Charles Farrell is a former boxing manager who once steered Mitch “Blood” Green, Leon Spinks, and Freddie Norwood. He is also the author of “Why I Fixed Fights”, a widely-read and much- discussed article published on Deadspin last year. In it he argues that orchestrated outcomes are a way of preserving a fighter’s health while simultaneously advancing business interests. His most recent piece for Deadspin, “Why Tonight’s Heavyweight Fight Shouldn’t Be On The Level”, outlined a strategy to maximize profit for all involved in the Bermane Stiverne-Deontay Wilder WBC Championship bout.
Farrell spent most of his professional life moving between music and boxing (with a few detours along the way). He managed five world champion boxers and has 30 CDs under his name. Farrell is currently at work on a memoir and a book of essays about music, boxing, gangsterism, and lowlife culture, and some of his work will be featured in an anthology of boxing writing edited by Mike Ezra and Carlo Rotella. He is also developing a television series called “Fixed and Forgotten” with Tony Roman.
A Boxing Writer’s Association of America award winner, Farrell’s work offers lucid and often humourous insight on the sport’s machinations. Below he discusses the disconnect between boxing’s realities and its mythical representation in art, among other topics.
An issue of frequent scorn in boxing is that of top fighters and promoters not making matches because of fear, contractual obligations, or petty beefs. As someone who’s been inside the sport, is the fans’ criticism warranted or are there usually other, clandestine reasons that prevent fights from happening? In other words, in an era of blogs, twitter, ceaseless discussion and apparent (perhaps illusory) ‘access’, is the boxing public more ignorant of the sport’s true machinations than it thinks it is?
The fans’ criticism isn’t entirely unwarranted, but their issues represent only a small part of why desirable fights don’t get made. What the boxing public doesn’t see is just how “Big Picture” boxing is at the elite and near elite levels. In an era where a busy marquee boxer gets into the ring three times a year, where there’s a marketing premium placed on staying undefeated, and where meaningful TV and PPV dates are few and far between, nobody can afford a slipup. This is unfortunate for fans, since they’re often deprived of great matchups. But if you’re managing a fighter, you are really looking for insurance policies, always assessing risk versus reward. You’re thinking a number of fights ahead, in an “if that happens, it produces this” kind of way. You’re thinking in terms of promotional opportunities too. And, of course, promoters are always thinking of control, how they can most unilaterally wrap up the services of a marketable fighter, or how, if it makes sense to put that fighter in a risky match, they can require the other boxer, if he wins, to give up options on future fights. To further complicate things, there’s the whole issue of fixing fights, influencing judges and referees, etc. These factor into whether a match gets made or not too, at least occasionally. So a fight is never just a fight. There’s a case to be made that what happens in the ring is the easiest part of the process. I don’t think that contractual obligations constitute a major sticking point to preventing fights. Money will trump contracts nearly every time. Boxing is hardly a contract savvy business anyway, although that may be changing with the recent addition of guys like Al Haymon. As to petty beefs, it’s been my experience that, although personal animosities often color the tone of negotiation, they are seldom the reason why a financially sensible fight doesn’t get made. Guys who absolutely hate each other do business all the time in boxing. You couldn’t exist in the business if you were unwilling to deal with people you couldn’t stand.
As an accomplished musician and writer, you’ve had a lifelong engagement with art, which gives you a unique background for someone who was involved in the fight game. In describing your work as a boxing manager in ‘Things I Couldn’t Fix’, you write: [Boxing] was almost entirely an act of imagination, a series of tricks for verbally bending people’s will, then visually reinforcing what they heard, so that they were made to question, then doubt, and finally disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes.
Having once been in control of boxing’s machinery, in which you drew upon your creative reserves to manufacture reality and control the fates of men, did you ever perceive your work as an artistic project? Was managing fighters a way of synthesizing your intellectual gifts and self-identification with ‘lowlife culture’?
For me, managing fighters was a process; my concept about how to do it changed radically from when I first got involved until the time I left the business. Let me elaborate a little bit. I came into managing knowing a tremendous amount about boxing as boxing, but maybe not so much about it as a business. Over time, I grew to understand that it’s far more important, from a managerial standpoint, to understand the business than it is to know the X’s and O’s of boxing or to follow its history. The way that knowing boxing as a sport can be useful is that it makes it unnecessary to rely on others to assess the relative merits of the fighters you’ll be dealing with. But that’s pretty secondary stuff. What you refer to in your question as “manufacturing reality” is really the key. Floyd Mayweather—a very good fighter—has manufactured a bankable image of himself as the greatest fighter of all time. As a kind of exercise, some of my friends came up with a list of twenty fighters from different eras in Mayweather’s weight various classes who would have beaten him. It took two minutes to do it. But evaluating Floyd Mayweather historically as a fighter is a nugatory game when placed beside what he has accomplished by manufacturing himself as “the greatest of all time.” When seen through this prism—how to invent a money-making machine—managing fighters is certainly a way to test your intellectual and imaginative gifts. Until recently, I didn’t see my music as art: I saw it as my work. So I didn’t see boxing management as an artistic project because I didn’t even see playing music as an artistic project. There were times when I saw both processes as being similar, though. And now that I’ve begun to define my music as art (a far less cynical viewpoint than I maintained through most of my life) I can see ways in which boxing management, boxing manipulation, can be seen as an artistic exercise. This is probably most true when you have the least to work with in terms of your fighter’s talent. One odd thing is that, even though I didn’t choose to see my own music as art, I always saw great boxers primarily as artists, with fighters like Ray Robinson or Roberto Duran being the artistic equals of Pablo Picasso or John Coltrane.
My recognition of lowlife is almost purely objective analysis, something I can see when I’m able to stand outside myself. So I don’t think that I necessarily defined my participation in boxing as an aspect of lowlife. I’ve done things, both in boxing and elsewhere, that, in hindsight, I find almost unimaginable, and certainly nearly unforgivable. But, for the most part, I didn’t attach cultural definition to them while they were happening. Occasionally I’d think “how the fuck did I wind up here?” Then I’d go about my business.
Your writing is refreshingly devoid of sentimentality and describes boxing as it really is: an extremely violent form of entertainment, full of intrigue and subject to manipulation, which leaves its practitioners damaged. Conversely, you also touch on the singular existential experience it provides fighters. Given these contradictory realities, is boxing the truest form of competition, whose worth is proportional to its danger, or a dark narcotic that should be avoided?
That’s a question I don’t feel qualified or even entitled to answer. What there is no question about, in my opinion anyway, is that, on those occasions where the field is level, boxing is the truest (in the sense of the most pure, least externally mediated) form of competition. What it requires in personal investment is more elemental than in any other endeavor I can think of. But issues of worth and avoidance are subjective: how can one person determine what something is worth to someone else? Almost all of the professional fighters I’ve known wound up penniless and damaged. Most fought without achieving fame or winning a title. And yet they will tell you that they’d do everything all over again if they had the chance, even knowing the costs. What are you going to say to them? “Are you crazy?” They know; you don’t. So I’m cautious about overstepping my bounds here. It’s irresponsible to attempt to be the spokesperson for the disenfranchised. Do you tell a person not to work at McDonald’s because it will render his or her life meaningless? How can that be your business? I take your point about boxing being a dark narcotic, but wonder if that is truer for people on its periphery than for fighters themselves. If you’re an addict of any sort, you’re dealing mostly in the quotidian: how to feed your habit. It’s not a romanticized action. In that sense, it’s not a “dark” narcotic: there is no adjective attached to it. If your relationship to boxing isn’t functional or practical, however—if you’re not in the gym day after day, dealing with the nuts and bolts of boxing—you then have the luxury of indulging in a dark narcotic. For writers, fans, filmmakers, and many others, boxing can be a dark narcotic. It allows for imagery, it allows for metaphor. Boxing can be easily represented as being steeped in deep sadness. So it seems to me that the crucial word here is “dark.” Again, I’m not able to say whether this is something that should be avoided, although I can guarantee that it is something that will compromise you. Sometimes you learn from being compromised, though.
I think you’re correct in suspecting that boxing is romanticized by people who are not immersed in it on a day to day basis. The sport has a rich literary and cinematic tradition and many artists have drawn on it to make metaphysical statements about the human struggle. But while writers self-consciously append to the glorification of its violence an acknowledgement of boxing’s human tragedy — a familiar trope is the noble, impoverished fighter suffering for our entertainment as he’s being robbed by a heartless promoter or manager — often books or movies appear to revel in boxing’s drama and grand themes while at the same time hypocritically distancing themselves from its cruelty. This distance allows everyone to judge an enterprise of which we have, at best, a shallow understanding. Is this all just delusional, self-serving silliness? Has the reality of boxing been obscured or lost in its mythologizing? If so, what is the cost?
Boxing’s artistic representation has been sentimental, uninformed, delusional, self-serving, and tonally monochromatic, falling just short of being exclusively so. Aside from Leonard Gardner’s novel Fat City, I haven’t read a work of boxing fiction that in any way resembles what life in boxing is actually like. That’s a horrible track record for literature. Boxing themed music has been equally abysmal, and film has done only slightly better (Fat City makes another appearance here in the plus column). For reasons that can be only partially explained, artistic disquisitions on boxing boldly move to all the wrong places. They focus on violence, machismo, redemption, self-aggrandizement, and weepiness, constantly swinging for the fences. Two of the worst books I’ve ever read (Rope Burns and Every Time I Talk to Liston) are boxing fiction. “Song for Sonny Liston” is one of the most embarrassing pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure why Sonny gets singled out for these dubious tributes. And do I even have to bring up Sylvester Stallone’s movies?
Too many men, in their artistic representation of boxing, feel the need to identify themselves as tough guys. Boxers aren’t tough guys; they don’t have to be. And not every promoter or manager is like a silent film villain, twirling his mustache while doing dastardly things. Finally, writers in particular should take this message to heart: you are not like a boxer in any way, even if you think you are. Boxing is small and practical for the most part. But there’s plenty of minable material within its confines from which to extract good art, if you know where to look, and if you take your conceits and insecurities out of the equation.
Boxing is returning to network television on NBC. The man responsible for this move, Al Haymon, is reportedly the most powerful figure in the sport, yet he manipulates things from behind a curtain, so to speak. Because of Haymon’s poor matchmaking record and boxing’s traditional opacity, many are skeptical his maneuvers will improve things. Is boxing, which often revels in its sleaziness and has had longstanding involvement with organized crime, inherently opposed to reform and transparent business practices?
I have to disagree with the premise that boxing often revels in its sleaziness, if you mean by boxing professionals. Using a term like “revels” suggests both a vanity and a cultural awareness that are really not part of the boxing landscape. Boxing—boxing itself, not its external manifestations—just isn’t that cinematic. Many of the people involved in it are sleazy, but they’re not particularly aware that they’re sleazy. And they certainly don’t revel in it. I guarantee that if you called someone in the boxing business sleazy to his face, you’d want someone standing between you after you did.
Organized crime is not a homogeneous entity. So even though boxing has had a longstanding involvement with organized crime, it would be reductive to see that involvement as coming from one source. And if crime figures in boxing are various (you’ll have to be liberal with the term “crime figures” here, since many of these people aren’t necessarily connected to organized crime, and have never been even indicted for anything), it’s safe to assume that the reasons for their involvement are also various. Sonny Liston’s title losses to Muhammad Ali, for example, were engineered by an entirely different type of people than those who arranged Deontay Wilder’s knockout of Malik Scott, and the knockouts were set up for entirely different reasons.
I think it’s safe to assume that crime figures are opposed to reform and transparent business practices in boxing. But they’re not the only ones. Anyone who truly understands boxing would be opposed to them. Although these overhauls may sound good in theory, they’re not accomplishable. Boxing has always had reformers, altruists, and grandstanders—all standing on soapboxes—who’ve ostensibly attempted to elevate the sport. Invariably, they’ve known nothing about boxing, have been effortlessly outsmarted and outmaneuvered by the people they’ve attempted to thwart, and have always done more harm than good. Their understanding of boxers and the boxing business would have to be much deeper and much more sophisticated than it is in order to handle the guys who wheel and deal on the inside. But it never will be. Boxing is a survival of the fittest business. I’m not saying whether that’s a good or a bad thing; it’s a true thing.