Few books of the past decade please all audiences the way Stephen King’s “11/22/63” does. The 2011 winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller appeases King’s legion of fans, fiction readers and President Kennedy assassination buffs. The only group that the novel may let down is boxing fans.
The book, which is being adapted into a Hulu miniseries, tells the story of Maine high school teacher Jake Epping, who is introduced by his friend, diner owner Al Templeton, to a portal for time travel. Al has developed terminal lung cancer and has asked Jake to continue his mission to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The portal transports Jake back to September 9, 1958, at 11:58 AM. To stay financially afloat over the next five years, Al has given Jake a list of the outcomes of major sporting events so he can place bets with bookies. The first big bet is the 1958 World Series. The last is journeyman Texan Tom “The Hammer” Case’s shocking upset of Dick Tiger at Madison Square Garden in August of 1963. Without giving any major spoilers away, Epping watches the fight on closed circuit at the Dallas Civic Auditorium.
You may not remember that bout… probably because it did not happen. Case was not even a real boxer. It is the one historical inaccuracy in a story that King thoroughly researched through what he described as a six-foot high stack of books.
King declined to be interviewed for this article due to scheduling demands and there are no interviews or quotes with him explaining his reasoning. However, a look at boxing in 1963 will allow you to cut him a little slack on why he created this fictitious bout.
The heavyweight division was led by Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali and even a casual sports fan would have remembered a shocking upset of one of these fighters. The light heavyweight champions at the time were Willie Pastrano and Harold Johnson, hall-of-famers, but not the types of names that would fill a closed circuit event.
Eddie Perkins and Roberto Cruz, names only known by the most hardcore boxing fans, led the light welterweight division. In the welterweight division, Emile Griffith and Luis Manuel Rodriguez fought each other for the title in two epic 15-round bouts in 1963. Lightweight champ Carlos Ortiz, featherweight champion Sugar Ramos and bantamweight titleholder Eder Jofre were such unknowns in the U.S. that they fought an overwhelming majority of their fights outside of it in 1963.
This brings us to the middleweight division and Tiger. The era of Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer had wound down, as Tiger had won the middleweight belt from Fullmer in 1962 and successfully defended it against Fullmer in 1963. After losing many of his early bouts, including his first four, Tiger went on to become a two-time middleweight champion and light heavyweight champion in the 1960s. Tiger passed away from liver cancer in 1971, sadly becoming the first of his champion contemporaries to die.
For King, the challenge was finding a fight that would have been a closed circuit event in Dallas and created windfall betting odds. There was no such boxing match in August of 1963 so King had to create one. If he had chosen two fictitious fighters, it would have been a major inconsistency in a sweeping tour of history. The same principle applies if he had chosen two real boxers. So King compromised, creating the fictitious Case, and having him face the late Tiger, the best choice since casual sports fans remember his name but little else about him. The only “disservice” King does to Tiger is strip away his title and turn him back into a prospect, but alas, a faux title fight would have raised eyebrows too.
J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions is developing the adaptation of the book for Hulu, but is too early in the process to indicate whether the fight will be included. My hope is that the fight will be a part of the story because no film or television production has ever captured the excitement of closed-circuit events of the 1960s and 70s. Plus, visual effects, like King, can take liberty with history if the story demands it.