Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fight Stories: Homecoming

I’m just a regular guy, you know?  Half of what I know about boxing comes from experience a little of it firsthand and everything I could tell you about boxing comes from reading about it.  All those deeper meanings and insights into man’s internal struggles have been noticed and written by men more experienced and eloquent than myself.  The only two things I bring to the table are cheerleading and confirmation.
Homecoming, by Francis K. Allen is a damn fine story that deserves both.
It starts with our hero, Joe Corey, returning to his hometown a pariah.  Five years earlier Joe had succumbed to pressure, temptation, and greed, and thrown a fight.  Nothing proven, but you can’t fool your own manager, and it’s inly now, when that manager needs a proving ground for his new contender, Baron Dulaney, that Joe has a shot at redemption.  Crooked or not, Joe can build up Dulaney’s claim to a title shot.
Most of this story presents Joe’s nerve wracking wait in the days before the fight.  His ex-wife reaches out to him, but his nerves blind him, and the local kids and sportswriters serve as a constant reminder of his shameful past.
Then, the night before the fight Joe is approached by a businessman with an offer.  He provides the key to beat Dulaney by taking advantage of a psychological trick - not cheating per se, but not boxing, either.  Thanks to the magic of gambling, Joe can win the fight, earn his share of the purse, and make bank on top of it.  All he has to do is take advantage of his opponent’s World War Two related PTSD.  Simple.
Halfway through the fight, Joe has done so twice, but his ex-wife - and everyone else in the arena has realized Joe isn’t winning as a boxer, but through dirty pool.  What’s more, Joe realizes it, and puts everything on the line to finish the fight as a boxer, on his own merits.  Whether he wins or loses the bout becomes irrelevant once he wins back his own self-respect.
That may sound cheesy, and in the hands of a lesser writer it would come off as cheesy. Francis is up to the task, though, with a terse story that is as evocative as it is emotional.

In today’s too-cool-for-school world, one where Ali ushered in an age of extravagant pre-fight psychological gamesmanship, the notion of throwing away an advantage for something as ephemeral as honor might sound antiquated, but perhaps that is more an indictment of our own cynicism than it is a criticism of the naiveté of the past.

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