Phil Rice

Introduction for Becoming Taz by Jeff Bumpus

The first time I saw Jeff Bumpus was June 28, 1984. I was sitting in front of the television to watch a night of boxing on ESPN. The main event was Donny Lalonde versus Carlos Tite, two guys I knew were fun to watch; my expectations of an entertaining fight card were high. The show was coming from Merrillville, Indiana, and the very first fight was a four-rounder between two fighters from the Hoosier state: Randy Reedy from Terre Haute and Jeff Bumpus from Elkhart. Both boxers were relatively new to professional boxing. Reedy had one victory and one loss; Bumpus entered the ring with a 6-1 record. Each seemed anxious for the start of round one, pacing in front of the cameras, nervously waiting for the bell to ring. When it finally did, the left-handed Bumpus came out throwing punches, pushing Reedy back from the outset. Though he didn’t get the knockout, he won each round convincingly.

Jeff’s nickname was “The Tasmanian Devil.” At 5’4”, he was a stocky lightweight, weighing in at exactly 135 for this fight. Against Reedy he demonstrated the style that would become his trademark: charging forward, bouncing slightly on bent knees, bobbing and weaving with both fists flying. He was adept at using his short stature to full advantage, and his powerful arms and legs meant that he might be out-boxed but never out-muscled. He had solid fundamental boxing skills, but his game was getting on the inside and working over his opponent. And when he took a shot on the chin on his way inside, he kept moving forward, throwing punches. A Tasmanian devil indeed.

There were many different types of fighters that showed up on those undercards. Among the mix were young prospects, guys with glossy amateur careers being groomed for big money matches — and maybe a title shot — in the near future; aging veterans hoping for one more chance at the top; used-up fighters getting one last pay day; “trial horses,” fighters known for giving an admirable but ultimately losing effort, usually against a prospect; and journeymen, a label given to tough, solid pros who for one reason or another stayed just outside of the top twenty. Bumpus was still finding his way at this stage. That first fight made a lasting impression on me as a fan. Clearly here was a true prizefighter, the sort who could have been in the ring a hundred years ago as easily as the moment. I was intrigued.

Although I had never stepped into the ring myself, I had become drawn to the sport during the previous few years, due in a large part to being able to watch the preliminary bouts on these long cable telecasts. I had been a casual fan of boxing through high school and college in the late 1970s, keeping up with the major fights, but having an opportunity to watch the four- and six-round fighters on cable had given me a new appreciation for the deeper aesthetics of the sport. When a subject really grabs my attention, I tend to immerse myself in it. And so it was with boxing. I rarely missed a telecast, and busied myself reading up on boxing history and studying the current magazines in between programs. I scored the fights in a notebook and rarely watched the bouts with anyone else lest they distract me from the details I was absorbing. I had become a true enthusiast of the “sweet science,” a phrase coined by author Pierce Egan circa 1820 and eloquently brought to life in the 1950s by A.J. Liebling, the war-correspondent-turned-theatre-critic who covered boxing for The New Yorker.

As I pursued this new passion, I was especially impressed by the dedicated workhorse types, boxers who took their trade seriously and drew every ounce of energy available in order to either come out on top or go down swinging. These pugilists seemed to accept victory and defeat with equal dignity — as long as they knew their own effort had been true. To my sensibilities, there was something poetic about that expression, and I would soon recognize the lightweight from Elkhart as a solid practitioner of the art. There was no posing, no pretension involved in his demeanor, and certainly no mention of “poetics.” Had there been, I probably would have looked the other way. Instead there was a genuine sense of dealing with the business at hand; of seeking to move forward, literally and figuratively; of confronting the next obstacle; of enduring and overcoming; of learning to rely on one’s own inner assessment over the judgment of others.

The Tasmanian Devil would appear on television several times in the coming years. In each case he was going up against a contender or prospect, and he always gave it his all. As a keen observer of the sport I had become very aware of the marketing side of how certain fighters were moved up through the rankings. Things were not usually “fixed” as such; it wasn’t a matter of the classic taking a dive. It was more a matter of these fighters being given an easier road to the top. They were given every advantage, which in a sport with subjective scoring and flexible rules can be easily accomplished. These fighters would be carefully matched, too. With the right backers, a fighter can pick and choose opponents. Initially this might mean easy or “soft” opponents to build up the record; then, as the fighter begins to move up the rankings, quality opponents are carefully chosen by style.

Jeff Bumpus was not aligned with the boxing powerbrokers, and he was not on the “greased” path. At least, his path wasn’t greased. He was a solid pro who was never in a dull fight, capable of carrying the fight to anyone, any place. A few were able to keep him on the outside and win the rounds, but make a mistake and he had the tools to extract a heavy toll. The message being sent to boxing promoters was that if you had a lightweight who could get by Bumpus, your man was ready for the top tier of competition. Though it was not his choice and he never embraced the label, Jeff found himself being classified as a journeyman — albeit a damn good one. He certainly showed potential, but without the necessary connections he was in the position of having to accept the big fights that were offered whether they were stylistically in his favor or not. Usually they were not. Winning a decision in these situations was unlikely; a knockout was the only way to leave town victorious. Still, he never fought like “an opponent,” and going into a fight he always exuded an air of confidence that he would overcome the odds. You take the opportunities that are presented.

Recognizing what he was up against made me an even bigger fan of the Tasmanian Devil. There was something very tangible to his struggle, especially since it was obvious he knew that he was fighting more than just the other guy in the ring. He still moved forward. He was going to leave his mark, one way or the other, even if the matchmaker, the promoter, the officials, and the television announcers were pulling for the other guy to win. In one of his higher-profile matches, Jeff was signed to fight in the other guy’s hometown with local judges and officials. His opponent was connected with a famous gym and had been carefully managed, but had suffered a loss recently and needed a win to get back on track. Beating Bumpus was the answer. Jeff came out in the first round and landed a perfect right hook to the chin, knocking the favored fighter on the seat of his pants. The referee ruled it a slip. I knew it would be a long night for Taz but I was rooting as hard as he was fighting.

The last time I saw Jeff on ESPN he was matched against Louie Lomeli, an undefeated prospect carrying a record of 14-0 into the contest. It was obvious that Bumpus knew he was at a classic crossroads. He needed a victory to keep his career going, but once again he was squaring off against a lanky lightweight with a long amateur career and heavy backing. At this point Jeff was still a young man but a grizzled veteran of the boxing world. He knew he was being set up to serve as a notch on the young gun’s pearl handle, but he also knew he could beat this guy. It was written all over his face and his demeanor as he paced the ring during the introductions. He could make it happen ….

The tenor of the fight was established early. In the first round Lomeli landed punches behind the head, but no warning. He led with his own head, and the referee told Jeff to quit holding. The favoritism was so obvious that both ESPN commentators jokingly called attention to it — but they also showed their own bias. After all, Lomeli had potential to make some big money for the network in coming fights. Once again, every advantage had been turned in favor of the investment. That’s the way boxing at this level worked. At the start of the second round, the television viewers were treated to a replay of first round action in which Jeff worked his way inside and landed his patented right hook to the chin. Al Bernstein, known as a knowledgeable boxing commentator, pointed out that “Bumpus, when he gets inside, is dangerous. Here he lands a good right hook to the head of Lomeli. That’s what Bumpus does well. He’s a good inside fighter.” Then, inexplicably, just a few seconds after explaining why Jeff was in control of the fight thus far, Bernstein adds, “I gave the round to Lomeli, 10-9. I thought he did some very good work on the inside.” Once again, only a knockout would win the day for the journeyman. My affinity for Taz grew.

As the 1990s inched to a close, my interest in boxing waned a little in favor of other pursuits, though I still watched a fight here and there and read the occasional boxing history book. Boxer’s stories still intrigued me. In 2007 I wrote a couple of essays that were published by a boxing website. This led to my making connections with boxing writers on social media sites, and ultimately with some of the boxers I had written about. As I explored this new world of electronic communication, I came across a name that instantly conjured images of a tough-as-nails fighter I used to root for back in the 1980s: Jeff “The Tasmanian Devil” Bumpus.

I couldn’t resist sending a note expressing my appreciation. His response was quick and cordial: “Thank you Phil. In the end we all have to be satisfied that whatever happens to us, it’s the best that we could do. Thanks for your kind words.” This brief exchange led to more correspondence. When I inquired about his possibly writing down some of his recollections, he responded by showing me some personal narratives he had already written. I quickly detected the retired pugilist’s talent for the fine art of storytelling. This was not just some guy trying to hang on to the glory of his youth. Each story detailed an event from his boxing days but with a conclusion rooted firmly in the maturity of middle age.

I edited one about his fight with Julio Cesar Chavez and published it in Canopic Jar, an online literary arts journal. Sitting alongside poetry and pieces of short fiction, somewhat to his surprise, Jeff’s essay fit in well. In addition to favorable responses from fight fans, he received positive criticism from readers who had never seen a boxing match but who simply enjoyed good writing. This eclectic mix of encouragement led to the idea of pulling the stories together in book form.

From the beginning I saw the collection as having more of a literary bent than the typical sports memoir. The book is about growth; boxing is the setting. These stories dissect the inner as well as the outer circumstances encountered. The details may be different and perhaps exotic to the average reader, but there is an important universal truth upon which each circumstance is built, and an equally important universality to the perspective from which those circumstances are being processed.

Comparing his writing with his boxing style is natural and remarkably apt. As a writer, Jeff Bumpus finds his own voice by building on a solid grasp of the fundamentals. Just as he did not have an extensive amateur career as a fighter, he has not had formal training as a writer beyond the standard secondary-school English classes, yet he has an innate sense of what to leave in and what to leave out, things I know from experience are difficult to teach. He learns by watching others rather than through strict imitation, drawing upon his extensive experience as a reader and allowing the narrative to flow naturally. And most importantly, as with his development as a professional boxer, his writing demonstrates a profound sense of self — and smartly stays within those bounds.

My dad once told me, “Unless it says something about who and where we are, even a good story is wasted.” With that measurement in mind, the stories that fill Becoming Taz: Writing from the Southpaw Stance are succinctly and efficiently rendered. They are well-crafted reflections which stand firm within the pantheon of fine literature that has emerged from the prize ring. Once again Jeff Bumpus is a late bloomer, but with writing he has found a second home. And this time the future is limitless. Write on, Taz. Write on.

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