10 Questions for Glen Sharp, author of "Punching from the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer" (PART 1 of 2)
“I hope… you find me to be a pretty good storyteller, because I sure wasn’t much of a fighter.”
Most people in the boxing-book community already know who Glen Sharp is. He’s not a household name to general fans of the sport, but to the reader buried in a growing, unread stack of biographies, his memoir-confessional Punching From the Shadows (McFarland, 2018) stands out as a literary deconstruction of what drives a fighter to move forward and - more often than not - what impedes him. His conversational style and reckoning with what he concedes was a less-than-successful career reads as though he’s sitting across from you, answering important questions you knew you had but were not quite sure how to ask.
Glen and I communicated via email so I could ask him a little bit more about the cathartic experience of writing Punching, as well as how he regards this purgative process almost a year after the its publication.
Glen Sharp v. Mike Hutchinson, 1982
1: David Curcio: Punching from the Shadows reads as the journey of a reformed(?) “existential hero.” Among vast literary references, you discuss Robert B. Parker’s essay of that title, Camus’ nihilism, and the mortals and gods of Homer, writing that our stories “become a meditation on the would-be hero’s failure…” Your reflections on past decisions led you to writers like y Gasset and Herrigel, wherein one’s self emerges as the hero of their own story. (Aristotle said something like: you’d better be invested in your character from the first act, or no one - not even yourself - will care.) Your interest - your investment - in literature speaks to the capacity for self-reflection you express in the book. Was Punching a means of self-discovery that unfolded in the act of writing?
Glen Sharp: I was consciously inspired by three writers as I began this book: Pat Jordan, Norman Maclean and Richard Rodriguez.
I mention Jordan in the preface and how his A False Spring, chronicles his failed baseball career wherein he never advanced beyond the lower-level minor leagues. It gave me the idea to do something similar with my experience in boxing.
Maclean’s Young Men and Fire is a wonderful synthesis of technical writing (a treatise on fire science) with the deeply personal, lyrical writing he is best known for (i.e. A River Runs Through It). I wanted to explain boxing from a technical perspective for those who will never throw a punch (and have no interest in doing so), but could nevertheless appreciate the act as described in the more technically-focused passages.
Jordan’s book also provided my framework as I also strived to adhere to Maclean and Rodriguez’s introspective, probing philosophies. I found this to be the most difficult. Thank you for the compliment about my capacity for self-reflection, but I knew that without the introspection this story would not be worth reading. It wouldn’t have been worth writing, either.
Finally, Rodriguez - especially Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation - helped me realize that my relationship with my father was a major factor in my life in boxing. I gained a deeper understanding of our relationship during the writing process, and we became closer than we had ever been during the last few years of his life. Although he passed away before I began the book, the act of writing has brought me even closer to him.
Glen with his father, Pete.
I was assisted in the depth of my introspection by Louise Glück, who writes the most beautiful, unsparing poetry I have ever come across. With every poem of hers I read I have this image of an eagle hovering in the sky hunting its prey. For Glück, the introspection is the hunt, and she never looks away from what she finds. I forced myself to not look away, either.
The hunting metaphor is apt, I think, because I discovered y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting in the middle of writing Punching from the Shadows, and the effect his book had upon me was to allow for the arrangement of these at times disparate literary influences into a cohesive and harmonious whole. After reading Meditations on Quixote, I quickly realized that I drank the same Kool Aid as this guy had.
Writing the book took six years, and it was a struggle for me. I quit a half dozen times, packing my drafts and notes in a box in the garage and thinking that, while it was a good idea, I wasn’t the person for the job. But quitting the book was like stopping smoking is for so many people - I would eventually take up the habit again.
Finishing Punching from the Shadows was very cathartic. I am much more at peace with myself. For years I thought this was my little personal piece of pain, but with hindsight I can see how universal the story is. Most of us experience the urge to simultaneously recount, confess and - if we can - teach something.
Sharp and LaMont Santana, 1982
2: Curcio: You address bravery, cowardice, and the desire to test our mettle by confronting the death instinct- that Freudian vestige of our atavistic fight or flight response to danger - as inherent to our attraction to violence. While the appeal of fighting as a test of one’s own temperament and fears is both rational and evolutionary, you also concede that you were in the game to make money because you didn’t want to work. “Being poor doesn’t lead people into boxing,” you write, “but not being poor can lead them away” You weren’t poor. Have you ever taken flack from the endless spate of writers who insist that boxing is a poor man’s sport?
Sharp: I don’t know many writers, so I’ve never taken any flack for my views about who participates in boxing. Most people who hear me talk about boxing probably disregard what I say about it being an artistic medium no different than any other medium. And when I was young I was as confused as anyone else. It was not until I was well into adulthood, trying to become a writer, that I could better understand my attraction to boxing. Writing places the same emotional demands upon me as did fighting, which is why I committed myself to it. I am very fortunate to have found a second medium that accommodates the same drive. Making money from writing would be nice, but that is not why I do it. If I could have had that understanding about boxing forty years ago, my life would have been much easier. But then I probably would never have begun writing.
3: Curcio: It sounds like we both view the medium of boxing in a similar way, and I can’t imagine we’re alone in that. One reads descriptions by fighters and writers alike that - to a greater or lesser extent - can appreciate the art inherent to the sport. For the moment, let’s talk about your work with Bobo Olsen.
The boxing scene in Sacramento culminated in working under Bobo from ’79 to your second pro fight in ’82. But Bobo imposed his own late-career “shell” defense upon your nascent, developing style, and in doing so seemed to impede what you refer to as the “creative act.” In reading about visual artists (there’s that crossover of boxing with another medium again), I’ve seen their tendency to rebel against and finally reject their mentors. While this is not as frequent in boxing, you always ditched the shell when Bobo wasn’t around. Was his stubbornness disheartening, or were methods - antithetical to your natural strengths and weaknesses though they were - valuable in learning how not to fight?
Sharp: The answers to your compound question are yes and yes. Bobo’s stubborn demands that I adhere to the style he was teaching was very disheartening, but through that experience I learned so much about how boxers can be taught to fight in ways that are not optimal for them. I now see guys boxing in ways that are alien to their nature and realize that conflict is going to catch up with them someday. This question is worthy of a whole study in itself, David. I was not with Bobo long enough, nor had I developed enough as a boxer, to rebel against him as my mentor. I am sure that would have happened, though, if I had achieved any level of success with Bobo and me staying together longer.
With Bobo Olson
4: Curcio: Training with Yaqui López was a different experience altogether - one you describe as at once satisfying and humbling. It also meant training in two very different styles as you were still working with Bobo, while Yaqui was far more cognizant of your need to discover your own strengths, style, and art. Was working simultaneously in this way valuable, or do you believe it would have been better to find a trainer with whom, in a perfect world, you would work throughout your career?
Sharp: Two different approaches and teaching philosophies was beneficial in that I learned so much about boxing as well as teaching boxing. As I explain in the book, I eventually taught myself to box, but the earlier experience helped greatly. But it took years for me to sort through everything I had learned in those first few months. It was all too much for me to juggle with at the time. It’s a terrible way to teach: art by committee does not work well, especially when the members are at odds with one another. It would have been great to have met a trainer with whom I was compatible for the whole of a career. Danny Dagampant and Bennie Casing taught Yaqui. They worked together instead of in opposition. It might have been that Dagampant introduced Yaqui to boxing, and then Casing took over and refined the final product, but the single objective has to be the integral development of the boxer.
5: Curcio: And then there was your long-time manager Joe Rizzo. Reading about him reminded me of a line delivered by Bogart’s sportswriter in The Harder They Fall: “All you do is spot a strong kid, buy him a license for ten dollars, rent him a towel for a dime and throw him in the ring.” While Joe was a decent, honest guy, he really didn’t know anything about boxing. What was your experience working the lower cards with someone less interested in the sport itself than in acting as “the mastermind of the operation?”
Sharp: Joe was as you describe him – a decent, honest guy, but he didn’t know much about boxing and was unaware of how much he didn’t know. In truth, I was saved by Yaqui’s father-in-law and de-facto manager, Jack Cruz, who chose my opponents. I think Jack had hopes for me while he was effectively doing Joe’s job for him. My lack of success (with the one exception of the Hutchinson fight, in which I was starved) was not due to bad matchmaking. In hindsight (and having worked for the state government for thirty-five years), I can understand how the lack of communication and coordination led to confusion on everyone’s part. Back in Stockton, Jack, Hank and Yaqui didn’t know what I was going through in Sacramento to make weight, and Bobo had already checked out. Aspirations in boxing are similar to a sea turtle that lays hundreds of eggs on the beach. From all those eggs and for many reasons, only a few turtles will grow to adulthood. My story is one of how this turtle didn’t make it.
End of part one. Tune in next week for the second half of my interview with Glen Sharp