Unlike so many literary boxing aficionados, Carlo Rotella harbors no pretensions of manliness, nor does he cadge authenticity out of being in the presence of great fighters. Rather, in his latest book, Cut Time, he simply describes a series of fights in that classic A.J. Liebling, blow-by-blow style. Each chapter of Cut Time focuses on a fight, and in a more subtle way, a lesson. There are barroom scraps and tank town fights, career-changing title bouts and sweaty sparring matches in rustbelt gyms. No matter where they take place, however, fights always come back to the issue of craft, and how devotion to it--be it boxing or writing--centers the mind.
It's an appropriate theme given that Rotella's "day job" is teaching literature at Boston College. Thankfully, there's almost no trace of academe's convoluted prose in Cut Time. A music scholar as well as a teacher, Rotella brings a jazzy sense of swing to his book, the words sometimes ringing with a fistic syncopation:
When blood from a serious cut finds its way into the lights, everything seems to change: It's cut time. You can almost hear it, a droning almost-music that hangs in the smoke filled air of fight night, strumming the optic nerves and vibrating in the teeth, encouraging fighters to do urgent, sometimes desperate things....
As good as they are, such bouts of lyricism are rare in Cut Time. Only Michael Buffer can wax lyrical to you about a fight without distracting from the fight itself. Rotella knows this, so after each flight of fancy, he settles back into an economical, almost reportorial style (some of these pieces appeared in The Washington Post) allowing his subjects to claim the limelight.
And they, after all, are the most memorable characters here. Rotella introduces us to fighters in all stages of the game, from Kevin Kelley, the Flushing Flash, a man who loses a fight because he fell prey to the stardom of the quick knockout, to Larry Holmes, a still-formidable champ who plans to fight into his 50s.
Holmes is the spiritual center of this book. He fought defensively, with a workman-like flare. He had a life outside the sport, but when he was in the ring he was all focus. Cut Time brings readers thrillingly close to fighters' thrumming, self-consuming intensity. It's a surprise upon finishing the book that blood had not spackled our shirtfronts.