1. The Professional by W.C. Heinz - Published in 1958, The Professional is an iconic work of pugilistic fiction. Boxer Eddie Brown is on a quest for the middleweight championship with crusty trainer Doc Carroll by his side. He has a wife and son, but as he pursues the belt his focus is laser sharp, enduring the sleazy characters who fill the fight game, cynical journalists, and other distractions. Heinz was a sportswriter, so this novel has the lean, stripped-down feeling of the journalism of the era. His sentences hit as hard as his hero in this fast-paced classic.
2. Fighting Ruben Wolfe by Markus Zusak - Here’s the bad news. This book is technically YA, which means you have to go over to the Twilight section to get it. But just like Zusak’s more famous novel, The Book Thief, this book doesn’t carry any of the more annoying hallmarks of its genre. Zusak is an Australian who grew up boxing, and the book follows a financially struggling working class Aussie family. The two teenage sons, narrator Cameron and Ruben, get into a fight at school after someone calls their sister a slut. From there they get pulled into an underground fighting ring. The two brothers evolve in opposite directions, with Ruben becoming an increasingly scary individual. Eventually, they meet in the ring to settle their differences.
3. All the Battles by Maan Abu Taleb - Translated into English three years ago, this novel grapples with issues of identity and personal evolution, as the hero, Saed, enters the world of boxing. An office worker, he finds himself mocked for his high class manners and is humiliated in the ring, but one year on and Saed’s dedication to the sweet science finds him on the cusp of truly changing his life. Is he too old to become someone else entirely? Or will Saed allow his passion for boxing to transform him? In its review of the book, Boxing News said, “Detailed in lean, direct and muscular prose and includes some surprisingly profound musings on boxing, what it means to be a boxer, what it means to watch boxing—that creep up on you as the drama unfolds.”
4. Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner by F.X. Toole - F.X. Toole is the pen name of Jerry Boyd, who spent his life in the boxing world—and as a con man. This collection of short stories was published in 2000 when the writer was 70 years old. He died two years later, never seeing his work adapted into the Oscar-winning film Million Dollar Baby (2004). As author Markus Zusak told The Guardian, “You can almost inhale the smelling salts in these short stories...serves as a perfect reminder to any writer to follow the write-what-you-know rule; you read one page and you know he’s been there.”
5. People don’t wind up becoming writers because their lives were easy, and so it is with Thom Jones, whose father, a boxer, was committed to a mental institution before his death by suicide. After he graduated from college, Jones worked as a janitor, devoting his free time to his writing. He suffered from diabetes and epilepsy, but never gave up on his dream. At age 46, his short story, “The Pugilist at Rest” was published by The New Yorker. The story went on to win the O. Henry Award, and his first collection of short stories was published two years later. Jones went on to be published many times over and also worked as a screenwriter. He died in 2016 at age 71. You can read “The Pugilist at Rest” here on Lit Hub.