The forthcoming book “Brute” follows two Sacramento boxers: Mike Simms, a cruiserweight who trained with the Olympic team in 2000, who when I found him had lost five successive fights; and Stan Martyniouk, a young, Estonian-born featherweight, who when I found him had just fought and won his professional debut by decision, despite breaking his right hand in the first round.

Over the next few months I look forward to sharing the stories of these two fighters with the readers of the Sweet Science, and I look forward to hearing from any and all of you. –KS

“I was at the May 15th fight at the Red Lion,” I told Mark Wilkie. He is the man responsible for organizing what is left of boxing in the Capital. “It was pretty full,” I said, hoping to assure him. “Sacramento is a good town for sport. If we’d have gotten a baseball team in the 1990s when the National League expanded, we would have sold out more games than the Indians after they built the Jake.”

Mark smiled, looking confident again. “There was the ESPN Wednesday Night Fight over at Arco, and there have been a couple fights over at Raley Field.” And then his tone changed again. “You know, the problem is, I look at the sports section now, and there’s nothing in there about boxing. There used to be a boxing beat every Wednesday in the Sacramento Bee. But the sports writer that covered boxing for them, Jim Jenkins, is no longer with the paper.”

“That is, of course, the newspaper business.”

“Right,” said Mark. After this we both paused, as if we had tacitly agreed to observe a moment’s silence for the death of the newspaper.

“I think,” I said, changing the subject, “that kids coming up these days writing journalism are doing it online. Obviously I am. Not because I wouldn’t like to be in print, but because there are a lot of freedoms that come with no word count restrictions or space limitations. Although, ironically, most of the journalism you find on the internet is shorter and more vitriolic.”

“Like MMA,” said Mark. “It’s part of the trend towards faster—” Here he halted for a moment, searching for a noun that never came to him, then concluded, “And so forth. Anyways, I think we’re on the verge of a small upswing.”

“For boxing popularity. There have been some more articles.” Mark was speaking again of the fights he promoted at the Red Lion. He had, after all, suggested this lunch in order to secure some press attention, and here I was instead lamenting the collapse of the
newspaper industry and the rise of mixed martial arts, both of which, I should add, I was encouraging with my own work.

“What we really need,” Mark said, “is another local guy to get famous and stick around.”

“Like Stan Martyniouk,” I said.

“Yeah, but they tend to take off for Vegas once they start making it, for tax reasons, or training reasons. Although, we did have the heavyweight champion in West Sacramento.” Mark was referring to Oleg Maskaev, the Kazakh-born Russian fighter who won the WBC belt from Hasim Rahman in August of 2006, and kept it until March of this year. It may be worth noting that the Sacramento CBS affiliate, Channel 13 News, did a story in December 2006 on Maskaev’s move to the Capitol. The reporter began his piece by saying, “Odds are, you haven’t heard of Oleg Maskaev.” It was evident, at least, that he hadn’t.

Behind Mark our waitress was approaching with our drinks on a tray. She was half Japanese, I estimated, with the rough cheeks of a girl who often stays out all night and can’t wash the makeup off her face. But she filled out her dress nicely, and set down our drinks saying, “Here you are,” with such intense personal curiosity that, though I knew better, she appeared to have a sexual interest in both of us. Mark and I thanked her—I probably more ebulliently, as I’m sure Mark had seen this trick, fallen for it, and vowed never to again.

“Can I get you guys any edamame or anything?” she asked.

“I don’t like it,” Mark said. “Do you want any?”

I liked edamame very much, but didn’t want to eat it in front of Mark if he wasn’t going to partake. “I don’t need any,” I said.

“Do you still need a couple minutes?” the waitress asked.

Mark put down his menu. “I’m ready to order whenever you are?”

“Oh,” I said. I hadn’t even looked at my menu. “I should have been paying more attention.”

“I’ll come back,” said the waitress. “It’s okay.”

“I’ll look over this menu,” I said to her. For half a minute I looked it over, and deciding that University Capital Management, and not Mr. Wilkie himself, was paying the check, I decided on two of the more expensive rolls. When I’d decided I said to Mark, “At least on the mixed martial arts side, there have been some bigger names coming out of here. Urijah Faber, of course. And James Irvin is from here and trains here. I don’t know if you watched his fight on Saturday.”

“I don’t personally follow it myself,” said Mark. “I don’t have cable TV.”

“Well,” I went on, “a fighter out of Sacramento just took on the middleweight champion. He got promptly murdered.” Mark had a look of horror on his face as if I’d been literal, and I got then the feeling that he did not like the brutality, either of the UFC, or even maybe of boxing. “It was a one minute, one second, first-round knockout,” I said, and then added, “But Irvin was all right in the end.”

“I like it until they get on the ground and start wrestling,” said Mark. “I enjoy Olympic wrestling. And I enjoy boxing. I even enjoy kickboxing.” He said this in such a way that suggested he was surprised to be admitting it. “But a lot of people like the mixed martial arts. And I can watch it for a while, too. But I’m a little more squeamish.”

“The first time I went to a fight,” I told him, “it was put on by some small organization in some nightclub outside of Boston. I remember that before the first fight started, I felt that sort of horrible anticipation—that I was going to see something brutal happen. But now that I follow the sport pretty closely, I guess I’ve learned to tolerate the cruelty. I think enjoying the sport requires an appreciation of what’s going on when the opponents are on the ground. Because when the fighters are down on the mat, and it becomes a Jiu- Jitsu fight, rather than a stand-up one, it looks more chaotic. But it’s really very nuanced.”

Our waitress returned, then, and I was glad to stop acting the apologist. Mark ordered barbequed albacore tuna and some sort of dumplings. I got two rolls, one of which had beef in it. When the food came, the fish in mine was not particularly fresh, nor the steak tender, but it was certainly palatable. We ate, talking less than we had when we hadn’t food. We did discuss the expansion of the Red Lion, whose myriad dens were getting redone. The lounge, Mark told me, where the weigh-ins were to be held the following week, had just been remodeled.

After lunch Mark paid and I thanked him for the meal. I didn’t have much more to ask him, but I went with him back to his headquarters where he gave me a brief tour, and where we ended, after the brief circumnavigation, in the front office, belonging to Jeff Berger. Berger was the CEO of University Capital Management, and accordingly the owner of the Red Lion. On a long table beside one wall was a gold Mezuzah. Mr. Berger had not taken the time to hang it up yet, and I hoped his fortunes hadn’t been accordingly affected; really, though, his finances seemed in order. On the wall was a framed pair of boxing gloves, signed by Muhammad Ali. Also in the frame was that immortal photograph of Ali standing over Sonny Liston after knocking him out (or at least to the canvas) in the first round, as well as a picture of the champ, reduced already by Parkinson’s, standing with Berger, and looking apathetic about having to pose.

“Those aren’t the actual gloves he used to hit Liston, are they?” I asked.

Mark laughed. “No, of course not. We’d need better security if they were.”

I said that they wouldn’t even be safe around me, and we both laughed. Mark told me to have a seat and he took the chair behind Jeff’s desk. I got the impression that Mark liked to sit there when Jeff was out. I verified the dates of the weigh-in and the fight, and realizing that we’d exhausted, for the moment, what we had to say to each other on the subject of boxing, we both stood in unison, and Mark saw me out. At the door we shook hands, and I thanked him again for reimbursing me for the ticket, and for lunch.

“I’ll see you at the weigh-ins,” I said, and walked out into the heat.