Ernest Hemingway’s love affair with boxing
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2019 - 12:00am

KEY WEST – A visit to this Florida resort island, 95 miles north of Cuba and 160 miles by car from Miami, wouldn’t be complete without touring the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. It was here where Hemingway lived for eight years from 1931 to 1939 and wrote some of his most enduring works.

Hemingway shot himself in the head in 1961 with his favorite double-barreled shotgun at the age of 61, depressed because of failing health and the inability to continue writing. His father Clarence (a physician), brother Leicester, sister Ursula and granddaughter Margaux (an actress) also committed suicide.  Hemingway won both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for literature and left behind masterpieces immortalized in 27 books and over 50 short stories.

The Hemingway home, the largest private residence in the island, was purchased by his second wife Pauline’s uncle for $8,000 as a gift.  Hemingway lived in and out of the house until his divorce. While away in Cuba with a mistress, his wife contracted a builder to construct a swimming pool for $20,000 – an astronomical sum considering the price of the house. The pool held 80,784 gallons of water and was 24 feet wide, 60 feet long, 10 feet deep at the south end and five feet deep at the north end. The pool was the only one of its kind within 100 miles during that time and salt water was pumped in to fill it. The talk was Pauline spent a fortune to spite Hemingway because the pool took the spot of his precious boxing ring which disappeared from the premises. When Hemingway returned from Cuba, he told Pauline she wiped him out and gave her his last penny in a gesture of sarcasm at the sight of the mammoth pool which was then half-built. They divorced soon after and the penny was left imbedded in cement near the pool as a reminder of their bitter split.

While Hemingway is known for his novels, poems, short stories, plays, newspaper articles and non-fiction stories, his passion for boxing was legendary. Hemingway never went to college and began working for a newspaper right out of high school. He dabbled in sports like track and football but fell in love with boxing. When he was a boy, Hemingway posed for a picture as the last bare knuckle heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan. At 16, Hemingway transformed his mother’s music room into a boxing gym and developed a keen interest in the sport.

Hemingway polished his boxing skills as an amateur and during a visit to Bimini in 1935, offered $250 to anyone who could knock him out in three rounds. Four natives stepped up to take the challenge and were disposed of, one by one. While in Key West, Hemingway often invited fighters to spar in his backyard ring and even became a referee. His short stories “Fifty Grand,” “The Killers” and “The Battler” used boxing as a theme and a main character Robert Cohn in his novel “The Sun Also Rises” had a boxing background. Hemingway was obsessed with boxing and once sparred with heavyweight champion Gene Tunney.

Hemingway liked to describe himself as an accomplished semi-pro fighter but in truth, let his mouth do the talking instead of his fists. In Paris in 1929, Hemingway sparred with Canadian writer Morley Callaghan and author F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper. In the second round, Fitzgerald extended the time to a minute and allowed Callaghan to deck Hemingway who claimed the lapse was out of professional jealousy as rival writers.

Heavyweight titlist Jack Dempsey was invited by Hemingway to spar but declined. “I had this sense that Hemingway, who really thought he could box, would come out of the corner like a madman,” said Dempsey. “To stop him, I would have to hurt him badly. I didn’t want to do that to Hemingway. That’s why I never sparred with him.”

Hemingway employed a trainer George Brown who encouraged him in his boxing delusions. In his Key West home, Hemingway had two speed bags, a heavy bag and gloves of different weights, 8, 10 and 16-ouncers. Writer Stephen Gertz said, “the reality was that anyone who had even the slightest idea of what they were doing in the ring could take Hemingway who was notorious for foolishly trying to actually fight trained boxers.”        

An interesting story on Hemingway’s involvement with boxing had to do with a referee’s assignment in Key West in 1936. The fight was between Alfred (Black Pie) Colebrooks and Cuban Joe Mills in an outdoor arena at the Bahama Village. In Colebrooks’ corner was Kermit (Shine) Forbes, called the Battlin’ Geech. Colebrooks was totally outclassed by Mills and Forbes threw in the towel thrice only for Hemingway to throw it back each time. Colebrooks had gone down at least four times but Hemingway refused to wave it off. In exasperation, Forbes entered the ring and took a swipe at Hemingway but missed. At least four policemen entered the ring to hold back Forbes. The fight continued until Hemingway called it a night after two more rounds.

When Forbes got home, his mother told him whom Hemingway was. So that night, Forbes went to Hemingway’s home to apologize. They became good friends and sparring partners. Forbes, James (Iron Baby) Roberts and three other African-Americans formed Hemingway’s band of sparmates. Hemingway wore headgear while his sparmates didn’t. Forbes and Roberts were semi-pros who earned $25 to $30 a fight and augmented their income sparring with Hemingway.

“My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything,” once said Hemingway who used to attend fights at Madison Square Garden and invite friends to watch boxing on TV during his last few years.

In his Key West home, there is a tribute to Forbes as “sparring partner for Papa (Hemingway’s nickname)” with a picture showing the fighter in his prime and in his later years. Forbes died in 2000 at the age of 84. The tribute is in form of a landmark in the garden and also shows a picture of Hemingway sparring in Bimini in 1935. There is no trace of the boxing ring that was once a fixture in the mansion.

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with