By Thomas Gerbasi
There’s no way of proving this, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in suggesting that Willy Vlautin wasn’t just the biggest Colin Jones fan in Reno, but the only one.
Seriously, who but the most diehard of stateside fight fans even knew of the gritty Welshman who brought a 24-1 record into a welterweight title fight with unbeaten Milton McCrory in 1983?
The teenage Vlautin did, though, and he was immediately taken in by the back story of the 1976 Olympian who shocked many by taking Kronk’s McCrory to a draw in their first bout, one many believed Jones won.
“I was fifteen and there were a lot of articles on the fight,” Vlautin said. “I remember reading how Colin Jones ran five miles to work, dug graves by hand all day, and then ran five miles home and did his workout. I was a sad sack kid who just daydreamed and listened to records. When I read that about him I cut out his picture and put it on my wall. I wanted that discipline. I wanted to be a guy like that. Sadly I never saw the fight but I’ll never forget when that fight, the biggest fight in years, came to Reno.”
Jones would drop a razor-close split decision to McCrory in their rematch five months after the first bout, and he would retire after a loss to Donald Curry in 1985. Vlautin would go on to become a critically acclaimed author as well as the frontman for the band Richmond Fontaine and a member of The Delines. And the boxing bug never left him.
“I’ve always been drawn to the discipline of it,” he said. “The work the boxers put in, their effort. The artistry, the courage. And also the cost. I’ve always been interested in the cost of boxing on the boxer’s mind and body.”
That reality is why boxing is the grittiest and most authentic sport out there, and it’s no surprise that with Vlautin’s novels focusing on the essence of the true American experience far removed from the glitz and glamour some gravitate to in their reading and writing in order to escape the everyday struggle, he was going to eventually focus on the sweet science in his own work.
“I’d always wanted to write one about boxing,” he said. “I’ve followed the sport on and off since I was a kid and have always read about it. I always wanted to write one about an average boxer. Not a champion or a near champion but just a kid that boxed.”
Enter Horace Hopper, the half-Paiute, half-Irish protagonist of Vlautin’s latest, Don’t Skip Out on Me. It’s not the story of a boxing phenom or a world champion, or a rags to riches tale with a Hollywood ending. It’s a real story of a kid with a dream, one that doesn’t play out the way he expected it to. And that’s the reality of boxing. For every world champion, there are a hundred kids who live on the “B” side for their entire career. For every millionaire making 95 percent of the money, there’s a host of struggling fighters battling over that remaining five percent. It’s a microcosm of life, and Vlautin has always been a champion of the underdog just trying to get through the week until the next paycheck, or in the case of Horace Hopper, the boxer living on the other side, far removed from the bright lights in Las Vegas’ biggest arenas.
“I’ve always been interested in the other side because most of us are on the other side,” Vlautin said. “Regardless of what sport or what job. It’s always uglier the closer you are to the ground. I was interested in that with my novel Lean on Pete. I was a handicapper for maybe 15 years at Portland Meadows, but I had two major faults. I fell in love with horses and I worried about jockeys. So I began to study racing not as a gambler but as a business. I began looking at it from the eyes of the horse and jockey at low level tracks. And it’s rough. Low level and average speed horses end up at bad tracks where they are run too often. Beat up and broke jockeys risking their lives on unsafe horses. It’s not that way at Santa Anita or the Kentucky tracks. But those are the best tracks and the best are always treated differently. Why and when (Canelo) Alvarez fights is a thousand miles away from why a journeyman fights.
“I always think it’s important to see how the working class live, how average athletes and musicians live because the majority of us live like that,” he continues. “The majority of us aren’t treated as good as a Santa Anita Racehorse.”
Vlautin’s work as a handicapper made Lean on Pete as authentic as it could be. It’s the same story with Don’t Skip Out on Me, even though Vlautin’s relationship to the sport is as a fan, albeit a well-read one who always focused on the hard luck cases and the unsung heroes of the game. And that authenticity is evident in his recounting of Hopper’s dealings with the folks on the outside of the ropes, the trainers and managers who don’t always have their fighter’s best interests in mind. And when you read the book and see names like Joe Hipp and Ernie Lopez, it’s clear that Vlautin knows his stuff.
“I’ve always read about boxers and during the book I studied the history of Native American boxers,” he said. “In general I’ve subscribed to The Ring magazine for over twenty years. In a lot of issues they’d have the life history of some old boxer. The majority of the stories were tragic, and I was always drawn to the tragedy of boxing. The discipline but also the tragedy. So I knew some about Joe Hipp, I read the biography of Marvin Camel, and I read about the Lopez brothers, Danny and Ernie. Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez really got me. He fought Jose Napoles twice for the WBA and WBC welterweight championship. He lost the first and the second he was knocked out. I have the press photo of Jose Napoles holding Ernie in his arms. Napoles still has his gloves on. He’s whispering to him, “Please don’t die, please don’t die.” Ernie lost three more times and eventually became a drifter, a hobo. They say one of his daughters tracked him down through a private investigator 30 years later to let him know he was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame. When he heard the news the first thing he said was, ‘But I lost that fight.’ There’s such a mental cost to boxing. So many leave the sport with nothing but a rattled brain.”
It’s the dilemma so many of us face. We love the sport but hate what that sport can do to those who participate in it. Yet we still watch.
“I don’t see a lot of live fights because there aren’t many at all in the Northwest,” said Vlautin, who now makes his home in Oregon. “For years I followed Golden Gloves, but it dried up in Portland. I went to the Arizona Golden Gloves championships for this book, and I’ve gone to the national tournaments a couple times. But now I don’t have TV. I’m a TV junkie so I had to quit. So I follow the fights online. Like Sor Rungvisai vs. Estrada a couple days ago. I followed that by reading Dan Rafael’s round by round takes.”
That’s almost as diehard as being the only Colin Jones fan in Reno, and Vlautin would likely plead guilty as charged. And that’s because for all the negatives that can surround the sport, there is still the beauty of the fight, the courage of the competitors, and the idea that, yeah, sometimes a fighter can catch lightning in a bottle, escape a bad situation and make a path where there were only dead ends before.
“Everyone has dreams,” Vlautin said. “How many decent bands are there in every town? Every single town in the world has good musicians. Maybe only a few are great. We all have to make our way towards our dreams even if we’ll never be great. We can’t all be Erik Morales; most of us are just like Horace. A journeyman. But it’s important for all of us try hard. Boxing can really help a certain type of kid. It doesn’t matter really if they’re good or not. The discipline of it can really help. The problem with Horace is he is a wounded person. He’s dented and it’s hard to get by when you’re a kid with a lot of dents and scars on you.”
So why do we still watch? And why do we stay? Is it the moments of light mentioned above, or something deeper than that? Vlautin is intrigued by it all, and after all these years, that hasn’t waned.
“There’s a primal thing to it that I think is hard to deny,” he said. “Some people get it and some don’t. I’ve taken hard-ass tough guys I know to boxing and it sickens them and I’ve taken pretty uptight women to boxing and they’ve loved it. Man, oh man, do I think that’s interesting. For me I love the artistry of it. “The cost of it, the discipline of it. It can be magic watching a good fight, but of course there’s such a cost to it.
“The other aspect I find interesting are the fans,” Vlautin continues. “I once stood next to a couple guys at a Golden Gloves fight at a police gym. We were at the bar and these two guys, big overweight men in their 40s who’d probably have heart attacks just climbing into the ring, were yelling at one of the kids fighting. The kid was getting beat and they were calling him horrible things. Here’s this kid who’s trained, who’s sacrificed, who has the guts to try and they are belittling him in awful ways. That’s also part of the fights. The boxers are a side of human nature and the fans are another side. Those two guys were so rough and depressing but they were real. I’m interested in that as well. Boxing is a lot like human nature, in general, both beautiful and ugly, artistry and destruction.”