Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Joe Monninger (page 4)
 Talking with
Joe Monninger
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Tony was tightfisted; had a mean temper; had a reputation as a dirty fighter; went through managers like he was changing clothes and deliberately insulted his opponents. Louis (later) said he had “charisma.” Why do you like him?

He seems human to me. He seems entirely flawed and yet his pleasure in living redeems him for me. He also had a generous streak where he would give a thousand bucks to a relative stranger. I grew up in New Jersey and knew some fellows like Tony. The popularity of The Sopranos touches on the same thing. We don’t admire Tony Soprano, exactly, but we understand him as a human. Plus, his world is humorous. He takes big bites.

What was his sister-in-law Mildred’s candid opinion of Tony?

She said he was complicated, but somewhat brutal. I learned recently that Tony got a motorcycle early in his career, and when he brought it home, his father took a pipe to it and destroyed it. A brand new motorcycle. Tony came from somewhere; he didn’t drop out of the sky. Mildred thought his fights were exciting and one of the highlights of her life. But she had no delusions about Tony the man. He was rough and self centered. He was also sentimental and generous at times. She didn’t think Tony was particularly nice to her husband, Russell. And yet Tony also possessed a certain glamour. He gave hope to people who didn’t have much hope. He loved everyday men and women and didn’t place himself above the regular joes. Also, he often visited charities and contributed his time. So, like most of us, he had his demons and angels.

Are you a boxing fan?

No, not really. I loved Ali, like a million other middle aged guys. Ali and Galento remind me of each other. Both clowned. Both boasted and used ballyhoo to get them places they might not have gotten otherwise. Ali, naturally, had gifts far beyond Galento’s as a boxer, but both captured the same American audience. They were brazen and funny and maybe could back up their big mouths – or not. Ali, of course, became immortal in a way. Galento is a footnote in boxing history, but a funny one, and one that makes people smile when you mention him.
But boxing now. No, I’ll follow a big championship match, but I’m not a fan. Not in an everyday sort of way. It’s an awfully vicious way to make a living. And, of course, we only see the stars after their careers are over. We never see interviews of the boxers who lost more than they won. The stars fare badly enough; the second rung boxers are another story altogether.
All that said, boxing still holds a fascination for me and many others. Its drama, its ferocity, its clean brutality. I recently read A.J. Liebling’s boxing accounts from the New Yorker. They capture the humor, the pathos, the joy of the whole crazy world. It’s painful and funny and human. That’s’ why boxing still goes on and why we still watch it. If you think about it, the great boxing matches were great narratives. The reason we get excited by an Ali vs. Foreman fight, or a Tyson vs. Holyfield fight, is the narrative power behind them. Two stories, one for each fighter, braid together in the ring. But to watch a fighter you don’t know fight another fighter you don’t know . . . that’s like watching a football game late at night when you don’t know either team. You have no narrative to follow and it becomes far less interesting. As crazy as it sounds, wrestling has always understood the power of narrative. We want to see the Hulk fight someone else. We know it’s phony, but the narrative isn’t. So, that’s a long answer, but I am only interested in any sport when the narrative is compelling.

So you came to this subject matter because of the person?

That’s right. This really wasn’t a book on boxing, but a book on a man. Let’s face it, non-fiction authors are combing the internet and everywhere else for interesting stories. I know I keep my ear to the ground. Galento is an intriguing character, and the late 1930s are fascinating. But sports, sure, they provide a clear narrative. I used to read Chip Hilton, All-American novels. Chip would always win in the end. We don’t go to sports to be entertained, but to see people live out a moment in their lives. I still grieve for Bill Buckner . . . a great, great player, who will have to live in infamy — at least among Red Sox fans — for the remainder of his days. If it’s just a game, it shouldn’t hurt so much.

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