Todd Snyder: Boxing For A Lot Of Kids Is A Way Out. It’s Something Positive
By Chris Akers
This is the first of a five-part interview with Todd Snyder, a professor of writing at Siena College.
We covered topics such as boxing’s romance and dark side, why the sport is often depicted through art and literature, plus his latest book on Bundini Brown and the work in progress on boxing and hip hop.
In Part One, we discuss his book 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym, the lineage of some fighting families in the US, the contradictions of the sport and the openness and honesty of boxers.
Listening to Todd Snyder talk about boxing, his enthusiasm for the sport clearly comes across. He has a depth of knowledge that is not just centred on the techniques and styles of boxers, but also on what makes them tick. The harsh backgrounds they come from and the tough upbringings that the majority of them do and have experienced.
Take his book 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym. Coming across an interview Snyder did for the book for Fight City with Rafael Garcia, he states that the book is about underdogs, both in terms of the fighters trained by his dad and those fighters being underdogs when they go into the ring.
Also, the region the book is set in is an underdog, a working class, rural mining town. There seems to be this contest in the book between the romance (what we see) and the reality (the dark side) of boxing. Boxing seems to empathise this yin and yang more than any other sport.
“I think one of the reasons I’m in love with the sport of boxing is that, where I come from, is a very poor, very rural part of West Virginia, which is a coal mining section of the United States of America. So it’s a cyclical poverty. People who are born in the poverty and isolating geographically and isolating economically.
“So boxing for a lot of kids is a way out. It’s something positive. It gives then self-esteem, it gives them work ethic. It gives them something to hold onto in terms of hope. So in some ways I romanticise about boxing because the kids in my dad’s gym, a lot of them turned their life around. They came from families where their parents were on drugs or alcoholics. Boxing gave them a reason to live a clean life, a healthy life. So I watched my dad help a lot of kids turn their life around and live a more positive life because of boxing. In some ways I romanticise it because I’ve watched it help a lot of people in their daily lives. I don’t mean going on to become world champions. Become Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson.
“I’m saying get their life in order. Use boxing to turn their lives around so they can go on and go better things in life in other professions. Now with that been said, I’ve seen the dark side of boxing up close and personal as well. My dad used to tell kids that ‘It’s not ballet and if you’re good at another sport or there’s something else you can do; you should do that.’ Boxing‘s for the bottom of the barrel. These are the folks don’t have any other options. It’s for the least. It’s the hurt business. You do it long enough, you’re going to get hurt in some capacity. And I don’t ignore that either. And I don’t deny the fact that you can love it, you can be critical of it at the same time.”
Boxing more than most other sports empathises the contradictions we have as fans. We like the brutality of a fight on television, yet wince at seeing those same shots near the ring apron. Snyder highlights another contradiction here.
“My dad was a boxing trainer and I boxed when I was a kid. I have a son now who’s six years old. I don’t think I would let him box, as I know what it feels like and I know what can happen. My dad had a couple of kids in his gym who suffered some injuries to. And that’s a scary thing to see up close and personal.
“For me, boxing’s been my entire life. My whole life has been around boxing gyms, being around my dad at fight nights every Saturday. Low level boxing. These are the guys that are fighting on the undercards. These are the guys who, on the opening bout, there are 10 people in the audience. So I came up on that level of boxing. But at the same time, it was a bond between my father and I. It was a bond between my father and the community.
“So in some many ways, I feel like I am someone who can look at it though both lenses. I can look at it from the positives and I can also take a step back and realise that isn’t something you play. It’s not chess. It’s not baseball. It’s a dangerous thing to do. I think I can love it and be critical of it in the same breath.”
Boxing is full of characters. One thing you will find with them is that, not only are they the easiest to interview in terms of how forthright they can be, but regardless of what level they are at, they are willing to be interviewed. You couldn’t just go to a soccer player and ask if you’d like to be interviewed. Certain clubs would not likely allow it. But world boxing champions in this country would say ‘I’m willing to be interviewed.’ Boxers’ openness is one of its more attractive features.
“I’ve been interviewing boxers for a while now to and they’re the nicest people in the world. My dad used to say that when you go to a boxing gym, you typically don’t see a lot of bullies, because it’s hard to be a bully in a boxing gym. Usually you find someone you can’t beat, if you do it long enough. So I think there’s a humility in boxers. There’s a down to earthiness in boxers and there’s a realness from these guys. I’ve found them the easiest athletes to talk to as well.”
Snyder found this humility when researching for his biography of Bundini Brown, one of the main people in Muhammed Ali’s entourage, a character in his own right.
“When I was doing research for Bundini, I would talk to one boxer and he would say ‘Let me give you so and so’s number. He’s got a story I bet you would love.’ They were so open and so nice to connect me to other people who were close to Ali and Bundini, that I found it very easy to get into that world. If this was a book about an NBA player, it would be very hard to get to these folks. I one hundred percent agree.”
Going back to what his dad said, that ‘It’s not ballet and if you’re good at another sport or there’s something else you can do, you should do that.’ Is that still the case now, as it feels that those who are good at boxing that young, they have more options in sport. So in the United States, they can play American football or basketball. Especially in the heavyweight division, as until recently there wasn’t many top-class American heavyweights, as they wanted to play American football instead.
“You’re absolutely right. I think our best athletes in America do not box. They’re playing basketball and football. Our biggest and most athletic guys are in other sports because those sports are integrated in the public school system. You can play basketball for your grade school or high school.
“Most American schools don’t have boxing. Boxing gyms are usually in the poorest parts of the country and in the worst neighbourhoods. I interviewed Teddy Atlas a year ago and he said that all of his gyms are in the worst parts of New York, because that’s where they are supposed to be. Boxing is for those people. In my neighbourhood where I grew up. there was no youth centre. There was no place for kids to go after school, so it (the boxing gym) became an after-school hangout.
“A lot of the kids didn’t really compete. It was just a place to go and socialise that was positive, that got them away from the streets. So I do think in America, you’re not seeing our best athletes gravitate towards boxing period, let alone heavyweights. The big guys are playing NFL. That kind of stuff is what they’re trying to do. It shows up in professional boxing too. Deontay Wilder was a guy who wanted to be a football player. He wasn’t that great. So boxing was plan B or C.”
We then discuss Deontay Wilder, a guy who until recently was the first American heavyweight world champion for a while. Yet he didn’t seem to generate any interest until his last few fights.
In the 1970s and 1980s, if an American was the world heavyweight champion, they would be known everywhere.
“I think boxing in America still has a cult following underground. Whereas a lot of the young kids like the three big sports in America – MLB, NFL, NBA. A lot of the boxing viewing public are older folks like 30 and up. The kids don’t watch it. They watch MMA, they watched other stuff. So I think boxing has a lot of competition as far as gaining the interest in young people.
“Most of the great fighters from America were born into fight families like I was, where their dad boxed, where their uncle boxed. You think of Floyd Mayweather, never had a choice. His whole family boxed, so he was bred to be a fighter. Most of the good American fighters follow that kind of path, where they have boxing gloves in their crib so to speak.”
There are some families like that in the UK, such as Joe Calzaghe and his dad Enzo, and the Smith brothers. But nothing like the lineage of boxing families in the US.
“And you know, that’s one of the reasons, when I was writing the book about my father, boxing was sort of secondary. It was a book about fathers and sons. Fathers, they romanticise the idea of their sons. They want them to be better than they are. And sons mythologise their fathers.
“I think that happens a lot in boxing. You see a lot of father-son trainer combinations. You see a lot of American fighters follow a similar path. It was their father, their uncle, some male figure in the family, who introduced them to the sport. You see a lot of fathers trying to live their dream through their kid. That was not really the case for my dad. You do see that in America, where there’s a familial family connection to the sport. And that’s how a lot of young folks get into it at an early age.”
Part Two will be about the fear and confidence of boxers, how Todd went from fight fan to English professor, the values boxing instils and what attracts people to the sport.