Sports columnist Jerry Izenberg has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
I grew up with Izenberg.
Like almost everyone else in New Jersey, where he is as much an institution as corruption and pork roll, he came to my house a couple of days a week in the pages of the Newark Star Ledger— New Jersey’s largest newspaper and the one you saw delivered in the opening frames of The Sopranos.
Tony Soprano read Izenberg. As did pretty much everyone else in the Garden State who had a taste for sports and good writing. Back when there was no Internet, no sports radio or ESPN, in New Jersey, there was Izenberg.
And still there’s Izenberg. At 85, he’s been churning out words for over 60 years and writing a column, even now, when the spirit moves him. He hasn’t missed a big fight. In February he’s scheduled to cover his 50th Super Bowl— which is to say, all of them.
I have no real memory of sports writing before Jerry Izenberg. And as a kid in the early 70s, when I first cracked open a sports page and came upon his work, I did so with a sense of awe and wonder. His columns were like other articles in the paper, but better. Alive. So alive and irreverent that I thought I might get in trouble for reading them. And read them I did. Izenberg chunked out 1,000 words, five times a week, for decades.
You could get the facts and box scores elsewhere, but if you wanted the story, you read Izenberg. And with a barbed pen, a touch of schmaltz and more than a little bit of social justice, he wisecracked his way through the modern era of sports. He played with words on a page like no one I knew. He never wrote down to his audience and used the English language for all it was worth, as likely to reference Pindar and the Ghandi Salt March as a two-bit hustler from Newark who knew a guy who knew.
He described British heavyweight Joe Bugner on his way to face Ali as “a nice fellow who would have profited from serious vocational guidance at an earlier age.” Upon seeing Joe Frazier hit Muhammad Ali with the right George Benton had secretly taught him, Izenberg confesses, “I didn’t think Joe could tie his shoes with his right hand,” (nor, apparently did Ali, who, he tells us: “pulls back and says ‘You don’t have no right hand, you can’t do that.’ and bing! he hits him with another right hand”).
On “the real-life Rocky,” who had fought Ali with honor and courage but lost:
And so Chuck Wepner remains the heavyweight champion of Bayonne, New Jersey. Do not treat that lightly, stranger. It is a title as old as time, as battered as Abel and as scarred as the cracked brown leather on a withered old catcher’s mitt.
He’s not wrong. That fight happened in 1975 and Chuck Wepner was a demi-god when I worked in Bayonne during the mid- 90s and probably is still. (For those of you who are unfamiliar, Bayonne is a peninsula cordoned off from the rest of New Jersey, Staten Island and Brooklyn by water and attitude, which thrusts itself as a land mass like an angry middle finger from Jersey City at the Newark Bay and the Kill Van Kull, that narrow body of water that separates Bayonne from Staten Island and which the natives seem to have understood as a directive. When they ran out of Van Kulls, a resourceful people, they readily substituted “anyone who is not from here”).
Izenberg, to his great credit, understood “from here” and “from there.” Maybe because he had seen his own hometown of Newark laid waste by a riot (or a rebellion, as he always added), he knew how important and even how fragile a sense of place could be. He traveled the world and reported back on what it was like in the streets Manilla, Zaire, Jamaica, or anywhere else a big fight or an Olympics was held. In his memorial to the great featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez, it is not enough for him to tell us that Sanchez, killed in a car accident in 1982, “would work an opponent the way Miles Davis can work a horn until it builds the ultimate fugue” or that Sanchez “was an artist who transcended the mediocrity around him.” Izenberg is sure to tell us from whence, making it that much more:
In the beginning, he was like a thousand carbon copies of himself, who are drawn each day to the crowded, airless gyms of Mexico; young and passionately sure that with nothing more than their fists they can assault the kind of poverty that is mother to the type of despair few of us north of the border can understand.
In the gyms of Mexico, the battle for living space never abates. They fight for a locker… they fight for a towel… but mostly, they fight to be noticed by the swarms of hustlers, who frequent the building and who, in some ways, are as desperate as they are.
And finally, on the 25th Anniversary of Ali vs. Frazier in The Thrilla in Manilla, Izenberg wrote as good a description of what that fight was as anyone. Here’s a snippet:
There are memories that cling to you with all the restraint of a second skin. Time doesn’t blur their drama. The calendar doesn’t lessen their impact. So I can see those two weeks in Manila as if they were yesterday … Muhammad Ali, as yet untouched by the physical ravages of Parkinson’s disease, an Ali who could still float like a butterfly and sting like a bee … Joe Frazier, ever narrowing the circle of contact, walking steadily forward into the teeth of the stinger with a head fake here, a dipped shoulder there and a Philadelphia left hook that seemed to have a life and a will all its own, spelling out a message tinged with their personal history and driven by their personal pride:
‘Here we are again … caught in a web from which there is no escape … no love gained but no respect lost … and neither one of us will back off.’”
Later, I would study literature and law and would read Emerson and Melville, Milton and Dostoevsky, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Cardozo, W. O. Douglas and the wonderfully understated Learned Hand. In the boxing world I would make my way to the exquisiteness of Liebling, the simple beauty of Heinz, Red Smith, Mailer, the sheer joy of Plimpton, the profundity of Oates, Schulberg, Lardner and a host of other greats.
But first, there was Izenberg. And his work has, indeed, clung to me in my life as a writer “with all the restraint of a second skin.”
A thank you seems hardly enough; a spot in the Boxing Hall of Fame seems extraordinarily right.
Here’s a link to Izenberg’s Thrilla in Manilla article, first published back in October, 2000: http://blog.nj.com/ledgerarchives/2011/11/izenberg_joe_frazier-muhammed.html
Here’s a link to some of his other columns: http://connect.nj.com/staff/njojizenberg/posts.html
Here’s a link to a retrospective the Star Ledger has done on his work, “Through My Eyes,” with columns, remembrances and some video: http://www.nj.com/sports/ledger/izenberg/