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Story pick: The boxer and the blonde

By Brigid Schulte

OK. I've got to write about boxing this week (see Monday's story pick.) So I keep looking to others for inspiration. Jabs. Hooks. Upper cuts. It's still all foreign to me.

But stories about people are universal. It was the tagline in Frank Deford's 1985 Sports Illustrated story, The Boxer And The Blonde, that caught my eye: "This is the story of Billy Conn, who won the girl he loved but lost the best fight ever."

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The story is, yes, about boxing, but it is about so much more - about Pittsburgh and street fighting and the immigrants who worked the steel mills, about America on the eve of war in the 1940s, and about a boy who loved a girl so much he didn't really care that he lost the world heavyweight title to Joe Louis in the 13th round one hot night in June, 1941.

Here's Deford's second paragraph, so rich and juicy that, even though you already know the guy lost the fight, you're dying to know who he is, how he got there, why this was such a big fight, how he met this blonde and how his father-in-law stymied his second shot at the title.

The boxer is going on 67, except in The Ring record book, where he is going on 68. But he has all his marbles; and he has his looks (except for the fighter's mashed nose); and he has the blonde; and they have the same house, the one with the club cellar, that they bought in the summer of 1941. A great deal of this is about that bright ripe summer, the last one before the forlorn simplicity of a Depression was buried in the thick-braided rubble of blood and Spam. What a fight the boxer had that June! It might have been the best in the history of the ring. Certainly, it was the most dramatic, alltime, any way you look at it. The boxer lost, though. Probably he would have won, except for the blonde—whom he loved so much, and wanted so much to make proud of him. And later, it was the blonde's old man, the boxer's father-in-law (if you can believe this), who cost him a rematch for the heavyweight championship of the world. Those were some kind of times.

It's a just a great story and Deford is an utterly captivating storyteller. (The last paragraph, the last line, left me, literally, breathless.) This is about as good as it gets.

By Brigid Schulte  | September 22, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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