“What seems to give this idea the stature of tragedy is that the business of prizefighting never allows for an alternative preparation for another field of endeavor,” stated Rod Serling, explaining why boxing provides such fertile ground for dramatic interpretation. “To be a fighter you have to live as a fighter. Everything you do, every action you take, every moment you live is part of and preparation for the next fight on the schedule. And when your career is finished, the profession discards you. In terms of society it discards a freak, a man able only to live by his fists and his instincts, and too often a battered hulk covered with the unhealing scars that are the legacy of his trade.”

Enthusiasts refer to pugilism as “the sweet science”, likening it to a brutal ballet or smashmouth chess game. The term itself is sometimes attributed to journalist A.J. Liebling, whose 1956 book by the same name is required reading for serious students of the fight game. Liebling, however, borrowed the phrase from 19th century Brgfhvitish wordsmith Pierce Egan, who compiled five volumes of writings entitled Boxiana wherein he chronicled the exploits of the hardscrabble, bare-knuckled participants of what he called “the sweet science of bruising.” Contained within those quotation marks lies boxing’s paradox.

Antagonists argue that prizefighting is merely a blood sport with no redeeming value, insensibly barbaric and overripe for abolition. To the untrained eye, this seems like a perfectly rational way of viewing a vocation that requires its practitioners to bludgeon one another into a concussive state of incoherence and immobility which is intended—and hoped—to be temporary. But it is a disquieting truth that this specific brand of blunt force trauma carries a heavy cost. Call them what you will, dreams of championship glory or delusions of grandeur, a boxer’s aspirations rack up debts which are often collected incrementally, an unfair payment plan spread out over the course of decades in the form of irreversible physical and mental decline. Sadly, in certain circumstances, the penalty can be called to account immediately. And fatally.

Yet, given close enough scrutiny and careful consideration, it becomes possible to develop an appreciation for the undeniable technical artistry inherent to the performances of the men and women who fearlessly lace up the gloves. The fighter’s creed, after all, is to “hit and not get hit” and studying the poetic physicality of Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Nunn, Pernell Whitaker, Katie Taylor, and Vasiliy Lomachenko, to name just a few, is not unlike bearing witness to the graceful virtuosity of Mikhail Baryshnikov executing a series of flawless pirouettes, or maybe Carmen Amaya dancing the flamenco with what appears to be reckless abandon but was a masterful demonstration of diligently practiced choreography complimented by a kinetic fluidity which was as inspired as it was spontaneous.

Boxers and chess players strategize in not dissimilar fashion, formulating tactical game plans they enter into combat hoping to adhere to, but carry with them the awareness that they will often be forced to improvise critical adapt-or-perish maneuvers when disadvantageous situations suddenly materialize. The preferred methodology depends upon the individual prizefighter or grandmaster, whether it might be to attack aggressively from the outset, thus dictating the pace and imposing your will on your opponent, or to proceed deliberately with a small measure of caution that allows for the time and space necessary to assess the situation and weigh your options then, anticipating that the time is right, set a trap with malice aforethought that you believe your foe will be helpless to counter in another few moves or less. In this way, the likes of Joe Louis, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and Mike Tyson are not as far removed from Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and Magnus Carlsen as you might think.

True, Fischer was not called upon to deliver a blow to Boris Spassky’s ribcage with the chess board during one of their classic tête-à-têtes and Baryshnikov never had to concern himself with avoiding a left hook whistling past his temple while leaping across the stage.

Rod Serling, an athletic and aggressively competitive young man, dabbled in boxing during his military training. As a clinical and conscientious observer, however, he took a decidedly dim view of the so-called “sweet science” with regard to the cruel treatment dealt out to its participants beyond the confines of the ring, to say nothing of the savage punishment they inflict upon one another between the ropes, a merciless cause and effect.

“It is true, of course, that even the most broad-minded esthete would be hard pressed to recognize artistry in a left jab, a right cross, or a body attack—no matter the grace or skill of the delivery,” Serling philosophized in his preface to the movie tie-in paperback edition of Requiem for a Heavyweight. “Art, by its nature, seems to demand beauty and it is understandable that a smashed kidney, a torn eye, or the prolonged human agony of a technical knockout, seem antithetical to grace or symmetry. There are, however, myriad facets to a perception of beauty, just as there is a whole spectrum of subjective reactions to it—varying with the person or the mood,” he offered as a kind of counterpoint. “Writers have always found a strange haunting fascination in the idea of the pure personal combat of boxing.”

Steeped in the tradition established by prestigious scribblers of fiction such as George Bernard Shaw, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Budd Schulberg before him, Serling would revisit the setting of the prize ring multiple times throughout his writing career, from its origins at Antioch College in print and on the radio, to the burgeoning medium of live television, to feature films, to the supernatural realms of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.

***

“Everyone has to have a hometown. Binghamton’s mine,” declared Rod Serling. Anyone familiar with the autobiographical Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance”, as well as its companion piece “A Stop at Willoughby”, has a working knowledge of Serling’s adult longing to do what Thomas Wolfe warned was impossible (or at best unwise) and go home again. Even if it was an itch he knew he could not scratch, he yearned to travel back to a peaceful, restful place where a man could live his life full measure, to revisit the childhood thrills of riding a merry-go-round and eating cotton candy while watching a band concert. For Serling, Binghamton was this place. “In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive make-up of a human being, there is a need for a place to hang a hat, or a kind of geographical womb to crawl back into, or maybe just a place that’s familiar because that’s where you grew up,” he elaborated. “When I dig back through memory cells, I get one particularly distinctive feeling, and that’s one of warmth, comfort and well-being. For whatever else I may have had, or lost, or will find, I’ve still got a hometown. This, nobody’s gonna take away from me.”

Rodman Edward Serling was born in Syracuse, New York on Christmas Day 1924. Before he had turned two, the family moved to Binghamton where his father Sam went into business as a grocer and, later, a butcher with the added benefit of having young Rod make deliveries on his bicycle. The Serlings settled into a charming two-story home on Bennett Avenue, a stone’s throw from Recreation Park where Rod would often ride the carousel or hang around the bandstand, both of which feature prominently in “Walking Distance.” Strolling through a close approximation of Recreation Park on the MGM backlot, Gig Young, as Martin Sloan, memorably and paradoxically encounters his younger self carving his initials into one of the gazebo’s pillars. Serling isn’t known to have done this as a boy, but he did paint his name on the wooden door frame over the entrance to the prop room backstage at Binghamton Central High School’s performing arts theatre. It still survives today, recovered and kept safe for posterity.

Rod Serling’s Boyhood Home, 67 Bennett Avenue, Binghamton, NY (photo by author)

Serling’s boyhood home at 67 Bennett Avenue is about a mile and a half and a few twists and turns across town from Gerard Avenue which was known as Maiden Avenue when one-time heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey grew up there. Born on October 26, 1902 to Lithuanian immigrants in Binghamton’s First Ward, the future boxer was christened Joseph Paul Zukauskas. Times were tough for the Zukauskas family at the turn of the century. Food was hard to come by and young Joseph took it upon himself to help heat their home with coal pilfered from the hoppers at the nearby railyard. Preferring to spend his time fishing rather than learning, he dropped out of school at the age of 12 and ran away from home as a teenager.

“I slept in YMCAs, worked the bars and shoveled coal, worked for the Diamond Match Company, and I come back to New York, scared to go home, and the money ran out and I had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and I joined the Navy, five cents in my pocket,” Sharkey later recalled. The ship he was assigned to was docked in Boston which Zukauskas would adopt as his hometown, remaining a New Englander from that point forward in a reversal of the manner in which the Syracuse-born Rod Serling had attached himself to Binghamton throughout his formative years and forever after.

Zukauskas began boxing in the Navy, winning nearly forty fights and earning the title of Atlantic Fleet Champion. While preparing to turn pro, he was urged by a Boston fight club manager to alter his identity and opted for the moniker Jack Sharkey, a contraction of the names of his two pugilistic heroes, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and Irish phenom Tom Sharkey who, like his future namesake, had run away from home to join the Navy and subsequently taken part in thrilling knuckle-dusters with the best in the business, guys like Joe Choynski, James J. Jeffries, James J. Corbett, and Bob Fitzsimmons, winning some and losing some.

Sharkey, Jack that is, squared off against his idol Jack Dempsey on July 21, 1927 before 82,000 fight fans packed inside Yankee Stadium to determine who would win the right to become the mandatory challenger to Gene Tunney, who had claimed the heavyweight title from Dempsey ten months prior. The rough and tumble Dempsey, who loved to break his antagonist down by slugging away at their midsection, hit Sharkey with a body blow in the seventh round which strayed well below the belt. Ignoring the exhaustively repeated directive to “protect yourself at all times”, Sharkey turned away from his opponent to lodge a complaint with referee Jack O’Sullivan only to find himself on the business end of a Dempsey left hook he never saw coming. Though his immediate aspirations toward the world heavyweight title ended with the ten-count administered by the referee that night, Sharkey would again compete for the championship three years later against the dangerous German contender Max Schmeling in a bout which would also be determined by a foul.

Gene Tunney, who defeated Dempsey in their rematch which was infamous for Tunney having been the beneficiary of a “long count” by referee Dave Barry after Dempsey sent him to the deck in the seventh round, retired from boxing a few days after knocking out Tom Heeney. The heavyweight championship, now vacant, would be awarded to the winner of the bout between the division’s top two contenders, Sharkey and Schmeling, at Yankee Stadium on June 2, 1930. Sharkey, who had won the first three rounds, landed a shot south of Schmeling’s waistline in the fourth which deposited the German challenger onto the canvas and propelled him to the world championship by way of disqualification when his manager Joe Jacobs leapt onto the ring apron repeatedly yelling “foul!” and prompting Schmeling to writhe around in agony until referee Ed Smith was left with little other choice. Neither man wished the fight to end this way, especially Schmeling, his victory tarnished by being dubbed the “low blow champion.” And yet, Joe Jacobs refused Sharkey an immediate rematch which forced the hand of the New York State Athletic Commission in stripping Schmeling of their portion of the world title.

Schmeling would instead successfully defend his now-fractured crown against Young Stribling by way of technical knockout in the last of 15 scheduled rounds before granting Sharkey a return bout two years after their first dustup, on June 21, 1932 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl located in Long Island City. Despite the popular consensus of ringside observers that Schmeling had done more than enough to outpoint his challenger, two of the three judges controversially ruled in favor of Sharkey, a split decision which caused the title to change hands. Schmeling’s Barnumesque manager Joe Jacobs, always one to seize the opportunity for an ostentatious display of showmanship, famously screamed “We wuz robbed” into the microphone, introducing that phrase into boxing lexicon. It has been intimated, some sources allege even by Sharkey himself, that the fight was fixed.

There was no doubt about the outcome of his first title defense. Or was there? ‘The Ambling Alp’, six-foot-six Primo Carnera, whom Sharkey had previously outpointed in decisive fashion, knocked the new champion out with a right uppercut in the sixth round, ending Sharkey’s brief reign as king of the heavyweights at one year and eight days. Did Sharkey take a dive for a short-term payoff? Like the dubious outcome of the second Schmeling bout, there have also been suspicions about this one. Nevertheless, three years later rising superstar and soon-to-be heavyweight champion Joe Louis sent Sharkey into retirement courtesy of a third-round knockout. He would open his own watering hole in Boston, referee boxing and wrestling matches, and become fishing buddies with Red Sox legend Ted Williams. Jack Sharkey lived to be 91 years old.

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“I didn’t care who it was. I thought I could lick any person they put in front of me. I had a head on me as big as a pumpkin,” boasted an elderly Sharkey as he reflected on his early days with the sort of hindsight gleaned from hard-fought life experience. “I found out that chip on your shoulder can get knocked off. But you could put it back on too.”

Just as Sharkey had learned the “manly art of self-defense” during his stint in the Navy, Rod Serling took up boxing while attending jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia where he trained to become a World War II paratrooper and demolition specialist with the 511th Infantry, First Battalion, of the 11th Airborne Division which was eventually deployed to the Japanese-occupied Philippines.

As a teenager, Serling earned the reputation for being a terror with the ping pong paddle and tennis racket and, though he stood a mere five-foot-four, had brazenly tried out for the Binghamton Central High School Bulldogs varsity football squad only to learn, as Rod later joked, that Coach Henry Merz “found it difficult to reconcile a quarterback who weighed less than the team mascot.”

Private First Class Serling is said to have had more on his mind than monitoring world events in his spare time. “He used to write me about going into pubs in Columbus (Georgia) with other troopers, hunting down Air Force and other Armored guys,” claimed Rod’s boyhood pal Norman Miller. “I know he was locked up at least once for getting into fights.”

Perhaps in an effort to curtail his trainees’ extracurricular donnybrooks, division commander General Raymond Swing organized sanctioned boxing tournaments which Serling would compete in with “seemingly masochistic glee”, according to one source. Fighting in the flyweight class (108 to 112 pounds in the professional ranks, but this requirement possibly had some wiggle room in the military), Serling won all of his first seventeen bouts, scrapping his way to the second round of the divisional finals.

“So you are the official boxing champion,” his mother Esther wrote in a letter dated May 1, 1943, overstating things a little. Her parental pride, after all, can be easily forgiven. “What a tough lug you must be. Don’t you dare get your good looking face all slammed up.” Unfortunately, in his eighteenth and final fight, that is precisely what happened.

While attending maneuvers at Camp Polk in Louisiana, Serling was ponderously matched against a six-foot-two, 200-pound heavyweight by the name of Kelly who proceeded to pummel his hapless opponent into oblivion. “I don’t think Serling ever did lay a glove on him,” mused regiment mate Ken Haan.

Vernon Hartung, a high school chum of Rod’s who had been inducted into the Army alongside Serling at Fort Niagara, tended to his beaten and bloodied comrade. “All he said was, ‘Where you been, buddy?’, and he passed out,” Hartung recalled.

“I remember him pointing to his nose one time,” Serling’s daughter Anne writes in her heartwarming memoir As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, “indicating where it was broken in two places.”

In response to a newspaper article which commended him for having “the ring in his blood”, Serling stated pragmatically that “In truth, I’d left a helluva lot of my blood in several rings.”

So too did the characters who populated the boxing stories Rod Serling would write over the course of time.

(Rest period prior to Round Two…to be continued)

 

Sources:

Mike Casey. Jack Sharkey (Cyber Boxing Zone, April 8, 2009)

Nicholas Parisi. Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)

Gordon F. Sander. Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (Dutton, 1992)

Anne Serling. As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel, 2013)

Rod Serling. Patterns (Simon and Schuster, 1957)

Rod Serling. Requiem for a Heavyweight (Bantam Books, 1962)

Steve Szkotak. Ex-Champ Jack Sharkey Nears 81st Birthday (UPI Archives, October 8, 1983)

Matt Weinstein. Sharkey Became World Heavyweight Champion 82 Years Ago Saturday (pressconnects.com, June 21, 2014)

Joy True. Olde Epping: NH’s Heavyweight Boxing Champ of the World (seacoastonline.com, July 4, 2019)

We Wuz Robbed, or How Jack Sharkey Boxed His Way to a Catchphrase (New England Historical Society, 2017)

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