By Scott Wilkerson
At a moment when it appears that the entire culture of boxing punditry is clamoring either to defend or to condemn America’s last remaining sport, W.C. Heinz’s induction into the hall of fame is decisive proof that the fight game will go the distance against any opponent in the media, politics, or indeed from within the ring itself.
Heinz, a mercurial stylist of dead-pan, south paw existentialism, is the dean of letters in American boxing. His arrival in the hall of fame is truly an occasion for celebration, not least because he clearly deserves the honor, but also because – accolades aside – his splendid writing ennobles the sport. The boxing hall of fame is thus, quite properly, an affirmation of the game itself, while baseball’s crumbling shrine has become a cynical masquerade of institutional noblesse oblige and moral apartheid.
Because his perceptual instruments are so refined, it is easy to forget that Heinz’s real achievement is his visionary approach to familiar material as though it were pure exotica, a rhetorical strategy that mimics the boxer’s own condition of forever returning to — and reinventing himself inside — the ring. The publication in 1958 of his novel, The Professional, was, therefore, a signature event not only in the history of boxing fiction, but also in the discourse of boxing itself.
Heinz explores the psychological complexity of the fighter-trainer, pupil-teacher dynamic with the graceful economy of a lyric poet riffing on the grim textures of the street. Dreaming of a middle-weight title, Eddie Brown (the novel’s pointillistic archetype) is the uncertain future of post-Modern delirium, and wise Doc Carroll, father-confessor to Eddie’s restless spirit, is resolute high Modernism in wistful counterpoint with the vagaries of late-Romanticism. Boxing seems endlessly replete with metaphors for daily life. The chronicle of the cosmos is surely a tale in twelve rounds.
The Professional is, in every respect, an elegant projection of our most essential myths, in which humility and desire are forever fused to human experience and consecrated through fistic ritual. Heinz is perhaps boxing’s preeminent like to the bardic tradition and, unquestionably, an artist of central importance to 21st century America. His intellectual honesty and moral clarity are at least their own certainties in an unknowable world. It is, of course, no surprise to discover that the boxer’s own condition is much the same:
“It is the fighter’s place. The dressing room and the gym and the ring are the fighter’s kingdom and in them the good fighter is supreme. He breathes and walks and talks in many places, but this is where he belongs, formed so right for this that he himself is not aware of it, and will never be until years after it is over and then it will come to disturb him that something has gone out of his life forever, not just the fights but something. The something is all of it.”