“Before the main event Saturday Night, Morales shadowboxed in his dressing room. He was bone dry. His arms were no more impressive than an accountant’s and his torso had the consistency of a week-old party balloon.”
The great beauty of Springs Toledo’s latest collection of essays, entitled “In the Cheap Seats,” is moments like the above: instances that would otherwise be dismissed by a less perceptive mind, brushed off as uninteresting to a TMZ generation. What we see here is an ability to perfectly capture the delicacy that underpins so much of what is compelling about boxing, and thankfully it is far from a one off.
Liberally scattered throughout his newest work, named after the position from which the author is most comfortable when observing the action in the ring, are moments like these, wherein the reader is able to witness the bright lights inverted, turned away from the immaculately coiffured ring announcer and flawless smiles of the Corona girls. Instead, we see the underbelly exposed, lit up like a Christmas tree as the gamblers, low-lifes and everyone else below the poverty line scramble and claw to get a good look.
In the book’s introduction, Toledo talks about the answers to boxing’s riddles being found “in poetry, not science,” and it is with such an ethos in mind that he gives us over 30 essays predominantly covering the sport’s preceding decade, culminating in last year’s “Fight of the Century”, which saw Floyd Mayweather defeat Manny Pacquiao in the richest single combat sports event of all time.
Although lacking the grandiosity and rigid structure of his previous work, “The Gods of War,” which I was also fortunate enough to review for this site, this latest tome is no less moving. Beginning with a collection of some of his most notable entries across the past ten years, Toledo touches on issues ranging from Kelly Pavlik and the ceaseless quest for boxing’s White Whale, to the machinations of small-hall promoters in Rhode Island and, in my personal favourite piece, the mercurial and hotly-debated legacy of Roy Jones, Jr.
It’s a diverse body of work that encapsulates the breathiest elements of the rag-tag ecosystem that forms regional level prize-fights in the United States, and serves as an ideal hors-d’oeuvre for the book’s central column: “May-Pac Redux,” which tells the tale of the years prior to the sport’s biggest ever event, as well as documenting the fallout and the stories of other secondary players at the time.
The final product of the May-Pac hysteria was never going to live up to expectations, and Toledo seems to know it in his preliminary essays, which cover fights for each man against the likes of Shane Mosley and Antonio Margarito, always with one eye drawn to the illusory pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When the showdown finally arrives it is broken down with surgeon-like rigour, stripping away the pageantry to reveal the cold facts of life that compel Mayweather to do what he does.
If boxing writing is occasionally critiqued for being excessively lyrical, the same charge cannot be leveled at Toledo, who treads the line between balladry and bombast throughout. It is testament to his narrative skill that the only instance of affected prose comes in the foreword by HBO’s venerable Jim Lampley. And this is not to say Lampley is a bad writer, but rather that, when set aside Toledo’s body of work, his loquacious stylings seem somewhat overbearing. Nevertheless, as he is wont to do, Lampley is able to come up with a near perfect line at just the right moment, leaving the reader with the clearest distillation of Toledo’s enduring appeal.
“The proud tradition of building stories on the foundational metaphor of the ring has in no way died,” he writes. “It lives on in the words of hardy souls whose attachment to the sweet science is invulnerable to the ridicule of the many who have forgotten boxing’s indelible place in the fabric of global civilisation.” Reading this, having just absorbed the final entry in this remarkable collection, it’s tough to disagree.