An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes
November 2, 1974 isn’t a meaningful date to the younger residents of our ever-growing city. But to the Austinites who were present for Fight Night at the Coliseum that evening, it’s one they’ll never forget. Billed as The Next Battle of the Sexes, those who witnessed the spectacle now refer to it as The Bludgeoning. On the thirtieth anniversary, The Observer’s MICHAEL ROSENBERG sits down with the key players, and revisits “an idea whose time would never come again.”
Mack Wexler (Judge, Texas Boxing Commission, 1966-1995): The problem was there were about nine serious female fighters in Texas in 1973, and Holly Hendrix had whupped them all. No one wanted to get in the ring with her.
Denise “The Pitbull” Jacobs: The bitch knocks me out in Dodd City. She knocks me out in Sweetwater. She sends me to the ER in Tioga, population four-oh-nothing, with a subdural hematoma that damn near killed me.
Susannah “Black Magic” Russell: First time we fight, I’m seventeen. Seventeen! I don’t have the muscle yet. And I’m facing this girl’s left hook over and over, for thirty dollars, win lose or draw?
Lucas Schaefer received an M.F.A. from the New Writers Project at UT-Austin. He lives in Austin with his husband, and is at work on a novel-in-stories about an Austin boxing gym. You can find him on Twitter @LucasESchaefer. “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes” is his first published story.
Patrick Ryan on “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes”
When “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes” showed up at the office and I gave it an initial read, I spent the first few pages reminding myself that I was reading a work of fiction and not an actual oral history. Once I wrapped my head around that, I became drawn in by one of the biggest casts of characters I’ve ever encountered in a short story—each voice distinctive, each character a building block in the recreation of a historic (fictitious) event: the legendary 1974 battle between Holly Hendrix and Terry Tucker. The story is as compelling as it is funny, as infused with personality as it is charged with spot-on observations about the way we regard gender, power, and ambition. We’re delighted to be ushering it into the world, and we’re even more delighted that this is the first publication by a talent we are most certainly going to be hearing more from in the future: Lucas Schaefer.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
- PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- LS: I’m writing a novel-in-stories about an Austin boxing gym, set mostly in the present day, and I wanted to create an origin story for the gym’s owner, Terry Tucker. Terry appears in all of the pieces but mostly in passing, and this was supposed to be his moment in the spotlight. To me, the beauty of linked stories is that a supporting player in one piece always has the potential to become the star later on. I teach middle school U.S. history, and this is at the heart of so much of what we talk about in class: Who gets remembered and why? Who is deemed “worthy” of a chapter, and who is relegated to the footnotes? And what if those footnotes tell a truer story than what’s in the main body of the text? The writing of this piece became a metaphor for the questions that obsess me at my desk and in my classroom, in that it started as an exploration of, Who is this Terry Tucker guy? Then as the purportedly supporting characters came to life—the female boxers in particular—they started to take over the story. So even in what was intended as Terry’s story, he still had to earn his real estate. As for the Next Battle of the Sexes conceit, I don’t know exactly how I decided on it. I’ve watched a lot of 30 for 30s and read a lot of magazine oral histories, and once I started playing with that oral history format, it just seemed natural. Obviously Terry would fight a woman in a boxing match. What else would that dope be doing in Austin in 1974?
- PR: The format means, of course, that you don’t get to work with anything but dialogue. An occasional challenge? Pure joy?
- LS: “Pure joy” is not a phrase I associate with the day-to-day of writing fiction, but it was on the more joyful end. It was joyful adjacent. I love a big voice, so doing a dozen of them appealed to me.
- PR: Was there any one voice that became your favorite?
- LS: A few of these characters appear in other stories set closer to today, so it was fun to go back and imagine what their 1970s selves were like. Lemuel Pugh is almost 100 in the contemporary stories, and I suspect if I wrote a story set a thousand years from now he’d weasel his way into that one, too. He’s too shameless to die. I can see him now: sitting on the toilet in his used spaceship, flipping through a Hustler, orbiting Venus...
- PR: And was there one voice that proved to be an unusual challenge?
- LS: The biggest challenge was Holly, mostly because her voice isn’t in the story. In my first few passes, the Holly character didn’t work. She was too mythic: no one knew her history or her family background, I had her dying young. My husband, Greg, who is also a writer and always my first editor, took me to task. In college, he’d studied the tropes that writers fall back on when portraying gay and lesbian characters: “the myth of isolation,” the idea that every gay character dies tragically or commits suicide. “Do you realize,” he said, “that you’ve managed to incorporate every one of these into Holly?” I’m sure he said it more diplomatically—I’m very sensitive. But his point was that I was allowing Holly’s circumstances—she’s a lesbian in a homophobic time and place—to define her, without doing the hard work of figuring out who she was. Once I started to do that work—where she came from, what her love life was like, all of that stuff I’d avoided—that’s when the story started to snap into focus.
- PR: Can you talk a little more about how the story changed from its first draft to the published version?
- LS: Holly’s evolution was the biggest change from first to final draft. And it took some time to get the story down to fighting weight, as you know. At the end of the day, it’s amazing how many words you just don’t need.
- PR: The story is set in the early Where did the idea for this story come fromCan you tell us a little about the titleWhat was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote0’s and contains references to some real people and real events. Is boxing your “thing”? How much research did you have to do? And were there any surprising discoveries?
- LS: When I first moved to Texas in 2006, I started working out at R. Lord’s Boxing Gym, which is a real Austin institution. It says something both about the gym’s owner, Richard Lord, and about the spirit of the place that it’s inspired a lot of art—it’s the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Boxing Gym, there have been books about fighters from the gym (most recently W.K. Stratton’s Boxing Shadows, written with two-time world champion Anissa “The Assassin” Zamarron). So that’s where I became interested in boxing and where the idea for my own project started to take shape. As for the time period, I was born in ’82 so I did have to Google my way back to the Seventies. I got very caught up in what musical Allan should be staging at the start of the story. It was Jesus Christ Superstar in one draft. Something called Via Galactica in another. I settled on Joseph because I fell in love with the idea that Allan included live sheep in his show. The more research I did, the clearer it became that Allan would’ve had to have been a pretty early adopter to stage Joseph in the U.S. when he did. But the sheep! Kill your darlings and all that, but I was keeping those sheep.
- PR: Any plans to write more fiction in the oral history form?
- LS: This was probably a one-time deal. It’s a fun format, but it does mean you don’t get to use every tool in your writerly tool belt. It’s a little like a cappella. Perfect for the right occasion, but a little can go a long way.
- PR: What are you working on now?
- LS: I’m working on a story about David Dalice, the Haitian-Texan heavyweight who helps train Terry in “Oral History” and later becomes a regular at the gym.
- PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- LS: One of my writing mentors in college was a history professor, Larry Goodwyn. He was a man who took words seriously, who took writing seriously, and he took his students’ writing seriously, too. At the time, I was an aspiring playwright, and at one point I invited Goodwyn to come see a play I’d written. He was in his seventies then, and cranky, but that didn’t stop him from not only attending but, a few days later, requesting a copy of the script, and, a few days after that, inviting me to sit at his kitchen table to go over it. “What’d you think?” I asked. “Not so good,” he said, and then produced the script, heavily marked up, which he proceeded to dissect for me. Dr. Goodwyn gave me a lot of good, practical writing advice over the years, but what he really gave me was the license to take myself seriously as a writer. To see it as a job, and myself as a viable candidate. The last time I went to see Goodwyn was maybe six months before he died. He had emphysema and had lost a lot of weight since our last visit, and he made some comment to the effect of, “The end is nigh.” We sit at his kitchen table and chat for a bit, and as I’m getting up to leave Goodwyn tells me he’d like me to make him a promise. Given the context this felt like a heavy moment. “When you publish your first book,” he says, “don’t dare send it to me.” Keep in mind, I hadn’t even started graduate school at this point and was nowhere near attempting to write a book, let alone craft a readable short story. Goodwyn patted me on the back and motioned toward the door. “You tell me where to find it and make me pay for it myself.”