By Daniel Ford
There’s a line in one of Spring Toledo’s boxing essays about Sonny Liston that could easily be at home in an Ernest Hemingway novel:
“It had been a brutal life, and no one wins those.”
Toledo’s The Gods of War, a collection of essays about the sweet science, is filled with not just great sports writing, but damn fine writing, period. The Boston-based essayist recently answered some of my questions about how he developed his love of boxing, his criteria for grading the greatest fighters of all time, and the current state of boxing.
DF: What came first: Your love of boxing or your love of writing?
Springs Toledo: They were nearly twins. I was an introvert from the first bell, prone to introverted activities like reading and writing stories. Grammar school introverts are fun targets for extroverted belligerents and for years I faced perilous bus rides and high-anxiety recesses. Boxing, which I picked up in the seventh grade, changed everything. For me it was counterterrorism. I was able to stand up for myself without getting immediately knocked down and after doing so once or twice, my quality of life improved remarkably. I love writing, but I not only love boxing, I owe it.
DF: If you had to describe your writing style in one word, what would it be?
ST: If you let me have three words and don’t mind me bogarting a commentator’s description of Roberto Duran’s boxing style, I’ll say “back-alley baroque.” That’s what I’m going for anyway.
DF: What is your writing process like, and how would you say it might differ from that of fiction authors or other sports journalists?
ST: Someone contacted me not long ago and said that my writing seems so effortlessly rhythmic. I laughed and laughed. No one knows how I suffer. Effortlessly rhythmic? I liken it to sitting crossed-legged on a sidewalk with a mallet and a trashcan, trying to create something memorable, half the time in the dark. So I suppose my process is more comparable than not to a novelist’s in that they go through more drafts than they’ll admit to get it right. I have a perfectionist’s tendencies, exacerbated by the journalist’s responsibility for accuracy that stands like a golem in the room. I strive to be at once informative and entertaining. It seems appropriate when you think about it. Writing well is like boxing well: In solitude, science and art.
DF: The Gods of War is written in such a fun, fresh, and engaging style. How did you develop your voice as a sports writer?
ST: Exclusivity is one reason. I’m more of a boxing essayist than a sports writer. I couldn’t tell you three players in the NFL or two in the NBA. Mainstream sports never appealed to me. Why spend three hours watching grown men chasing a ball around when you can spend one hour (or less or much less) experiencing a far more poignant and personal spectacle with far more at stake?
As a subject, the sweet science is every bit as rich as Dicken’s London. It has attracted writers with names like Hemingway, Schulberg, and Liebling. And Dickens and London (as in Jack) for that matter. And I’d bet they’d all tell you something similar regarding their attraction to it. It isn’t just a carnival of masculine virtues for the edification of chauvinists. It’s really a stripped-down study of the human condition and what’s more fascinating than that? You can see so much in a fighter’s eyes during the course of a fight. But what we really see, I think, is a mirror. Ignore for a moment a world-class boxer’s stature as a supreme athlete, as a throwback to our mythic past. Look in his eyes. The humanity never leaves despite all the work they do suppress a significant part of it. On the contrary, the look in their eyes is more human than human. I suppose that’s because they are a facing our common fears all at once—violence, and pain, performing in public, humiliation, claustrophobia. Anyone who has ever boxed seriously if not professionally can relate. It’s terrifying at every level.
DF: Your collection of essays makes the case that boxers like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson weren’t the greatest of all time. What set of criteria did you develop to start researching this project?
ST: First off, the vast majority of boxing guys who have published pound-for-pound greatest lists have no criteria. They wing it. I tried to quantify mine enough to really see what’s going on, but not so much as to chase it out of the ring. In other words, part of “greatness” defies the statistician. The single most valuable measure in my mind is the caliber of a fighter’s opponents. To illustrate, if I am an undefeated fighter but never entered the ring as an underdog, how great could I be? If I beat second-tier opponents with sparingly few elite opponents, then my greatness is more assumed than proven. Accomplishments must be linked hard to what was overcome; in boxing, it’s mainly about whom you have overcome. In addition to that I considered ring generalship, longevity, dominance, durability, performance against larger men, and intangibles. After all of those considerations were examined and examined again, the name of the greatest boxer since 1920 was like lightning. And the deeper you go into the historical record, the more you examine who he fought and how often he fought and what he had to overcome during his career, the more Robinson and Ali fade in the distance, great though they were.
DF: Did you have one particular favorite boxer that you kept turning up facts about while researching and writing?
ST: I’ve always had a fascination for Roberto Duran. He’s Odysseus.
DF: The reviews for The Gods of War are overwhelmingly positive. Any plans for a future collection of essays?
ST: Yes. Two, actually. The next one will focus on fighters and fights I’ve covered over the past six years. The working title is In the Cheap Seats: Boxing Essays. After that will be a big one called Murderers’ Row, which will be comprised of several series I’ve done and am still doing about eight black contenders in the 1940s who were avoided by the champions and who became boxing’s “Untold Mysteries.”
DF: What do you think about the current state of boxing? Related to that, who are some of the more unknown fighters that people should be following?
ST: Jimmy Cannon once called boxing “the red-light district of sports.” That quip is as relevant today as it was then. Some things have gotten worse. Many writers are deeply concerned about performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. If we could peer into the gray to see how many world-class fighters and contenders use them, there would be a collective gasp and more calls to abolish boxing. This isn’t Lance Armstrong on a bicycle; this is two men trying to overcome each other with violence. The sport’s inattention to this problem will see increased casualties—not only with stretchers in the ring but with debilitated retirees that never make the papers.
Another serious problem that is largely responsible for reducing boxing to a niche sport is the lack of clarity regarding the championships. The self-appointed sanctioning bodies profit off every so-called title bout and so have a vested interest in flooding the sport with trick titles. Instead of ignoring them out of existence, most boxing writers acknowledge those trick titles as if they were synonymous with world championships. They’ll refer to one of six different lightweights as “champion” of the division, despite the plain fact that there is one and can only be one.
There is much wrong with boxing, but there remains nothing in the world of sports that compares to a great prizefight. Nothing. And we have great fighters rising up all over the globe. Willie Monroe Jr. made his name on ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights” last year and is on the brink of becoming a middleweight contender. His great uncle was Willie “The Worm” Monroe, a Philadelphia fighter and the only man ever to decisively beat Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Terence Crawford, the true lightweight champion of the world, is a perfect gentleman and a supreme boxer-puncher from Omaha, Neb. of all places. Naoya Inoue is 21 years old and from Japan. He stands only 5-foot 4-inches and weighs no more than 115 pounds. His nickname? “Monster.” Watch his last fight on YouTube and you’ll see why. Last I heard, he chased Godzilla outta Tokyo.
DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming sports writers?
ST: Develop your craft and find your own style. Read books that are not sports-related. Read The New Yorker. If you turn a phrase or offer an insight that seems familiar, consider the risk of plagiarism and Google it before claiming it. Avoid clichés. Don’t cross the line between poignant and maudlin. Don’t expect to make a living doing it. Whether you write for an audience of two million or two, respect them and your name enough to offer your best. Respect every athlete, especially fighters, because what they do is exceedingly dangerous and difficult and chances are excellent that you couldn’t do it.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
ST: I can do a near-perfect impression of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone from “The Godfather.”