Boxing Brings Out The Best And Worst In Writers
The late Jonathan Rendall almost got it right
by Don Stradley
The 1990s may go down as a golden era for the hard-hitting boxing memoir. Many of these books came from England, and they almost always followed the same template - novice writer befriends a fighter, gets to know him as a human being, and then watches helplessly as the guy gets smashed into a bloody stupor by his next opponent - which may stem from W.C. Heinz' '50s classic, The Professional, a book that came dressed as a novel but was allegedly based on real incidents. I don't blame anyone for aping Heinz' plot. It's a good one, stacked with pathos, and if you show some of the real horrors of boxing along the way (dementia, busted up hands, bleeding brains, empty bank accounts, senile fighters sleeping next to piles of human feces) you're bound to set the critics buzzing. This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own did exactly that 20 years ago, making Jonathan Rendall, for a brief time, England's boxing writer du jour. A reviewer from the Financial Times was so fired up by Rendall's memoir that he used "elegiac" and "fin de siecle" in one sentence.
Early on Rendall is told by a fighter, "you can talk about boxing all you like, but at the end of the day it's a fight. That's all it is." This idea echoes throughout the story, as Rendall goes from writing about boxing to actually serving as an advisor for Colin McMillan, a talented fighter who briefly owned a version of the featherweight title. McMillan's problem was keeping his right arm attached to the shoulder. It kept popping out during fights like a limb on a cheaply made action figure. Rendall's style is dry wit, with a fondness for obscure British ringside characters like Ernie the Whip and Harry the Growler, fringe types who couldn't figure out why they never got rich. It's the era of Herol "Bomber" Graham, Michael Nunn, and Donald Curry; Frank Warren getting shot outside an arena; the young Lennox Lewis showing promise before being crushed by Oliver McCall; and the retired Ali making an appearance at Planet Hollywood, struggling to eat a bowl of soup. Everything Rendall sees reminds him that the most important thing about boxing is to get out in time.
Rendall liked to depict himself as a loser - he's constantly being insulted, ripped off, and bullied. The last straw is when he's roughed up in a hotel lobby by Frank Bruno. Rendall supplies no details; his method is to allude to things without dwelling on them. That is, unless it's to show us the downside of boxing. When he visits Kid Chocolate in Havana, he spares no detail about the Kid's squalid life, and his adventures with Jack Kid Berg (though amusing) are mostly about how Berg's memory has disintegrated. In a way, it's a young man's book, with Rendall seeing the future in the eyes of broken down pugs and fearing what he sees.
Not surprisingly, Rendall became a sort of boxing muckraker, writing investigative pieces. Like the ex-smoker, he was determined to make things miserable for those who still enjoyed a puff. He'd eventually forsake boxing and its "tuxedoed junketeers" for other subjects, including a well-received book about the search for his biological parents. In recent years he was best known for his 'Last Chance Saloon' column in The Observer. He developed a cultish following among British readers, amusing them with tales of drinking and gambling.
The trick Rendall accomplished with This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own, aside from a title that sounds like a Charles Bukowski poem, is that he convinced critics that he wasn't covering the usual boxing clichés. In truth, he was hitting each tired old bit as if he'd consulted a manual. How he fooled them was with his delivery - he wasn't, as many of his admirers claimed, "Runyonesque" (I imagine the people who called him that had never actually read Damon Runyon), but rather, was carrying on the tradition of the acerbic monologist, the stranger in a strange land. The lightness of his style - Rendall's chapters are like those neatly organized plates at exclusive restaurants, where the cilantro is placed carefully on the side of the dish, and everyone is accorded exactly 11 green beans - keeps one from realizing that he's simply tilling the usual ground about boxing's brutality.
Of course, the people in the business are well ahead ahead of Rendall. "Being the champ is no great shakes," Nunn tells him at one point, interviewed during his prime. "In another four years there'll be another young guy." "Boxing is always the same," says Detroit promoter Don Gutz. "It's only the fucking names that change." The fatalistic attitudes of his boxing pals leave Rendall puzzled. It takes several years before he realizes the hard work in the gym is really nothing to do with the superstructure above boxing, which includes promoters and television and general myth making. When Kid Akeem Anifowoshe, a feisty flyweight from Nigeria, comes to a tragic end, Rendall starts working in waltz time. "Boxing had been leading me to a truth after all," he writes, "but only to the truth about boxing. And the truth was just the story itself, the first addictive dance under the chandelier, and then the doomed roller coaster ride on thousands of blue curves."
Like I said, it's a young man's book.
When a boxing writer loses his love for the sport, he's a bit like a toddler who had always held his parents' hands, but now has to walk on his own. Most accept the business for what it is, the good and bad. Some, in fact, become better writers because they're no longer looking for heroes. Another type of writer, though, behaves like a jilted lover. He'll treat boxing like a bad woman who did him wrong. He'll expose all of her flaws for the world to see. But the joke is on the writer, because everyone else already knew she was a no good slut. Rendall died young - 48 - just a few years ago. He was a troubled guy, and by more than one account he was an irresponsible sort who couldn't meet a deadline. By the end of his life he was struggling to find writing gigs. He'd spent his final months failing to interest publishers in a proposed book about Mike Tyson. Funny, when he was out of options he'd gone back to the dark mistress: boxing. Unfortunately for Rendall, his Tyson book was not published during his lifetime. The old sweet science had dumped him on his ass again.