August 6, 2009


On the Boxing Front: Writer Budd Schulberg on Contenders and Pretenders (William Gildea, June 9, 2002,
The short, white-haired man with a cane came to the heavyweight championship fight Saturday night for the simple reason that it was a heavyweight championship fight. Budd Schulberg grew up loving to write and loving boxing, and being able to put the two together in almost perfect combination helped bless his life and made ours better, too. He wrote the screenplay for "On the Waterfront," the 1954 film in which Marlon Brando plays a former boxer who "could've been a contender." He wrote "The Harder They Fall," a novel about the corruption in boxing which became a film starring Humphrey Bogart.

Schulberg is 88 and has written countless boxing articles. You used to see him at all of boxing's biggest nights (Leonard-Hagler comes to mind) with Shirley Povich, who covered the "Long Count Fight" of 1927 for The Post and all the big fights from then until his death in 1998. The two embraced on meeting before that memorable night in Las Vegas when Sugar Ray sprang his upset. Schulberg and Povich recalling their fine times at the fights, sharing their joy in life, was itself a meeting of heavyweights. "We spent a week together in Zaire," Schulberg said the other day. "We were shoulder to shoulder."

That was for the "Rumble in the Jungle," when Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round. That was "The Fight," the title of Norman Mailer's book. Ali's surprising triumph in Kinshasa is remembered here in what is now the National Civil Rights Museum, the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Zaire was the fight when Ali turned to his rope-a-dope, using the ropes to lure Foreman, wear him out and set him up.

"Look at the top 10 now and look at the top 10 when there were really dangerous guys -- like Earnie Shavers," Schulberg said.

Shavers was one of the hardest fights Ali ever had because Shavers was one of the hardest hitters who ever lived. No one better proved that Ali could take a punch than Shavers, but, alas, the price. Ali won that fight in 1977, but Schulberg shudders to think of it. Ali took a decision and brutal punishment. Shavers came to Washington not long ago, and he was in good health. But Schulberg was among those who could see in '77 that, after Shavers and after the three fights with Joe Frazier, Ali was endangered. Ali couldn't, or wouldn't, retire -- not nearly soon enough.

Schulberg sizes up Lennox Lewis and knows where to place him in the history of heavyweights. Lewis cannot rank among the top tier. Perhaps he is close to Larry Holmes, whose fate was to follow Ali as champion. "I think Holmes would have taken him," Schulberg said. "Lewis is the best around today, but that's not too much."

Who'd a thunk that Budd Schulberg was even still alive? A really interesting take on boxing from a guy who's seen a lot of it and had to witness its sad decline. [originally posted: 6/10/02] Posted by Orrin Judd at August 6, 2009 12:01 AM
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