THE month in which a boxer tragically passed away, and another failed a performance-enhancing drug test, was probably as good a time as any to read some boxing-based fiction. For when the grim reality of this glorious, dangerous and conflicting sport becomes all too much, there is solace and comfort to be found in stories of fighters conjured and damaged in an author’s imagination rather than in reality.
In Maan Abu Taleb’s All The Battles, a boxing novel set in Amman, Jordan, the sport is treated as pastime rather than profession, yet the hold it has over its competitors is suffocating and the interest they have for it all-consuming, bordering on obsession.
Twenty-eight-year-old Saed, the main protagonist, works as a marketing strategy executive and then works out at Captain Ali’s local boxing gym. He endures the former; lives for the latter. Late to boxing, Saed struggles at first and is taught painful lessons, but, undeterred, proves himself a willing listener and a quick learner. He loses focus at work. He succumbs to the life of a fighter.
The version of boxing presented here is of the city boy, white collar variety. It is, for men like Saed, some fun on the side; a hobby. It constitutes a bit of escapism following a hard day’s work. Yet, as a storytelling vehicle, Taleb paints this world with broader strokes, and the extent to which Saed’s working and personal life, as well as family history, is explored suggests, even early on, that a boxer’s journey, in Taleb’s mind, represents more than just a love of hitting things and the perverse, sick thrill of being hit back.
Additionally, it was refreshing to see boxing described through the eyes of a different culture; to discover how it sits with social norms; to discover how, ultimately, winning, losing, competition and obsession transcend the language barrier and mean the same no matter where you are in the world.
Saed, desperate for an identity, fed up with the life of the working man, at one point says, “The Russians have sambo, the Brazilians jiujitsu, the Iranians the wrestling they practised in public bathhouses. But what about us? Where are our fighting traditions?” Saed wants answers. He wants to understand his heritage and very essence, just as he wants to understand who he is and where he’s going in life.
The search is detailed in lean, direct and muscular prose and includes some surprisingly profound messages – musings on boxing, what it means to be a boxer, what it means to watch boxing – that creep up on you as the drama unfolds.
Take, for example, this one on page 128, relevant more today than ever.
The captain leaned back in his chair and took a drag of his cigarette. He rocked back and forth for a while and then looked up at Saed. “Is boxing even a sport?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Saed responded.
“Neither do I,” the captain said.
Nothing new, of course, yet the willingness to confront this matter from the jump sets the framework for the rest of the book and lets it be known its 248 pages will amount to no boxing romance. After that, you relax. It becomes meaningful; its message one that should be heard.
For those familiar with a boxing match – the sights, the sounds, the smells – some of the early descriptions might be a tad exhaustive and on the nose. But that should take nothing away from what is quietly going on around them. Nor should it devalue the message or serious tone of the book. There are action-packed fights, of course there are, there are comebacks, of course there are, and there are moments of sentimentality, of course there are. This is boxing; there is some of everything you’d expect from an archetypal boxing story.
In the end, however, if you delve deeper, or simply wait for the reveal, you’ll come to realise fisticuffs are allegorical and that All The Battles is about much more than just giving and taking punches. Instead, the overall narrative, as simple and straightforward as Saed’s skills, maintains the unpredictability of a prizefight and the drama of one, too. Saed eventually loses, as they all do, but it’s the positioning of this loss in the context of the story, as well as what happens after this fight, that reveals All The Battles to be no ordinary boxing book.
Moreover, Saed’s big moment in Dubai is foreshadowed by an impending doom that ensures the eventual setback is as grave in the reader’s mind as it is in Saed’s. It is then it becomes real – painfully real. It is then boxing becomes viewed less as a way for the middle-class to wind down or escape (or feel something in the Fight Club sense), and for the working-class to be saved or redeemed, and more as the thing it has been all along: a vicious, brutal sport in which men and women, regardless of race or social status, punch each other; a sport in which just as many dreams are shattered as they are realised.
As a relevant postscript, here’s a scene from WC Heinz’s masterful 1958 boxing novel The Professional, a book Ernest Hemingway described as “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter”, and one with which All The Battles shares a kinship. It features a conversation between Frank Hughes, the central journalist in the story, and a couple of colleagues. They are discussing Eddie Brown’s next fight, which just so happens to be the focus of Hughes’ next piece.
“…forgetting what happens to Doc and Eddie – which is most important – what happens to my piece if he loses?”
“Well, somebody wins and somebody loses. There’s as much of a story in a fighter losing as in a fighter winning, maybe more.”
“Sure. You get the best stories in the loser’s dressing room, but that’s not the magazine business.”
“I had lunch with a nice little guy works on a magazine one day – I won’t tell you who – and he was telling me about a piece some writer did for them. He had the idea to do one about a kid’s first fight, to be called ‘The Kid’s First Fight’.”
“A good one.”
“Fine. He hung around the kid and his family for a few days. On the day of the fight he stayed with him, and the mother cooked the kid’s last meal and, when he left, she kissed him good-bye. The kid’s father went with him to the club – the Sunnyside – and there was the dressing-room scene. The kid was in the second bout – a four-rounder – and when the call came he got up and started for the door. Then he stopped. The trainer said: ‘Let’s go. Come on.’ The kid said: ‘No. I’m not going. I’m too scared. I don’t want to be a fighter.’ He never did go. He put on his clothes and went home with his old man.”
“Great. The Kid’s First Fight.'”
“Absolutely. So the presiding genius on the magazine says: ‘We can’t use it.’ The guy telling me said: ‘Why not?’ The big guy said: ‘He didn’t fight. It was supposed to be his first fight, be he didn’t go through with it. We can’t use it.'”
“I don’t believe it,” Fred said.
“I do,” Dave said. “It’s unspeakable, but maybe the piece was badly done.”
“I don’t care how badly it was done. Put a good writer on it to rewrite it. He’ll get the quotes he needs, and set the scenes. I’m talking about the business.”
“But Eddie’s not going to lose.”
Fail to see it coming and defeat, in boxing, is all the more shocking, all the more damaging. For a story, though, it’s simply all the more compelling.