Tuesday 11 June 2019

Review by Lee Wright of "Fighters, Losers" by Declan Ryan

In one of the most important scenes from 1976’s Rocky, Sylvester Stallone stands in the centre of the ring the night before his fight against Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. As he looks up at the giant poster of himself, wearing red shorts with a white stripe, the boxing promoter walks down the aisle of seats towards him:
'The poster’s wrong,' says Rocky. 
'What do you mean?' asks the promoter. 
'I’m going to be wearing white pants with a red strip.' 
The promoter looks up at the poster, smiles and takes a puff on his cigar.
'Doesn’t really matter, does it?'    

It sounds stupid to compare a gritty 70’s Hollywood drama with a newly published poetry pamphlet - Fighters, Losers, by Declan Ryan -  but both are about the same thing: boxing. In each you can feel the delicious anger of what it means to be both a fighter and a loser in the same breath.

Every punch Ryan throws in this spit bucket of poetry hits the reader square on the jaw. Written in a reportage style, he takes on some of the key fights in the history of boxing, such as the 1986 WBC Heavyweight title fight between champion Trevor Berbick and Mike Tyson. 

Ryan counts down Tyson’s age in years, months and days, like the minutes in a round. Tyson is said to be trying to punch Berbick’s nose bone into his brain. But the poem, 'The Young God of The Catskills I,' is not so much about Tyson as it is about the doomed Trevor Berbick: the boy from Port Antonio who became a world champion, who lost only eleven from his sixty-one professional fights, and who died at the hands of his twenty-year-old nephew, bludgeoned and left to die alone in a churchyard.  

This collection also concerns the fight of race. On a February night in Miami Beach, Sonny (The Big Bear) Liston fought underdog, Cassius (Muhammed Ali) Clay. With Malcolm X at ringside and the spectre of the Black Muslims on his shoulder, Clay danced around Liston, who is rumoured to have been drinking heavily the night before. Here, Ryan uses facts to beautifully capture the electricity of the time:

At the weigh-in, Clay’s pulse 
was 120 beats per minute. 
The doctor said ‘he’s scared to death.' 

And about Liston: 

One commentator’s written ‘Liston used to be a hoodlum; 
now he is our cop;
he is the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.'
Ryan does not pull any punches when examining racial and religious attitudes. There is even the echo of the late William Melvin Kelly about the language and something slightly absurdist about a man who hurts others for money while sporting a tattoo of Christ the Redeemer on his back. But the nine poems that make up Fighters, Losers are not only for those who follow the world of boxing. They are a combination of descriptive, moving and, at times, darkly humorous narratives of men whose only real strategy was to survive.      

About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

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