Below the belt, gloves off, beat the count, spoiler, people's champion, take a dive, square up: journalists, just as much as hectoring politicians, rely heavily upon the language of the ring for their rhetoric.
For his 22nd book - his previous output includes comic novels, collected essays and non-fiction covering boxing to business - the property multimillionaire Bob Jones has produced Fighting Talk, an unusual etymological study which traces how boxing parlance has pervaded everyday language.
The idea, Jones says, was fomented when he bought a bound collection of three decades of Time magazine (dating from the 1930s to 1960s) at auction and began noticing how often their writers resorted to boxing terminology. Then he began keeping notes during his daily newspaper reading.
Some of his collected phrases are obvious; some a surprise - such as the slogan "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" (attributed to Timaru's world heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimons in 1897), the origins of "The Real McCoy" (a homage to American fighter Kid McCoy) and even the British Parliament's clock, Big Ben (named for Victorian bare-knuckle champion Ben Caunt) - but Jones is sure of his research on all. "I have tried to be very thorough . . . I have really checked and cross-checked and researched; doubtless someone from the Dominion (Post) will go out to try and find something to criticise," he says.
For each term, Jones offers some boxing background, then a string of source references from newspaper articles and political speech to demonstrate its regular use (raising the odd question about the quality of our journalism as he catches almost everyone at it, from celebrated historian Niall Ferguson to this very news organisation), set to a sardonic background commentary.
"I've tried to make it colourful throughout, with my usual attacks on religion; if I was writing a book on raising chickens I would still do that," he says.
Jones makes a persuasive case that boxing language is now everywhere: He mentions, as an example, a British Conservative Party election campaign where it used two red boxing gloves and the boxing phrase "Double Whammy" to attack rivals Labour. In fact, the Fourth Estate's best excuse may be that our pollies are much worse at wheeling out ring talk.
But it's still a rather unusual idea for a book - if anything, Fighting Talk's nearest parallel is that small tide of sporting compendia that emerged a few years ago, inspired by Ben Schott's collection of ephemera, Schott's Miscellany. But Fighting Talk is a touch longer than those slim volumes, perhaps too long in providing diligent sourcing (possibly to head off those Dominion Post critics), and I would perhaps have preferred a few more of Jones' stories.
For he has plenty from his lifelong association with boxing: I particularly liked the one where Jones recounts sitting ringside as some hopeless challenger hurled himself to the deck despite the champion's punch missing his chin. With the disgusted referee shouting for him to get up, the boxer said: "I can't, I'm unconscious, count me out." Jones laughs, won't tell me who the fighter was, but says he was sitting alongside the author Alan Duff when it happened.
That Jones is at his best when regaling the reader with tales of the past isn't a surprise. His love of the sport remains unshaken, but he is dismayed at what he calls the "sheer vulgarity" of modern-day boxing promotion, with its myriad discredited world titles.
"I loved it, and I have never lost interest in it, but I stay very detached from it all now," he says. He won't even watch the forthcoming fight between David Tua and Alexander Ustinov - billed as the biggest-ever in New Zealand - because Tua should be long retired and is risking his long-term health. Instead, he'd rather talk about boxers such as the great British 60s heavy Henry Cooper (a photo of Jones and Cooper from 1968 has, he says, pride of place in his billiard room).
Jones dates his love of boxing to about 1952, and specifically to the boxing media - the Boxing News his mother bought him and the secretly imported copies of the American Ring magazine lent by his best friend. Boxing became a "thread through my life", a passion cemented when he first stepped into the boxing gym where he says trainer Tommy Dunn became a surrogate father figure, with his own dad working seven days a week as a welder. "Cliche though it may be, it is character forming: you can't put up a tantrum, you can't walk off or throw your racket away. I just loved every bit of it."
Even now, he says, he struggles to explain precisely the appeal. Just back from a week's trout fishing holiday in Taupo with his first wife and his eldest son Chris, he compares the "slight pangs of guilt' between the two pursuits, although he says he never liked the real brawls. He sat alongside Norman Mailer at the celebrated Thrilla in Manila, and "found it deeply distasteful as they sat there and smashed each other".
But, says Jones, in the end, boxing is a "culture that just grips people" - offering up as an example the Australian Liberal leader Tony Abbott, "a most unattractive man", who took up boxing at Cambridge, and "now uses boxing terms throughout his speech".
But Fighting Talk, he reckons, isn't really a book about boxing - and he gleefully describes a "three-month standoff" with his publisher after the original proofs included the liberal use of portraits of good-looking boxers. It will be no surprise to learn there is a barely an illustration in the finished volume.
Fighting Talk: Boxing and the Modern Lexicon by Bob Jones, Random House, out now, $29.99.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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