Robert E. Howard is a name even readers with just a passing interest in fantasy books have heard of. Even those who are not familiar with the author do know the name of his legendary creation, Conan the Barbarian. Conan might be Howard's most popular and iconic hero but, by Crom, Howard did craft numerous other memorable characters such as Solomon Kane, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Sailer Steve Costigan, Breckinridge Elkins, and more.
Although Howard left this world while still in his early 30's (of a tragic suicide), the author was a prolific writer of "yarns" for scores of pulp magazines of the era. Not all pulp fiction is part of the crime or science-fiction genre. And not all Robert E. Howard stories are fantasy works, as he also wrote westerns, historical pieces, horror, and even sports0themed pieces.
The sports works often focused on one of his favorite exercise activities: boxing. The only thing Howard seemed to enjoy more than fencing was a little pugilism. Howard was no nebbish writer. He liked physical activities, and, above many, Howard enjoyed boxing. During his life, Robert E. Howard drew inspiration from the sport and wrote around two-dozen boxing tales.
One decade ago, Bison Books released a collection of the author's boxing tales under its complete Howard collection. Titled, appropriately, Boxing Stories (The Works of Robert E. Howard), the stories present the "daydreaming manliness" Howard was so fond of.
Of those works, Iron Men is considered one of Howard's best boxing tales.
Boxing and the Plight of the Working Man
"Many a fighter stumbles through life and never learns anything, simply because of an ignorant or negligent manager."
That is what Steve Amber says to himself when he approaches journeyman fighter Mike Brennon about a management deal at the beginning of Iron Men. Brennon turns it down. He's done with fighting. Of course, all that changes, and the working man's fighter finds his way to Amber's training camp in due time.
The fight camp is hardly a Beverly Hills spa.
Howard's work does not make any attempt at making the old-time boxing profession a glamorous fantasy world. His fighters are tough guys who are down on their luck. Brennon only chooses to take Amber up on his management offer because he flat out needs the money.
"Stumbling through life" is a pointed choice of words. Journeyman do not exactly enjoy stable employment.
The down-and-out nature of the main fighter-character has the feel of a tired blue-collar worker struggling to get by. The short story shares thematic and plot similarities to the Charles Bronson film Hard Times (1975) down to the manager/fighter relationship.
In his own life, Howard enjoyed writing professionally because it afforded him the freedom to live his life the way he wanted. For extra money, he worked odd jobs in the rural Texas community where he lived, but Howard earned his primary annual income from selling tales to the pulps. The author didn't like to live by the constraints and rules of society. Writing provided him with freedom and a living, albeit a meager one. Howard was able to experience both escapism and relive his plight through his characters. The boxer Brennon is evocative of the free man Howard yearned to be.
Like Brennon, Howard was known to toil and struggle over his craft. At least in this particular work of fiction, all the struggles of the character do pay off. Not in the most glamourous way, but something achieved through the challenging effort.
Honing the Craft with Sweat and Prose
Brennon does follow a workman's like approach to learning the craft of boxing. Amber realizes that Brennon is not a natural talent. He is a slugger, a tough guy. Brennon can survive in the ring out of sheer toughness and beat unskilled foes, but he cannot rise to a genuinely talented boxer. Rather than give up on Brennon, Amber and his trainer work on developing Brennon's skill. Brennon serves as an eager student and works hard at honing his craft.
And the reader of the 1920s gets an authentic glimpse of boxing training, something not seen by eyes that never ventured into a small-time, early 20th-century boxing gym. Although this particular work is not as dark or as gritty as other boxing fables crafted by Howard, the essence of the hard work and little reward associated with the sport is brought to life in Howard's prose.
Brennon does win his first fight under Amber's management. Not because he is a great boxer, but because he is an "iron man," a tough guy with a strong jaw who can slug it out. He's a working-class hero. Don't look for him to be an iconic fighter. Look for him to survive to fight another day.
Brennon's words not the mix of hope and hopelessness in his situation:
"I've failed at everything else I've tried. As for boxing, the crowd dazes me, for one thing. But that isn't all. I just can't remember what to do next, and have to struggle through the best way I can....But I can take it! That's my one hope."
Those are the words of the recurrent everyman's theme of the tale.
The Brutal, Inglorious Path to Fame
Howard's characters had a drive to them that undoubtedly was rooted in the author's own personal dreams and aspirations. Again, Howard did try to live through his characters.
For Iron Mike Brennon, he now has a chance to be someone. He wishes to make something of himself and put the memories of life in an orphanage as a child and a "hobo" during his younger days behind him. Brennon's only chance at being something is going out and repeating his "iron man" performance - take one brutal beating after another with the hope of scoring a lucky punch and a lucky win.
He does this and becomes a star...and suffers massive beatings fight after fight as a result.
Brennon fought and fought and fought. And he made a lot of money doing so. Remembering his days of poverty, Brennon saved his money. He lived as if he had none, living in the gym as if he was a pauper. The money earned from fighting became his nest egg. Not having money during his life led him to value it much.
Money may not even have been the motivation for his fighting. A vicious his beatings were, Brennon achieved fame experiencing them. The pain made him known to the public, and it made him feel alive for the first time in his life.
Is there another reason why he fights? And is he really saving all his money in a miserly way? Answering those questions would spoil a major plot point in the story, so no answers are going to be forthcoming.
The story does have a bittersweet and very Howard-esque positive-but-not-happy ending. The ending is ambiguous, and the work certainly does not conclude with Brennon experiencing a perfect finale to his career. Still, the short ends with a renewed hope for the future, and the tale never leaves the blue-collar realism Howard crafts from the very beginning.
Although not the most popular of Howard's works, Iron Men is still well worth reading.
More Howard Tales
Please read my other Hubs focusing on the work of Robert E. Howard: