The hell with my lede. Let’s start with his:
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for a call from a man who doesn’t trust me, hoping he’ll have answers about a man I don’t trust, which may clear the name of a man no one gives a damn about.
That’s how J.R. Moehringer begins “Resurrecting the Champ,” the greatest newspaper story ever written, and if you’re not hooked by the time the period slams that sentence shut, God knows why you’re here.
I’ve read this story at least 100 times since it appeared in the L.A. Times Magazine* in 1997, and my bones still ache with envy. Moehringer has command of all the storyteller’s tools here – rhythm, pacing, metaphor – and I’ve spent many an hour taking the story apart like an old radio.
But what I love about this story the most is a simple thing that shows up in far too few nonfiction narratives:
That lede echoes Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and all those noir movies of the ’40s (Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity”: I killed him for money. And for a woman. And I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.)
Moehringer gets a tip: A former heavyweight contender named Bob Satterfield – known for jackhammer punches and a tinfoil chin – is walking the streets of Santa Ana, homeless. Moehringer goes looking for him, almost gives up, then sees an old man, toothless and filthy – but with hands so big they hang from his sides like bowling balls. Moehringer approaches him.
“You’re Bob Satterfield, aren’t you?” I said.
“Battlin’ Bob Satterfield!” he said, delighted at being recognized.
And then what happens is…
Well, here’s the problem. I can’t tell you.
Every great mystery has twists and turns. There are at least three places in this story where I still drop the printout (or now, the laptop) in disbelief. To paraphrase that great literary figure Rowdy Roddy Piper, just when you think you’ve got all the answers, the story changes the questions.
To explain the whole thing, I’d need spoiler alerts. When was the last time you read a story that required spoiler alerts?
I’ll tell you this much: To find out just who Bob Satterfield is, and to find out how that man ended up on the Santa Ana streets, Moehringer has to navigate false clues and blind alleys and several people who might or might not be lying to him. There’s a key conversation with Jake LaMotta (the boxer De Niro played in “Raging Bull”). There’s a meeting in that hotel in Columbus. There are things Moehringer wants to see that he doesn’t. There are things he doesn’t want to see that he does.
Moehringer is a main character, right there in the first person, dealing with (among other things) major daddy issues. One thing I’ve wondered over the years is if the story would work without him in it. I’ve decided he has to be in there – above all, this is a detective story, and he’s the gumshoe who bumbles through the story, trying to solve the mystery.
By God, he solves it.
And then – as in the very best mysteries – there’s one more scene. We’re back on the California streets, our two main characters are talking…
And the very last line of the story hits you like a left hook to the gut.
It’s the best last line I know of. Every time I read the story, it stays with me for days.
Journalists often work on different kinds of mysteries. We’re great at doing the forensics on a failed campaign and pinpointing just where it went sour. We’re great at dissecting a game-winning TD and showing exactly how the receiver got open.
But those are mysteries where the reader already knows the ending – we’re just revealing the why and the how. The best mysteries start with a what – or, more to the point, a WHAT!?! – and take readers from there to places they’d never expect.
It’s easier when you can make stuff up – whoever created “Matlock” owns half of Malibu by now. But to pull it off in nonfiction – to find the story, track it down and write it – that’s jumping off the high dive.
But in my mind, he’s the guy who chased a tip, found a mystery, and ended up with the greatest newspaper story of all time.
They made a movie out of “Resurrecting the Champ,” starring Josh Hartnett and Samuel L. Jackson. I’ve never watched it. It’s not as good as the newspaper story. It can’t possibly be.
*Yeah, maybe it’s technically a magazine story – it does run nearly 12,000 words. But to me, if it comes bundled with the comics and the coupons, it’s a newspaper story.
Tommy Tomlinson (@tommytomlinson) is a storyteller for The Charlotte Observer, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a former Nieman Fellow.