"The only good novel about a fighter I've ever read," said Ernest Hemingway when the book was first published in 1958. Long out of print, W.C. Heinz's The Professional has been reissued (Arbor House, $8.95), and a welcome return it is.
In truth, great boxing literature is hardly abundant. George Bernard Shaw had a go at the sport in 1882 with a novel called Cashel Byron's Profession but soon turned his hand to playwriting. Jack London's A Piece of Steak and even Hemingway's Fifty Grand made boxing seem more brutal and corrupt than it was. Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall today seems flaccid and overblown, more a circus yarn than a fight novel. Hemingway didn't live to read Leonard Gardner's fine 1969 novel, Fat City—he might have amended that "only" if he had—but his basic judgment of Heinz's book still holds. Indeed, The Professional has only improved with time.
Heinz was a war correspondent and later a sports columnist for The New York Sun. After the paper went under in 1950, he applied his reporting and writing talents to dozens of magazine articles and eight books. Run to Daylight!, which he co-wrote with Vince Lombardi in 1963, is one of the best portraits of the Packers in their glory years. Later, he teamed up with Dr. H. Richard Hornberger (a.k.a. Hawkeye) in the writing of the novel M*A*S*H. Both books sold better than The Professional—M*A*S*H even became a national institution—but Heinz's first novel has always remained his personal favorite, as well as that of many fight aficionados.
Set in the seedy tank-town and club-fight era when television was just getting its hooks into the sport, it captures the essence of a world that today seems primeval. Neither butterflies, nor bees nor the rope-a-dope have yet evolved. It's a time when a self-respecting boxing writer wouldn't dream of jogging alongside a fighter during roadwork sessions, but instead would stay back in camp, dueling his peers with wit and "the épée of alcoholic weapons," the dry martini. Cars still had turnable trunk handles, and contracts and autographs were signed with fountain pens. After a workout fighters relaxed not with a line of coke or even a Wide World of Sports fix, but by lying quietly in their rooms, waiting for the radio to "warm up" and then listening to soothing music—Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.
Like much good realistic fiction, The Professional is a roman a clef of sorts, and part of the reader's reward lies in unmasking identities. The protagonist, a middleweight named Eddie Brown, derives his personality from a tough '50s welterweight named Billy Graham, but his ring style is closer to those of two other fighters, Billy Petrolle and Harry (Kid) Matthews. The man he's about to meet for the title in Madison Square Garden (the previous Garden, now a parking lot) is known only as "the other guy" or "the champion." From his style he seems to be Sugar Ray Robinson.
But the novel's star turn belongs to Doc Carroll, Brown's manager, a reedy, dyspeptic old misanthrope with wire-rimmed specs, a pathological hatred of marriage and a miraculous touch for bringing a fighter to his peak at just the right moment. Doc can only be Jack Hurley (1897-1972), of whom Damon Runyon wrote, "There are two honest managers in boxing. The one is Jack Hurley, and I can't remember the name of the other." Hurley began boxing in his hometown of Fargo, N.D. when he was 15, but soon learned he could make more money managing half a dozen other kids and taking a cut of their purses. He was a manager to the day he died. His greatest fighter was one of his first—the lightweight Billy Petrolle, nicknamed The Fargo Express, who fought from 1924 to '34.
To the canvas cognoscenti, Petrolle's first fight with Jimmy McLarnin ranks with such mythic matchups as Zale-Graziano and Dempsey-Tunney. But Petrolle, in 157 fights, of which he lost only 20, never won a crown. Hurley didn't want the title. He knew that if his boy ever were champion, the ring "politicians" would take charge of his career, leaving Doc/Jack out in the cold. As Doc once said, "As soon as you try for a title the [boxing] commission wants to manage your fighter. Why do you think I never let one of my guys go for a title before? I've been bringing fighters in at their best weight for over forty years. When I bring a fighter in on the day of a fight all he has to do is spit once and step on that scale and he makes exactly what I wanted him to make the day we signed for the fight."
Eddie Brown is level-headed and well-spoken, a quick study who is always obedient to Doc's every strategic suggestion. He is—as A.J. Liebling wrote of his real-life prototype, Graham—"as good as a fighter can be without being a hell of a fighter." In short, the consummate professional, but lacking that final, imperative spark that will ignite his work into art. Brown is surrounded in camp—itself lovingly modeled on the old Long Pond Inn on Greenwood Lake in the Hudson Valley—by a galaxy of old-time boxing types.
There's Barnum, a superb manager who brings his black fighters up to the takeoff point in ring savvy only to see them snatched away by white managers, yet who remains philosophical. And Johnny Jay, a wiry, armor-bellied ancient with a flattened nose and cauliflower ear and a fund of fight lore that extends back to Ad Wolgast or maybe even Battling Nelson. Jay reincarnates some of the qualities of the late Charlie Goldman, who trained Rocky Marciano. Paul Schaeffer, a lazy heavyweight who'd rather eat than run, is reminiscent of Roland La Starza or Vinny Cidone.
The Memphis Kid of the novel is an original, a classy but aging black middleweight who "can imitate any well-known fighter of the last fifteen years." He entertains his fellow camp mates with tales of his adventures as a journeyman club fighter in Australia, where he shipped on a tramp steamer just for the hell of it.
Though the climax of the book—the fight itself—lasts only a minute and 48 seconds, every page is a boxing lesson, if not in footwork and moves, then in the mental métier of the fight game.
Hemingway told George Plimpton, who wrote the introduction to this edition of The Professional, that for all its excellence he could not reread the book. Plimpton disagrees, and so do I. It has the sting of wintergreen and alum, the redolence of rubbing alcohol after a sharp workout with the sweat finally running free, the smooth bite of hot tea with lemon as a fighter cools out in the fetid locker room after 10 fast rounds. It's as dead honest as anything Papa ever wrote at his best.