Ernest Hemingway, Boxing, and “Fifty Grand”

Ernest Hemingway referenced boxing from time to time in his writing. But one of his works was devoted entirely to the sweet science.

Hemingway’s great novels were far in the future when he wrote “Fifty Grand.” He was a 27-year-old journalist and short story writer. The Atlantic Monthly published the 8,000-word piece in 1927.

Fifty Grand is told in the first person by Jerry Doyle, the trainer for welterweight champion Jack Brennan. There was a time when Brennan was a very good fighter. “He certainly did used to make the fellows he fought hate boxing,” Doyle notes. But Brennan is now tired and old. He has looked awful in training camp. In Doyle’s words, “He just hasn’t got anything inside any more.”

The odds are 2-to-1 against Brennan on the eve of his title defense at Madison Square Garden against challenger Jimmy Walcott. Two nights before the fight, Brennan tells Doyle that he has bet $50,000 on Walcott.

“It ain’t crooked,” Jack says to his trainer. “You know I can’t win anyway. How can I beat him? I’m through after this fight. I got to take a beating. Why shouldn’t I make money on it? I’ll give them a good show. It’s just business.”

The fight itself is dramatically told, as one would expect. After all, this is Ernest Hemingway.

Brennan controls the early rounds with his jab.

“Walcott was after him,” Hemingway writes, “going forward all the time with his chin on his chest. All he knows is to get in there and sock. But every time he gets in there close, Jack has the left hand in his face. That left-hand is just automatic. It’s just like it was connected with Walcott’s face. After about four rounds, Jack has him bleeding bad and his face all cut up. But every time Walcott’s got in close, he’s socked so hard he’s [put] two big red patches on both sides just below Jack’s ribs. Every time he gets in close, he socks Jack in the body so they can hear it outside in the street.”

By the middle rounds, Walcott is dominating the fight. Jack’s left arm is getting heavy. His strength is gone. His legs have deserted him. He’s taking a terrible beating, especially to the body. All he wants now is to avoid the indignity of a knockout, finish on his feet, and collect his purse plus the $25,000 profit on his bet.

“It was going just the way he thought it would,” Doyle recounts. “He knew he couldn’t beat Walcott.”

Round eleven.

“The gong rang and we pushed him out. He went out slow. Walcott came right out after him. Jack put the left in his face and Walcott took it, came in under it, and started working on Jack’s body. Jack tried to tie him up and it was just like trying to hold on to a buzz-saw. Jack broke away from it and missed with the right. Walcott clipped him with a left-hook and Jack went down. He went down on his hands and knees and looked at us. The referee started counting. Jack was watching us and shaking his head. At eight, Jack got up. The referee had been holding Walcott back with one arm while he counted. When Jack was on his feet Walcott started toward him.”

Then the plot becomes a bit contrived.

“Walcott came up to Jack looking at him. He backed Jack up against the ropes, measured him, and then hooked the left very light to the side of Jack’s head and socked the right into the body as hard as he could sock, just as low as he could get it. He must have hit him five inches below the belt. I thought the eyes would come out of Jack’s head. They stuck way out. His mouth come open. The referee grabbed Walcott. Jack stepped forward. If he went down, there went fifty thousand bucks. He walked as though all his insides were going to fall out.”

Now the dilemma. If Jack collapses from the low blow, he’ll win by disqualification and be $75,000 poorer than if he’d lost. He struggles to maintain his feet and assures the referee that he can continue.

“It wasn’t low,” Jack says. “It was a accident. I’m all right,”

“Come on and fight,” Jack says to Walcott.

The referee waves Walcott in.

“Jack’s face was the worst thing I ever saw, the look on it. He was holding himself and all his body together and it all showed on his face. All the time he was thinking and holding his body in where it was busted. Then he started to sock. Walcott covered up and Jack was swinging wild at Walcott’s head. Then he swung the left and it hit Walcott in the groin and the right hit Walcott right bang where he’d hit Jack. Way low below the belt. Walcott went down and grabbed himself there and rolled and twisted around. The referee grabbed Jack and pushed him toward his corner. There was all this yelling going on. The referee was talking with the judges and then the announcer got into the ring with the megaphone and says, ‘Walcott on a foul.’”

Walcott has been unable to rise and thus been declared the winner by disqualification. Did he have a fix of his own in mind when he deliberately went low on Jack? From Hemingway’s point on view, that’s secondary to the belief that Jack Brennan fought like a champion by continuing to fight after the low blow even though his goal was to deliberately lose.

But Hemingway didn’t just write about boxing. He considered himself a boxer.

How good was he? Not very.

Hemingway’s most notable ring encounter came at The American Club in Paris in 1925 when he sparred against a Canadian writer named Morley Callaghan. The two men had squared off on several previous occasions. Callaghan, in an account corroborated by third parties who were present, wrote about the experience in a book entitled That Summer in Paris.

“Ernest was big and heavy,” Callaghan recalled. “Over six feet, and I was only five-foot-eight and fat. Whatever skill I had in boxing had to do with avoiding getting hit. I was a little afraid of Ernest. All of the lore and legend of the pros seemed to be in his stance and in the way he held his hands. His chin down a little to his shoulder, he made an impressive picture. Watching him warily, I could only think, ‘Try and make him miss, then slip away from him.’ All I did for the first three-minute round was slip away.”

Then, between rounds, Callaghan realized, “I’m not trying to box with him. I’m trying to defend myself against the wild legends I’ve heard.”

The Canadian was more competitive for the rest of that first sparring session.

Hemingway and Callaghan sparred together several times thereafter.

“The truth,” Callaghan reminisced, “was that we were two amateur boxers. The difference between us was that he had given time and imagination to boxing. I had actually worked out a lot with good fast college boxers. He was a big rough tough clumsy unscientific man. In a small bar or in an alley where he could have cornered me in a rough-and-tumble brawl, he might have broken my back; he was so much bigger. But with gloves on and in a space big enough for me to move around, I could be confident. I could see that, while he may have thought about boxing, dreamed about it, consorted with old fighters and hung around gyms, I had done more actual boxing with men who could box a little and weren’t just taking exercise or fooling around.”

Their final sparring session was particularly intense.

“Ernest had become rougher,” Callaghan recounted, “His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me. I had to punch faster and harder myself to keep away from him. It bothered me that he was taking the punches on the face like a man telling himself he only needed to land one punch himself. Then Ernest came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing must have been just right. I caught him on the jaw. Spinning, he went down, sprawled out on his back.”

The fly in the ointment was that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was serving as timekeeper, had become so engrossed in the proceedings that he’d let the round run a minute long. Hemingway reportedly never spoke to Fitzgerald again.

Who else did Hemingway spar with? Well, at least one man wouldn’t spar with him.

Jack Dempsey visited Paris while heavyweight champion and later recalled, “There were a lot of Americans in Paris, and I sparred with a couple, just to be obliging. But there was one fellow I wouldn’t mix it with. That was Ernest Hemingway. He was about twenty-five or so and in good shape, and I was getting so I could read people, or anyway men, pretty well. I had this sense that Hemingway, who really thought he could box, would come out of the corner like a madman. To stop him, I would have to hurt him badly, I didn’t want to do that to Hemingway. That’s why I never sparred with him.”

Then, years later, Hemingway engaged in a sparring session of sorts with Dempsey’s conqueror, Gene Tunney. George Plimpton told the tale as follows:

“It happened at Hemingway’s home outside Havana, where Hemingway was always trying to get Tunney, whenever he came to visit, to spar bare-fisted. Tunney would grumble and get up on occasion to do it, though mostly he looked up at Hemingway from his armchair and said no. On this occasion, the two men began shuffling around the big living room, and Hemingway did what Tunney half-expected. He threw a low punch, perhaps out of clumsiness, but it hurt. It outraged Tunney. He feinted his opponent’s guard down and then threw a whistling punch, bringing it up just a millimeter short of Hemingway’s face so that the fist and the ridge of bare knuckles completely filled the other’s field of vision, the punch arriving there almost instantaneously so that immutable evidence was provided that, if Tunney had let it continue its course, Hemingway’s facial structure – nose, cheekbones, front teeth, and the rest – would have snapped and collapsed inwardly. And Tunney looked down the length of his arm into Hemingway’s eyes and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’”

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing  – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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