Novelist/poet/short story writer/essayist/raconteur Robert Flanagan provides us with his list of the Top 5 Boxing Short Stories of All Time:
1. “The Croxley Master,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Why is this story always included in collections of best boxing fiction? Not because its author created Sherlock Holmes but because it is one of the best. Surgery assistant Montgomery needs one more university course to give him his medical license but no one will loan him the money. A dust-up with a boorish pug whom Montgomery, a gentleman amateur, flattens, leads him to enter a big money fight. His opponent is Silas Craggs, the dreaded Croxley Master, in a 20 round bout fought with 2 oz gloves, Queensbury rules.
2. “The Battle Royal,” Ralph Ellison: This is prizefighting in its most brutal, elemental form. Blindfolded black boys fight to the last man standing for a prize given by dominant whites and those left standing are thrown coins they scrabble to pick up. Published separately as a story, “The Battle Royal” became the first chapter of Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.
3. “Fifty Grand,” Ernest Hemingway: A man’s world, boxing, and in this tale manly men, Irish, Jewish and Black, fill it to the brim. Fighter Jack Brennan is stoic, the dialogue is laconic, the thinking cynical. The boredom of training camp, the manipulations of managers, the insatiable hunger for money all are here, along with a doubled double-cross killer ending.
4. “He Swung and He Missed,” Nelson Algren: Included in his great collection The Neon Wilderness, this story of character and heart captures the world of the urban downtrodden hoping for one lucky break. Young Rocco may be a loser but he’s never a quitter and his heart-felt line to his wife, “You got good odds, honey,” is a winner.
5. “The Mexican” & “Steak,” Jack London: The author of The Call of the Wild was a fierce boxing fan, writing about it in newspaper features (such as his racist attacks on Jack Johnson) and in his fiction. “The Mexican” is Felipe Rivera, a young man so committed to buying rifles for the Mexican revolution that he fights as the underdog in a “winner take all” bout. In “Steak” Tom King was once a comer. Now, stripped of promise, he fights because that’s all he knows how to do. It’s no longer a dream but just a business. When he was young King beat aging pugs; now it’s his turn to be beaten by up-and-comers.
Honorable Mention: “His Brother’s Keeper,” Dashiell Hammett; “Champion,” Ring Lardner.