A Bigger Prize
Perfect Bound Softcover
When trainer Frank “Black Machine” Whaley of View Point, Texas, dies of a heart attack in 1946, Elegant Raines, an eighteen-year-old black prizefighter, must find a new trainer. Raines calls on Leemore “Pee-Pot” Manners, a boxing trainer who lives in Longwood, West Virginia. Any honest man would say Pee-Pot knows more about boxing than anyone alive—whether that man is black or white.
Raines’s goal is to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Under Pee-Pot’s tutelage Raines wins not only the middleweight championship, but the light heavyweight championship, marking him as one of the greatest fighters of his time.
During his quest for the title, Raines falls in love with Gem Loving, a pastor’s daughter whose father, Pastor Embry O. Loving, maintains a dim view of fighters. Gem must fight for Raines in ways her father will condemn.
A Bigger Prize tells a fictional story of the boxing world in the 1940s and what the sport meant to both blacks and whites of the time. It considers the question of whether Elegant Raines’s “bigger prize” is the world’s heavyweight championship—or something outside the ring more violent than boxing and its reward.
Tugboats look just like pugnacious terriers. Of course they aren’t hairy nor do they sport stubby tails, but do look like they can beat-up anything put in their way—even great battleships commanding the high seas. Indeed, it may be romanticizing it some, but this is the way it is in boxing, oftentimes taking a “pug” of a fighter and making him “King.”
Boxing and fighters have lived through hell together. They’re mated like glove and fist, oftentimes making it impossible to tell one from the other, or to feel where one begins and the other ends. It’s a business after all, this business of boxing, and it’s a business where boxers/prizefighters must fight for pittance or fortune. It’s how all prizefighters begin, by fighting for pittance, small purses. It’s just that some never get beyond it, to where fabulous fortunes await them like distant, glittering shores, or a mariner’s ghostly call.
For prizefighting is as ancient and creaky as Ye Olde England and Ye Olde Ireland. It’s where boxing began with bare-knuckles and staunch backs and granite jaws and marathon rounds of skilled but boring boxing exhibitions. These were contests fought for sport, for the purity of young mens’ minds and souls; the human spirit.
Everyone who has a stake in boxing, from the promoter to the manager to the trainer to the fan, take their lumps. But none more so, more seriously, than the boxer. No one has to have as much heart and soul as a prizefighter, to stand in the boxing ring with brute fists flying furiously at his head without luxury of foresight or outcome; absorbing punishment meted out to him, blows by his boxing foe by not beating in quick retreat from him, backing down, unless everything is lost, out of grasp of even the smartest, cleverest of “tricksters.”
Prizefighting crossed the Atlantic from England to America to crown John Lawrence Sullivan, a. k. a. the “Great John L.” and “Boston Strongboy,” its King. From victory to victory, John L. Sullivan stalked the American dream by rising from poverty, from a disadvantaged lot, the immigrant streets of Boston, to hero worship by ascending to the top rung of his profession through hard work and dedication and strong will; also, a gift for courage and bravery and talented fists and rugged chin—not through mythmakers or the ink of poetic scribes.
Of what percentage of that prizefighting pie was for all Americans? Black Americans? Black men freed from slavery before the turn of the 20th century? Could a black prizefighter become a black John L. Sullivan?—sport a powerful and colorful moniker and assume hero status, hero worship in America?—or lift himself from somewhere below the poverty line almost as if he and dirt had some commonality, some virtue for alikeness, and become boxing champion of the world?
Prizefighting is a spooky sport in its context, simplicity, nakedness (two men fight for the better man to win), but complicated in its handling, its shifting of men in its world of who is what and should be what for the masses who wish for the glory of others even if their hearts would fall faint and far short of the mark if to ever duck their heads between the roughed ropes to seek the grand prize, the victory inside the ring.
It is the poor blacks and the poor whites who dream the biggest dreams. It is the poor blacks and poor whites who scuffle among themselves with huge ambition and noble cause. It is the poor blacks and poor whites who are locked in a titanic struggle for who is the better fighter-in-the-ring (as in life), for who can strike the biggest blows for their race, leaving the foe disgraced and bloody in claiming victory for their own kind—their own super elevation.
There are odd, strange, spooky things that happen in this quest for boxing championships. No race is exempt, all are guilty. It is only power that can cheat the deck, can make the human contest dishonest, impure, and unequal in the end.
Leemore “Pee-Pot” Manners had a pretty pair of hands. Any honest man would say Pee-Pot knew more about boxing than any man alive—whether that man be black or white. He was a trainer of boxers, an ex-boxer himself. He lived in the state of West Virginia, once a part of Virginia not until Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, at the time of the Civil War to join the Confederate States of America. West Virginia drafted a state constitution and, in 1862, applied to Congress for statehood. It was a state of tobacco crop and peanut crop and men who invested their time and sweat into the honorable profession of being farmers and toiling the land for commerce and industry—for bountiful product.
“Pee-Pot” Manners lived in Longwood, West Virginia where it was more hilly and oak-forested than any other part of the state. In distance, the town of Longwood wasn’t far off from Pee-Pot’s home, just three miles north. Pee-Pot was looking at those sweet pair of hands of his and was mumbling like a man who lived alone but didn’t give a damn who heard him, not even Gyp, his Labrador Retriever, lying on a thick royal blue throw rug off to the right of his feet.
Pee-Pot took his eyes off the letter he’d read no less than four times by now. The letter was in his lap. Pee-Pot was looking down at his hands and, probably, it was being done unconsciously, unawares, but was being done in direct response to the letter. Pee-Pot sighed: he’d never gotten a letter from a boxer before. He chuckled: he didn’t know too many boxers who could write! Gyp, a beautiful black, looked up at Pee-Pot, then shut her eyes, again. A short-handled grooming brush lay by Gyp’s forepaws, the nylon bristles soft to a dog’s rich coat.
What boxer I know, would even be so much as interested in writing me a letter? Pee-Pot thought. None I know. The letter was because of Frank “Black Machine” Whaley. He was dead. He was an ex-fighter, an ex-pug, an ex-lightweight. “Black Machine” Whaley and Pee-Pot fought inside the ring fifteen times. Sometimes the match was billed as “Pee-Pot” Manners vs. Frank “Black Machine” Whaley, sometimes Frank “Black Machine” Whaley vs. “Pee-Pot” Manners. It was all according to how the poster maker felt on that particular day, Pee-Pot would often joke.
But it’s how it was in boxing for the top notch black fighters, fighting each other all the time, repeatedly; since they couldn’t get, for the most part, the kind of fights they wanted against the top notch white fighters. Frank “Black Machine” Whaley was a great fighter. Over the years, Black Machine and Pee-Pot staged spectacular fights up to a point, but beyond that point, their fights became dull, flat affairs. Their black fans not getting what they paid for—for both, simply, knew each others’ boxing skills far too well.
“Gyp, I’m gonna read this letter again. One more time. So don’t you start counting. Making a mountain out a molehill.”
Gyp wagged her tail.
Dated March 14, 1946
Dear Mr. Pee-Pot Manners,
You don’t know of me, but I do of you. This is through Mr. Frank “Black Machine” Whaley, sir. It is with great sadness that I report Mr. Whaley has died of a heart attack one week ago. He had this heart condition for
Denis Gray is the author of four published books—Teardrop, Della’s Deed, Lucky, and Benny’s Last Blast!! He lives in New York with his wife, Barbara.
Charles Lilly created the cover image. He has illustrated many book covers, children’s books, magazine articles, advertising promotions, and movie posters in addition to having been an instructor of Visual Arts 17 of his 41-year career. He’s been an artist living in New York City; as his 31-year-old-son now carries the legacy forward in Texas.
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