By George MacDonald Fraser
I have a theory about sports movies. It goes like this: Sport, as a subject for a non-comedic film, rarely works. Sure there are all sorts of comedies about sports that entertain (Caddyshack, Happy Gilmore, Slapshot etc...) but when it comes to making a serious, poignant film about a sport, the pickings become fairly slim.
There are two exceptions to this rule, however: The first exception is boxing. For whatever reason, film has always been about to portray boxing with delicacy and humnity than, say.... bobsledding. Does boxing possess more pathos than bobsled competitors? Well, ok... bad example, but there is no shortage of great films about boxing: Raging Bull, Ali, The Hurricane, Rocky among dozens of others. I guess there is something about pummelling other humans within an inch of their life that makes for human tragedy as well as filmatic consumption.
(The other exception to the sport movie theory is baseball movies starring Kevin Costner. I have no idea why but baseball movies roundly stink and Kevin Costner is an unforgivably awful actor but when baseball and Costner are brought together, it's magic. But I digress).
I am beginning to wonder whether this theory may apply to fiction as well. Surely, there is no shortage of excellent non-fiction about sport. Some recent reads include Our Game by Ken Dryden (Hockey), Invictus by John Carlin (Rugby) and The Luckiest Man by Jonathan Eig (Baseball) all of which reduced me to tears, but the list of good sport non-fiction is longer than I care to type and I'm trying to get somewhere with this post, so lets just agree that sports are well covered in the non-fiction category, shall we?
Finding good fiction about sport is more difficult and usually relegated to the world of Young Adult Fiction. Here's why: The fun-loving loser (or team of losers) winning the championship works only if it's a true story. It comes across as a tired cliche if it is fictionalized. If there is an animal or alien or magician or magical alien animals involved in the winning of said championship all the more reason to not read it. With all due respect to the genre of young adult fiction, I'm not young. I want something a little more nuanced.
Black Ajax is that book.
I must admit, Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser is a bit like cheating to get an example of good sport fiction. First, it's historical fiction which immediately makes the story more believable since, you know, it actually happened, more or less. Second, it's about boxing which, as I mentioned above, makes for good human tragedy. Third it is about a particularly misunderstood era of the sport (bare knuckle boxing) and finally it is about Tom Molineaux, a former American slave and the first black man to challenge for the title of Champion of England. You simply can't make up a story that interesting.
George MacDonald Fraser is a scholar of Victorian England, its culture as well as its language and does a stunning job of chronicling the events of Molineaux's life leading up to his title fights with Tom Cribb through the voices of witnesses (trainers, former boxers, fellow slaves, sportswriters, his opponents and even the Prince of Wales) all written in painstakingly realisitic Victorian and pugilistic vernacular. A glossary is provided to translate the vast repitoire of slang used by the witnesses.
Black Ajax gives a stark and often grotesque account of the world of bare-knuckle boxing during the years of the Napoleonic Wars and the hold Tom Molineaux had over the sport for the year of two in which he was the talk of the Fancy (world of English Boxing). Fraser harsh narrative is in accordance with the views and prejudices of the time and the leading characters of the brutal sport. Reality is what a reader should look for in a work of historical fiction. In Black Ajax, the reader is provided with a wonderful example of how it should be written.