, aping his bitter, wry expression, and the sentiment is more persuasive than the forced optimism of “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder!”

Boxer Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, might have benefited from Clooney’s advice, but then, every boxer practices that methodology. How else would anyone ever agree to step through the ropes and be pounded? Wahlberg has the same endearing, wide-eyed stare in both films, lips slightly parted, and that damn loving compassionate nature ready to burst forth, as he looks off into his uncertain future. He’s even an earnest kisser (when he and barmaid Amy Adams clinch).

Russell admirably holds back from over-romanticizing the true story of junior welterweight Micky Ward, a contender singing the blue-collar blues from Lowell, Mass., who is best known for his victory over Arturo Gatti. The Fighter doesn’t reward you with that triumph; instead it constructs what might be a great episode of A&E’s Intervention, with the backstory to that victory. Christian Bale’s portrayal of Micky’s toxic brother Dicky is stunning. He’s the crackhead who keeps screwing up Micky’s career. Languishing in the glory memories of his own aborted boxing career, he keeps the family on the edge of its collective seat as he fails to show up, gets arrested, goes to jail, and puts his brother at risk when Micky tries to rescue Dicky from angry cops (“He’s a boxer! Break his hand!”). The scene of Micky’s hand being broken echoes the ending of The Set-Up, Robert Wise’s 1949 boxing noir drama in which Robert Ryan’s hand is broken by the mob when he refuses to take a fall in the ring. Ryan’s injury is a punishment which ends his career. No “noir” in The Fighter; Wahlberg’s hand heals while his brother is in jail.

The family of an addict can’t win -- love him, don’t love him, don’t enable, but never give up loving him. Everyone’s torn apart, screaming through their tears, while the steely mother in this drama, played by Melissa Leo, stomps around on cheap heels and tries to keep the family together. The problem is, she’s enmeshed with Dicky. This movie mom, and the one played by Barbara Hershey in Black Swan are monstrous and powerful figures, reminiscent of classic Joan Crawford roles. (Come to think of it, isn’t there a re-make of Mildred Pierce coming out? Trend?) To mobilize his own hero’s journey, Micky must turn away from Mom’s pleading face and make his own decisions, an act harder than taking a physical punch. To disappoint an insatiable mother like her and a goofy but toxic brother like Dicky is to feel your guts twisting inside. The story of trying to do something better with one’s life is often the story of being haunted by someone you wanted to save. Oh, and did I mention the seven volatile sisters? There are times when The Fighter is like a Grimm’s fairytale.

Sometimes you have to know you can go before you can stay. As soon as Micky claims his own identity (“I’m done lying for you! This is my shot!”), it’s possible for everyone to mobilize around him. Even Dicky is back in his corner, and the two brothers sing their way into the ring, twin fighters out of the American working class, Bales feral and conniving, Wahlberg innocent and eager. In the end, they need each other (“you complete me?”)

Joyce Carol Oates, in her seminal book On Boxing, famously wrote that boxing wasn’t a metaphor; it was “the thing itself.” As much as I admire the estimable Oates, I disagree. Boxing is both the thing itself and a metaphor, which is why it has fascinated writers and filmmakers. It is a straightforward and primal pairing, but also a source of lessons for outside the ring. You must protect yourself and keep your composure. You must find your range. Life throws you unexpected blows; how you respond to those blows is everything. Wahlberg/Ward shouts from the ring: “Never give up in this game. You never know what can happen.” Thumbs up (and wrapped)! -- for The Fighter.

This review first appeared in

Binnie Klein is the author of Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010). She is a psychotherapist in New Haven, CT, and the host of a weekly music and interview show on WPKN.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fighting for the Borscht Belt Gleason’s Gym Sets Up Camp at Last Kosher Resort

by Binnie Klein

Joselito, Daniela, and Matt are standing in the hallway waiting for the elevator to take them down to the dining room. “Why is it taking so long?” asks 10-year-old Matt, the youngest of the kids. They are hungry and impatient, having just finished their boxing work-outs. Joselito, a veteran of previous summers, knows that it’s Friday night at Kutsher’s Resort in Monticello, and the elevator has been preset so that it stops at every floor. No one has to push a button on Shabbes.
Later, at dinner, Maureen O’Brien, of the father/daughter team from Boston who I have dubbed “The Fighting O’Briens,” leans over and shyly whispers: “What’s kasha?” We are seated in the Gold Dining Room, set aside for participants in Gleason’s Gym’s Eighth Annual Fantasy Boxing Camp, while the usual guests dine in an adjacent room. . At this table I am the only Jew, and the task of explaining Kutsher’s kosher menu has fallen to me. “Oh, it’s delicious,” I say. “It’s bow-tie noodles with buckwheat groats.” She looks blank. I wonder if I’m right. The menu also includes flanken, a dish my Polish grandmother used to make -- but I’m still not sure what it is.
In the upper lobby Jackie Horner is leading a ballroom dance class for five older ladies, one of many hotel activities like Big Bucks Bingo, Justine’s Makeover Face Lift Show (with door prizes), even Chassidic stories from Rabbi Avi Zablocki. Retired folks are the “meat-and-potatoes” of the place, says Yossi Zablocki, a legal aid lawyer from New Jersey and Kutsher’s new manager and investor. Of Dirty Dancing, Jackie says “It’s my true story. There really was a ‘baby,’ like in the film, and she was my student” she reveals, crossing her slender legs on the couch. The character of “Penny” in the film was based on Jackie. “Patrick Swayze wasn’t our first choice, by the way! We danced all day and all night; we were young.” She looks away. “There was a pulse; you’d feel it the minute you hit the Catskills. I even taught the boxers to dance.”
Kutsher’s Resort has its own impressive history with sports, and boxing in particular. Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks, Archie Moore, and Floyd Patterson all set up training camps at Kutsher’s. Jews, too, have a strong history with boxing; between 1910 and 1940 there were 27 Jewish boxing champions.
The 1400 acres of the 103-year-old Kutsher’s spreads out forever, like a college campus, with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an 18-hole championship golf course, tennis courts, bocce ball, and shuffleboard. I’m sitting with Irwin and a few of his cronies by the lake, as he complains about the service. No doubt; the place needs rehabilitation. But he still comes to Kutsher’s, every year. Irwin is in his eighties, and was a comedian for 19 years at The Raleigh, another big hotel. “Wednesday night I’d open the talent show, white straw hat, cane.” He begins to sing, another opening, another show… We all join in, as the geese on the lake honk. He tells me an off-color joke, and his eyes twinkle under his jaunty cap. I laugh. “You know, you’re a pretty woman,” he says. “I’m a kissy-kissy guy. You married?”
I gracefully duck Irwin’s flirtation, and head into the big event -- the Saturday night sparring exhibition. There are 12 bouts, 3 rounds each, and everyone gets a trophy. I look behind the ring after 73 year old lawyer Michael Tarnoff’s fight, and notice a small group of Orthodox Jews have wandered in and are quietly watching, as their little girls in long frilly dresses sidle up to the ropes, transfixed. Another tiny Jewish toddler gets up on a chair. “Get him! Get him!” she shrieks, her curls bouncing. Her yarmulked daddy pulls her back into her stroller. There are now three distinct types of headgear in the room: yarmulkes, tall black hats, and boxing helmets.
Later that night and into the early morning, the campers celebrate in the “Deep End Lounge,” a disco/bar with cut-out windows that look out onto the indoor pool. On the stage, hard-working Bruce Silverglade, 64 year-old owner of Gleason’s Gym, has set up a shrine to Muhammad Ali and Orthodox boxer and future rabbi Yuri Foreman. While boxing trainer Martin Gonzalez, Joselito’s father, is cutting loose on the dance floor with some salsa moves, several guests wearing yarmulkes wander in. They look confused. “Is this the show?” they ask. “No,” I say. “You want the Stardust Room, down the hall.” And off they go, to hear singers Oneg Shemesh and Chaim Kiss, and maybe a little comedy. The Stardust Room was once host to Jerry Lewis, Steve and Edie, Milton Berle, and Sid Caesar, and raucous crowds that roared with laughter and applause.
The next day, Bruce Silverglade and his crew begin to dismantle the boxing rings, and pack up the gloves. It’s time to “break camp.” “The history of the Catskills is like the history of New York City,” Bruce says, surveying the huge and now mostly empty “Sportsmen’s Room.” “They worked hard, and they played hard.”
The group is slow to leave, as hugs and business cards are exchanged. “Boxing people are family,” Bronx-raised boxer Al Roth says. I’m thinking that Bruce Silverglade and Yossi Zablocki have similar and impressive missions that go beyond nostalgia; Bruce to recreate an old-style sports training camp, Yossi to preserve a version of the old Catskills resort hotel experience, and I’m remembering the last thing Jackie Horner said to me about the thriving Catskills culture of half a century ago before she started up her next rumba lesson for a few eager souls.
“It was a time, Binnie. That’s all. That’s all I can say.”

Friday, October 15, 2010


It probably would surprise a lot of people who view boxing as nothing more than a crude and brutal brawl to know the words “art” and “science” were once used to describe the sport. “The Manly Art of Self Defense”, “The Noble Art”, “The Sweet Science” are phrases that originated during the 18th and 19th century English bare knuckle period. Modern boxing began in England in the late 16th century. The earliest bare-knuckle practitioners based their technique on the refined art of fencing. As a result, boxing’s footwork, straight punching, feints, blocking and parrying developed from strategies used by fencers. It is no coincidence that boxing’s most fundamental punch, the left jab, is very similar to the fencer’s straight thrust or lunge.
At the height of fencing’s popularity, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, numerous teaching academies appeared all over Europe. The best fencing instructors were highly respected for their knowledge and teaching skills. In England, and elsewhere, it was not uncommon for many of these fencing masters to be addressed as “professor”.
By the late 1700s bare-knuckle boxing had eclipsed fencing in popularity. In London, the epicenter of the sport, there were several well known boxing academies. The academies were owned and operated by famous ex- boxers, some of whom had the word “professor” printed on calling cards, or on the covers of instruction books they authored. Of course these men did not have a formal degree from an institution of higher learning. In fact some could barely read or write. But they understood the principles of balance, leverage, timing, footwork, punching technique, body alignment and strategy as it applied to boxing. In that sense they were no different than the fencing “professors” who preceded them. It was also not uncommon for master teachers of the art of singing, dancing, acting or playing a musical instrument to sport the title of “professor”.
According to Adam Pollack’s fine book “In The Ring With James J. Corbett”, Professor Walter Watson, an Englishman and “a celebrated exponent of the manly art”, was hired by the Brahmans of San Francisco’s exclusive Olympic Club in 1884 to teach boxing. One local newspaper reported that “Watson recently knocked out the famous pugilist, Professor McClellen, in New York City.” Professor Watson’s most famous pupil at the Olympic Club was James J. Corbett. Seven years later Corbett would defeat the great John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship. It was the first heavyweight title bout conducted under Marquis of Queensberry rules. After Watson left the Olympic Club, in 1888, Corbett was named instructor, thus earning the title of “professor” for himself.
I think the use of the word “professor” also served to further encourage the veneer of civility boxing was trying to achieve at this time. After all, for most of the 19th century professional boxing, especially the bare knuckle variety, was vilified and outlawed in America.
Mike Donovan, a middleweight title claimant in 1881, became “Professor Donovan” in honor of his being named boxing instructor at the prestigious New York Athletic Club. In 1893 Donovan wrote a popular instructional book titled, “The Science of Boxing”. He often sparred with President Teddy Roosevelt.
Hundreds of boxing instruction books and training manuals were published from the 1850s to the 1930s, with the words “science” and/or “art” in the title. In fact, the earliest book to include a section on boxing instruction appeared in a fencing manual published in 1747. It was titled “A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defense” by Captain John Godfrey. Although written 260 years ago years ago many of today’s boxers would gain from reading it. These words appear in the opening paragraph: “Strength certainly is what the Boxer ought to set out with, but without Art he will succeed but poorly. The Deficiency of Strength may be greatly supplied by Art; but the want of Art will have but heavy an unwieldy Succor from Strength.”
It is not clear why the word “professor”, as it applied to boxing, went out of style after the first decade of the 20th century. But during the 19th century it was not uncommon for the prefix to be used. Noted professors of pugilism included John Donaldson, Johnny Clark, Edmund E. Price, Billy McCarthy, John B. Bailey, William Miller and Jim Kelly. All were middle to late 19th century bare-knuckle fighters and trainers. William Muldoon, the legendary athlete, health fanatic, and trainer of John L. Sullivan, was sometimes addressed as “Professor Muldoon”.
Several of these names recently surfaced in the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archives, where a massive amount of material is currently being documented, catalogued and preserved. No doubt more information will be forthcoming as the Kaplan Archives continues to yield its varied treasures. I am confident of this because the whole process is in the capable hands (fists?) of an authentic professor with a love for boxing—Professor Tony Cucchiarra, Brooklyn College’s very own “Professor of Pugilism”.
*Historian and author Mike Silver is an advisor to the Kaplan Boxing Archives. He is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishers, 2009).

Friday, October 1, 2010

Oscar “Golden Boy” de la Hoya Puts In An Extra Punch to the Great Boro of Brooklyn by Amy Handelsman

In a sweltering Gleason’s Gym on Tuesday, September 28, 2010, Oscar “Golden Boy” de la Hoya “put in an extra punch to the great borough of Brooklyn” in a celebration of his recent three-year deal with Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment to bring a yearly minimum of 12 bouts to The Barclays Center, future home to the New York Nets, among other sports franchises, at the former Atlantic Navy Yards.

De la Hoya, retired boxing champion and now founder and President of Golden Boy Promotions, was ringed by some of his more prominent fighters, among them lightweight Mickey Perez, welterweight Danny Garcia and middleweight Danny Jacobs. The natural showman used the occasion to announce the signing of world champion junior welterweight Paulie “Magic Man” Malignaggi, who trains out of Gleason’s and is a hometown favorite.

A bit of logrolling was indulged, as is often the case at these events, with a shout-out to Melvina Lathan, Chair of the New York State Athletic Commission; opening remarks by Barry Baum, the Vice-President of Communications at Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, the sales and marketing arm of the Barclays Center, and Richard Schaefer, the CEO of Golden Boy Promotions; and even a surprise appearance by controversial Atlantic Yards developer Bruce C. Ratner.

De La Hoya, dressed casual-but-chic, in blue jeans, a tattersall checkered shirt and heather wool blazer, his face fuller and hair longer, looked like the very incarnation of an athlete-cum-businessman, still boyishly handsome, disarming and sleek. His platitudes about bringing big-time professional boxing back to Brooklyn, “starting now, with the kids that train at Gleason’s,” went down easily. We nodded in agreement when he claimed, “Brooklyn deserves it.”

Backing up his promise to be a role model to the amateurs of USA Boxing Metro,
Oscar held a clinic in one of Gleason’s three boxing rings, but not before a photo opportunity that had the Golden Boy swarmed with photographers and fans thrusting gloves up for him to sign. The jockeying for position was so intense that de la Hoya was muscled some 12 feet back from the podium, pinned against the ring where the clinic was scheduled. (I had a fleeting thought that the situation called for bodyguards, then remembered the champ--the first boxer in history to win world titles in six different weight divisions-- would have no problem defending himself should things get rough.)

There were plenty of us not part of the news media or avid fan base, milling around Gleason’s vast 14,000-square-foot floor: the regular gym rats, sporting thick gold chains and crosses, buzz cuts inlaid with lightning or yin/yang designs. Some came to train, dancing in the ring or punching heavy bags, seemingly oblivious to the hubbub around them. The din was punctuated by grunts and the slamming of bodies in the wrestling arena. Roaming like jackals were suited white guys with too much hair product--promoters, managers, publicity flacks—slapping their fighters on the arm, holding up an index finger (the universal sign for “We’re No. 1”) and delivering, a bit too self-consciously, the soul handshake. The women not working were all over-dressed, wedged into sausage casings and tottering on too-high heels. This also seems part of the fight game.

Soon paper barricades were ripped off and the center ring was crowded with a dozen USA Boxing Metro teenagers, all shadowboxing, cocky and sweet and twitchy with nerves. I clamored up on the ring apron and my eye went to the two lone girls, both sporting Gleason’s T-shirts, ponytails and braces; the flashier of the two chosen by the Golden Boy to throw punches at his upraised hands, his eyes twinkling in delight.

De la Hoya alternated correcting the stances of his young acolytes with flashing a dimpled smile towards the cameras, his attention divided between duties as trainer and spokesman. He pulled no punches when it came to exploiting his matinee-idol good looks and charm. The media pressed together on the ring apron, leaning in for a better view; the kids prancing, pivoting, throwing double and triple jabs, bobbing and weaving, their shoulders shrugging like real contenders.

One dad thrust his two-year-old son into the arms of the former champ; the cameras flashed and whirled. De la Hoya held the boy’s tiny fist and waved it for the press. The baby, his Mets cap half-obscuring his face, looked dazed and confused, unaware of the great man’s stature in this boxing mecca.

On my way out, I shook hands with Jack Hirsch, President of the Boxing Writers of America, in conversation with Bruce Silverglade, Gleason’s owner. Bruce allowed that the deal between Golden Boy Promotions and Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment would be good for boxing in Brooklyn and in New York in general, inspiring other promoters like Lou DiBella and Joe DeGuardia to put on more fights.

I clomped down the two flights of stairs, happy to feel the cool night breeze. There on the sidewalk before me was Bert Sugar, boxing writer, editor and sports historian, biting on his signature cigar under a wide-brimmed fedora, and by whose very presence blessed the event, a true Pope of the Fistic Science.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Dirty Boxing: How I Finally Made it to the Catskills Binnie Klein, 9/2/10

I’m an unlikely contender. As a psychotherapist, I sit on my tush all day, but in my mid-fifties, while re-habbing for an injury, I discovered one physical activity I came to love: boxing. My articulate coach (how does someone like me get a coach? Read Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010) for the inside story! John Spehar, a former middleweight state champ, is not Jewish, but knew about the amazing history of Jewish boxers. When he told me about Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Abe Attell, Battling Levinsky, Daniel “The Light of Israel” Mendoza, among many others, I felt punched in the gut with an ethnic pride that had been missing from my alienated-from-Judaism, post-modern life.
Boxing is a sport of immigrants who discovered that they could make more money in the ring than by working 14 hour-days in the sweatshops, and although observant parents often considered it a shanda for nice Jewish boys to hit and be hit rather than study Torah, it was a way up and out of tenement life. Boxing is also linked with the Catskills, where boxers like Ali, Barney Ross, Marciano and their entourages enjoyed training at the big resort hotels like Grossinger’s and Kutsher’s.
Until this August, when I attended Gleason’s Fantasy Boxing Camp at Kutsher’s Country Club in Monticello, the last remaining kosher hotel, my own relationship to the Catskills was like my relationship to Judaism – fragmented and underdeveloped. My sisters remember going to a bungalow colony at Camp White Lake, and my father, a traveling candy salesman who loved the horses, took the family to Monticello Raceway. “Daddy wished we could have afforded one of the big hotels.” What I do remember is staying in nearby Woodstock at age 16 to try my hand at acting by apprenticing at the summer playhouse. I left after two days, dismayed by having to build scenery, no chance of getting a part, and watching my more-experienced housemates make out with townies in the kitchen. I was both virginal and lazy.
Just two years later, I meandered down Route 17 with a friend in her dad’s Ford Falcon, on our way to a little music and arts festival called Woodstock. Two miles from the festival site, in Bethel, we turned around, missing this historic event. There was so much traffic people were abandoning their cars, and we, little girls outfitted in fringe jackets and long, ironed hair, were afraid her father would be mad if anything happened to the car (for the full story on THIS fiasco, listen here):

Monday, August 23, 2010

Know the Answer?

This is for the boxing detectives out there. Perhaps someone knows who the boxer in the story was.
The story titled "Nat Siegford Does it Again: A Christmas Story," caught my eye as I was processing The Ringside Reporter magazine. The issue is dated January 8, 1950, Vol. XXII No. 1. I read the whole story, and loved it. It must be true, seeing how Fred Eisenstadt was a writer of good repute for Ringside.
It may also be untrue, but whatever the case, Eisenstadt is writing about a man whose life was drastically different compared to the times when he was a boxer.
So, here is a question, which I too would like to know: Who IS the boxer in the story? There are clues that a good boxing historian may follow.
The boxer fought against "top-ranking welterweights of that era." That era being the 1920s. He fought against "Phil Bloom, Kid Graves, Jack Britton, Ted Kid Lewis, Dave Shade, Mike O'Dowd, Steve Latzo, Sailor Freedman, Harry Greb, Ace Hudkins, Soldier Bartfield, Honey Mollody, Pete Latzo and others--in a career which lasted some eighteen years."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Jerry Haar remembers Hank

When I first met my father-in-law Hank Kaplan, my knowledge of boxing could have filled half a thimble. Thanks to him, I was able to fill the other half in no time—with a lot left over. But it was not Hank Kaplan, the dean of boxing historians, that made the most lasting impression upon me, but rather Hank, the unassuming, regular guy. His quiet charisma, his patience, his understanding, and complete lack of pretension were what impressed me most in the decade-long period I had the privilege to know him. No sincere question posed to him about boxing or entymology—his greatest passion (something known to a very few!)—was deemed silly, stupid, or irrelevant. I observed in every instance Hank’s ability to calmly, clearly, succinctly and respectively respond to any and all questions posed to him from novices as well as those well-versed in the ins and outs of the “sweet science.” Hank was a man with a mission—to chronicle for posterity the history of boxing. He did precisely that—and he did so with class and humility, setting the bar high for future boxing historians and archivists who will build on the rock solid foundation he created…..Jerry Haar