Memphis Kid And The Horrible Truth About Prize FightingW.C. Heinz was one of the great American journalists. A war correspondent, columnist, features writer, biographer, and novelist, he excelled in every form he tried.

After reading Heinz's first novel in 1958, Ernest Hemingway cabled the publisher the following: "The Professional is the only good novel I've ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right." Elmore Leonard's introduction for a 2001 reissue explained how Heinz was the crucial link between Hemingway's style and his own. "It has taken a re-reading of The Professional," he wrote, "for me to see clearly where I came from."

The Professional is more than one of the best novels ever written about sports; it's also one of the deeper inquiries into their meaning. It follows a magazine writer, Frank Hughes, as he spends a month in camp with Eddie Brown, a young fighter about to challenge for the middleweight title, and his manager, Doc Carroll. It's about the fights, the rise of a mass commercial culture, the nature of excellence, writing, and a lot of other things, and any given chapter is a master class in the use of dialogue, description, and pacing. The following excerpt is reprinted with the permission of Gayl Heinz.

Eddie had come back off the road with the others and had his breakfast, and I had left him lying on his bed and reading the morning papers and listening to the radio while Jay sat at the table writing postcards. After three days of good weather, it had just started to rain, hard, and I was standing on the porch, looking out through it, when I heard the bus stop on the road. Then I heard it backfire and start up again, and then Memphis Kid came walking down the driveway through the rain.

He had on an old dark gray sharkskin suit and he was bareheaded. He was carrying an Army khaki barracks bag slung over his left shoulder and, under his right arm, a cardboard suitbox tied with twine. I watched him, walking through the rain and looking the hotel over, and then, as he got closer, looking at me.

"Hello, Memphis," I said, when he came up the steps. "My name's Frank Hughes."

"Why, sure," he said, putting the cardboard box down and shaking my hand and smiling and showing his white teeth. "I remember you, Mr. Hughes."

"Thank you."

The rain had soaked the tight curls of his hair and wet his face and darkened the shoulders of his jacket, but he seemed not to notice it.

"I remember. Once you wrote a story about me in the paper. That was quite a time ago, but you remember that?"

"I remember."

"That was a good story. I got it home still. My wife, she like it, too, and she put it in the scrapbook she keep of me."

"I'm pleased, but I don't like the weather you brought."

"You know somethin' about this weather?"

"What?"

"I used to say that, too. When it rain I liked to say it's bad weather, but then I come to figure that when it's bad weather for some people it got to be good weather for others. It all depend."

"That's right, Memphis."

"Since then I read a story in the paper about Texas, and it don't rain there for a long time. I forget for how long a time, but I boxed out there some. You know?"

"I know you did."

"Even then it don't look too good to me. I mean you see all that country out there and it ain't like here, green the way we got it, and I noticed the people they don't look happy to me even then. I just figure they don't get enough rain, so I figure you got to have rain to be happy. That's why I never call it bad weather no more."

"You're right, Memphis."

"I sure didn't look to meet you up here, Mr. Hughes."

"I'm writing a magazine story about Eddie."

"That's good. I'm glad to hear that. Eddie's a good fighter."

"He's lucky to get you to work with him, Memphis."

"I don't know. I just hope to stay in there with him. I hope I don't disappoint Mister Doc Carroll."

"You won't. You want to go in?"

"I guess I should sometime."

He was about the right size for a middleweight, about five feet nine inches and solid and never any fat on him, even at his age. He was what they call a tan, not a black, with a face, widespread by nature, that neither gave him away as a fighter nor denied it and that was truly amazing. It is as rare to find such life still playing in the face of a fighter going nowhere after almost two hundred fights as it is to find it in the look of a very old man.

"Let me carry that."

"No. I make it fine."

"I held the door open for him and walked up to the desk with him. Girot was behind it, heavily engaged again with a pencil and another sheaf of papers.

"You know Memphis Kid, Girot."

"I know Mr. Girot. I been here before."

"Memphis Kid?" Girot said, looking at him. "Today you come?"

"That's right," I said. "See for yourself."

"They tell me he's coming tomorrow," Girot said, talking to me.

"Mister Doc Carroll tell me come today," Memphis said. "I come today."

"I don't know," Girot said, spreading his hands and shrugging his shoulders to me.

"Where does he stay, Girot?"

"How do they expect me to run a place like this if they do not tell me when this one or that one is coming?"

"I don't mean to cause no trouble, Mr. Girot."

"You're not causing any trouble, Memphis," I said. "Girot's got room for you."

"He will have to stay with Barnum and that Booker Boyd."

"That be fine with me."

"Now I must go to the attic and bring down a cot."

"I'll bring it down, Mr. Girot. You show me, and I'll bring it down."

"I will have to show you later."

"Come on, Memphis," I said. "I'll show you where the room is."

"Thank you, Mr. Hughes."

He picked up his things and Girot went back to his papers and I led Memphis up the stairs. At the top I pointed down the hall to the room where Barnum and Booker Boyd were staying, and he went down the hall and I turned the other way and looked into Eddie's room and went in.

Eddie was lying on the bed, his eyes closed, but the radio still playing. Jay was still sitting at the table, still writing postcards, and Penna was sitting near the window reading one of the morning papers.

"I'm writing a few cards," Jay said, looking up at me.

"A few dozen," Penna said.

"You get my Christmas card?"

"Oh, sure. Thanks, Jay. I thought I thanked you."

"Did he get your what?" Penna said.

"My Christmas card."

"Four months later you're askin' him did he get your Christmas card?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"Man, you're nutty. You know. Real fruitcake."

"What time is it?" Eddie said, still lying there but stretching.

"You sleep?" Jay said.

"I don't know. What time is it?"

"Quarter after one."

"I guess I dropped off. Maybe a half hour."

"It's rainin'," Penna said. "Lousy rain."

"Memphis Kid is here," I said.

"He is?" Eddie said, sitting up and swinging his feet to the floor. "That's good. When did he get in?"

"Just now."

"Where is he?" Jay said. "I gotta see him."

"Rooming with Barnum and Booker Boyd."

"Three spades," Penna said.

"He was a great fighter," Eddie said.

"That's right," Jay said.

"What?" Penna said. "Who?"

"Memphis Kid," Jay said. "He was some fighter."

"Are you kiddin'?"

"That's the truth," Eddie said, looking at Penna. "When I first started fighting he was a great fighter."

"How come in those days I never even heard of him then?"

"I'm telling you," Eddie said, "when he used to box at Stillman's everything stopped. I mean the other fighters used to stop boxing or whatever they were doing and just watch. Isn't that right, Frank?"

"That's exactly right. The managers even stopped arguing."

"I used to watch him," Eddie said. "I mean, when I was just beginning, Doc never liked to have me watch other fighters. When he'd catch me watching in the gym he'd give me something to do, but one day he saw me watching Memphis and he said: 'That's all right. You can watch this guy.' I remember the day."

"How come he never won a title then?" Penna said.

"What?"

"If he was such a great fighter, how come he never won a title?"

"What's that got to do with it?" Jay said.

"Man, are you rocky? What's it got to do with it? If you're a great fighter you win a title, don't you?"

I looked at Eddie and Eddie looked at me and shrugged.

"Not always," Eddie said.

"Why not?"

"Memphis never got the breaks."

"So he's a great fighter, he makes his own breaks."

"It's not so easy. It's very complicated, Al."

"What's so complicated?"

"Let Frank explain it to you."

"Why me?"

"Somebody explain it to me."

"I'll explain it to you," Jay said.

"No thanks," Penna said. "I want to believe this."

"Go ahead, Frank," Eddie said.

"Well, in the first place, Memphis was never a sensational fighter. He was never a crowd pleaser, because he knew too much. He never went out to make a show. He went out to get a job done. For the few people who hang around Stillman's he was a pro. The people who go to fights don't know a pro from an amateur."

"I still don't get it."

"You're in the entertainment business, Al."

"Who, me?"

"All of you. Why do you think it's taken Eddie so long to get a title shot? He's too solid to be a showman. The crowd wants a fighter who goes out there and risks his life every time the bell rings. Memphis might spend eight rounds just lousing the other guy up, if that was the way to fight that particular guy on that night."

"I don't know. You guys still ain't sellin' me. I still think if he was such a great fighter he'd have won a title."

"All right. He's also colored."

"What's that got to do with it? We got more colored champions than white guys."

"For one thing, we're going back a dozen years, Al. We're talking about a colored fighter nobody wants to fight because he doesn't make a show. Besides, he's too good, and you can't do anything with him."

"You ought to see how he could louse you up with those gloves and arms," Eddie said.

"Also, he was mishandled. He had two or three different managers who should have been selling insurance, or something, and who had no idea what they had. No white guys would fight him unless he carried them—and he did that, too. None of the first half-dozen middleweights would fight him, for anything, so he had to go in with a lot of guys who outweighed him twenty pounds. Look at his record. He boxed all over the world. He fought all the tough ones."

"He ever get knocked out?"

"Five or six times."

"For real, or he go in the tank?"

"I've never asked him. Why don't you?"

"No thanks."

"You're convinced now?" Jay said.

"Maybe. I ain't sayin'."

"Listen," Jay said. "I can tell you a lot of good fighters never won a title. How about Charley Burley? From way back, I can name you—"

"Yeah, I know you can. Some of them sheiks, hey?"

"What?"

"Sheiks," Penna said, turning to Eddie. "Yesterday, he drops that on me. The great Jay. He says: 'What you wanna be, a fighter or a sheik?' Can you imagine? A sheik. Why don't you lie down, Jay. You're dead, you and your sheiks. Here's a guy don't know he's dead."

"Listen—"

"I'm not listenin'," Penna said, and he got up and walked out.

"He really is crazy," Jay said.

"He's a kid," Eddie said. "Not really a bad guy."

"What good is he?" Jay said. "He's just one of them wise guys. One of these days I'm gonna tell him off."

"You know something?" Eddie said to me.

"What?"

"It's really a crime he never won a title."

"Who?" Jay said.

"Memphis Kid. You know, everything you told Al was the truth, but I still don't understand it myself.

"You don't understand what?" Jay said.

"I just don't understand it. A fighter like Memphis Kid. He never made a bad move. I used to get a kick just watching him pick off punches. You never saw anybody could do that like him."

"I knew some others," Jay said. "Years ago we had fighters like that."

"I don't get it. What do the people want? Why couldn't they see how good Memphis Kid was?"

"It's too intricate an art, Eddie."

"How do you mean?"

"It's just too intricate for the average person, fight fan or not, to comprehend. All they see is the result. If it's a war in there, great. If a guy gets knocked out, greater. That's all they're equipped to understand."

"But there's some guys you can't knock out. There's guys nobody can look good in there with. You know that."

"Certainly."

"It's not right. Maybe you fight the toughest guy in the world for you, because of his style, and you lick him and people don't like it. Is that right?"

"No, but that's because the fighter, of all the practitioners of the arts, is in the most peculiar and unfortunate position."

"How do you mean?"

"Because every fight is in front of an audience. You don't think a painter has to perform that way."

"I don't know."

"A painter picks out a tough one for himself, and if it doesn't go and he looks bad in it, he hides it. It never gets shown. Nobody looks at it and says: 'He's a bum. He can't paint.' Painters—great painters—have attics full of stuff they never show. Maybe some of that stuff they liked better than anything they're famous for, because they licked a tough one in a way nobody else ever licked it. It doesn't come off as a great fight, though, because it never could, but they don't have to show it in front of an audience of amateurs who wouldn't understand. You guys have to show every time out."

"I never thought of it that way."

"I'm gonna see Memphis," Jay said, and he went out and closed the door.

"I really feel sorry for Memphis," Eddie said.

"What about yourself?"

"Well, I've made some money."

"Stop conning me."

"What?"

I've got to get you to talk to me now, I was thinking.

"Stop conning me," I said.

"I'm not conning you."

"Look, I'm your friend. I like you. I'm Doc's friend. I've known him for twenty-five years. He's the greatest in the business. You're the best fighter, pound for pound and punch for punch, in the ring today. People don't know that. They can't even find it in the newspapers. Don't tell me you've made some money. You should have made ten times as much. You should be champion of the world."

"I know it."

"You've got to be sore about that."

"I read in the papers what a great fighter this other guy is."

"Everybody reads that."

"It's like a crap game. You got to be lucky."

"You're wrong."

"How do you mean?"

"It's not a crap game. It's a card game. You've got to be lucky, but only in the deal. After forty years in the business, Doc finally got dealt a fighter who could learn and do all the things Doc has been trying to teach for all those years. Where were you dealt in? You were dealt the body and the mind and the reflexes to be that fighter. Now you two guys are holding the winning cards. That's why it's not a crap game. You've just got to play them right."

"We'll play them."

"I know you will."

"Everybody always talks about this other guy, and they write in the papers, like he's a great fighter. Sometimes that makes me a little sore."

"It should."

"He's not a great fighter. He's a great showboat. You want to know the truth?"

"Certainly."

"The guy is made for me."

"I know he is."

"Doc and I know exactly how to lick him. They say he's a puncher. He can't punch with me. I'll back him off in any exchange. You watch who backs off in the very first exchange."

"I'll be watching."

"That'll show you how great a fighter he is. I'm sick of hearing that. I just want to show people."

"Well, you will."

"I will."

"You see? Finally, after all, you're very lucky. You've got the chance now and the cards to do it. Many guys in life never get that chance."

"I suppose that's right."

The door opened and Penna came in.

"Hey!" he said, to Eddie. "Big news."

"What?"

"Your wife and your kid and your brother-in-law are here."

"No kidding?" Eddie said. "Let's go down, Frank."

"I want to wash up," I said.

Art by Sam Woolley

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