The Professional is the story of Eddie Brown and his manager and trainer Doc Carroll in the month leading up to Eddie’s fight for the middleweight championship. It is about boxing – boxing is not a metaphor for other human endeavors or for life itself. W.C. Heinz was one of the great sportswriters of the 20th century, one who loved boxing and boxers and wrote about them well. (His co-edited collection The Total Sports Illustrated Book of Boxing is required reading for anyone who loves to read about the sport.) Nonetheless, it is not just about boxing: it is about professionalism and the integrity and authenticity achieved through dedication to a craft.
Elmore Leonard writes the foreword to the reprint edition and Ernest Hemingway graces the cover: “The Professional is the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read and an excellent novel in its own right.” Heinz shared Hemingway’s gift for dialogue (which no doubt he learnt from him) and Leonard shared Heinz’s. Heinz also had the gift for characters and The Professional includes the formerly great middleweight fighter the Memphis Kid who serves as Eddie’s sparring partner, Jean Girot, the Swiss former alcoholic owner of the camp’s hotel, washed up bully and sportswriter Tom White, and the garrulous assistant trainer, Johnny Jay whose death from a heart attack in camp is a wrenching depiction of the banality of death and loss.
But what makes The Professional stand out as a book about boxing is that it treats boxing as a vocation and an intellectual (though not just intellectual) pursuit. As is the case with many sports, most of the spectators do not understand what they’re seeing. They want action and a knockout – Arturo Gatti’s inability to slip a punch endeared him to fans, rather than made them wince. What distinguishes Eddie from other fighters is that he’s a pro – the pro. Doc is a teacher, not just a conditioning coach that holds the mitts, and Eddie in his ninety fights has learned everything that he’s taught.
In one of the best observed pages I’ve read on boxing, Fred Garner and Dave Scott visit the camp and Eddie talks about fight:
“Well, what I mean is that the way Doc has taught me, you give the other guy the impression that he’s in charge. That’s so he’ll fight his fight, and follow his patterns. I mean, as Doc says: ‘Let him perform.’ For example, when I’m pressing a guy a certain way he may jab me a couple of times, and then hook off it. Well, he does this a few times in the first couple of rounds and then, when I see it’s a pattern, I’m thinking whether I’ll try to beat the hook with a straight right hand or if I’ll drop down and slip the hook and counter with a hook in the belly. I mean that’s what you’re thinking about.”
“I like that,” Dave said. “Cite us another one. I don’t mean to pry into your secrets, but I’ve never heard a fighter talk like this before.”
“That’s all right,” Doc said.
“I don’t know,” Eddie said. There’s so many. Say, like I can’t get the guy to open up. He’ll throw a few punches, but nothing that you can go off. Maybe the only pattern will be a double jab. He’ll jab twice and move. So I take those – one-two, on the forehead, one-two. He gets real confident now, because I lean into them a little to help him think he’s going good. Then, when I’m ready, I take the first one, but the second one I lean over to my right so I slip it over my left shoulder and I cross a right over it. It’s a good punch because, leaning to the right, I’ve got my weight on that side and behind it.”
“The punch in standard,” Doc said. “The big thing is the trap. There’s only so many punches. Everybody knows what they are. You’ve got to con the other guy into walking into them. It’s thinking, first of all. Then, when he’s committed, it’s timing and placement. That’s all.” (261-2)
The moral core of The Professional is that it is worthwhile to do things well and that this requires years of preparation. Eddie learns his craft with Doc over ninety fights, learning how to throw a punch, where to place his feet, how to react to anything an opponent might do. Pros are not defined by whether or not they fight by money; they are defined by their dedication to a vocation and a tradition. Many physically gifted fighters are “exposed” as they meet better opponents because they relied on talent and not knowledge. (Bernard Hopkins is one of the greatest living professional boxers whose knowledge of the craft allowed him to dominate faster and stronger opponents when he moved up to light heavyweight in his forties. Andre Ward is arguably the best active professional today [Guillermo Rigondeaux is another candidate].)
The Professional is also about journalism. The narrator Frank Hughes (who is a stand in for Heinz) is a professional journalist, someone who earned the respect of his peers and the people he writes about through dedication to his craft. Hughes contrasts with Bunny Williams, a TV host who ambushes Eddie by surreptitiously inviting his mother to an interview and asking leading questions designed to communicate her prejudices about boxers and their sport. In contrast, Hughes spends a month in camp, observing, listening, and inquiring, letting the story assemble itself.
The Professional is a unique novel and probably the best one about boxing because of Heinz’s professionalism. As a journalist, he sought to capture boxing and the people in the fight game. The result is a work of art true to its subject matter, rendered without sentimentality, but with care and love.