By David Albertyn
Some years ago, I trained at a high-performance gym inside the tennis stadium that hosts the Rogers Cup, Canada’s most prominent professional tennis tournament. I had been to the Toronto stadium several times before as a spectator, and it shares the standard structure of any sports arena, concourses, seats, and so on. But visiting this gym through a side entrance exposed me to large windowless passages of polished concrete, stairwells, offices, a gym, change rooms, bathrooms, maintenance rooms, press rooms, and I’m sure much else that I never had a chance to see. Furthermore, since I was there outside of the tournament week, the hallways were almost always eerily empty. I couldn’t help thinking that this would be a wonderful space to set a story. Not the Tennis Canada stadium specifically, which is not nearly as large as other stadiums that have more complex and futuristically cavernous inner workings, but the underbelly of any stadium. Walking in those sleek yet industrial-like tunnels, I envisioned a narrative that would have all the trappings of a great sports story, and yet that would merely be a prelude to the real action going on here, behind the scenes. I didn’t have a plot in mind, only the concept, and I didn’t try to develop it, but just let it linger for future use.
In the years following this experience, I grew increasingly interested in boxing. I had competed in a lot of sports over the years, most seriously in track and field as a runner in high school and university, and in tennis from the end of university to this day. I had been intrigued by boxing ever since I was little, and after my family immigrated to Canada from South Africa when I was ten years old, on one of our first trips to Canadian Tire to stock up on items for our new house (a snow shovel was a possession we had never owned before), my father bought me a pair of boxing gloves and a punching bag to hang up in our new garage. I would punch that bag until my knuckles were raw. In junior high, I organized mini-boxing matches for some friends and I to have in the home of the friend with the largest basement. I had also watched big fights when I could, and had my favourites whom I supported.
But I was as an adult, when I took some boxing classes as cross training for my tennis, that I began to pay closer attention to the business of boxing. Professional boxing has a structure unique to most sports: there are multiple governing bodies and world title belts, and fighters have to organize and promote fights themselves with their opponents. If you combined artists throwing a concert, movie producers planning a big box-office weekend, and gladiatorial combat, you’d have boxing. The New England Patriots and the St. Louis Rams don’t have to negotiate when and where they’re going to host the Superbowl, which cable network they’re going to sign to distribute the game, what split each team will take from the total purse, and how much each player is allowed to weigh, but this is normal for boxing. Boxers are businessmen and entertainers as well as athletes, and the complexities only go deeper. Sometimes fighters’ promotional management teams don’t like doing business together and so those boxers won’t fight each other, even though they’re the two best boxers in the world and in any other sport would be competing to decide a champion. Sometimes promoter A does a lot of business with promoter B but doesn’t like promoter C, so promoter B, to keep A happy, won’t do business with C either. Can you imagine if Nadal never played Djokovic because Federer’s agent didn’t like Djokovic’s? Sounds crazy, but that’s the kind of stuff that happens in boxing.
Sometimes one fighter is signed to a multi-fight deal with one cable network, while another fighter is signed to another network, and they won’t fight each other even though everyone wants them to because the cable networks can’t agree on a deal. Picture LeBron James never playing against Steph Curry because two TV channels couldn’t agree. That’s the kind of stuff that happens in boxing. For me, it is easily the most interesting, and most surprising, business side of any professional sport.
I was telling all this to my sister one day, and she said, “You should write a book about boxing. Clearly you find it fascinating.” I shrugged off the idea, but, like my behind-the-scenes stadium concept, it lingered.
My initial plan for my novel, Undercard, was to follow four characters who had been very close growing up but now, as estranged adults, their motivations conflict. How they navigate these tensions would be the meat of the book. I wanted each character to be an athlete in a different sport, because you’re told as an aspiring author to write a story that only you could come up with, and with my background as an athlete and as a tennis coach, I envisioned sports playing a central theme within a bullet-paced thriller.
Once I chose Las Vegas, the mecca of boxing, as the setting, I realized that all these nagging ideas were lining up and could be combined in one pulse-pounding narrative. Undercard is the result. And industry insiders from Toronto to Paris, Hollywood to Berlin, have been tantalized by the menace and action in the catacombs of a boxing mega-event.