Thursday, July 07, 2005

the real million dollar baby

When F.X. Toole (a pen-name for the late LA cutman Jerry Boyd) burst on the scene with Rope Burns, he was perhaps the first quality write to capture the contemporary boxing world in the way writers like Bud Schulberg (The Harder They Fall/On the Waterfront), Leonard Gardner (Fat City) and WC Heinz (The Professional) had done for past eras. What few critics noted, however, was how closely his fiction was rooted in life. Any "member of the fancy" as Toole calls us, will know a good deal of the dirt he dishes in Rope Burns already. That doesn't make the book any less enjoyable. These are great stories, which is why Clint Eastwood was interested in a script drawn from Toole's story "Million Dollar Baby" and several bits from other pieces in the book.

So here's a weird quirk of fate. Hillary Swank's character in MDB was a transparent analogue of real-life women's boxing star Christy Martin, a tough young kayo specialist from West Virginia, predictably nicknamed "the Coal Miner's Daughter." Martin rose to the top of women's boxing as a kind of female Mike Tyson, knocking out all her dubious opponents. (n.b. I almost wrote "through the ranks," but women's boxing is even more unstructured than the men's game, so you can hardly say that anybody battles their way to the top. It's more like they're promoted their way to the top, while many superior boxers, who've won national Golden Gloves competitions and world amateur titles, can't earn a living.) But--get this--she was always ducking Lucia Rijker. Yep, Lucia is the woman who played Swank's evil nemesis in MDB. The true story, if you care to consider it, is that Lucia had much better boxing credentials than Martin and never got her shot.

That may be about to change, thanks to the movie, believe it or not. As David Avila writes in Maxboxing , promoter Bob Arum (best known for building Oscar de la Hoya's career) has realized that MDB created something new in the boxing game: A million dollar payday for women boxers. After Laila Ali wiped out Martin in a mismatch (Ali is a much larger woman, so this was a little like her dad Muhammad facing a tough little brawler like Jake LaMotta), the money fight for Martin is now Rijker, who despite a dull back story has become as close to a "name" as you get in women's boxing by appearing in MDB. Weird serendipity.

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