Todd Snyder: ‘I Always Liked That Analogy The Truth Machine Because You Can’t Really Fake It’
By Chris Akers
In Part Two of this interview, Todd Snyder talks about the fear and confidence of boxers, how he went from being a fight fan to an English professor, the values boxing instils and what attracts people to the sport.
Returning to 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym, one boxer that stands out goes by the name of Dustin Wood. Not a well-known boxer sure, but someone who epitomises the valour and courage it takes to get into the ring.
Wood is described in the book as wearing his fear ‘like a hooded boxing robe.’ Then there is Cus D’Amato’s famous quote about feeding the spark of a boy that shows interest in the sport and it becomes a flame.
Feed that and it becomes a fire. Feed it further and it is a roaring blaze. It is essential to control that fear and using it as a positive is advantageous. Can the ability to turn fear into fighting fuel be taught or is it innate? Is there such a thing as a fighter that is devoid of fear?
“I don’t think any human being is devoid of fear,’ says Snyder. ‘Now there are levels of confidence. But my father was very much…. you see watching him train fighters and I’ve worked corners with him when I got older. I never realised how much trainers were psychologists.
“He didn’t treat all the fighters all the same. You cannot treat fighters the same. People tick differently. The reason I loved writing about Dustin Wood is that his fear was not ‘Is the guy I’m going to fight tough?’ His fear was ‘I hope I get to fight,’ because that was the one part of Dustin’s life where he could be proud of himself and he could avenge all the things he didn’t like about his own life in the ring. He had control. He was safe in the ring. I loved his courage. If you were going to beat Dustin Wood, you better pack a lunch, because it weren’t going to be fun.
“You weren’t going to enjoy it. I admired him so much for the way he fought. His record was just above 500. He wasn’t the most skilled fighter, but he was the bravest fighter. It was watching my dad train him that I realised, we all carry the fear and deal with it in different ways. Some kinds of fear will shut you down. But Dustin was the type of kid who could do precisely what you were saying.
“That Cus D’Amato analogy of turning the fear into fire and boy, he was flaming in the ring. It was 100 punches a minute,” he laughs.
“It makes me smile hearing his name, as he was definitely the fighter who I admired the most and he wasn’t nearly our best fighter. I just loved how courageous he was.”
One of the reasons I like boxing is that it is the one sport where, more than any other, you bare your soul. There is literally no hiding place. You find out a lot about yourself, whether you will carry one or go through the pain.
“My dad used to call the ring the Truth Machine. When the bell rings, there’s no more faking it. The truth will show itself. We had a kid one time who had won a couple of fights. He had very easy opponents. He built up a record that looked very impressive. But he hadn’t really been tested. The first time he got in there with a top fighter it was bad news. So you can be overconfident and be a little lucky in boxing too. But eventually, you’re going to have to show what you have under the hood. What kind of heart you have. I always liked that analogy The Truth Machine because you can’t really fake it. Over confidence will set you up for a big disappointment.”
Coming from a background of having an interest in the sport from a young age, Snyder is uniquely placed to appreciate the sport in a way others may not be able to.
“I’m an English professor, so a lot of my colleagues don’t come from the background I come from. They look at boxing as brutal, as a cruel and negative sport. They look at it in a very suspicious way. I can’t deny that it’s that do. It is dangerous, it is brutal. But for those of us who can see beneath the curtain, it’s one of the most beautiful sports. It’s one of the most honest, true sports in some ways. So I feel like I’m someone who’s able to see both sides of it and be in love with both sides and be able to accept it. I’ve seen what it’s done for some people’s lives. I’ve seen it turn people around like you wouldn’t believe in my dad’s gym.”
Just before conducting research for this interview, I came across an interview with former world title challenger Dave Boy Green. He talked about how boxing turned his life around and the confidence he got in boxing, plus his manager teaching him various things, helped him develop an eye for business. This is not surprising. Boxers are smart. Maybe not book smart, but they have an intelligence about them, in the way they describe things and their knowledge of the world.
“It’s interesting to me. I think boxers are some of the most down to Earth, hardworking people too. Most boxers have had to deal with some tough things in life. Usually it’s not kids, at least not in America, coming from high socio-economic backgrounds.
“It’s usually people who come from tough circumstances. And I think I do have a heart for the underdogs because I do come from a background like that. In boxing, I never made much out of it as far as making a profession out of it. But it did teach me a lot of good values. I got a lot of lessons and it helped my work ethic. I was able to get out of my position that I was born into through education. I was the first in my family to go to college. I don’t think I would have being the same kind of student, in regards to my work ethic and my determination, if I hadn’t come up through boxing.”
Though he didn’t make a profession out of it, he was trained by his dad when he was younger.
“I didn’t like it to be honest, as he was tougher on me than he was on the other guys,” he laughs. “My dad was a great trainer and he really knew how to motivate people. I think some trainers as I said are psychologists and motivators. He knew he had to be tough on me because in so many ways, I was an extension of him. I didn’t always like it, as he was very tough on me and I felt he was a little easier on some of the other guys. But me and my dad are best friends. We’re super close. So I’m glad we had those memories together. I don’t think I could write about boxing, at least about trainers, in the same way if I hadn’t have worked hundreds of corners with him. Because I knew that feeling of what it’s like in the locker room. I knew that feeling of how hectic a corner can be. So I do think that helped me a lot.”
So from growing up with a love of boxing, Snyder went from that to becoming an English professor. Writing was something that he always wanted to do.
“Originally I was going to be a high school teacher. So I went to college. I’m the first in my family to do that. My original goal was to get a bachelor’s degree, teach high school and help my dad with his gym. Once I got to college, I fell in love with it. I always wanted to be a writer. That was my dream ever since I was a kid.
“Once I got to college, I was an English major. I got to read all these great novels, plays and poetry and I fell in love with being a student. When it came time to graduate, I didn’t want to quit. So I went on to do my master’s degree, then got a teaching assistantship, which allows you to teach while at grad school. I got to teach a freshman English class.
“I fell in love with it and even assigned boxing literature to my classes and was able to integrate the things I love to the classroom. I found a part of myself that I didn’t know was there. So when it came time to finish up my master’s degree, I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to have control over the kind of classes I teach. I wanted a job that would allow me to be a writer, be around other writers and have colleagues that were doing the same thing.
“Probably one of the hardest decisions of my life was to apply to my PhD programme, as nobody where I’m from had ever done anything like that. My parents couldn’t give me advice and part of me was insecure, being a working-class kid growing up in a trailer park. I thought ‘Am I in over my head here?’ So it was a journey. But once I got to grad school and started working on my PhD, I fell in love with it. The work ethic that I learned coming up in my dad’s gym, that really helped me as it was not easy. I was in college 11 straight years. Four years undergrad, two years master’s degree and five years PhD.
“By the time I made it through all that, I knew I was ready to be a writer. I knew I was ready to write the kind of books that I wanted to read. I was still going home and helping my dad with the gym when I could. Boxing was still a part of my life. But grad school ended my training career!”
In a rural mining town, surrounded by manual labour, be it the labour of the miners or the boxers in the gym, there appears to be a contradiction between wanting to write and reading English and the physical nature of the environment Snyder grew up in. Yet it is an environment that he was able to navigate successfully.
“I grew up in a hard, masculine working- class family. My whole community worked in the coalmines. All the men worked tough manual labour jobs. Going to college wasn’t the most masculine thing. So I had to rethink what it is to be a man and what masculinity means to me.
“My dad was a coal miner and a boxing trainer. So I had this tough man dad. I was in class reading poetry, reading Shakespeare and it wasn’t the most macho thing to do! It taught me a lot about myself. That why I think I’m well rounded. I have different sides to my personality. Grad school was the best thing that ever happened to me. Saved my life in some ways.”
Masculinity and boxing is a theme that comes up, especially in relation to the paternalistic nature of the sport. Do boxers use the sport as a way of finding a father figure?
“Absolutely. I think there’s a masculine impulse that draws certain types of young men to the sport. It is this raw display of masculine strength and it’s a way for them to find their father figure. It’s a way for them to find their own masculine identity. So I do think there is this macho tough guy thing that draws certain people to it. I don’t think it’s that for everybody.
“Dustin Wood, who you have mentioned. He was a kid who was picked on in class, was bullied in the playground. He came to a boxing gym for different reasons, than the kid who wants to be this big bad tough guy. Dustin just wanted to defend himself. So I think they are different reasons why folks come to boxing.”
Part three will focus on why does boxing lends itself to art and language so well and the different layers of a boxer beyond the ring compared to athletes in other sports.