Tuesday 9 December 2014

Stephen King’s ‘11/22/63’: A Cogitation on Dick Tiger, Boxing and President Kennedy

The genius of Stephen King’s engaging dramas of popular literature has consistently involved the author’s adeptness at creating a narrative full of complex backgrounds that are inhabited by characters possessing the ineluctable quality of drawing upon the reservoir of empathetic responses from his readers.

These fictional characters often represent credible composites of the spectrum of the human psychological condition: from the characterisations of supernaturally directed protagonists to the ordinary ones, they have proved memorable because of the realism with which they are imbued.

The challenge for King in ‘11/22/63’ was to realistically portray historical figures in his foray into the genre of historical fiction. However, the international bestselling novelist left many of his fans who are boxing followers rather peeved at his representation of Dick Tiger in the book which was published back in November 2011.

It is the story of a man named Jake Epping, a high school teacher from Maine, who is transported back in time in order to try to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

He’s actually transported to 1958 and has to live for five more years in order to achieve his task. So Epping sustains himself by placing bets on major sporting events - the final one of which involves Tiger, and which he watches via close circuit television at the Dallas Civic Auditorium.

Thus, Tiger enters the story in August of 1963 when he suffers an upset fifth round defeat to an ‘older’ fictional journeyman Texan named Tom ‘The Hammer’ Case at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

The scenario is implausible; even shocking for historically-minded boxing fans. And while King’s storytelling style has not required him to be a stickler for detailed facts in the mould of an Arthur Hailey or James Michener, the decision to portray Tiger in these circumstances does not seemingly tally with that of a writer whose research for this novel encompassed “a six-foot high stack of books.”

Whereas King presents Tiger as a rising title contender, Tiger was in fact at the time the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. In August of 1963, he had successfully defended the crown he had won from Gene Fullmer the previous year against Fullmer in the Nigerian city of Ibadan in what had been Black Africa’s first staged world title bout – fully eleven years before the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Tiger did lose a fight in 1963. His defeat in December of that year at the Atlantic City Convention Hall came against Joey Giardello.

But Giardello was a ‘real’ enough boxer; a talented box-puncher who had been a perennial contender for the world middleweight title which some observers felt had been denied him in a foul-filled contest against Fullmer in 1960.

Tiger did not lose by knockout to over-the-hill challengers in the early 1960s, or, come to think of it, in the latter part of his career when his sole knockout loss came by way of the incendiary fists of the legendary Bob Foster.

In 1968, Tiger was an ageing world light heavyweight champion who gave away a great deal of height, weight and reach to the almost decade younger Foster who at the time was already being acknowledged as an all-time division great.

‘Tom Case’s' defeat of Dick Tiger is puzzling.

Tiger was extremely durable. He had a formidable ‘chin’; boxing parlance for a pugilist apt at absorbing punches that would knockout or at least knockdown conventional foes. How else would he have survived two knockdowns against the paralyzing shots he had to absorb from the hard-hitting light heavyweight contender, Frankie DePaula?

How could he successfully neutralise many of a generation of the middleweight division’s all-time finest who included the powerful punchers: Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, Jose ‘Monon’ Gonzalez and Henry Hank?

And it wasn’t as if he designed a style which involved absorbing a lot of punches as was the approach of Joe Frazier. Tiger aptly evaded punches by a deft combination of head movement and footwork. His noble countenance captured in the aftermath of his retirement; bereft of lumps or scars, testified to this.

Interestingly enough given King’s book’s portrayal of the outcome of Tiger’s fictional bout as having some bearing on the protagonist’s objective in regard to Kennedy, it is worth noting that the late president did have some awareness of Dick Tiger’s career.   

In a satellite telephone conversation with the Nigerian Prime Minister Abubaker Tafawa Balewa in August of 1963, Kennedy had light-heartedly interjected that “we look forward to having Dick Tiger come over here”

Perhaps he had been briefed beforehand by a member of staff to mention Tiger’s name as part of a charm offensive in a brief conversation with another world leader. But then again JFK had some credentials as a bona fide boxing fan.

He had watched heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson defend his title against Tom McNeely by close circuit feed at the White House in December of 1961. One month after the bout, he met Patterson at the White House in between his Oval Office meetings with the ambassadors from Ireland and China. Patterson had found Kennedy’s knowledge of boxing to be a “pleasant revelation”.

The president had also taken the trouble to respond to Joey Giardello’s invitation to watch his challenge to Dick Tiger’s crown in December of 1963. Kennedy responded that his busy schedule would not allow for that.

Giardello received the reply the day after the president’s assassination.

In his heyday Tiger’s accomplishments as a pugilist were of such substance that his name was on the lips of political leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah as well as on the Honours List of Queen Elizabeth of Britain.

He lent his great name and the weight of his reputation to the cause of Biafran separation.

But it was in the last halcyon era of boxing at Madison Square Garden; the Mecca of the sport where the fans worshipped this granite hewn, down-to-earth and humble practitioner of the manly art plying his trade on the squared ring canvas below the brilliant glare of klieg lights that Tiger’s name was most assuredly spoken and his craft adoringly appreciated.

They had seen him lose; invariably on points to fleet-footed practitioners who could contrive to evade his great strength, but the thought to them of an over-the-hill journeyman knocking out one of the most resilient fighters in middleweight history would have been almost beyond the limits of their collective imagination.

But then again King’s novel is about ‘alternative history’. It is fiction.

It is pure fantasy.

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal..

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