The Boxing Bookshelf: Springs Toledo's In the Cheap Seats
After reading In the Cheap Seats, Springs Toledo's 2016 collection of boxing essays, I feel confident in saying that Toledo is the best boxing writer working today, and perhaps the best sportswriter, period. His work combines the rarest of attributes: a literary and poetic grasp of the English language, and a detailed and rigorous understanding of history. Like AJ Liebling before him, he has a talent for capturing the zeitgeist of boxing, the culture of the ring and the unique characters that are enveloped by it. He also has a pronounced spirit of animosity towards contemporary American culture, best captured in his observations of riding the Amtrak train to Philadelphia for a Bernard Hopkins fight, where he lightly mocks the football fans while clutching onto a collection of Liebling essays like a buoy in a summer squall. That he is not more well known is an indictment on us all, and a commentary on the sad state of American sports in general, where we as a nation seem more interested in spending three months talking about which quarterbacks are going to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft than in talking about actual sports, boxing included.
The moment I realized the extent of Toledo's gifts came as I was reading the sections of this book that most irritated me. One of Toledo's greatest gifts is his ability to break down a prizefight, to grasp and explain the technical skills and strategy that comprise the sweet science. He gained this knowledge in large part through experience, in sparring sessions from his younger days. (In this regard, I find myself quite jealous of Toledo, as my own genetic neurological condition would make even light sparring extremely dangerous to my health.) Out of this experience also comes, for Toledo, a kind of timeless worship of masculinity as a sacred heirloom passed down from the ancient Greeks (and perhaps before that) to the 21st century. At times, this aspect of Toledo's worldview is enriching, as with his excellent and insightful essay on the weakness of George Zimmerman, unable to defend himself with his fists and thus shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. At other times, it made me, momentarily, roll my eyes, as with Toledo's speculations on vegetarianism, and his caricature of "soft-bellied" academics. But here's the thing. As I was reading this volume, I discovered that these aspects of Toledo's art actually demonstrated how gifted a writer he is. In those moments where I found myself arguing with him in my own head, it occurred to me that Toledo, even when I think he is wrong, is deeply engaging. And in our current political climate of endless division and mockery, that itself is a precious commodity. If you want to understand boxing, past and present, read Springs Toledo. Rating: Five stars out of five.