The Magazine

Lord of the Ring

Rediscovering the author of "Million Dollar Baby."

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Love, in other words, means never ducking the next big foe. Frankie lands Maggie a fight with Billy "The Blue Bear" Astrakhov, a "masculine-looking" Russian girl who has become the sport's biggest draw. Thus, the trainer who hated watching women punch each other now puts his own adored fighter against a rival notorious for dirty tricks and glaring fouls. It's the classic sports film set-up--good versus evil--and evil wins. Maggie ends up "a permanent, vent-dependent quadriplegic unable to breathe without a respirator." And Frankie helps destroy what he helped create. In this film, as in Unforgiven, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The late trainer Bill Slayton once said that boxing "has some of the most rotten people you'll ever meet." It's not a fact Toole chooses to stress, even though, like many romantics and melancholics, he seems to have been readily disappointed by life's bitter realities. One of Toole's aging trainers describes himself as living in a world "that cared less and less about the things he cared about more and more," like loyalty, honesty, God. In Rope Burns, the world of boxing is grimy but not without its moments of kindness and hope, affording solace and the chance of redemption to at least some who enter its odd fraternity. Toole himself believed that boxing had saved his life.

But of course, Toole also knew that, for most professional boxers, the fight game finally offers nothing more than a "one-way ticket to Palookaville." As such, Toole's stories--unlike, say, the boxing essays of George Plimpton or A.J. Liebling--are without moments of true levity. They belong to the darker stream of boxing literature, where the readers find such novels as Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall and Leonard Gardner's Fat City, which Joyce Carol Oates aptly calls "a handbook of sorts in failure, in which boxing functions as the natural activity of men totally unequipped to comprehend life."

"Million $$$ Baby" was partly inspired by one of boxing's more recent catastrophes, a one-sided match in 1996 that left a Missouri woman mauled and permanently disabled. Ironically, the first death in women's boxing occurred during an amateur match in Colorado last April, just weeks after Million Dollar Baby won its four Academy Awards.

This event prompted two neurologists to challenge the new popularity of "lady fighters," as they used to be known. Writing in the New York Times, Julian Bailes and Vincent Miele suggested that women boxers are more vulnerable to head injuries, not only because of their general lack of adequate preparation, but because their "smaller neck musculature" makes them less able to absorb hard blows to the head. And yet, thanks to Toole's story and Eastwood's film, interest in women's boxing continues to spread internationally. The sport's advocates argue, not unreasonably, that more women fighters will inevitably lead to better-trained women fighters more deft in the art of defense. And they are pushing hard to add women's boxing to the 2008 Olympic Games.

What Toole would make of this is hard to say. As Jerry Boyd, he worked with several women fighters, and like Frankie Dunn, urged them to excel without compromise. But as F.X. Toole, he also chose, as his epigraph to Rope Burns, these words of Joyce Carol Oates: "Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost."

Brian Murray teaches in the Writing Department at Loyola College in Maryland.