Poem by David Lehman, “September 18”
About the Poem
Oscar de la Hoya
Poetry Goes to the Fights
De la Hoya, Trinidad,
Poetry—Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!
September 18, of 1999—two electrifying champions met in the Mandalay Bay Casino
in Las Vegas, and I don’t mean over a blackjack table or martinis down at the
bar. The WBC title fight pitted undefeated Oscar de la Hoya, then and now the
biggest draw and most marketable non-heavyweight in the history of the sport,
against undefeated Felix Trinidad, the most celebrated Puerto Rican fighter. And
as if that’s not enough “mosts,” the two welterweights (147 pounds) would go
twelve rounds to produce one of the most controversial decisions of recent
years, an outcome that fight fans and sports writers—occasionally, when the
spirit moves them—still decry or defend. Did Trinidad really earn the belt, or
did the judges unfairly penalize De la Hoya because they didn’t like—at least
two of the three didn’t like—the way he made Trinidad pursue him around the ring
in the final rounds, a turn of strategy in which the Olympian Golden Boy
demonstrated more fleetness of foot than speed of hand?
Mind you, de la Hoya seemed to many, and to me, to have prevailed over a skilled
and dangerous opponent for at least seven of the first eight rounds, enough to
assure his victory. Rule is, he who wins the most rounds gets it, regardless if
these rounds come at the beginning or the end. And when the last bell dinged,
the CompuBox punch analysis showed De la Hoya landing 263 out of 648 punches
against Trinidad’s 166 out of 462. On the other hand, Trinidad landed more power
punches, and—in boxing as in everything—quality can sometimes outweigh quantity.
At least he seemed to land more power punches, but it’s not always easy, even
for experts, to rate the true effect of a punch unless you’re the one on the
receiving end of it.
And imagine, here most people go around thinking the outcome of a boxing match
is relatively cut and dry, objective and verifiable, compared to, say,
oh…judging the best manuscript of poetry in a publication contest. But those
people who believe that aren’t far wrong. Odds are it will be easier to get a
just and right decision on a fight than on poetry contest to determine the best
manuscript out of two, three hundred. I should know. I do know. I’ve got my own
secret special CompuBox stats that reveal the percentage of wrong decisions made
in boxing v. wrong calls in poetry. If there were a Poetry Commission equivalent
to the Boxing Commission, honey, they’d shut our game down.
Now I’ve witnessed a few wrong-way fight decisions; the De la Hoya/Trinidad
verdict didn’t quite go by the book, though a case could be made for it. And the
decision that gave the second De la Hoya/Moseley fight to Moseley—that seemed
off the mark. But after that, Felix Sturm took the majority of rounds from De la
Hoya in the warm up fight for the lucrative De la Hoya/Hopkins match; but the
judges—totally different judges of course—gave that one to De la Hoya. Because
they felt bad about De la Hoya not getting the decision in the Moseley fight
when he maybe should’ve. And because all the people involved with Las Vegas
tourism, Pay-per-View TV and the boxing industry would lose money and slip down,
down, and bottom-out among the poor and needy if the De la Hoya/Hopkins match
didn’t go forward.
Compared to the career-making and -breaking decisions handed down in the
professional poetry monde, boxing’s as pure as that first sheet of snow, first
day of winter.
I don’t have time to list all the repellent examples—it’s late. It’s a quarter
past midnight. I’ll just mention one recently discovered example, which I can
place on the stack with my others. Before
B. H. Fairchild’s well known, much beloved, multi-award winning The Art of
the Lathe finally won a manuscript contest he shelled out a great many ten,
twelve, fifteen dollar readers' fees. And twenty dollar readers' fees. The
manuscript was rejected so many times that Fairchild, then in his 50s, finally
felt himself pressed to give up poetry, his life-long occupation, and any
further attempts to publish this book. Right about the time things’d come to that,
though, he finally won a publication award—and then all those notable book
prizes, including the Kingsley Tufts. Years later he discovered the preliminary
judges for one of those contests he’d entered had beseeched the final judge to
select his manuscript, the clear standout among those submitted. However, the
final judge had another recipient in mind. He awarded the prize to one of his
Like I said, this is just one example. Multiply this one many times over, in
many variations, for a fair assessment of the predicament, here in Poetry Land.
A lot of terrific manuscripts never make it to viable publishers. As unlucky as
Pete was, for a long stretch, he had one moment of luck, a break-out moment.
Some out there never will.
Sure, boxing involves behind-the-scenes machinations and manipulations,
especially in the way managers use weaker opponents to build up the record of a
promising prospect. When the main event comes around, though, it’s all out in
the open, for everyone to see. And if the match goes all twelve, and winds up
with the three judges, at least we saw and experienced the same fight they
did—give or take a vantage point or two—and we can voice opinions on their
decision. But while the judges’ scores, unanimous or split, might ignite
discussions among fight fans for and against, it’s rare a decision departs so
dramatically from sportswriters’ and audience perceptions that a general
consensus forms the loser got “robbed”.
No, you want to go looking for experienced robbery victims? Mingle with poets.
Many seasoned boxers, while they’re not pleased with every decision, do not feel
they’ve been out-and-out robbed. On the other hand, nearly all of those among
the most distinctive, movingly, strangely gifted poets I know feel they’ve been
They don’t talk about it much. They’d rather not. Me, I’ve been mugged on the
street a couple times and I don’t talk about that either.
When people ask how could I possibly be interested in (yuck!) boxing, I tell
them now and then I need a little out-front truth, like, you know, coming up for
air. And until the day rolls around when boxers must fight behind closed doors
while the audience sits outside waiting for the judges to come out and tell them
which man did the best, the boxing ring’s got a little something over the poetry
Meanwhile, what’s happened lately to our “Poetry Goes to the Fights” champs?
Oscar de la Hoya, stung by the judges’—and many boxing fans’—disapproval of his
non-confrontational style in the late rounds, has always since met his opponents
head-on and forthright. He’s sustained four losses in his career, including the
one to Trinidad, but has won world titles in an astonishing six weight
divisions. In May of this year he KO’s the fierce Salvadorian fighter, Ricardo
“El Matador” Mayorga, dropping him in the six round.
Felix Trinidad retired a while back after being outpointed by dazzling Winky
Wright in a 154 pound match—just his second loss in a stellar career but a loss
so decisive even his fans couldn’t contest it.
De la Hoya’s looking for one more big match before he retires, and he’s thinking
maybe he wants Trinidad. Maybe he wants to draw Trinidad out of retirement—one
last go-round, a rematch, De la Hoya v. Trinidad II, to settle the argument once
and for all. After that, De la Hoya can retire and Trinidad can re-retire
(actually re-re-retire, because his recent retirement was his second.)
I hear Felix Trinidad’s boxing the idea around in head, weighing the
Everything means something
as the “countdown to the unknown”
(Alan Greenspans’ phrase) continues
for example tonight’s the fight
between Felix Trinidad and Oscar de la Hoya
and we’re driving to the republic of Flushing
with Stacey up front and a black star in the back seat
to watch it with our host the poet Frank Lima
who was an assistant chef at the Kennedy White House
and will serve longevity noodles on paper plates
you make a left at Dunkin’ Donuts on 137th Street
then a right on 35 Avenue and you’re there
I hear Bob Holman is coming will he bring Elizabeth Murray
I wonder so why don’t I phone him and find out
it’s ringing he answers “poetry” I say “this is prose”
and we resolve to duke it out on pay-per-view tonight
yes she is coming I just saw her cover for a book of poems
by Lee Ann Brown called Polyverse and want to see more
and I will bring this poem and ask everyone if it’s true
About the Poem
David Lehman’s books The Evening Sun and
The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry (both from Scribner)
are composed of snappy, often playful, journal-like entries that
reflect upon or summarize the day’s events. Each brief piece draws
together a mix of elements—just like a real day, just like a real
poem. Though we’ve isolated one here—the one that suits “Poetry
Goes to the Fights,”—they’re best read as a series, because their
effect is accumulative.
David Lehman is the author of several books of poetry including The Evening
Sun: A Journal in Poetry (Scribner) which includes the poem above. His most
recent book is When A Woman Loves a Man. David is on the core faculty of
writing programs at Bennington College and editor of the Best American Poetry