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Books on Boxing: A Reader’s Guide

  "I find man revealing himself more completely in fighting than in any other form of expressive endeavor."
W.C. Heinz, The Professional (2001)

Biographies and autobiographies
by and about boxers
14 reviews
Essays on boxers, boxing, and boxing history
14 reviews
Fiction: novels and short stories that shed light on boxing culture and history
15 reviews
How to box
4 reviews
Non-fiction is easily the strongest field of writing about boxing. Books about notable boxers appear just about every year. There are also plenty of how-to-box books and many excellent essays (and essay collections) about boxing. The fourth field, boxing fiction, is less well-known, in part because it is less visible. In addition to a few novels about boxing and boxers' careers (e.g., Bertram Millhauser's Hot Leather, there are many novels and short stories that feature boxing matches or fist fights between men who know how to box. These works highlight the social meaning of boxing and offer brief if revealing glimpses of the sport. There are a few general comments on boxing fiction below.

In the following reviews, my goal is to say something about the book and the writer’s attitude towards boxers and boxing. A number of non-fiction writers are not enthusiastic about the sport itself. In reviews of boxing fiction, I comment on how the book connects boxing to masculinity and what it says about the use of boxing to measure manhood. The price given is what I paid for the book on Amazon, but prices vary.

Each link above take you to a list of reviewed books in that area. My glove scale ranges from 1/2 to 3 (no glove means I haven't entered comments yet):
= Ok.   = Pretty good.   = Worth reading.   = A must.
Some reviews are of more than average length (Pacquiao, Griffith, Ali); the longer form is linked to the entry below in each case. I welcome suggestions for additions to this list. I will correct factual errors called to my attention. All material copyrighted 2018 Allen J. Frantzen.

July 2018
(August 2017)


Fiction       Back to top

Too much writing about boxing in fiction (and elsewhere) is limited by the most popular stereotype about boxing itself, which is that boxing is a way for losers to gain self-respect. "Boxers are desperate men," a friend once said to me. "Me too?" I asked. "Am I desprate?" Then I asked, "How many other boxers do you know?" It turned out that I was the only boxer she knew and that she did not think I was desperate.

Not far behind is a view held by some respected authors of boxing books, which is that boxers use the sport to express rage they can't otherwise articulate. There are a few boxers of whom that might be true, but it is a mistake to assume that men box because they are unable to voice negative feelings. Negative views of boxing are expressed most often by writers who have never boxed and who underestimate the cool, calculated attitude seen in great boxers who know that lack of emotional control can undermine a smart offensive strategy.

In addition to a few novels about boxers, I review books in which boxing is used to characterize a historical period or to tell us something about a man who has a boxing history but who is now engaged in other work. For example, Patrick O'Brian makes effective use of boxing in his naval fiction, and few writers can top Sebastian Barry's use of boxing in a novel about World War I.

Barry, Sebastian. A Long Long Way
Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. Two Years before the Mast and Other Voyages
Gardner, Leonard. Fat City.
Heinz, W. C. The Professional
Kennaway, James. Tunes of Glory
Kent, Alexander. Band of Brothers
Kent, Alexander. Stand to Danger
Lehman, Ernst. "The Comedian," The Short Fiction of Ernest Lehman
McGivern, William P. The Big Heat
O'Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen
O'Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral
Prosper, Proz. Closer to the Sun
Roth, Philip Roth. American Pastoral
Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums"
Traver, Robert. Anatomy of a Murder.
Zola, Émile. Germinal.

BIOGRAPHIES & AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, alphabetical by boxer       Back to top
Ali, Muhammad: Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life
Ali, Muhammad: Walter Dean Myers, The Greatest
Anon. Unnamed Boxer: Ackerley, J. R. My Father and Myself
Atlas, Teddy, & Peter Alson, From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man
Argüello, Alexis: Christian Giudice, Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello
Duran, Roberto
: Christian Guidice, Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran
Greitens, Eric, The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL
Griffith, Emile, "It's All Behind Me Now"
Griffith, Emile: Ross, Ron. Nine . . . Ten . . . and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith
Leonard, Sugar Ray, with Michael Arkush, Sugar Ray Leonard: The Big Fight; My Life in and out of the Ring
Mancini, Ray: Mark Kriegel, The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini
Pacquiao, Manny: Gary Andrew Poole, PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao
Patterson, Floyd: Alan H. Levy, Floyd Patterson: A Boxer and a Gentleman
Patterson, Floyd: W. K. Stratton, Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion

Spinks, Michael and Leon Spinks: John Florio & Ouisie Shapiro, One Punch from the Promise Land:
Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title

Tyson, Mike: Peter Heller, Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story
Tyson, Mike, & Larry Sloman, Undisputed Truth


ESSAYS       Back to top
Baumer, William H., Jr. Not All Warriors

Blewett, Bert. The A-Z of World Boxing

Fried, Ronald K. Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers

Gorn, Elliott J. The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America
Hamill, Pete. The Times Square Gym, Photographs by John Goodman
Heinz, W. C. The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz
Heller, Pete. "In this Corner ... !": 42 World Champions Tell their Stories
Kimball, George, and John Schulian. At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing
Liebling, A. J. The Sweet Science  
Oates, Joyce Carol. On Boxing

Oden, John E. White Collar Boxing
Plimpton, George. Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring

Sammons, Jeffrey T. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society

Snyder, Todd D. 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia.

Silverman, Jay, ed. The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told


HOW TO BOX       Back to top

Baumer, William H., Jr. Sports as Taught and Played at West Point

Lachica, Alan, with Doug Werner. Boxing’s Ten Commandments: Essential Training for the
    Sweet Science
O’Reilly, John Boyle. Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport, ed. John W. Hurley.

U. S. Navy. Boxing. The Naval Aviation Physical Training Manuals. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1943. $15.

ALLEN'S REVIEWS

J. R. ACKERLEY
My Father and Myself. New York: New York Review Books, 1999.

It is a stretch to include this book on a list of books about boxing, but there is a connection worth making, even though the boxer mentioned is never named. There is little written on gay or bisexual boxers, which is not a surprise, so even brief references are worth noting. Ron Ross wrote a book about Emile Griffith, an openly bisexal boxer, but there is little else available.

The topic surfaces in this memoir by J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967), a British Broadcasting Corporation commentator and an English literary figure (editor of The Listener). In the book, which was first published the year after Ackerley died, the author devotes a few pages to a four-year affair he had with a British sailor who was a boxer.

The memoir is a cold account of Ackerley’s home and family life, which was dominated by his father, who was syphilitic and who raised a second family that his first family knew nothing about until he died. Like thousands of middle-class men, Ackerley went to public (i.e., private) school. He and his brother both became officers in World War I. Ackerley survived the war (his brother did not), after which he went to Cambridge. Public school, university, and military service were all theaters for gay life, and Ackerley, so handsome that his nickname was "Girlie," had many opportunities for gay sex. He saved his sexual adventures for his life in London after he left Cambridge.

In London Ackerley pursued what he refers to as "my Ideal Friend," the man of his dreams. He was introduced to this man by a gay acquaintance. The "Ideal Friend" was "a sailor, an able-bodied seaman, a simple, normal, inarticulate, working-class boy." Ackerley knew this man’s family but does not say how he knew them, or where the man was from. He was "small in stature and a lightweight boxer quite famous in the Navy." He wasn’t just a sailor, therefore, but a skilled athlete who succeeded in one of the most difficult competitive contact sports.

The boxing sailor had no interest in girls, took other male lovers after he left Ackerley, and married when he was about 40 (p. 164). Between voyages and on leave, the sailor visited Ackerley in London. Ackerley rented an apartment in Portsmouth, where the boxer was stationed, so the two could see more of each other (p. 168).

Men like Ackerley picked up sailors in seaports, since sailors, like soldiers, were always short of cash. In London, these men had scaled pay for the sexual favors they dispensed, with Horse Guards expecting the highest compensation. In these exchanges, the Ackerleys were looking for love; the men they picked up were not. "He did not want emotion, only fun," Ackerley writes of his "Ideal Friend."

Alas, Ackerley offers not a word about the boxer as a boxer except to say that he had a perfect body (he seems not to have been especially handsome). He wryly touches on one topic found in boxing books. "He was an athlete, always boxing or training for it," Ackerley writes, so their sexual activity was limited because the boxer needed "to conserve his strength" (p. 166).

I was hoping for some discussion about how the boxer navigated his activities and his awareness of his difference from most of the sailors he knew. Whatever interest Ackerley took in this man's life aboard ship and away from their apartments is disappointingly not apparent in the book. Didn't it mean something that he was not just a sailor and a simple boy but also a boxer?

Ackerley says he would have married this man had he been able to do so. The sailor took the "female" role when they danced, which the boxer enjoyed (p. 166). At other times, the boxer sounds like a conventional suburban husband. Coming home to a dinner that Ackerley had prepared, the boxer said, "What, chicken again!" (p. 168). That was "the only speech he ever made that has stuck in my mind," Ackerley observes, revealing something about the depth of their relationship. For his part, Ackerley behaved "like any possessive housewife."

Ackerley claims that he was able to keep the sailor from thinking that either he or Ackerley himself was "queer" or living a homosexual life. To this end, Ackerley isolated his "friend" from Ackerley's cynical gay acquaintances, who included some important English literary figures (W. H. Auden, for example).

A few questions about this discretion suggest themselves. The boxer is said to have had no sexual experience before he met Ackerley, but it seems probable that the sailor was less innocent than Ackerley thought. Sexual relations between men were traditionally a much-discussed and dreaded topic in the British Navy. The boxing sailor must have been familiar with this subject, if only as a matter of humor. It is likely that sailors like him knew a few things about sex with men and knew of others who accepted the sexual attentions of gay men for money. He must have known that he was unusual; other men had sex with women and he would have heard them boasting about it.

Ackerley's "Ideal Friend" was a boxer with a reputation ("quite famous in the Navy"). Ackerley’s source on this fame must have been the boxer himself or perhaps the boxer’s family. One wonders how the boxer squared dancing nude with another male with his reputation as a well-known Navy boxer. It is difficult to imagine that these activities did not create some cognitive dissonance for “this simple, normal, inarticulate, working-class boy.”

We can see that the nation's laws about same-sex acts (not to mention the regulations of the British Navy) did not get in the way of homosexual relationships. The chief subject of My Father and Myself is the author's failed but rich connection to his father. Ackerley’s relationship with the boxing sailor offers just a brief glimpse of same-sex relations in England in the 1920s and 1930s, where legal and social lines, however rigid, could nonetheless be crossed and ignored by people of all classes.

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Christian GUIDICE: Alexis ARGÜELLO
Christian Giudice, Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012. $26.95.

Another boxer, not unlike Ali and Duran, with a large political following, although in this case a murky affair in which the boxer is seen as, first, the whipping boy of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, and then as their puppet, perhaps even their murder victim. Argüello was an underappreciated boxer who fought between 126 and 140 lbs. and compiled an extraordinary record. Giudice feels that he never got the recognition he deserved until he lost to a much younger and fitter Aaron Pryor not once but twice. The "rise" narrative is a tedious chronicle of victories spiked by the very rare loss, 88 fights, 80 wins, 70 knock-outs. The "fall" is briefer and grimmer, but also a spotty tale told in a disjointed and meandering style. Giudice does an impressive job of interviewing sources and gathering details, but he's no detective and he tends to swamp the narrative in details. It's a better book than his book on Duran, however, even though Duran was a more compelling subject. This comes about in part because, unlike Duran, Argüello learned English and could communicate directly with the author.

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Teddy ATLAS
  From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man. New York: Harper, 2006. $7.00.

A cut above most of the books listed here, punctuated by some wise and useful comments. Atlas takes what's left of the gloss off the Tyson-D'Amato father-son myth, showing both men to be thoroughly worthy of contempt. In the fashion of these books, Atlas buffs his own tough-guy image and doesn't attempt to justify his carelessness in financial matters. Some unexpected gems include his work with dancer Twyla Tharp and actor Willem Defoe. There's a lot of good sense in this book even though its take on Atlas's father-son connection fades in most of the chapters. Still, this is a useful boxing book with a point of view not many trainers express.

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William H. BAUMER
Not All Warriors. New York: Smith & Durrell, 1941.

Baumer taught at West Point and wrote about the non-military careers of some of the men who attended West Point, among them James McNeill Whistler.

Baumer's book is available online, since it is in the public domain: go to this link, provided by Bill Thayer.
There is more about Whistler's pugnacious side to be seen, very much incidentally, in Daniel E. Sutherland's biography, Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), which material I include in the following.

Whistler was a combative man in more than the intellectual sense. He loved to argue into early morning hours with the pre=Raphaelite brotherhood formed by Swinburne and Rossetti, among others, and Sutherland writes that they "encouraged Whistler's combative streak quite literally" (p. 73). One of them, William Holman Hunt, often boxed. Whistler had lived in Paris before moving to London and commented on "the boxing matches of English students" there. So far as I know, Whistler might have taken boxing lessons in Paris but did not have much training in the sport. What Whistler did do was get into fights with, for example, a cab driver in Paris (p. 74), a Haitian passenger on a steamship (p. 98), and even a weapons merchant (pp. 95-96, p. 98). After a scene caused by Whistler's fight with a construction worker in Paris, Sutherland writes, it seems that "Whistler had come to accept combat as a natural state" (pp. 106-7), perhaps a problem for a man seeking to make his way by selling controversial paintings to the wealthy.

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William H. BAUMER
Sports as Taught and Played at West Point. Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing, 1939.

Along with football, soccer, basketball, fencing, gynmasium, hockey, swimming and diving, wrestling, baseball, golf, and 7 others, boxing had a place at West Point in Baumer's day. The boxing chapter, like the others, includes illustrations. It is short (pp. 89-105) but full of good advice as well as valuable historian perspective, both provided by Baumer with the help of then-boxing-coach William J. Cavanagh. The amateur boxer works for pleasure, physical exercise and fame in more or less circumscrbed circles," Baumer writes. Collegiate boxing was slow to take off because of the stigma created by corruption in boxing at professional levels. The instructions are very clear, and they hold interest for many reasons. For example, I don't see the word "jab" here but rather "left lead to the face." Plebes (first-year students) did not use their right hands during the first semester of boxing classes; otherwise, Baumer says, they wold never have learned how to use the left hand (p. 96). "The marking of boxing bouts is not base solely on the damage done," Baumer writes, "but on form, clean blows sruck with clenched hands, making a man miss and countering; aggressiveness; and condition at the finish of the bout" (p. 105). Amen to that. Very useful pages for any amateur boxer to read.

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Bert BLEWETT
The A-Z of World Boxing. London: Robson Books, 1996. $29.95

"An authoritative and entertaining compendium of the fight game from its origins to the present day." That's the subtitle, and it's accurate. Just about 430 pages, with an excellent index, the book contains dozens of short essays. There are entries for great boxers as well as entries on topics that are less obvious but important, including comebacks, comics, legislation, measurements, and firsts in boxing (the first book on boxing was published in 1747, "A Treatise on the Useful Science of Defence," by Captain John Godfrey). All the entries areexcellent reference tool, and the index is essential. Otherwise it would be hard to track down information about such boxers as Emile Griffith and Floyd Patterson, who do not have entries of their own. If you love boxing as much as I do, you'll find that this book makes great bedtime reading. The volume is full of photographs and is beautifully produced, a treasure and a pleasure to hold and page through.

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Richard Henry DANA
Two Years before the Mast and Other Voyages. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2005. $29.95

Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882) wrote a famous memoir, Two Years before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea, which was published in 1840. Two Years is not a boxing book but it does contain an account of an unusual ship-board boxing match that reaches an unexpected conclusion. Nat, who is “broad-backed, big-headed” and about 16 years old, bullies George, a younger, smaller boy from a Boston school who is on the sea for the first time. George begins “to assert his rights against his oppressor.” One day the two get into “a violent squabble” and George offers to fight Nat “if he could have fairplay.” The ship’s chief mate forces them to stop and says that they will either make peace or “fight till one gave in for beaten.” The boys refuse to make peace and so the mate calls up the crew (the captain is ashore). Following contemporary practice for a boxing match, the mate “marked a line on the deck, brought the two boys up to it, making them ‘toe the mark.’” He stretches a rope at a height just above their waist and forbids them to strike below it.

The boys fight, Nat taking the offense and quickly bruising and bloodying his opponent, whom the crew “expected to see give in every moment.” However, “the more he [George] was hurt, the better he fought.” George defiantly says that he will fight until one or the other is killed, and at this the men cheer him on, with shouts of “Well crowed” and others. At this Nat seems to lose heart. He sees that he has nothing to gain and a lot to lose, while his smaller opponent is already gaining glory in the contest, since he fights “for honor and freedom, and under a sense of wrong.” Nat gives in, “not so much beaten, as cowed and mortified,” and that is the end of his bullying. George thereby “became somebody on board” and the two do not quarrel for the rest of the voyage (pp. 224-25).

Dana went to sea to recover his health--not an obvious choice of a venue for this goal, it must be said--during his years as a Harvard undergraduate. Lucid and as gripping as many a sea novel, the book concerns Dana’s journey from Boston to California, departing August 14, 1834, and returning Sept. 22, 1836. An account of his journey to Cuba was published in 1840 and a chronicle of his trip around the world much later, in 1968.

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Sebastian BARRY
A Long Long Way. New York: Penguin, 2006. $14

There is a great boxing match in Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, a splendid novel about World War I. Like most authors of war novels, Barry writes about those on one side of the conflict, in his case the Irish. His narrative comprises many wars within The Great War. These include (but are not limited to) conflicts between Ireland and England, between Catholic and Protestant, the British Exepditionary Force and the Germans, fathers and sons, soldiers and civilians, and others.

In chapter 15, Barry writes about an inter-regimental boxing match between a boxer from Belfast named William Beatty and another Irishman named Miko Cuddy.

Irish soldiers from north and south had taken part in battles at Guillemont and Guinchy, so the Irish were now seen as one group, "Micks," with boxers from two different divisions. Prior to those battles, it seems, the Irish had not fought together, and north and south were considered enemies (p. 191). Carpenters have constructed a "beautiful arena" in a large hall where the chaplain, Father Buckley, said Mass. Making the arena even more church-like, Barry notes that there was "some Gothic detailing on the uprights."

The soldiers are excited by the prospect of a fight without death—in other words, a game. The Ulstermen and Southerners roar approval when the fighters enter and the men are shocked to see how large Beatty is, "a giant" compared to whom Cuddy is "a midget" (p. 193).

After the first round it appears to be an even contest, and the competing factions begin to banter among themselves, bringing to the surface the politics of Dublin, Derry, and Belfast. In the next round Cuddy goes down and the referee starts the count. After the second round some fights break out in the hall (p. 197). The during the next four rounds the boxers more than prove their skill and determination, and "no one could be entirely partisan now," since it was "a fight of equals" (p. 198).

I won’t spoil the ending, and Barry’s art is by now self-evident. One would expect the boxing match to be used to draw out and intensify ethnic and social differences between ethnic regions, officers and enlisted men, and others. That’s what boxing is apparently about: fighting to settle differences. Here the boxing match has the opposite effect, at least on the audience. Both fighters are heroicized. Their mastery of the sport, and their determination and ability to tolerate pain without giving in, unify the men in the audience, and in the end their cheering is "a tuneful roar, like a choir, an awful, simple and beautiful note of deep-throated approbation" (p. 199).

Seldom has a boxing match been put to better use in fiction!

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Ronald K. Fried
  Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991. $35.
This collection of essays about nine memorable boxing trainers is both a history of the sport in America from the 1920s to the late 1980s and a digest of the advice these trainers offered their famous boxers. The trainers are Ray Arcel, Jack Blackburn, Charley Goldman, Whitey Bimstein, Mannie Seamon, Freddie Brown, Al Silvani, and Eddie Futch. Lou Stillman’s legendary New York City gym, where many of these trainers worked for a time, gets its own chapter, which in itself is a brief history of American boxing up to 1967, when Stillman’s closed.
Fried’s opening essay is a marvelous introduction to boxing, and not just to its history. It’s an essay that revolves around the central question of success in the ring: is it the boxer, or is it the trainer? Larry Holmes is quoted as saying that “fighters make trainers, trainers don’t make fighters” (p. xiv). Most boxers give much more credit to their trainers, and even Jake La Motta, who told Fried that “a great, great, great majority of trainers, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” came around to admitting that Futch, Dundee, Arcel, and others were exceptions to his rule (p. xv).
For amateur boxers like me, the book is a rich source of insight into ring technique, the “sweet science.” Memorable pages include Futch’s detailed recollection of Ali’s weak uppercut. Ali dropped his right hand to throw the punch, and Futch told Joe Frazier, his boxer, to take that moment to “step in with a left hook.” That’s what Frazier did to knock Ali down in the fifteenth round of their fight in 1971 (pp. 322-23).
Futch and other trainers had amazing powers of recall. They not only saw everything that happened in the ring, it seems, but also remembered how it happened. Many of the essays and interviews stress the trainer’s need to know his boxer inside and out and how to bring out the boxer’s best. These trainers display an equally impressive ability to see into their boxers’ opponents and figure out not only how to exploit their weaknesses but when to do it. (Give Fried credit for expressing skepticism about some of the trainers' claims.)
I learned more about boxing technique from reading this book than I did reading any of the biographies and autobiographies discussed on this page. It’s often the case that the boxer is the jumbo jet, but he’s not going up or down without air traffic control, and for him, air traffic control is the trainer, the fighter’s “chief second” (p. xviii). He’s the man who takes charge of everything that happens between rounds and keeps his cool. He’s the one who makes sure that takeoff, flight, and landing go well.

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Christian GUIDICE: Roberto DURAN
Christian Giudice, Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran. Wrea Green, Lancashire (UK): Milo Books, 2006. $15

Roberto Duran was great boxer but a hard one to like, difficult to admire. This is an honest and unsparing book, but it sometimes seems muffled, perhaps because Guidice seems somewhat to be overwhelmed by the scope of his material. A lot must have been lost (or added) when his interviewee’s remarks were translated. There are anecdotes within anecdotes and a lot of details. It seems that Guidice wrote down and included nearly everything everybody told him in his relentless pursuit of Duran’s history.

For all the yarns and tales, however, Guidice never pierces the boxer’s armor or brings the reader closer than an arm’s length to the man’s heart. This is a shame, because every successful boxer brings with him an entire world that is biographer can explore. I think the language barrier has a lot to do with this distance.

The best chapters are the early ones that put Duran in the context of boxing in Panama and that recount the discovery of his enormous power and resolve. Duran's decline seems like that of a dozen other great boxers--generous to a fault, little money left to show of the wealth he gave away, and so on.

He was "a fighter who made war on life," Guidice says in his final, memorable summary (p. 310). There's a phase that bears thinking about, as does Guidice's statement that in the ring Duran "punched to kill" (p. 309). There are not a lot of boxers to whom the conventional ideas of boxing clearly apply, but Duran is one. We often read that boxers do what they do because of their rage. Guidice's tough look at Duran suggests that in Duran's case, the clichés hold. He was indeed a dangerous boxer.

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Jonathan EIG: Muhammad ALI
Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
This biography of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) by sportswriter Jonathan Eig has been highly praised. At 539 pages (plus notes and index), Eig’s book is twice the length of the average boxer biography and comes close to
Undisputed Truth,the overblown autobiography of Mike Tyson, co-authored with Larry Sloman. Eig does justice to Ali’s fame as a boxer and a social activist. For comparison, Walter Dean Myers' The Greatest (2005) is about one-third the length of Eig's biography (they use the same cover photograph). Strangely, Eig does not mention Myers' book, which is more about the boxer and his fights and less about the boxer's notoriety. If you are new to reading about Ali's career, read Myers.

No boxer before or since Ali managed to engage national politics the way he did, so there is justification for a big book about him, all boxing fans would agree. Eig builds the story of Ali’s life by weaving the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests into the boxer’s ring history. The focus on Ali's role in civil rights causes is important. But Eig shortchanges other boxers who faced discrimination in earlier times and who, as Elliot J. Gorn (1986), Jeffrey T. Sammons (1990), and others have shown, advanced the cause at great cost. So far as I can see, Gorn and Sammons are not cited in Eig's book, even though their books would have done much to put Ali's achievement in historical perspective. Ali has stature in part because he stands on the shoulders of giants.

Biographies are partly autobiographical. They reveal aspects of the writer as well as the writer’s view of the book’s subject. It is reasonable to ask what Eig’s relationship to Ali was. We learn that one of Eig’s daughters wrote to the retired boxer to say that “Jonathan really loves you” and that Ali and his wife subsequently invited Eig and his daughter to meet them in Phoenix. And then—?

In place of a preface setting out the path of his research and how his research affected his relationship with the boxer, Eig offers six vignettes that trace the trajectory of Ali’s “great gift” from his rise to the boxer’s “downfall” (p. xv). This design casts the narrative as a Greek tragedy, with an emphasis on the hero’s misfortunes and his circumstances rather than on his errors of judgment. This approach contributes to the impression that Ali himself was not responsible for his “downfall.” His admiration for Ali to one side, Eig makes Ali a tough sell as a tragic hero.   More . . .

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Leonard GARDNER
  Fat City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.  

Fat City, Gardner’s first (and only) novel, was greeted with great enthusiasm when it was published, and his essay on the fight between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 is regarded as a classic (“Sweeter than Sugar” is included in At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, ed. George Kimball and John Schulian [New York: The Library of America, 2011, pp. 276-87].) About Fat City Ross Macdonald wrote, “I have seldom read a novel as beautiful and individual as this one.” Walker Percy’s praise was more modest: he described the novel as “a solid good job.”
Fat City is tells the story of two boxers, Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, who believe that boxing is the route to a better life. They spar at the beginning of the book, after which point their lives follow separate paths. This is a book about men of modest boxing talent steered by a well-meaning but self-serving trainer who is not above exposing them to fighters with far superior talents. The boxers’ expectations rest on the illusion that even modest boxing ability will lead to financial and professional success.
A boxing novel stands or falls on its account of boxing, not on its version of the world of boxing, the poverty, the managers, the gyms, and other elements that make boxing what it is. When it comes to action in the ring, Fat City skims the surface. The inner workings of fights are not explored; rounds are painted in broad terms.
However, the book draws considerable power from its account of two worlds outside the ring: married life, invariably desperate and impoverished; and California’s cultures of migrant labor. Both Tully and Munger are forced to work as day laborers who pick fruit and vegetables in miserable conditions that emphasize the economic and social traps they have fallen into. Gardner does not have a light touch. Here’s a memorable scene that brings the boxers together for the first time after they spar (this is from the start of chapter 17).

In the midst of a phantasmagoria of worn-out, mangled faces, scarred cheeks and necks, twisted, pocked, crushed and bloated noses, missing teeth, brown snags, empty gums, stubble beards, pitcher lips, flop ears, sores, scabs, dribbled tobacco juice, stooped shoulders, split brows, weary, desperate, stupefied eyes under the lights of Center Street, Tully saw a familiar young man with a broken nose. His first impulse was to move away through the crowd to avoid being seen, but they had both come here for the same reason. He approached him, calling, and even the name came to him. "Hey, Ernie." The other looked around blankly. "How's it going? You making the day hauls now?"
Ernie stood with his hands in his pockets. "Shit, man. Wife's pregnant, I get up in the middle of the night two times now and come down to pick up a few extra bucks and run into a mob like this" (p. 116).
That’s 20 descriptive terms, all striking the same note, before we get to Ernie’s broken nose.

We frequently see the boxers’ unrealistic expectations mirrored in those of Ruben Luna, their trainer, who cannot separate his welfare from that of his fighters. What he wants for himself (the image of a successful trainer, winning boxers) determines what he makes possible for them. It is no surprise that his interests and theirs diverge at every point. Luna has his merits, however. He knows that boxers shouldn’t be booze hounds and ought to eat well and live orderly lives like his. Unlike his boxers, he has a union job (p. 19).
Wisdom seldom shines through to relieve the book's thick gloom. There is a glimmer. Near the end of the book, Ruben reflects on his many boxers' many failures: “As if in rebellion against his influence, they had succumbed to whatever in them was weakest, and often it was nothing he could even define. They lost when they should have won and they drifted away” (p. 169). The coach seems to have decided that his boxers did not want to win badly enough. It's pretty clear throughout the novel that he is right. His boxers do not train as if they want to win. Success in the gym (showing up, working hard) and in the ring would have firmed up the self-confidence that, as men, they seem to lack in every part of their lives. Gritty, but a good book.

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Elliott J. GORN
  The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

This an outstanding book that has worn its three decades well. The book traces the history of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States from the colonial era to the last such fight in 1889. Two big ideas drive the argument.
The first concerns social class. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Gorn writes, boxing “really belonged to working-class males who rejected bourgeois standards of value, laborers dispossessed by new economic alignments, and men who lived in the netherworld of gambling, bootlegging, and petty crime.” The sport and its spectacular contests spoke “to these men—deeply divided by cultural and religious conflicts, by competition for status and power, and above all by a wrenching transformation of America’s economy” (pp. 96-97). Later, white-collar men would take to boxing, either as an activity for themselves or as spectators, as a way of reinforcing their sense of masculinity, which is said to have been eroded by their sedentary, managerial occupations. (That's a very big assumption and it has seldom been challenged--worth doing.)
The second idea pairs nicely with the first. Gorn believes that American society always had an dualistic view of boxing. “Boxing’s appeal always rested on a creative dualism between violence and order, impulsiveness and self-control, brutality and restraint,” he says (p. 171). It was because boxing was indeed a “sweet science” requiring a lot of skill and discipline, Gorn believes, that the sport became acceptable to spectators outside the working class.
The book returns to these ideas often. They are rich, but they have their limits. It seems entirely possible that laborers and managers liked boxing for the same reason. White-collar workers were divided by the same cultural and religious conflicts that divided workers, and they too competed for power and status. Boxing no doubt gave some of them the same temporary sense of freedom it gave their social and economic inferiors, whose masculinity was probably not in doubt.
Likewise, the idea of dualistic views of boxing has its appeal and its limits. It enlarges the simplistic view that boxing is about one thing (i.e., violence). However, dualism replaces one oversimplification with another. It teaches that is boxing is really about two things. This too seems to be a conceptual trap. An ambiguity defined between brutality and restraint imposes a pair of terms designed to limit possibilities of the sport. Many writers have shown that order cannot be maintained without violence. The tension between violence and order seems to be illusory and not at all like the tension between impulsiveness and self-control. They are opposites. Violence and order are not opposites: the opposite of violence is peace and the opposite of order is chaos.
Great boxing might require both brutality and restraint, if not at the same moment. Boxing is about more than two, or three, big ideas and the tensions between and among them. The dualistic hypothesis is better than a monolithic one, but dualism can also oversimplify, especially if it is based on false dichotomies, e.g., violence and order.
These reservations aside, however, Gorn’s book is a model cultural history and it is a pleasure to read. Hats off to him for pointing out that “the same biases that rendered women voiceless in the writing of history simultaneously excluded the majority of men, in particular workers, ethic minorities, and the poor” (p. 13). So much for the idea that all history was about men. As Gorn implies, all history, in the conventional sense, was about the few, not the many.

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Emile GRIFFITH
"It's All Behind Me Now." Boxing and Wrestling, Pp. 30-35, 62-63. April 1963

"I know what it is to die—and to be reborn again.” That’s the surprising first sentence of an article written by Emile Griffith and published in this magazine one year after he won the fight that killed Benny Paret.

Griffith is referring to two events. The first is his loss of the welterweight crown to Paret in 1961, an event that turned Griffith’s boyhood dream of being an athletic champion into a nightmare. The second event was the fatal fight in 1962. Of that event, Griffith writes, "I won back my title by knocking out Paret, but I lost virtually everything I had ever gained in life.” That is an unfortunate choice of words, since Paret really did lose everything. Griffith was reborn as the world’s welterweight king, but also felt that he had entered a world he could never "look in the face” again" (p. 32). [Some excerpts from this essay are reprinted in Ron Ross’s book, pp. 69-72, where they are followed by pictures from the fight.]

Griffith discusses the hate mail he received after Paret’s death but concentrates on the support he received from boxing fans and other boxers. The latter included Willie Toweel, whom Griffith had knocked out in 1960, and who also killed an opponent, and Sugar Ray Robinson, a high-flying champion who was in some ways a model for Griffith. Robinson had also killed a man in the ring; Jimmy Boyle died after their fight in 1947.

Griffith’s managers, Gil Clancy and Howard Albert, insisted that Griffith get back into the ring as soon as possible. He did. In his first fight after Paret’s death, Griffith had his opponent (Dupas) on the ropes and found himself stepping back. He did the same in a fight with Denny Moyer. Griffith won both fights and indeed won all fights that he took in the remainder of 1962 after Paret died. He soon quit backing away from an opponent he had on the ropes.

More than once Griffith says he thought about quitting the ring in 1962 but that this managers told him he should not, that he would let down his supporters if he did, and that children especially looked up to star athletes and needed Griffith and as a model. This is something Griffith seems to have believed, even if, outside the ring, little he did could be said to offer a model for the young.

The key paragraph occurs early in the article.

I told my managers I could never fight again. That I had wanted to knock Paret out because of the things he had said about me before the fight and to prove I had been robbed of the title in the second bout. It would be stupid to deny all this.
I wanted to win more than anything else. But anyone who said or wrote that I wanted to kill Paret was just vicious or stupid or both.
This is Griffith’s only reference to the mockery Paret displayed at the weigh-in in 1962, a replay of anti-gay remarks Paret had first made about Griffith before their fight in 1961 (see Ross, pp. 57-59). Griffith’s essay does not offer much insight into the fight that killed Paret. He does not describe Paret’s homosexual slurs or talk about how, going into the fight, his managers suggested he should respond to them. Nor does he recount anything in the fight itself or take readers to the crucial moments in which he beat Paret when he was defenseless.

The reader is left to poke around the edges for insights. There is one worth mentioning, at least. "Ever since I was a little boy,” Griffith writes in his third paragraph, "I dreamed of becoming a champion in one of the big sports—baseball, basketball or boxing—anything, because I loved all kinds of athletics” (p. 32). Readers of Griffith’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times can set that statement against one by Ross, who visited Griffith when the boxer’s dementia was advanced.

"By 2009, there was no more intelligent conversation," Ross is quoted as saying in the obituary. "His passing is a blessing. I visited him three weeks ago. It was just so sad to see him like that, knowing he had this tremendous athleticism and instinctive skills once. He could do anything — play tennis, dance, sing. He never wanted to be a fighter."

Not true. Becoming a boxing champion was one of Griffith’s boyhood dreams, he himself said in this article. It was a dream he realized not once but three times in the three titles he held. Ross seems to be implying that Griffith was forced or conned into his remarkable career in the ring. We do the boxer more credit if we acknowledge that Griffith wanted to be who he was, for better and for worse.

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Eric GREITENS
The Heart & the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. $15.95

Greitens points out that fear grips warriors of all kinds. In this book, which is about how he became a Navy SEAL, Greitens has good things to say about fighting fear. He writes that "uncontrolled fear rots the mind and impairs the body.” Greitens boxed as a college student and as a Rhodes scholar. He was successful in part because he could fight fear. "I’d learned in boxing and in my [humanitarian] work overseas that human beings can inoculate themselves against uncontrolled fear,” he writes. "When I first stepped into a boxing ring to spar, my heart rate was high, my adrenalin pumped, my muscles were tense—and I got beat up” (142). After years of training he could still appreciate the danger his opponent posed but he could keep his heart rate steady, relax, and fight well. Greitens states that men in the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs training program—among the most physically fit and aggressive men in the country—were overwhelmed by fear during training exercises. "They quit, I believe, because they allowed their fear to overwhelm them,” Greitens writes. These men “focused on all of the pain that they thought they might have to endure and how difficult it might be” and chose to leave the program (p. 186). If fear can be decisive at that level, how much more discouraging is it for the new amateur boxer?

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Pete HAMILL
The Times Square Gym, Photographs by John Goodman. New York: Evan Publishing, 1996. $24.95

A splendid book. Hamill's short essay is full of drama, history, and nostalgia. His is a very dark view of boxing, which he sees as a "blood sport" as ritualized as the Catholic Mass, "brutal, primitive, and dangerous." His definition of "heart," a much-loved virtue among boxers, is equally dark: "the willingness to endure pain in order to inflict it." For him, the famous gym on Times Square was, like Times Square itself, part of a vanished world that has since been replaced by a far inferior one. Hamill thinks that World War II was responsible for the Golden Age of boxing. He takes his hat off to Muhammad Ali, a showman whom Hamill calls a "terrible example" for the next generation of boxers, lesser boxers who lacked Ali's gift for showmanship. Hamill's take is not the same as that of many boxing historians. Hamill believes that men returning from World War II understood not only violence but social class in ways that could not endure. These men grew up in the Depression with rough people, fought the war, and returned to lives of low expectations. But they had honor and they had respect. Hamill thinks that what they admired most in great boxers was great intelligence. There's an angle you don't often see developed. This book should be in every collection of boxing books, a real period-piece and full of beauty.

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W. C. HEINZ
  The Professional. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001

Ernest Hemingway read this book and sent Heinz a note, saying “the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read and an excellent novel in its own right.” Heinz’s wife, hearing this, said to Heinz, who was a life-long fan of Hemingway, “This must be the greatest day in your life.” Elmore Leonard, no slouch, recounts these details in his introduction to the book, which is, by any standard, a remarkable and clever boxing novel.
As Leonard notes, Heinz’s creed about fiction was that “the writer should be kept out of there. He should not tell, but show.” This is a familiar dictum (along the lines of “A poem should not mean / But be,” Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica” [1926]) and it creates a dry, tense narrative that forces the reader to work, make inferences, and connect points that the writer does not make himself. The principle on display on every page is “less is more.” The understatement and brevity of expression contrast with the garrulous, self-congratulatory tone and style on display in many of the books listed here.

A stellar sports writer, Heinz had a gift for compression. Each of the novel’s 27 chapters is a vignette and a reminder that the author was used to packing a lot into 900-word newspaper columns. The same gift emerges in The Top of His Game: The Best Sports Writing of W. C. Heinz, a collection of Heinz’s columns and magazine essays (Library of America, 2015), noted briefly below. Events and people seem bigger and more imposing because the author does not inflate them or their psyches.

The Professional seems to be about the fighter, but it’s really about his trainer and the sports writer/narrator. Can there be a boxing book that offers less direct insight into the man who stars in the ring? Not one that I can recall. His manager talks a lot, but rarely in sentences more than a few words long. For a boxing fan, the gold nugget is on pp. 235-37 of the 2001 edition reviewed here. It has to be said that Heinz cheats a bit. The narrator, a sports writer, is talking to the boxer about boxing. I see this as Heinz the writer talking to Heinz the boxer, which is to say that the telling and the showing seem close together.

The scene: the training camp, a few days before the big fight (chapter 19). The writer (Frank) asks the boxer (Eddie) how he feels about the men he fights. Eddie says he likes some of his opponents and Frank explains why: "Each guy brought out the best in the other guy and gave him the greatest fight and his greatest moment" (p. 234).
Eddie describes a very good fight that forced him to use everything he had, both in skill and in strength: Eddie: "I mean, for ten rounds I wanted to kill him and he fought like he wanted to kill me, and then I wanted to kiss him. First I wanted to kill him. Explain that."
Then Eddie asks Frank a question I’ve been asked: "How come you like boxing so much?"
Frank: "Because I find so much in it."
Eddie: "How do you mean?"
Frank: "The basic law of man. The truth of life. It’s a fight, man against man, and if you’re going to defeat another man, defeat him completely."
In the next exchange, Frank elaborates: "I find man revealing himself more completely in fighting than in any other form of expressive endeavor. It’s the war all over again, and they license it and sell tickets to it and people go to see it because, without even realizing it, they see this truth in it" (pp. 235-46).
Frank is referring to World War II, the subject of the first essay in The Top of His Game. Reading "Transition," the first essay in this collection, one can see how closely connected Heinz's experience as a war correspondent was to his early career in sports writing. More than once he ran into athletes who, as soldiers, were fighting battles Heinz, as a correspondent, witnessed. Heinz himself saw some of these men at war against the Germans and then, later, at war on the football field or in the boxing ring.

Not to be lost in this discussion is Frank's use of "expressive endeavor." Not many people I know think of boxing or any sport as an "expressive endeavor," and in football or basketball one can see why--in any team sport. But in boxing, with tension so high and just two men involved, expression and interpretation are paramount.

Heinz's years as a writer close to athletes is clear in sections of the novel that parallel his columns. When Frank describes Eddie’s day leading up to the championship fight at ten p.m., it’s clear that numerous details, down to Eddie’s dinner and cups of tea, were taken from Heinz’s observation of Rock Graziano before his September 27, 1946, fight with Tony Zale, ranked as one of the great fights in boxing history. Many writers include their three fights (1946, 1947, 1948, with Graziano winning the 2nd) among the great battles in boxing.

A few words about boxing, warfare, and violence fit in here. Some people don’t understand boxing because they don’t understand violence and can’t think of anything worth fighting for. On this topic, you cannot do better than read Jack Donovan’s celebrated essay, “Violence is Golden” (found in A Sky without Eagles, pp. 17-23). As he points out, those who like to say they “abjure” violence rely on it every day. They rely on police protection, for example. They want home invaders stopped. It takes violence to protect those who denounce violence. The theologian and philosopher René Girard also identified this symbiotic relationship, writing that “people fail to realize that they are indebted to violence for the degree of peace that they enjoy” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p. 211). See also Heinz's essays in The Top of His Game (noted briefly just below).

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W. C. HEINZ
  The Top of His Game. New York: The Library of America, 2015. $16.

These essays were written between 1947, when Heinz was getting his start, and 1979. There are 15 columns from the New Y ork Sun and nearly as many from other journals where he published. There are also 10 chapters reprinted from a collection Heinz called Once They Heard the Cheers, published in 1979 and three essays between that time and 2000. (Heinz died 2008). The Top of His Game includes a great index of names, so this is an easy book to use.

There is a lot here, much of it memorable and often moving. The first essay, "Transition," from Fall 1945 (pp. 3-46), is worth the price of the book and will be difficult to forget for anybody who cares about battle and boxing. It's a long but gripping narrative about how Heinz got from World War II to sports writing. The brevity of many entries (900-word columns) is frustrating because they begin to feel formulaic, terse, even oracular. They were written for sports insiders in another age, hard-boiled readers of daily newspapers that had more print than picture. The longer pieces are among the best of the best. They include essays about the day of Graziano's first fight with Zale (pp. 113-30) and the memoir of Graziano (pp. 19-48). Cover to cover, red meat here for the true boxing fan.

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Peter HELLER: Mike TYSON
  Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story. New York: Penguin, 1989. $18.95.

Heller writes a good boxing book because he has been a manager and a trainer of boxers. His unique perspective on boxing and its recent history is outlined in "In This Corner . . . 42 World Champions Tell their Stories (Da Capo Press, 1973, 1994). This book appeared in 1989 and was written well before the "upset of the year," Tyson's February 11, 1990, lost to Buster Douglas in Tokyo. Tyson racked up 8 more wins before his Nov. 9, 1996 loss to Evander Holyfield (and another a few months later). So the Tyson of this book is 36-0, the man at the peak of his performance. This book is a valuable history of boxing for the span of Tyson's best years, but bad signs are everywhere, and it is impossible to read this book and settle for the myth that boxing reformed Tyson and turned a thug into a sports hero. The books ends with a forest of dark predictions about Tyson's lack of discipline and his multiple character defects (bully, arrogant, thug, criminal behavior, etc.). Depressing, but a very good if not great read because there is so much of Heller in the book.

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Peter HELLER
  "In this Corner ... !": 42 World Champions Tell their Stories. 1973; expanded ed., New York: Da Capo, 1994 $15.95.

Nobody writes a better boxing book that Peter Heller. For this book, first published in 1973 and enlarged in 1994, Heller interviewed boxers whose careers began before World War I. The enlarged edition includes interviews with Roberto Duran and Alexis Arguello (1970s). Before each interview Heller offers a short summary of the boxer's career, so the book is a history of boxing as well as an anthology of memorable statements from the 42 men Heller talked to. The boxers speak in their own voices. Tyson's trainer, Cus D'Amato, claimed to have used the 1973 edition as a training manual for his boxers, and Joyce Carol Oates used it as a research tool. It's no doubt both of those things, but it is also a moving tribute both to boxers and to the history of the sport, a chronicle of the changes that have been reshaping it for more than a century. There are some opportunities for cross-referencing, such as reading about the same the fights from Willie Pep's and then Joe (Sandy) Saddler's point of view. An anthology with a good index is a treasure. If you love boxing and want to immerse yourself in its history, here's a lively read for you.

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James KENNAWAY
  Tunes of Glory. 1956; Edinburgh: Canongate, 1988. $7.50

Tunes of Glory must be one of the best first novels of the mid-twentieth century. Published in 1956, Tunes of Glory is better known as the splendid film made from the book in 1960. The film was directed by Ronald Neame, and the screenplay was written by Kennaway himself, who was nominated for an Academy Award for it. (The Oscar went to Richard Brooks for his adaptation of Elmer Gantry, the Sinclair Lewis novel of 1927.)

  Boxing figures into Tunes of Glory, from first to last a military novel, indirectly but powerfully. The novel is about a regiment of Highlanders and Jock Sinclair, their tempestuous Acting Lieutenant-Colonel. He is a central character so powerful and compelling that he appears on nearly every page of the book, usually by name or, if not, by implication. Other characters seem either to be thinking about him or talking about him all the time. Jock Sinclair is very the definition of “commanding presence.”

  The subject of boxing comes up first after Jock plays the bagpipes for a young soldier. Jock, who is good at everything, is an accomplished piper. Although he is completely intoxicated, he plays a march and its variations, known as pibroch, so well that he leaves the corporal “dumb with admiration.” Jock then offers to teach the corporal and to help him with the pibroch, which is defined “a form of music for the Scottish bagpipes involving elaborate variations on a theme, typically of a martial or funerary character” (Wiki). Both words, “martial” and “funerary,” loom large in this book. Jock suggests that they might meet at mid-day the following day. But the corporal says he cannot do so because he will be in the gym boxing (p. 23). Jock sends him on his way, and the corporal goes back to his freezing barracks, thinking of the pibroch in his bed, even though he really wants to think about his girlfriend. He falls asleep and dreams of her, but “her face was transformed, for the Corporal dreamt of his Colonel” (p. 24).

  About 80 pages later this episode acquires new significance. Jock walks into a lounge area in the barracks, carefully groomed and looking his best: “He found his charm again that morning,” the narrator says (p. 101). Jock settles in with his drink and talks about his career during the war, during “his glory days.” The is a rare topic for Jock, who mostly talks about everything else. While the other men “had all heard about his piping days and his boxing days,” few of them had heard him talk about the war (p. 102).

  Kennaway again aligns piping, boxing, and combat a few pages later. Jock is arguing with the Colonel who has been sent to take over Jock’s command. The Colonel, unlike Jock an educated gentleman, is looking for some concession, some sign on Jock’s part of a willingness to compromise. “But Jock never fought to finish with a handshake,” the narrator says. Instead, “he fought to kill” (p. 116). Tirelessly competitive as well as ruthless, Jock is seen by all as a great leader and a great piper who was also, at one time, no doubt also a great boxer.

  Jock is last seen as a boxer near the end of the book. Jock is addressing a roomful of his men. “Like a boxer at the start of another round, Jock moved away from the desk again and stretched himself straight” (p. 169). I can’t develop this scene without giving away the ending of Tunes of Glory, and I’m afraid of what Jock’s ghost, or Kennaway’s, would do to me if I did that. It is enough to note that Jock’s address is given the form of “another round” of boxing, a broad hint of the spirit of his words.

  I can expand on briefly on the connection between Jock and the Corporal who boxes. Like Jock, the Corporal is a piper and a boxer, two elements of warrior identity in this book that might well be shared by several others in the regiment. What sets Jock apart, though is that he “never fought to finish with a handshake. He fought to kill.” (3/2017)

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Alexander KENT
  Band of Brothers
Kent introduces a boxer for a brief scene in the third book in the series, Band of Brothers, which was published in 2006, well after most of the other Bolitho novels appeared. This boxer is known only as Stiles. He is an ordinary seaman who is younger the others, and is one of a handful of men Bolitho has brought ashore with him. The objective of their small party is to intercept a boat involved in a smuggling operation in the Channel Islands.
More experienced hands speak to Bolitho about the risks of handling the craft and reaching the target ship. Then Stiles speaks up. He is “younger and more aggressive” than the others and is “said to have been a bare-knuckle prizefighter around the markets until he had decided to sign on. In a hurry, it was suggested” (101). This implies that Stiles had some trouble with the law. In reference to dangers of stopping the smugglers, Stiles asks, “Will there be a reward?” Bolitho seems to ignore the question as he mulls over strategy. Then he replies to Stiles sharply, saying “It’s our duty!” Bolitho, frequently identified as an idealist, expects the men to laugh at him. “Instead, Stiles replied, ‘That’ll ’ave to do, then!’” (102).
Kent gets a lot out of this brief exchange. Idealism and greed are the opposing forces of the conflict that the scene will eventually resolve—that’s the heart of the conflict between commerce and smuggling. It’s the Navy’s duty to interfere with the latter. Kent sets up Stiles as a shady character. Violent, young, aggressive, and even greedy, Stiles responds in a way that shows he follows Bolitho’s lead.
Bolitho’s mission is to stop a ship being used to smuggle arms in support of the revolution building in the American colonies (the year is 1774). “Personal greed” as well as independent spirit could “sustain a rebellion,” the narrator comments (no doubt reflecting Bolitho’s thoughts). Just because a cause is political does not mean it is without the promise of financial gain, and on both sides.
It turns out to be Stiles who sees the smuggling ship. Kent describes him as the outlook for the crew. “The prizefighter” is “poised high in the bows, one arm flung out,” and “outlined against the heaving water.” On either side of him is “an endless, pale backdrop of sea and sky” (102). A character who appears only once, Stiles is shown in a heroic pose. Bolitho picked him (and the others) for this dangerous mission. Kent uses Stiles, a proven warrior, to speak for the other sailors in the boat. The hardened young boxer takes up his idealistic young leader’s call to duty, the virtue that binds the band of brothers after whom the book is named.

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Alexander KENT
  Stand to Danger
Alexander Kent’s series about his fictional hero, Richard Bolitho, comprises thirty volumes. It compares favorably to C. S. Forrester’ eleven-book series about Horatio Hornblower. Both authors, like Patrick O’Brian, are immersed in sailing technology, but neither author achieves O’Brian’s stratospheric level of detail (see comments on O'Brian's two novels, below).
One of Kent’s major figures, Bolitho’s shipmate, Stockdale, was a boxer before he became a seaman. Kent introduces Stockdale in Stand into Danger, the fourth book in the Bolitho series, which is set in 1774 (the series begins in 1772 and runs to 1819). In the first chapter, “Welcome Aboard,” Bolitho heads up a party on shore to find the men needed to fill the ship’s complement of seamen. In theory men could no longer be impressed (captured at gunpoint and forced to work on ships), so the party is looking for volunteers. One of Bolitho’s men, Josh Little, who is the gunner’s mate, was once a fighter. He leads the party. He has several broken teeth, we learn in aside, “the true mark of a fighter” (p. 20).
Bolitho’s group approaches an inn where some men have gathered around a barker and the fighter who earns money for him. The audience disappears when the sailors arrive, upsetting the barker, who quickly moves to engage a new audience. He is a “small and darting” man, but his fighter is “big and powerful,” a man “stripped to the waist, his arms and fists hanging at his sides like weapons waiting to be used” (p. 20). The barker says that anybody who can fight this man for 2 minutes will get a guinea (a machine-struck gold piece originally worth one British pound, more than a seaman could earn in weeks). The boxer (Stockdale) bears the marks of many beatings, including a broken nose, and there is “something pathetic and despairing about him” (p. 21).
Bolitho goes into the inn but his men stay behind; from inside he hears shouts and laughter. It turns out that Josh Little knocked the prize fighter down. The barker turns on the fighter with a chain and beats him. Bolitho himself has felt defeated himself, not welcomed well aboard the ship, unable to find the 20 volunteers his lieutenant wants, and he is fed up. He orders the barker to belay the beating and offers the fighter volunteer duty for the King’s service. The fighter agrees. Even his voice has been broken and gives his name, Stockdale, roughly, his vocal chords “mangled in so many fights that even his voice was broken” (p. 23).
Bolitho tells Stockdale he can leave any time, before they get to the ship. Stockdale replies “No sir. I’ll not leave you. Not now. Not ever.” On the way back to the harbor, Stockdale vanishes and nobody is surprised, although Bolitho is disappointed since he was seeing Stockdale as “a change of luck, like a talisman.” Then Stockdale returns with a bounty of food and drink that he has bought with his savings. The men feast in a barn, and Stockdale will not take Little’s winnings. Stockdale brings a bottle of brandy for Bolitho and becomes a protector who will save his master’s hide on many occasions in the thousands of pages to come.

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2-2017.
Alan LACHICA
  Boxing’s Ten Commandments: Essential Training for the Sweet Science, with Doug Werner. San Diego: Tracks Publishing, 2007. $12.95

A tight, no-nonsense guide for committed beginners. These authors have published two other books about boxing, Boxer's Start-Up and Fighting Fit, and this book seems to begin where those leave off. Lachica jumps right into stance and rhythm, and talks about footwork, range, the jab, angles, and many other boxing skills. The rules make sense and sound great on paper, but putting them into practice, especially when sparring, is far from easy.
  The book is loaded with photographs showing stages of important boxing moves. The pictures give the boxer a good idea, for example, of what he looks like when he drops his hook and signals his move. Puzzling expressions, such as "keep the hook arm within the frame of the body," quickly become clear. The authors use their last "commandment," which is having a plan, to outline workouts and routines for the highly disciplined boxer and also to spell out the boxer's equipment needs.
  This is a book for a serious boxer. I think that just about anybody who could meet the high expectations of this guide would already know quite a bit of what the authors have to offer. Trainers who don't coach a lot of boxing will find this a very useful source for picking up tips and strategies for their boxers. PR for the book calls it "the real deal," and I agree. If you are really new to boxing, work with their Boxer's Start-Up first.

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Ernest LEHMAN
  "The Comedian." Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000. $25.

This is a novella about Sammy Hogarth, a nationally-famous comedian, and his brother Lester, who is his legal counsel and business manager. A key part of Sammy’s televised comic routine is to set up Lester as a clueless bungler, as the butt of his jokes. Sammy is preoccupied with launching a new comedy series. Lester himself has become famous as a result and has to put up with mockery and even cat-calls on the street. Lester is about to lose his girlfriend, who wants him to stand up to his bully-brother. Sammy’s program is moving into broader syndication, and Lester insists that his brother make the new start complete by dropping the jokes about his brother. Knowing that he has a good thing going, Sammy flatly refuses.

Al Preston, who narrates the story, is a writer who works for Sammy. He has his own conflicts with the comedian, whom he sees as cruel and heartless. In the opening pages, Preston recalls a boxing match he had with Sammy in O’Reilly’s Gym “only yesterday.” What at first seems like boyish horsing around turns serious. Sammy belts Al with “a savage right” and keeps going. “‘This is for Gleason,’” he sneered, closing in, “‘and this is for Berle’” (124). Sammy matches other famous comedians’ names—Caesar, Benny, Berle—to short punches to the ribs, as if to punish Al for not making Sammy as famous as these figures are. Al grabs Sammy in a clinch, sidesteps a blow, and then “catches him with everything [he] had, flush on the button” (125). Startled but uninjured, Sammy makes a joke—it turns out to be his stock-in-trade—about Lester, who “‘happens to be a salami sandwich’” and could not “‘fight his way out of a paper bag’” (125). This bit of humor that brings laughter from the men who are watching the famous entertainer throw punches.

This boxing scene is well-handled. It reveals that both Al and Sammy know how to box. It also shows how easily Sammy can use an event to ridicule Lest. Equally important, it reveals that, unlike Lester, Al is no patsy.

The opening boxing sequence and its stunning recapitulation at the end of the story are both omitted from the marvelous “Playhouse 90” version of the novella (1957). The play was, incredibly, done for live television, and justly regarded as a classic. Given that the telecast was live, it would have been very, very difficult to work a sweaty boxing scene into the opening, not to mention stage the scene at all, most actors being unable to meet the athletic demands of the scene, say nothing of doing so in a single take.

The TV version does not adhere to the ending of the novella, which is discussed below. If you read beyond this point before you read the novella, you will find the ending spoiled, so you are advised to read the novella first. If you intend to see the TV version, the following material won’t spoil the ending for you.

[You have been warned. Spoiler material follows.]

Kelly watches Julie, Sammy’s wife, who is having an affair with Lester. Kelly has figured this out. To buy his silence, Al offers him cash, which Kelly refuses. Instead he demands the watch that Connie (a secretary who is doing to marry Al) gave to Al. The watch later ends up in Sammy’s hands, meaning that he has learned from Kelly about Lester’s affair. As Sammy holds the watch, Al notices his bruised knuckles and things, “Kelly, the poor son of a bitch . . . (166). The novella has cleverly avoided a scene between Lester and Sammy, but at the very end Lester walks onto the set on which Sammy is performing one of his celebrated monologues. Sammy smothers his brother in “a welter of blows . . . pummeling the senseless, battered head, finishing it off with a final crack . . .” (175). All this has taken place before a live studio audience and a television audience of millions. As the significance of what he has done dawns on him, Sammy turns and walks off stage, “off all the screens of all the living rooms in the land” (176).

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Sugar Ray LEONARD
  Sugar Ray Leonard: The Big Fight; My Life in and out of the Ring. New York: Viking, 2011. $26.95.

Boxers and their co-authors never seem to realize that other boxers have written books just like the one they are writing. Leonard's book is true to form in lots of ways but stands out for its unusually smug and gloating tone. From time to time humility is manufactured to cushion that rare defeat or divorce, but it quickly disappears behind the boasting façade that is the genre's most predictable feature. There's almost nothing to be learned about boxing from this book. Leonard himself is the usual wasteful drugging drunk who sobers up on cue to win his next big fight and prove to himself that he is indeed still a man. Where he might have said something interesting about his performances--e.g., his clowning around that led to Roberto Duran's famous "No mas" conclusion--he fails. "I won't fight with this clown any more" is a lot different from "No more," as if Duran had been taking a beating. He wasn't. A book full of clichés deserves to be remembered with one: Leonard pulls his punches. It's not a tell-all book; it's a tell-a-bit book, smile for the camera, look into the mirror just long enough to tell yourself how wonderful you really, truly are. Nah. Skip this one.

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George KIMBALL & John SCHULIAN
  At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. New York: The Library of America, 2011. $35

If you buy just one collection of essays on boxing, buy this one. There are 48 essays covering many eras of boxing in America. Many of the essays can be found in other collections, but this one has unusual range. Very useful are the short introductions the editors give to each entry, since these often contain an assessment of the strengths of the piece that follows and information about the author that has a comfortably "insider" feeling. Books like this are a form of history and are especially valuable in an era in which so much cultural history, including boxing history, is left behind, croweded out, and then forgotten. The collection begins with Jack London's (d. 1916) essay on Jack Johnson and ends with Carlo Rotello's (b. 1964) essay on the end of Larry Holmes's career.

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A. J. LIEBLING
  The Sweet Science. New York: Ferrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004. $16
This is a frequently quoted source by a famous New Yorker writer. The phrase "the sweet science" alludes to "the sweet science of bruising," meaning that it takes skill (science) to hit your opponent. It comes from Pierce Egan's essay collection Boxiana (1828; Egan lived 1772-1849).
There’s a good introduction to this edition by Robert Anasi, who takes a long view of boxing history very much like that of Liebling himself, and who, again, like Liebling, is a man who knows about boxing because he watched it for many years. These men’s view of boxing has just about disappeared. Boxers have overtaken boxing, and media favors boxers more notable for their misbehavior than for their skills in the ring. Liebling's deep knowledge of boxing, however, rests on some assumptions we might want to think about.
To get a sense of Liebling’s view, consider a passage that Anasi quotes from Liebling’s essay, “The University of Eighth Avenue,” found in another essay collection called A Neutral Corner. Liebling writes that boxing is “an art of the people, like making love, and is likely to survive any electronic gadget that peddles razor blades” (Liebling, A Neutral Corner, p. 25). This tart reference to television (electronic gadget) and peddling razor blades (Gillette) is a jab at televised fights that once were part of American’s home entertainment. That’s a nice phrase, “art of the people,” getting to both the skill of boxing and its connection to populism. It is also clever to compare boxing to making love, an analogy that reverberates well below its surface, and is one reason why I am calling my book on my boxing experience "The Boxer's Kiss."
I can’t say that I fully subscribe to Liebling’s view of boxing, which is partly conditioned by the time in which he wrote, and partly by the things that made him the observer he was. He writes: A fighter’s hostilities are not turned inward, like a Sunday tennis player’s or a lady M.P.’s. They come out naturally with his sweat, and when his job is done he feels good because he has expressed himself. Chain-of-command types, to whom this is intolerable, try to rationalize their envy by proclaiming solicitude for the fighter's health. (Sweet Science, p. 5) The white-collar idea that Liebling challenges is that boxing is not good for fighters. The boxer's enviable freedom to express himself is said to come at the cost of damage to his well-being. Liebling thinks that white-collar types envy boxers their opportunity to vent. To compensate, they seem to associate boxers’ misfortunes (but not their fortunes) with the punishment they take in the ring. This only works to the boxer's disadvantage. When those who are skilled in other arts--the dancer Nijinsky, for example--misbehave, nobody wonders who hit them (i.e., boxing had nothing to do with it), as Liebling observes. When Hemingway won the Nobel prize, Liebling notes, nobody said getting hit in the ring made him a great writer--that is, boxing had nothing to do with his success (Sweet Science, pp. 5-6).
Two things seem amiss here. First, Liebling underestimates or seems to dismiss the danger of the sport. Even in his time, authorities worried about the dangers of the sport. Second, and more important, boxing is not venting.
I would say that it is a fundamental error to claim that the art of boxing is an outlet for “a fighter’s hostilities.” Angry and uncontrolled boxers are likely to make errors and pay for them. Smart boxers are not emotional boxers. Liebling must have known this. His view that boxing was naturally healthy both physically and emotionally is one I would support. Unfortunately, however, he aligns his views with those who see boxing as an expression of anger, rage, and frustration. If it is a "sweet science," it takes discipline and control, and this too every boxer knows. If you just want to hit something, work the bags. If you want to box, you have to think.
We wonder why so many people fear and loathe boxing. Perhaps we can start with statements like these found in the work one of the sport's most influential writers.

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Mark KRIEGEL: Ray MANCINI
Mark Kriegel, The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. New York: Free Press, 2012. $18.50.
A great book that weaves respect for America as it was fifty years ago with the career of an iconic boxer. True, for many readers the heart of this book will be found in the account of Mancini's fight with Duk Koo Kim, the Korean boxer who died of injuries received in this fight in 1982. This is indeed an important moment in boxing history, but it should not overshadow all that distinguishes Mancini's boxing career before that point, or after it. Kriegel's book bravely pairs Mancini's family history with the family history of man who died, and for this reason alone it is a moving and memorable book.

Kriegel does an excellent job of tracing the consequences of this fight for boxing itself. Other boxers had died in nationally-televised matches (see Ron Ross's book on Emile Griffith), and p. 156 in Kriegel's book) but the surviving boxers were not the all-American man that Mancini was thought to exemplify. It became understandably more difficult to find sponsors for televised boxing.

The motif that delivers the most in The Good Son is not life vs. death, however, but father vs. son. It is the story of Mancini, his fighter-father, and the ancestral obligation Mancini felt he owed to his father. After Mancini defeated Jorge Morales on CBS in 1981, the boxer kissed his father on the mouth. Kriegel writes:

This was Saturday afternoon. American sons did not kiss their fathers, much less on the mouth. Unless they were Ray Mancini: "My dad used to tell me, 'You're not a man if you can't kiss your father on the mouth."' (p. 92)The book also has a memorable and very moving conclusion. It is written with love that does not spill over into admiration. This is a rare account of successful boxing in middle-class white America. It is written with respect, enthusiasm, and an insider's love of boxing that comes through on every page. There aren't too many boxing books praised by playwright David Mamet, but this is one, an enviable and merited accolade.

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William P. McGIVERN
  The Big Heat. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1952.
Boxing plays a slight role in this detective mystery but a satisfying one. Writing in an age in which author could assume a certain familiarity with sports, McGivern uses boxing to give his male characters authority and to reflect their self-defense skills. On the novel’s first page, two detectives are playing cards and a third is handling the phone. One of the card players is described as having “tired, sagging features and thinning hair.” The other is “a big man with the roughed-up features of a preliminary fighter” (p. 9).

The detectives discuss a Negro who is “young and solidly built” and who has been picked up on suspicion of murder by Burke, “a tall, well-groomed man with a long, intelligent face” (p. 9). These details acquire meaning when Bannion, the hero, walks into the room, “inches taller” than Burke, who is the tallest man in the room. Bannion’s “two hundred and thirty pounds” are evenly distributed “upon a huge, rangy frame” (p. 11). Bannion’s size matters because he takes a protective view of the unfortunate suspect (who is twice described as “solidly built” on the first page). When Burke suggests that he could get a confession out of the suspect “in ten little minutes,” Bannion says “there won’t be any of that stuff on my shift.” Burke backs off. It is clear that these men are comfortable using their fists.

Bannion’s prowess is on view later, in a mob boss’s office. The mobster’s bodyguard, George, attempts to throw the detective out. George approaches Bannion like a fighter, watching him “carefully, thoughtfully.” “All right, big boy,” George says. Then “he feinted for Bannion’s stomach with his left” and threw his right to Bannion’s jaw. Bannion “picked the punch off with his left hand” and slapped George across the face with all his power, “a terrible blow” that “sounded like a pistol shot.” George is down, if not for the count. The mob boss orders George to get up and fight, but his jaw appears to be broken. “I’m not getting up,” George says (p. 72).

McGivern uses ring-based boxing skills to create menacing police officers. Bannion is no “preliminary fighter” or “opponent.” A detective who defends the weak and who unravels the coverup to which the novels’ title refers, he is a prize fighter in every sense.

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Walter Dean MYERS: Muhammad ALI
  Walter Dean Myers, The Greatest. New York: Scholastic, 2001. $5.50.  

Writing about Muhammad Ali tends to be hyperbolic. Sportswriters seem to find the boxer's narcissism to be contagious. Myers writes about the Ali "who touched me," the "seeker of justice" and the champ who defied the odds. This is the standard gloss on Ali's life. One gets the feeling that it's obligatory, the way admiration for the Kennedy family was once obligatory. But as we have seen in the cases of JFK and RFK, the wheels turn. Myers says, in the preface, that he has "loved" Ali (who was still alive when Myers wrote; Ali died in 2016). To his credit, the writer is candid about Ali's weaknesses.

Myers' view of boxing itself is disappointing. He believes that professional boxers are by definition men who “bring rage to the ring” (17). He reinforces the stereotype of the angry young man who seizes on violence in the ring as an expression of revenge against the social injustices of his upbringing. Myers points out that Ali had a near-middle-class upbringing in a loving home and that the boxer was radicalized by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam early in his career, not radicalized by the circumstances of his early years. Ali is a poor example of the enraged boxer, a cliché that fits others (Duran, Tyson) much better.

Many great boxers have boxed without rage. Boxers who bring their emotions into the ring are not always the best fighters. It is time to reconsider, if not to retire, this boxing cliché. It certainly does not fit Ali. Nor does it help that those who associate great boxing with rage can't seem to distinguish between a fierce competitive instinct, the desire to be best, from rage, which, last time I looked, is defined as "violent, uncontrollable anger." The key word is uncontrollable. Great boxing requires great control. Emile Griffith hitting a defenseless Benn Paret nearly thirty times in a few seconds, that's uncontrollable rage, not competitive instinct.

In setting up his argument about rage, Myers points out the difference between amateur boxing, in which points are scored for punches landed and in which knockouts are rare, and professional boxing, which is about power, not contact, and in which the KO that ends the fight early is the goal. Many people don't make this distinction, even though most boxers are amateurs, not professionals. Rage is rare in amateur fights, and I don't think, weigh-in trash talk aside, it is that common in pro boxing, either.

Myers' books is informative. The photographs are excellent. The book's heroic interpretation of the boxer (that's what happens when a biographer "has loved" his subject) does not preclude some candor, although the hero worship is thick. Myers notes that Ali's celebrated and very dangerous "rope-a-dope" strategy (leaning back on the ropes and taking punches, waiting for the opponent to tire) was "born more out of necessity than wisdom" (p. 144). On this topic, the key to Ali's deadly weakness later in his career, be sure to read Jonathan Eig's 2017 biography of Ali. Eig notes that the boxer's chief defense technique was running or "floating," which takes a lot of energy. Eig also points out that Ali never learned good, basic defensive techniques.

When he got to the training camp run by the great Archie Moore in 1960, Ali had already had a taste of the fame awaiting him. He left the camp soon, having never mastered any of the defensive techniques that made "The Mongoose" (Moore's handle, also "The Old Mongoose"; see the Wikipedia article on Moore) a brilliant success in the ring. Two years later, at age 46, Moore unwisely fought Ali (he took the fight for financial reasons, Moore said) and was knocked out in the 4th round; Ali was 20.

Moore was right to predict that, as he aged, Ali would not be able to maintain the speed that was his chief defense in the ring. Eight years after he defeated Moore, Ali was already past his prime. In reference to Ali's decline, Myers does a good job of covering Ali's retirement. All boxing fans will take note of Myers' concerns about pugilistic dementia even if we don't agree that boxing is "the cruelest of sports" (pp. x-xi). Myers says that Ali's skill evolved and ended up as "raw courage" (p. 143). But courage is not a style: it is an element essential to any good boxer, not a way of doing things. There are other words for the behavior of a boxer who continued to fight far past his prime. One of those words is desperation.

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Joyce Carol OATES
On Boxing. New York: Dolphin / Doubleday, 1987. $14.99
Not your typical boxing writer, not your typical boxing book. Oates went to Golden Gloves fights with her father in Buffalo in the 1950s. Some three decades later she collected her essay about boxing, which Jeff Silverman calls "passionate, eloquent and learned," all of which praise many others echo. Her work, he says, goes "beyond the surface of sport to explore 'The Sweet Science' as metaphor, madness, spectacle, and history" (The Greatest Boxing Stories, p. 7).
Oates's work is not for everybody, and although I too find it eloquent, I also find it overwrought. She writes, for example: To the untrained eye most boxing matches appear not merely savage but mad. As the eye becomes trained, however, the spectator begins to see the complex patterns that underlie the “madness;” what seems to be merely confusing action is understood to be coherent and intelligent, frequently inspired. Even the spectator who dislikes violence in principle can come to admire highly skillful boxing—to admire it beyond all "sane" proportions. A brilliant boxing match, quicksilver in its motions, transpiring far more rapidly than the mind can absorb, can have the power that Emily Dickinson attributed to great poetry: you know it's great when it takes the top of your head off. (The physical imagery Dickinson employs is peculiarly apt in this context.) I don't think the poet's observation is apt, myself. Nobody loses the top of his head in boxing. It's not swordplay. Losing your head, maybe, is saying that we can admire boxing "beyond all 'sane' proportions." What proportions would those be?
For Oates, the "early impression--that boxing is 'mad,' or mimics the actions of madness" has validity. She thinks that the impression "simply sinks beneath the threshold of consciousness, as the most terrifying and heartrending of our lives' experiences sink beneath the level of consciousness by way of familiarity or deliberate suppression." She adds, "All boxing fans, however accustomed to the sport, however many decades have been invested in their obsession, know that boxing is sheerly madness, for all its occasional beauty. That knowledge is our common bond and sometimes—dare it be uttered?—our common shame" (pp. 101-2).
Maybe it is the function of great writing to show us sides to our own thoughts that had not occurred to us, but I keep finding my admiration for this writer's intelligence qualified by the hollowness and exaggeration of assertions like this one about "all boxing fans" knowing that boxing is "sheerly madness" (whatever that is). Madness, dreams, and memory are, for Oates, big bowls of clear water into which she dribbles boxing facts and anectodes, as if they were drops of color. We watch as the color spreads, takes form, changes, and creates a pattern in the bowl. It becomes its own thing, far removed from boxing and the ring.
Admirable writing, yes, and beautiful in places. But I'm more interested in the anecdotes and facts, and less interested in the forms they take once this wizzard drops them into the water and describes them as they swim through her consciousness.

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John E. ODEN
White Collar Boxing: One Man's Journey from the Office to the Ring. New York: Hatherleigh Press, 2005. $15.
No ordinary boxing book, White Collar Boxing comes with 24 enthusiastic blurbs from everybody from Jake LaMotta to Don King.

Oden writes about white-collar boxers, a little-known category of “regular guys,” as he calls them, men who love boxing and see it as a form of having fun (p. 9). This is a memorable book, worth reading start to finish. But don’t expect to find that Oden himself is a “regular guy.” He is a high-flying Wall Street hedge fund manager with an apartment on Central Park and a long list of well-placed connections to various Manhattan centers of power, boxing power and otherwise.

Among Oden’s many distinctions and juicy topics are the rounds he sparred with Hillary Swank when she was getting ready for “Million Dollar Baby.” When you spar your rounds with her, drop me a line. Oden is more like George Plimpton, another celebrity who has boxed, than a regular guy. Oden really is a boxer, however; if not quite one of a kind, he is in rarified company.

All that said (and I am just scratching the surface here), Oden comes across a very likable as well as very successful. He has a great take on boxing. He presents White Collar Boxing (WCB) as the best option for those who, like him, start boxing later in life, at a point at which they are settled in professional life but want a real taste of the world of real boxing.

White collar boxing is non-professional and non-amateur. WCB fights take the form of three two-minute rounds in which no winner or loser is declared. WCB, which started in New York in 1988, puts into practice the view of Bruce Silverglade, “the godfather” of WCB, that boxing is “50 percent mental, 40 percent conditioning, and 10 percent ability” (p. 10).

Oden is not only a boxer but a real boxing fan—that is to say, a fan of boxing, not of famous boxers. He calls boxing “the quintessential sport, the sport to which all other sports should aspire.” He describes boxing as the sport that highlights the “moment of truth” when two competitors face each other, with no team or relief to step in for them (p. 12).

The second chapter gives a thumb-nail sketch of boxing from the ancient Sumerians (that is, Iraq as it was about five thousand years ago) to the present. There is not much to tell in the Christian era until the end of the seventeenth century in England, when rapid development beings. Writing in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Pierce Egan coined the phrase “the sweet science of bruising,” to describe the sport (p. 18). Almost alone among commentators who refer to this familiar phrase, Oden points out that “sweet” in this context means “winning and persuasive,” and that “science” means “skill.” That’s the kind of observation that speaks to the writer’s originality and to the depth of his knowledge; he isn’t just recycling what everybody else has said—in part because he isn’t doing what so many others have done.

As to what makes boxing a “persuasive skill,” Oden says that depends on great boxers who “exude style and grace,” boxers whose “agility and skill” put the best possible face on the sport and what those who engage in it can demonstrate (pp. 19-20). This is a marvelous argument that emphasizes boxing technique, not boxers’ strength, as the sport’s main attraction.

It would seem that Oden saved every note that anybody who was somebody, and who was connected to boxing, sent him. He quotes these communications often. One of my few questions when I finished this readable and amazing book was exactly how much time Oden had for moving millions around in his working life.

Oden’s training schedule is impressive. When he has a fight coming up, he frequently trains 7 days a week, and often twice a day. “My trainer is with me for these boxing workouts,” he writes, “and we speak on the phone constantly in between training sessions” (p. 180). That’s a lot of time, and a lot of phone calls back and forth “constantly between training sessions.” I have admired all my boxing coaches and loved a couple of them, but I have never been able to work out twice a day with any of them, and none of them, I am pretty sure, would want to be on the phone to me constantly, or even once a day. Oden didn't really make a journey from the office to the ring, I would say, so much as do everything in his considerable power to bring the ring as close as possible to his working life.

At the very least, I take this intensity as a more than a sign of Oden’s dedication to performing well in the ring. This is a man with a mission. Having climbed to the peak of his profession, Oden, like Alexander, had to find new worlds to conquer. Unlike Alexander, Oden found boxing. You can never get too good at boxing.

Unlike some of the books reviewed here, this book is really good for boxing, and every boxer who reads it will be inspired as well as impressed.

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Gary Andrew POOLE: Manny PACQUIAO
  Gary Andrew Poole, PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 2010 [2011]. $15.
There are many admiring books about boxers on this page. Poole’s book is a fan’s book with a difference.
Most boxing books are written after the star boxer has given up the ring. At that point his achievement can be assessed from a safe distance. By contrast, PacMan is a “behind the scenes” book. Most of it looks ahead, not back. It ends with an account of Pacquiao’s win over Joshua Clottey in 2010, his election to the Philippine Congress in his home province of Sarangani, and the drawn-out negotiations the led up to his fight with Floyd Mayweather.
Poole tells Manny Pacquiao’s story from his youth, spent in the abject poverty of the southern Philippines, to his discovery as a boxer and his arrival in Los Angeles. Readers get a close-up view of the period during which the boxer’s star began to shine. Poole added the last chapter (or epilogue) a year after the book was published. It offers a more pessimistic view of the boxer, as both fighter and politician than the rest of this mostly up-beat book.
The first part of PacMan is about talent, daring, and great ambition. It develops Poole’s thesis that the best boxers come from the worst circumstances. But as Pacquiao’s career blooms, we soon start to see familiar signs of over-reach. The boxer is involved in too many things, has too many aides, and wastes money. On the boxing side, this part of the book is strong. There are good fight narratives, and Poole relates insights into ring strategy that he picked up from Pacquiao’s trainers. Poole writes about trainer Freddy Roach and gives a memorable account of Pacquiao’s first few minutes with the man who would shape his fighting style. Poole himself tallied punches at some of the boxer’s fights, a level of expertise not every boxing writer can claim.
During much of the early period, Pacquiao is on the rise. He has tremendous appeal, owing in part to his boxing performance and in part to his role as a voice for the poor. But soon the boxing takes second place to politics, stardom, and other distractions. Poole builds up to the extended on-again, off-again matchup between Pacquiao and Mayweather. We all know how that turned out.
As either politician or as boxer, Pacquiao is no longer a magical figure. He lost the WBO welterweight title to Mayweather in May 2015. He regained it with a unanimous decision over Jessie Vargas in 2016. Then he lost it to Jeff Horn in 2017, again in a unanimous decision. Now it is the rematch with Horn that is the melodrama of on-again and off-again.
Pacquiao is going to be 40 in 2019, and his boxing career—with or without a rematch with Horn in 2018—is all but over. As for politics, Poole points out in his epilogue that Pacquiao was poorly prepared to step into the political spotlight once he was elected congressman. To judge from many accounts, he has been anything but a star politician.
The claim at the heart of PacMan is that Pacquiao’s impoverished early life is what explains his greatness as a boxer and is the key to the iron discipline he displayed in training for his fights. Pacquiao was gifted with exceptional speed and power and made the most of these strengths in the ring. But Poole believes in the link between poverty and boxing greatness. Poole observes that the greatest Mexican boxers have come from that country’s poorest areas, and he suggests the same for Pacquiao:

Given its historically dire economic state, Mexico has created some of the best and most numerous champions [i.e., Mexico has created numerous champions who rank among the best boxers]. . . . Not only did these fighters have ring bravery to match Pacquiao’s nearly suicidal aggression, but they were technicians par excellence. (pp.117-18)
Developing his thesis about boxing and poverty, Poole writes, "Boxers overcome so much to become the conqueror. That experience can wipe away a lot of injustice and is more fulfilling than money—and more pure than politics" (p. 278).

I admire Poole’s confidence and his optimism, but I don’t think his epilogue supports his conclusion. It is hard to see in Pacquiao behavior, in the ring or outside it, the anger and rage that marks other boxers known to have impoverished early histories. Pacquiao is often described as smiling before his fights, and he is unusually humble and polite in his conversations with journalists, fans, and others.

(More on this book)

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Alan H. LEVY: Floyd PATTERSON
  Alan H. Levy, Floyd Patterson: A Boxer and a Gentleman. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. $15.

Many boxers are admired for their success in the ring, not for who they were as men. Books and essays tend to make the opposite point about Floyd Patterson. He was an unusually kind and considerate man, a “sensitive male” before his time, but he was seldom a great performer in the ring. Levy’s book, published in 2008 (Patterson died in 2006), was the first biography of the boxer. In this highly satisfying and rewarding work, Levy, a social historian and skillful narrator, digs into the puzzling contradictions that make Patterson a boxer unlike any other.
In some ways, Patterson’s life fits a pattern that writers are all too likely to see in boxers. We see the boxer growing up in dire poverty and learn about his youthful skirmishes with the law and his time in an institution. Then the young man discovers boxing as a way to earn money and subsequently realizes that self-respect comes with victory in the ring. The boxer triumphs, but ups and downs mark his career. Inevitably there is a slow decline for both the boxer and the healthy man he was.
In others ways, Patterson’s life story resists those traits. Few boxers who grew up in poverty blamed themselves for the family’s living conditions and, to compensate, hid in a subway tunnel to minimize their impact on their home. Few boxers converted to Catholicism and made Christian charity a key feature of their public conduct. He took an unpopular stand on civil rights when doing so was dangerous to life and limb.
The ups and downs of his Patterson’s boxing career are striking. When he beat Archie Moore for the crown in 1956, he became the youngest heavyweight champion in the world. He lost the title to Ingemar Johannson in 1959 and then regained it in 1961, another first. Those were the peaks.
The valleys were more numerous. They include two devastating losses to Sonny Liston, in some ways Patterson’s evil twin, and two losses to Muhammad Ali, who shamed and belittled Patterson until Ali felt secure patronizing him. Just as Ali, late in his career, was declared the winner of fights most observers believe he lost, Patterson lost fights that most believers believe he won.
Sometimes Patterson sounds like the boxer we expect him to be. “We’re a strange breed,” he says at one point, “we are men who make our living with our fists” (33). But he often acted like a different kind of man altogether, as when he picked up the mouthpiece he knocked out of his opponent’s mouth in a fight (32).
His behavior and sometimes his statements created doubts about how great a champion Patterson actually was. He was harmed by the devious strategies of his manager and would-be savior, Cus D’Amato, who devised ways to profit not only from Patterson’s winnings but from those of Patterson’s opponents. D’Amato lined up a long string of mediocre fighters for Patterson, a ploy that eventually created doubts about the champ’s ability to defend his title.
Levy shows how Patterson’s importance was further diminished by both Tyson and Ali. The “gentlemanly, soft-spoken champion” (68) quickly became an anachronism. The bold sexual and anti-social behavior of the younger boxers captured the imagination of the media.
Patterson is said to have had “the instincts of a fighter and the compassion of a priest” (253; see Heinz, Top of His Game, 310-11), as if this explains the puzzle of this boxer. It does not. Patterson had too few of the instincts of a fighter, some of the foremost of being self-respect, confidence, and a belief in the sanctioned use of power, which boxing demands. It’s true that compassion is the hallmark of a good priest, but a good cleric also knows that he has to fight for what he believes in and to stand up for himself.
Patterson seems never to have used the spiritual resources available to him to explore the psychic damage of his youth or to grasp clearly his right to a happy life. He learned to fly an airplane, a dangerous and adventurous thing to do, but he was unable to be firm with junior-high students who disrespected his daughter—even after flying his own plane from his training camp to his home to defend the little girl (164-65). A boxer-pilot who could not stand up to teen-agers who bullied his daughter: meet Floyd Patterson. There is no doubting his talent, but talent in the absence of the will to use it creatively and constructively is no blessing.
Levy is an attentive social history and a good observer of boxing, a sport for which he has an obvious affection. In his introduction, he writes, “Actors, musicians, stars of other sports and other such for example, have often commented on their attraction to boxing as an embodiment of a most stark version of what they do.” He also quotes Joyce Carol Oates’s comment that “boxing is life and hardly a mere game” (6).
I would say that Patterson failed to grasp the opposite point. It’s not that boxing is life but that life is boxing. Success in life requires offense as well as defense, determination, self-preservation, and a self-respect. Patterson seems to have made the same mistakes in life as he made in boxing. Neither was “a mere game.” He had the talent and skill, but not the confidence, to do better at both.

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W. K. STRATTON: Floyd PATTERSON
  W. K. Stratton, Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012.
This book appeared in 2012, the second biography of Floyd Patterson to appear in the short interval of four years. Alan K. Levy’s biography (reviewed above) came out in 2008. The two works discuss many of the same events, including the boxer’s boyhood and his fight history. There is little to separate their views on these matters, or their approach to this perplexing, renowned figure, and the social significance of his place in the history of American boxing. Given the proximity of these books, it's disappointing that Stratton did not underline some of his differences with Levy. Some response to the earlier biography (apparently the first for Patterson) would have helped readers get more out of both books. The book is slightly less admiring of its chief subject than Levy's.
If it were a competition, I would give Stratton’s book the advantage. He takes a wider view of Patterson’s world and offers more about the boxing scene in Patterson’s time. He is especially pointed about the boxer’s ties to Cus D’Amato.
Neither book has anything good do say about D’Amato, a legendary boxing manager. He is sometimes thought to have rescued lost young men and helped them find themselves as boxers. But D’Amato was devious at best. As Stratton shows, he exploited Patterson and cheated him. At one point he managed one of Patterson’s opponents, a British boxer named Brian London, and Patterson in the same fight (90-91). Patterson did well to put distance between himself and this dangerous man, but not before D’Amato had inflicted permanent damage on Patterson’s reputation, refusing to get him the kinds of matches that would have established his claim to the heavyweight title.
Stratton is well-connected to the boxing world and used his ties to dig deeply into the Patterson archives. In the acknowledgments he describes the extensive sources available to him, which also tell the story of Patterson’s legacy as boxing writers have shaped it.
It might seem odd to praise a book for its index, but Stratton's index is a marvelous tool, very detailed and revealing. By consulting the entries under "Patterson, Floyd," the reader can get an excellent idea of the scope of the book's coverage. As I recall, there is an entry on the boxer's fear of flying, but there's no discussion of how he overcame this fear and learned to fly his own plane, a considerable achievement for a man so burdened with doubts about himself.
The book is enriched by many side-glances at other black boxers, especially Jack Jackson and Joe Lewis, both of them important to Patterson. Stratton also has a lot to say about Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, boxers Patterson lost to in more ways than one. This book does a great job of positioning Patterson, a man of many contradictory impulses, between the old and the new in the twentieth-century history of American boxing.

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George PLIMPTON
Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 1977. $6.79
Plimpton's account of his 3 rounds with Archie Moore is the best part of the book, which ends with a very long and uneven set of chapters on the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974. There are memorable glimpses of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway as boxers, and a highly entertaining chapter on Ali's lunch with the poet Marianne Moore, an account that is worth the full price of the book. Plimpton arranged for the boxer to meet her at tea, and Ali brought along a photographer to record their efforts to write a poem together. When they posed, Ali said to her, "We've got to show you thinking, Mrs. Moore. How you show you're thinking hard is to point your finger into the middle of your head" (p. 119). She complied.
Plimpton himself was not much in gloves, but I give him a lot of credit for throwing himself into the boxing world. He belonged to a lot of other worlds, that's for sure. How many people could start a sentence with "One thing that Ernest Hemingway had always told me was that . . ." (p. 66)? Not many.
The book is called Shadow Box. A shadow box is what Plimpton created. His essays are meant to be seen as objects presented in a thematic grouping with personal significance. Fair enough, and, in terms of the action behind the essay, brave as well. There is only a very loose sports theme to the book, however. It's the kind of book that can only be written be a man who knows everybody.
I was not able to find an edition of this book with a table of contents or an index, hard to believe, all these famous names and no way to find them for reference.

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Patrick O'BRIAN
  Blue at the Mizzen
Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000) is the author of a twenty-volume adventure series about shipboard life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars (set between 1803 and 1815). These are by no means books about boxing, but the sport gets good coverage in Blue at the Mizzen, the last completed book in the series, and in The Yellow Admiral. The series is often called the Aubrey-Maturin novels, after the names of the two main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship surgeon, Stephen Maturin.

At the start of Blue at the Mizzen, Aubrey and his crew are in England and about to set off on a voyage that mixes espionage with natural science. William Henry, Duke of Clarence, later to become William IV (1765-1837), asks Aubrey for a favor. William, who was king of the United Kingdom and Ireland 1830-37, was also known as the “Sailor king” (see the Wiki entry “William IV of the UK”). His Highness wishes to place Horatio Hanson as a midshipman on Jack’s ship. Hanson is the son of a man lost during William’s service with Lord Nelson in the West Indies.

This will be an arduous and dangerous voyage, and Aubrey is reluctant to take on anyone who might be considered a “suckling” (6276-77). He agrees to interview Horatio, whose name not only bows to Horatio Nelson but recalls that of Horatio Hornblower, the hero of C. S. Forester’s series of naval novels. Aubrey quizzes Hanson, who is 15, on algebra and geometry and finds that he knows a fair amount. He then asks Maturin to speak to the boy in Latin and French, and this test too the boy passes easily (6279).

The voyage beings with rough seas. Aubrey interviews Hanson to see how he is getting along and notices the boy’s bruised knuckles. It turns out that Hanson has had a fight with someone who called him “a pragmatical son of a bitch.” Examining Hanson’s hands, Jack concludes that “a heavy left-handed blow” has split the skin forbids further fighting. Later Jack notices that the boy’s knuckles are bleeding onto his trousers. When he inquires into Hanson’s boxing experience, Jack learns that Hanson and other boys “used to mill” after school and that a coachman’s son, who himself learned to box from an uncle who was “a real prizefighter” (6291), taught Hanson to fight. Jack recalls seeing boxing matches between ships when he himself as a midshipman and thinks that perhaps he might set up something similar for the Surprise. Hanson learned to box from his social inferior, the son of a coachman, but that’s no compromise because the coachman himself was a prizefighter who even had gloves.

A boxing match takes place on the ship a few pages later, when several British ships are anchored off Sierra Leone. After one match Maturin sees that Hanson has a black eye and has dried blood on his face. But Hanson has won and will be fighting again in a few hours. He answers the doctor’s questions “with a cheerful and full-toothed smile” (6327) and then bests a burly fighter from another ship in five rounds “of a singular ferocity” (6330).

A few days a master’s mate dies, and Hanson is promoted to replace him. Hanson’s advancement over other midshipmen causes some tension among them, but the promotion is greeted “with general approval by the lower deck. This happens because the men “set an even higher value on physical courage than on the finer points of seamanship—not that Mr. Hanson was so deficient in them, either” (6332).

Hanson is an exemplary gentleman boxer, as well-schooled in prowess as he is good manners. We might even say that his conduct is princely, since it seems to be assumed that William is not really Hanson’s uncle but rather his father. Boxing is used to fill out the character in a clever way. Hanson is the most able seaman among the midshipmen; he superior in mathematics and the science of navigation. He is also the bravest. Boxing establishes his dominance over the seamen who work the ship. Although he appears very late in the series, Hanson recapitulates the outstanding qualities of Jack Aubrey himself, a balance of quick-thinking nautical knowledge and physical courage. One could easily imagine the young boxer as the hero of a series of novels about his own exploits.
7-4-2017

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Patrick O'BRIAN
The Yellow Admiral
Patrick O'Brian (d. 2000) is the author of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, a twenty-volume adventure series about the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815); the 21st volume was published, unfinished, after the author's death. These are by no means books about boxing. The sport gets good coverage, however, in The Yellow Admiral, the eighteenth book in the series.

The series takes its name from the two main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin (also a naturalist, and, not incidentally, intelligence agent of murderous capabilities). Aubrey's coxswain, Barret Bonden, is one of the Royal Navy's champion boxers and is stationed near Aubrey’s home between voyages. Bonden gets into a tavern brawl with Evans, the gamekeeper of a property near Aubrey’s estate. Outraged at the disorder, Aubrey tells the men to settle their differences with “a proper mill,” i.e., a boxing match, and this is quickly arranged (Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral [New York: W.W. Norton, 1996], p. 51, end of ch. 2).

Before the match, Bonden informs Maturin, who is not a boxing fan, about the rules of boxing. His fans know that O'Brian is celebrated for an exceptional grasp of historical detail. The author seems to have commanded knowledge from numerous disciplines, ranging from sailing ships and their complex workings, to navigation, ornithology, entomology, and much more—how coaches were built, guns fired, and so on. It is no surprise that he should have turned in a comparably fine account of boxing as it was known to sports fans of the Aubrey-Maturin era, including the boxing space, length of the bout, and other matters.

Space
The fighting space could be defined either as a ring marked by posts or as a circle of bystanders with their arms linked. Bonden prefers the former, since, he says, in a ring formed by linked arms the “other man’s friends” might well kick his opponent if he were knocked down (p. 54).

Time
Bonden says a round lasted as long as it took for one man to knock the other down or throw him down, be that one minute or twenty. After a rest of either thirty or forty-five seconds, the referee would scratch a mark in the middle of the ring and the fighters would go at it again at the command “start the mill.” This is repeated until one of them cannot come up to the mark—that is, doesn’t come up to scratch, the origin of that idiom (p. 55).

Number of rounds
Such fights were famously long. Bonden reports one of 43 rounds that lasted over an hour. He himself went 68 rounds in an hour and twenty-six minutes for the naval championship of the Mediterranean (p. 56). Just as naval officers in O’Brian’s books can describe every phase of combat between two ships or between whole fleets, Bonden is an encyclopedia of boxing history: Jem Belcher and Dutch Sam fought over two hours, as did Gully and Game Chicken (all these are boxers whose histories are to be found in boxing books and Wiki). Fighters war no gloves, Bonden says, although some boxers used them.

Bonden says that new fighters usually could go a quarter of an hour and perhaps three or four rounds if they fought “with some pluck but with little wind and no science.” He describes common fouls, including moving “to catch your man by the hair and batter him something cruel with his head held down” (p. 56). Something very like this happens to Bonden himself, who is so proud of his pigtail (i.e,. his hair, a tail long enough to sit on, uncut for ten years) that he does not trim it for the fight. His head injuries are so serious that he has to be shorn anyway, and takes to wearing a wig until his hair grows out.

The fight
Bonden’s fight with Evans, bloody and long, and comes to a shocking end when Evans grabs Bonden’s pigtail in both his hands and throws him against a corner post (pp. 65-68). Bonden suffers a concussion and is unable to come up to scratch, meaning that Evans wins, although he has to be helped to the mark by his friends. The fairness of the outcome is disputed and fights break out in the crowd. Between rounds the boxers to go their corners (p. 67). This and the reference to the corner post indicate that the match is fought in a square space, not a circle.

Bloody indeed, but as with all the battles in O'Brian's matchless books, absolutely riveting, quickly told, and then succeeded by a host of other memorable and equally idiosyncratic events.

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John Boyle O'REILLY
Ethics of Boxing. Boston: Ticknor and Co., 1888. Repr. Lexington, KY, 2014. $15
This volume contains two books: Ethics and Evolution of Boxing (pp. xi-99); and The Training of Athletes Tested by Every-day Life (pp. 101-75). A life of the author, an Irish and American martial artist and writer, follows the second volume.

If you think boxing isn’t much more than throwing smart punches, you should read Ethics and Evolution of Boxing. O’Reilly offers pithy insights into the social and psychological importance of the sport. He was writing 130 years ago, but his observations ring true today. He knows that boxing is effective in building manly character. He knows that boxing works against the feebleness that the culture of his time—and ours—seems to instill in the young. O’Reilly criticizes those who believe that the world has become “too intelligent for idle games and exercises” (p. xii).

Even in O’Reilly’s day, it seems, intellectual activity, including academic study, took all the prestige. People to look down on physical activity. Working against this bias against what we would think of as blue collar culture, O’Reilly stresses the leveling effect of boxing and other martial arts. Boxing and other martial arts are, he notes, closely connected to democratic and populist ideals. In some of the boxing fiction I review here (e.g., Barry’s A Long Long Way) one can see this connection at work. When two men face off in the ring, it is often the case that they are expressing combat between competing cultures. O’Reilly comments in the role of boxing in Ireland—Barry’s book is about Irish soldiers in World War I—and the danger it and other combative sports posed to the island’s cultural masters.

A marvelous, exciting book, highly recommended.

Parts of the second book, The Training of Athletes, are out of date, something we would expect, given its focus on diet and physical fitness equipment in the nineteenth century. Even here, however, O’Reilly is never less than entertaining and informative, and sometimes surprisingly current. He quotes the famous English novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873, author of The Last Days of Pompeii and many other works): “In these days, half our diseases come from the neglect of the body and the overwork of the brain. In this railway age the wear and tear of labor and intellect go on without pause or self-pity” (O’Reilly, p. 153). And that was before cell phones!

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PROSPER, Proz.

Closer to the Sun

Closer to the Sun tells the story of a Billy Infante, a Philadelphia construction worker whose talent for boxing wins him some early recognition and a few promising fights on what might be his way up.

Good fight scenes make or break a boxing novel. The book has several, including a gripping match in the opening chapter.

In boxing novels, these bouts have two subjects. One is the fight itself and its consequences for the boxer’s career. The other is the battle going on within the boxer, or between the boxer and somebody else, such as his coach or love interest or his family. The classic boxing novel turns a success in the ring into a success outside it. In some examples, however, a failed fight means failure outside the ring as well.

As the title suggests, Closer to the Sun belongs to the first category and focuses on the boxer’s success, although his victory is not a conventional one and is the book's big reward for the reader.

Nobody in boxing novels boxes just to box. Boxers in novels seem to fight because they need something they don’t have (maybe success or recognition) or want to be rid of something they do have (often anger or guilt). The boxer in Closer to the Sun is angry because he was raised by a poor father who ultimately abandoned his family. This is a standard device in novels about boxing and angry young boxers.

Billy fought with his mother when he was young and at one time blamed her for her husband’s failure. Of course, men with fathers at home can make the same mistakes, and the reader plausibly looks for further cause of Billy’s anger. Apart from using his skills in the ring, we don’t see Billy at war with the world. We don't see him getting fired from his job, or getting in trouble with the law, or exploding in bar fights.

In fact, Billy is far from the conventional bottled-up macho man of boxing film and fiction. He weeps easily and often and seems devoted both to his mother and to the nurse he dates. He loves jazz and comes across as a foodie. That he boxes is the only violent thing about him.

In these ways, Closer to the Sun offers several refreshing changes from the usual boxing novel. But the boxer’s nice-guy aura relieves rather than builds tension and suspense and, in my view, works against the premise that he’s a boxer so angry he sometimes loses control in the ring. He seems to have pretty good control all around.

Billy is aware of the power his anger exercises over his skills as a boxer. Anger isn’t the mark of a good boxer. Like some other emotions, anger can’t be entirely kept out of fights, but successful boxers don’t allow their feelings to cancel out good strategy and sportsmanship. Billy’s apparent inability to master his emotions in the ring suggests that he is not meant to be a great boxer after all.

Key events in the plot involve some disagreements with trainers, coaches, and promoters, and even figures in organized crime and the FBI. These tensions keep the plot moving forward, but more might have been done with them. In my view, the novel resolves many of them both too quickly and too easily, and this becomes predictable. The reader can see already in the early chapters that things are probably going to turn out well.

The narrative is a succession of short episodes, with point of view changing frequently from Billy to his girlfriend and others. Multiple points of view are useful, but they tend to push Billy’s development as son and lover—as well as boxer—out of the spotlight. Much of the book isn’t about the boxer as a boxer. His love life and family life are the book’s main concerns, and it sometimes seems that what the women in his life want for him is more important than what he wants for himself.

In my view, contrasts in the boxer’s moods, his moments of decision, and other narrative turning points could be more marked. If the narrative had been divided into chapters, stages of his growth would be easier to see. It is a rather long book, and its both shape and dynamics of development are hard to find.

A couple of details ring less than true. It's not likely that Danny, a hard-nosed business agent and big name on the city’s boxing scene, would have to explain to Sid, Billy’s manager, the meaning of "opponent" (that it, an obscure boxer paid to boost a rising star’s record). And even a good-natured and anxious-to-please kid like Billy doesn't need to tell his guests twice where he bought the gelato he’s serving for dessert. The novel makes the most of its Philadelphia setting and is rich in detail. Some boxing novels overdue the gloom; this one is definitely prepared sunny side up.

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Ron ROSS: Emile GRIFFITH
  Nine . . . Ten . . . and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith. New York: DiBella Entertainment, 2008. $15.
Ron Ross tells the story of Emile Griffith (1938-2013), who held championship titles in three divisions (welterweight, junior middleweight, and middleweight). Active from 1958 to 1977 (85-24-2, 23 knockouts), Griffith is remembered not because he had a distinctive style or had exceptional grit in the ring. He is remembered as one of few modern boxers who won a fight in which his opponent sustained fatal injuries; Benny Paret died of injuries nine days after fighting Griffith on March 24, 1962. Griffith is also remembered as an openly bisexual boxer, a reputation that would be considered risky for boxers even in 2018. During Griffith’s twenty-year career that profile must have been extremely provocative.

It is inevitable that his part in Paret’s death would be linked to Griffith’s sex life. The book that probes this link remains to be written. Ross does not analyze Griffith’s boxing talent or explored his sexual orientation—often mentioned, usually in descriptions of the boxer’s flamboyant excess—or seek to connect them. Instead, he weaves these two strands in an entertaining pattern in which one and then the other dominates.

I could have done with fewer anecdotes about Griffith's chaotic family life and would have appreciated a straightforward chronology instead of the one Ross provides, which skips between the early phases of Griffith's fighting career and his boyhood in the Virgin Islands. Ross also relies on heavy-handed humor to explain away some of the boxer's weaknesses, sounding at time a bit too much like Griffith himself.

(For a long form of this review, go here.)

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Philip ROTH
American Pastoral. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. $26

Boxing figures into the narrator’s recollection of his military service and how it broadened his view of society (Nathan Zuckeman). This is a common boxing theme, boxing as a social leveler, an activity in which a man’s background and education are not the best predictors of his success, and it has timely resonance in a novel about the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. As one might expect with Roth, the focus, even in boxing, ends up on Jewish identity.

Here is Zuckerman’s recollection:

[In the Army I met] Guys I would never have life met in my life. Accents from all over the place. The Midwest. New England. Some farm boys from Texas and the Deep South I couldn’t even understand. But got to know them. Got to like them. Hard boys, poor boys, lots of high school athletes. Used to live with the boxers. Lived with the recreation gang. Another Jewish guy, Manny Rabinowitz from Altoona. Toughest Jewish guy I ever met in my life. What a fighter. A great friend. Didn't even finish high school. Never had a friend like that before or since. Never laughed so hard in my life as I did with Manny. Manny was money in the bank for me. Nobody ever gave us any Jewboy shit. A little back in boot camp, but that was it. When Manny fought, the guys would bet their cigarettes on him. Buddy Falcone and Manny Rabinowitz were always the two winners for us whenever we fought another base. After the fight with Manny the other guy would say that nobody ever hit him as hard in his life. Manny ran the entertainment with me, the boxing smokers. The duo—the Jewish leathernecks. Manny got the wiseguy recruit who made all the trouble [211] and weighed a hundred and forty-five pounds to fight somebody a hundred and sixty pounds who he could be sure would beat shit out of him. ''Always pick a redhead, Ee-oh," Manny said, "he’ll give you the best fight in the world. Redhead'll never quit." Manny the scientist. Manny going up to Norfolk to fight a sailor, a middle-weight contender before the war, and whipping him. . . . [212]

It would be hard to find a denser collection of fixed ideas about boxers. One of them concerns mismatched opponents, which sets up the expectation that the underdog will win. That's why it is important that Manny hits his opponent harder than anybody ever hit that opponent before. Roth tranfers the commonplace ideas to a Jewish boxer population, itself a novelty, and also to Jewish leathernecks, also a novelty in war fiction. In this novel, boxing is part of the all-American wallpaper; it also helps to establish Zuckerman's warrior credentials, such as they are. The interest here is that the Jewish buddies are theselves very different, and it's the one with the lesser status, Manny, who takes the lead and gives the advice. This is another convention: less educated means more worldly-wise.

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Jeffrey T. SAMMONS
  Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
The first section of this excellent social history of boxing parallels Elloitt J. Gorn’s book on The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America, which appeared in 1986, when Sammons’ book was being written. After a discussion with Gorn, Sammons decided to narrow his focus to boxing in the US between 1930 and 1980. Sammons might have narrowed his title accordingly. His chief concern is the relationship between race and boxing. That’s important, but it’s not the whole story of boxing’s role in American society.

Sammons’ book is less about boxers and boxing as such than about the economic and social institutions in which boxing was and is enmeshed. His book emphasizes social context rather than physical contest as the center of the boxer’s life. When you see boxing “beyond the Ring,” you don’t necessarily see more of the boxer.

Sammons’ book has a lot in comment with Gorn’s. Commenting on social history as it was seen even half a century ago, Gorn writes that “the same biases that rendered women voiceless in the writing of history simultaneously excluded the majority of men, in particular workers, ethic minorities, and the poor” (Gorn, p. 13). Good for him for pointing out that “history” as it was written a century ago was not about men but about some men.

Following Gorn’s lead, Sammons concentrates on black boxers, a category that has hardly been ignored. He notes books published in the 1970s and 1980s that focused chiefly on Joe Louis and Jack Johnson. After the 1980s, far more was written about Muhammed Ali, whose career gave new shape to the role of race in the history of boxing.

Sammons observes that earlier books about black boxers are limited to the “very brief” public career of the fighter. As a consequence, he argues, these books tend to look at the boxer in isolation from broad aspects of social change. Many fans of boxing books might take exception to this view, for few are the boxing biographies that do not begin with the boxer’s youth. No matter what his race, the boxer existed within certain economic conditions, and they are always described for the obvious reason that they have so much to do with how we grow up and what we choose to do with our lives. Any boxing biography will point, if only implicitly, to the many changes that separate the world of the boxer’s boyhood from the modern world. the between the world a century ago, or eighty years ago, and the modern world. Boxing biographies are always, at least to some extent, about the world beyond the boxing ring.

There are some payoffs to the wide net Sammons casts. For example, unlike most boxing writers, Sammons discusses the role of women in the sport. At one time their presence at fights lent an air of fashion to the event and made fights more acceptable to middle- and upper-class groups. Women turned out to have the same enthusiasm for violent spectacle that men did, he notes. However, this demonstration of equality competed with the view that, on an ethical level, women were superior to boxing and could afford to look down on it as a hyper-masculine activity (see pp. 55-56).

Sammons himself seems unable to choose between these positions: are women men’s equal, or are they better than men? One reason the question arose was that women seldom boxed. Now that women’s boxing is common, and now that it is no longer associated with mud wrestling (an association made here, p. 54), we can see that violence is not gender-based in the way some people still like to think.

Other topics surveyed here include the role of television in shaping boxing’s place in American culture and the links between the foggy world of boxing promotion and organized crime, which became the focus of congressional attention during the brief presidency of John Kennedy and his brother Robert’s time as Attorney General.

The darkest section of the book is the concluding discussion of “the myth and reality of boxing,” a grim description of the power of boxing to destroy those who invest in it. In the late nineteenth century and through to the middle of the twentieth, at least, boxing was the sport of choice for young men who wanted to escape poverty, and, like Floyd Patterson, put groceries on the family table. Men who were “well-educated and financially secure” have not usually “succumbed to the lure of the prize ring,” Sammons writes (p. 237). Men without those advantage (and some men with them) were easily outmaneuvered by their experienced managers and trainers and saw little of the money their fights earned.

More sobering is Sammons’ account of the injuries boxers have sustained through repeated blows to the head. Sammons cannot find a satisfactory answer to the question “why does boxing exist.” Does it work like a safety vale that releases aggression? If so, for whom? Studies suggest that boxing does not work that way (pp. 252-53). Sammons seems to think that boxing is about the fans, not the boxers. The same could be said of football or basketball.

One thing any boxer can tell from this book is that the author stands remote from boxing, not just “beyond the ring” but far outside the exciting world of face-to-face individual competition that boxing creates. This includes the thrill of being in the ring boxing rather than outside or beyond the ring watching boxers. Sammons is in the latter group. I find that authors who have been in the ring write about boxing with more understanding and sympathy.

He says he wrote his doctoral dissertation no boxing because “no sport could provide more insight into human thought, actions, and relations” than boxing (p. xiii). His book offers predictable political and social reasons for this view but no insight into the psychological complexity of boxing as a contest between two individuals. For gestures in the direction of an explanation, we can start with Alan H. Levy, who writes, “Actors, musicians, stars of other sports and other such for example, have often commented on their attraction to boxing as an embodiment of a most stark version of what they do.” Levy also quotes Joyce Carol Oates’s comment that “boxing is life and hardly a mere game” (Levy, Floyd Patterson, p. 6). If we are going to write about boxing fans, men and women alike, that's a good place to begin.

I would say that Gorn does a better all-around job on boxing, but there is no need to choose. His book and Sammons’ book make a good pair.

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Jeff SILVERMAN
  The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2002.
Wonderful range, Homer to Joyce Carol Oates. Not many books offer so many ways to see boxing. Fifteen of the 36 authors here are also in Kimball and Schulian, At the Fights, but not always represented by the same essays. The introduction is good (if corny). Silverman points out that boxing is not just about the score and who wins or loses. These stories show that men who win in the ring are not necessarily winners. Everybody knows that boxers who lose are, very often, anything but losers (see his comments, pp. ix-x).
The writing talent on display here--William Hazlitt, O. Henry, Jack London, Ring Lardner, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Red Smith, W. C. Heinz, A. J. Liebling, and more--is marvelous. The collection offers a series of sharply observed boxing events with a lot of contemporary culture on view. Gathered around the ring in every story are the some of the fundamental social and economic operations of the boxers' cultures--ominous, evil, comic, absurd. Immensely enjoyable and engrossing.
I found this book to be a good way to learn more about boxing writers. One of the values of a book like this is that works as a sampler. There were a lot of boxing books and some boxing writers I learned about by reading through this collection.

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John FLORIO & Ouisie SHAPIRO: Leon SPINKS & Michael Spinks
    John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro, One Punch from the Promise Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2013. $25

A depressing tale, twice told. The sadder case is Leon, also the better boxer with the more impressive career. But what a loser, short on discipline and decency. Once the heavyweight champion of the world, a title he held briefly and rapidly lost to Ali, from whom he took it, Leon has ended up sweeping floors in Columbus, Nebraska.
Michael did better up to the end of his career, when it developed that Butch Lewis, his trusted manager, a man described as "friend, partner, and surrogate father" (p. 240), had shrunk Michael's career earnings of $25 million to less than $8.5 million, all of that in Lewis's own estate, and that Michael's retirement was $2.5 million. Well, many of us would be happy if that were the size of our retirment account, of course, but then we didn't earn 10 times that in the ring. As the authors point out, Michael did better than most boxers on the money front.
This book is a cut above many on this page. It's got a good structure, it's clearly written, and it fills readers in on two careers. But like most of the people who write these books, the authors don't push into the hard questions. They seem to encourage the view that people like Leon are victims of their environment--compare Tyson, who also came from a bad background. Bad habits can't be broken; unhappy men can't change. Or so it seems to go. What's the answer? Blame the slums? My view: tell it to Oprah. She changed her life. Why couldn't Leon?

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John STEINBECK
  "The Chrysanthemums," The Long Valley.
Published in The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936-1941. 1938. New York: Library of America, 1996.

This short story develops an idea about boxing in relation to, a woman’s self-expression and her sense of herself as a competitive, expert gardener. A visit from a peddler stirs her sense of her power and draws her into a competitive spirit that she recognizes first when her husband suggests that they attend a boxing match.

Elisa and Henry Allen are ranchers in the Salinas Valley. About 35 years old, Elisa is a gardener whose strength overflows the quiet chores that make her day. She cuts off dead stems from her chrysanthemums with a pair of "short and powerful scissors" and she "destroys" pests with her "terrier" fingers (pp. 5-6). Steinbeck uses her work of dividing and transplanting chrysanthemum roots to juxtapose life and death.

Henry has just sold some steers and proposes that they go to town to celebrate. Elisa agrees and is in celebratory mood herself. She has had a good year for flowers, and not the first one. "I’ve a gift with things," she says, adding that her mother also had the gift of "planters’ hands" (p. 6). Putting on his "joking tone" but perhaps responding to her confidence, Henry tells her that "there’s fights tonight. How’d you like to go to the fights?" (p. 7). "No, I wouldn’t like fights," Elisa replies. He was "just fooling," however, and he promises to take them to a movie following dinner at the Cominos Hotel.

After Henry goes to look after his cattle, a peddler drives his wagon into the yard and greets Elisa. He is big man, not old, and he is down on his luck. He asks if he could he fix a leak in a kettle or sharpen scissors or knives for her. Elisa she says no, perhaps too firmly. It is as if his offer of assistance insults her own skills and her proud independence. A better salesman than he might seem to be, the peddler changes the topic to her flowers and she warms to him. Her “giant” chrysanthemums are "bigger than anybody [else’s] around here," she boasts (p. 9). When he tells her that a woman down the road would like some chrysanthemum seeds, "Elisa’s eyes grew alert and eager." These flowers grow best from roots, not seeds, she says, and she puts some roots in a flower pot so he can take them when he goes. As she speaks to the peddler, Elisa makes other changes.

She tears off her battered hat and shakes out "her dark pretty hair" (p. 10). Talking about flowers seems to bring her into bloom. She tells the peddler about "planting hands," her words for gardener’s hands that are both sensitive to plants and skillful. Steinbeck indulges in some sexual innuendo. Her breasts swell when she asks the peddler if he’s ever felt that his hands "can’t do anything wrong," and he says yes, he does, "sometimes in the night wagon." Elisa is drawn to him and almost touches his pants leg. He seems unmoved. Proud feelings are nice to have, he admits, but not "when you don’t have no dinner" (p. 12).

Elisa quickly finds a pot for him to mend and pays him fifty cents for his labor. He claims that such repairs are not women’s work. Not about to be put in her place, she claims that she can mend pots and sharpen scissors herself. Indeed, she could show him "what a woman might do" (p. 12). She might even like to live his life and wander between Seattle and San Diego every year. He disagrees, saying that his is no life for a woman. Then he takes the pot from her, although she has to remind him of her instructions for transplanting the roots.

Later on, when Elisa and Henry drive to town for dinner, she sees her precious chrysanthemum roots lying on the road. Saddened by the sight, she thinks that the peddler might at least have thrown the roots in the ditch where they would have been out of sight. It was the pot he valued after all. As their car passes him, she averts her eyes. Bravely she says she is looking forward to dinner and asks Henry, who knows nothing about what has taken place, but who has several times expressed surprise at her changes in of mood, if they can have wine with dinner.

And just as suddenly she remembers boxing. "Henry, at those prize fights," she asks, "do the men hurt each other very much?" "Sometimes a little,” he answers, "not often." "Well," she replies, "I’ve read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood." Startled, he says he didn’t know she "read things like that" (p. 15). She asks if women go to the fights, and Henry says that some women do. Does her question mean that she wants to go? No, it turns out, she does not. "It will be enough if we can have wine," she says. "It will be plenty." She turns up the collar of her coat so Henry cannot see her tears (p. 16). It will be enough for what, or plenty of what, she does not say, but compensation and consolation are among the words that come to mind.

In unusual form in thie story, Steinbeck, who so often is dogmatic, lets the reader to the work. The peddler’s pride in his craft parallels Elisa’s pride in her "planters’ hands." When he shows interest in her flowers, she becomes more beautiful, less a farmer’s wife and more a woman proud of what she can do, and also woman with a competitive spirit. But she is defeated when she discovers that the peddler has used flattery to con her into an unnecessary repair. He exploited her strength, not her weakness; he took advantage of her ambition to transplant her chrysanthemums—and her power—into another woman’s garden. The discovery that he was reduced her gift to its container awakens her interest in boxing. The peddler’s cynicism points to the toughness of men who "hurt each other very much," much as she has been hurt by a man, that is. It seems to be a long way from boxing gloves soaked in blood to the peddler’s cynical exploitation of Elisa’s desire to spread her flowers. When she sees her beloved chrysanthemum roots lying in the roadway, she begins to wonder how violent men can be, and how directly women experience this side of manhood.

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Todd D. SNYDER
  12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018.

This is an engaging memoir about Snyder's early years and his work with his father, "Lo" Snyder, who ran a small boxing club in Cowan, West Virginia. The book is alternately about boyhood, fatherhood, life in a mining town, and the men and women who went through Lo's gym and, sometimes, on to boxing elsewhere.

Snyder calls the book a "collection of tall tales" and a "an old Appalachian yarn," but the book is full of "aw shucks, ain't nothin" irony, and I see it as a book of essays about boxing and boxers and boxing history. There are a lot of names and a lot of histories, and as the author acknowledges, the book feels like a loose collection of ideas and lives. The chapters stop without ending. There are a few bad guys, but they are predictable--fundamentalist Christians, and the mining company. Even Zola could find hope in the coal mines; one does not feel germination here.

One particular subject that Snyder could have done more with is the power of boxing to attract the kinds of young men and women he writes about. He mentions manhood and masculinity but writes about them as they were seen in Cowan when he was younger. He offers little of own thinking on these topics, central though they are to his presentation.

An aside on homosexuality and heteronormativity stands out (pp. 84-85). Is it something that a reader wanted Snyder to put into the book? It is a strangely school-masterish touch and it has a bit of atonement about it. Heterosexual life is seen as "part of the ideological framework established by the coal company," but the framework was established by far bigger institutions and imposed on the coal company and everybody else.

There is another irony here. Of the young men in Cowan, Snyder writes, "You weren't a man until some beautiful woman proved you were" (84). He notes this in the course of explaining how the woman who became his wife "saved" him (an ironic note, of course) by confirming that he didn't fit in Cowan and that he was destined for bigger, better things. One would almost think that he was not man enough until a woman said he was, at which point he accepted her word for it: a beautiful woman proved he was a man.

This happened on a college campus, not in Cowan, so apparently it was not part of the coal company's "ideological framework," but it sure looks a lot like it was to me! It fits a lot of contemporary ideological frameworks as well. The author sometimes resembles the men he wrote about who looked to somebody else to confirm that they were standing in the right line. What did boxing actually do for him and his sense of being his own man?

Boxing surfaces in some chapters more than in others, but then Snyder himself didn't box much so much as he observed other boxers. He doesn't stand in the arena that was so important to Theodore Roosevelt, the place for that "man . . . whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood." Consequently, little time is spent on the significance that boxing might have had for the young men of Cowan, men with futures leading them to the mine and marriage, with little else to choose from. Conventions about the power of boxing to lift the poor above their circumstances surface from time to time. But they don't really apply here; riches are not on the horizon when a decent pair of shoes can be hard to find. Nobody gets lifted out of much by boxing, including Snyder. He memorably describes unique sides of Appalachian culture but for me does not do enough to bring life in the ring close enough to the culture outside it. I'd like to have read more about what these taciturn people thought about the sport, not just what they tried to do with it.

Snyder writes about the strength and power of boxing, about caving into defeat, about getting up off the canvas, and other thoughts and events found in many books reviewed here but powerful all the same. He does not write about the art of boxing or even seem to see boxing as an art, amazingly. Not surprisingly, then, he does not see boxing as self-expression. Boxing has been seen this way by W. C. Heinz and A. J. Liebling. Boxing is not just about strength and grit. It's also about intelligence and wit.

This is a heartwarming and entertaining book, as books deeply immersed in isolated cultures can be. But I often felt that the book needed some steel and edge, which is to say that it needed some hard thinking about boxing as an art and as a form of expression (on which see W. C. Heinz's The Professional and quotes on this page. The boxers Snyder discusses experienced boxing as a form of expression whether they knew it or not.

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Robert TRAVER
  Anatomy of a Murder. New York: H. Wolf, 1958.

This is an impressively literary "trial novel," as the genre is known. The author (Traver being the pen name of John D. Voekler, 1903-1991) was a prosecuting attorney whose novels focused on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He became a justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan.

The book contains references to some important heroic works, including Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (113-15). Also quoted are poems by William Blake (437), essays by William Hazlitt (247), and other writers. Among the titles is Blake's "King Edward the Third," a heroic verse drama in which the prince declares that it is better to fall with glory than not to fight at all. This hard-won glory might be snatched away by the tricks of the world. Even so, "the pure soul shall mount on native wings, disdaining little sport, and cut a path into the heaven of glory." Such hunger for battle and glory strikes the narrator, who often seems to be thinking of boxing, describes as "Saxonly muscular and bleeding" (437).

In the book, a lawyer is learning about the character of a man whose murderer the lawyer will be defending. The deceased, named Barney, a bar owner who realized he could make more money from tourists than lumberjacks and truck drivers. As his area became gentrified (so to speak), Barney got tough with the "seedy and besotted local gentry," including the workers, and the latter, not about to go gently, fought for the right to drink in Barney's bar. But to no avail. "If the interlopers wanted to box, Barney boxed ‘em; if they wanted to wrassle, he wrassled ‘em," and so on, we learn. Barney won all of these fight. But then a lumber jack, twice Barney's size, showed up. The lumberjack had been "an amateur pugilist of no mean attainment." He had, among other distinctions, reached the semi-finals in the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament. Barney and the lumberjack fight for an hour and seven minutes (without round breaks, of course). Both men were exhausted, but Barney had enough wit to feint with is left and knock out the lumberjack with his right. The lumberjack left his camp the next day, and no more truck drivers or lumberjacks tried to drink where Barney did not want them (144-45).

This epic contest might have been fought a century earlier, when bouts could last for hours. Traver returns to boxing superficially several times. The young boxer's defeat is recalled by someone on the witness stand (163). Boxing becomes a metaphor for arguments between the defense and prosecution in the trial (e.g., "a smart boxer stung in the first round" has to reassess the opponent; the judge dismisses the arguments as "sparring," 206-7). Trial sessions are described as "bouts" with rounds (220, 235), and surprises in court are referred to as "jabs" (243).

Traver uses other sports in this way, such as baseball (259, "fast knuckle balls"). His sport of choice, however, was fly fishing, as an admiring article in Wikipedia indicates.

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8-1-17

Mike TYSON and Larry SLOMAN
  Undisputed Truth. New York: Penguin, 2013. $25.

Part of the interest of this overly long book is its candid disclosure of the state of mind of the hero and his anxious rise to power. The book gives the lie to the tale that boxing reforms tough boys who grow up in hard circumstances (no disputing this in Tyson's case).
Tyson was taken under the protection of Cus D'Amato. But the youngster hardly reformed his criminal intentions as a result of this mentoring. For example, Tyson notes that he skipped out on weekends to go back to the ghetto and connect with his theft ring.
Tyson's pride in his sexual exploits and lavish homes makes for tedious and depressing reading. That so many books by so many boxers make exactly the same points says a lot about what the reading public expects of men who rise to the top rank of boxing. It's not good.
Readers are supposed to enjoy the boasting, perhaps, because we know that the boaster will come to a bad end. We enjoy his exploits on the way up. Perhaps male readers are expected to envy the tales about women and drugs. But in the end we see that the boxer is dense, however powerful he was in the ring, and easily duped. He gets his due. How can this be the best boxing has to offer?

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U.S. NAVY
  Boxing. The Naval Aviation Physical Training Manuals. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1943. $15.

Unlike the Army at West Point, the Navy at Annapolis talked about the jab, not the "left lead to the face." There are 10 chapters and a glossary (see Baumer on boxing at West Point). Chapter 10 of the Navy's manual of 1943 has especially good discussions of "Ring Science" that offer sage advice: "Fight with your head, not your hands. Out-think the other man and you can out-hit him" (p. 164). For orthodox boxers: "Right hand leads and short hooks are counter blows. Unless you want to get hit, do not lead them" (p. 165); there are many more.

Boxing coaches who teach boxing classes might pick up some hints from the first appendix, "The Drills for the Teaching of Mass Boxing" (pp. 177-259), a vast array of drills for classes and the commands to make them work. The second appendix breaks these drills down into lesson plans.

Not to be overlooked are comments on the history of boxing, especially in the US Army and Navy. I include those paragraphs here since many readers are not likely to purchase this fascinating but unusual volume. Quoted material follows:

BOXING IN THE ARMY IN WORLD WAR II
There is no doubt that the use of boxing by the army during the first world war gave boxing the chance to develop in our colleges and schools, and in our communities.
Today the army "gives boxing an important place in their athletic program, not only because it teaches aggressiveness and a fighting spirit, but because boxing is still the best training for bayonet fighting. Nearly every block and punch in boxing has its counterpoint in bayoneting . . . the long point in bayonet work corresponds to the left lead in boxing, while the blow with a butt of a gun is similar to the right hand counter. The position of the legs in executing a chop with the bayonet is similar to the leg work in the ‘Fitzsimmons shift.’” The army still believes that the soldier trained in boxing generally becomes the expert with a bayonet.
In all army camps boxing is one of the preferred sports, not only because of its spectator and morale building qualities, but because of its definite contributions in the making of a better fighting soldier.
BOXING IN THE NAVY IN WORLD WAR II
Boxing has always been the "number one" sport of the Navy. On board ship where space is at a premium, sports must of a necessity be selected because they require little in the way of space. Boxing not only answers this purpose, but is a method of instilling high morale, not oily in the fighter and his backers, but for a whole division, a whole ship—and sometimes even a whole fleet. Before the war [World War II], each ship would have its own team. They would compete in regular scheduled tournaments against champions of other ships. Each fleet would eventually determine its own Champions. Naturally, during war this cannot be followed but wherever you find the Navy you will always find boxing gloves.
End of quoted material, pp. 10-11.
In short, a good book about how to box never goes out of date. This is a great one.

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Émile ZOLA
  Germinal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. $15.

Germinal (referring to the French Revolution's name for spring and summer months) is one of 20 novels Zola wrote about industrialization and its effect on French life. This novel concerns the coal mining industry of northern France and recounts, in harrowing detail, the conditions under which men, women, and children worked their whole lives. Their squalid homes were within walking distance of the mansions inhabited by owners and investors, who, despite their proximity to poverty and degradation, are portrayed as maintaining a positive view of the industry's effects on those who operated it.
In this book, as in others, including Gervaise, a novel about the working poor of Paris, alcohol plays a large role, not only providing escape from ghastly working and living conditions but also undercutting the social and economic advancement hard work might have been expected to bring.
The novel includes many scenes that take place in bars and drinking establishments, and in one of them a fight develops between two men who have been keeping company with the same woman. One of them is Chaval, a tall, uneducated miner. The other is Étienne Lantier, one of the novel’s chief characters, an idealistic socialist—literate, of course—who serves as Zola’s test case (none too successful) for social reform. Étienne and Chaval come to blows in a bar, a fight that “had to happen,” thinks Catherine, the woman at the center of the animosity between the two men. Étienne knows how to box, Chaval does not.

“Without waiting to be attacked Chaval lashed out into the air with his fists. He was the taller man, and loose-limbed, he aimed a series of savage, slashing blows at Etienne's face with both fists, one after the other, as if he had been wielding a pair of sabers. And he kept on talking, and striking theatrical poses, working himself up with volleys of insults.”
Étienne proceeds much more cautiously:
“Etienne said nothing, but clenched his teeth, and settled down to defend his small frame, in the regulation pose, one fist guarding his chest and the other his face; and every he got a chance, he unleashed a punch like an iron spring, jabbing fiercely at his opponent.” (405)
Both boxers are fit into mechanical analogies, machine-like in their power, just right for this book. A man who respects regulations--and the silence of boxing-- Étienne accuses Chaval of fighting outside the rules when Chaval tries to kick him: “Étienne sidestepped the kick, so indignant at this infringement of the rules of decent fighting that he broke his silence.
'Shut up, you brute! And no feet, for Christ's sake, or I'll get a chair and knock your head off.'"
Étienne finally lands two decisive blows and Chaval falls to the floor “like a sack of plaster being dumped on the ground.”
Chaval is the fitter man but he is not the better fighter. He soon “grew weary and drenched in sweat, and started lashing out at random.” No less enraged, Étienne “continued to maintain his guard, parrying almost all of the punches, although one or two struck him glancingly” (405-6). Étienne’s discipline is the key factor. Chaval runs into one his punches, enabling Étienne to flatten him with a second blow and win. Chaval rises and takes out a knife, hoping to kill Étienne, but he fails and leaves the bar in disgrace. He has had to abandon his hands and find a stronger weapon, not boxing at all.
Observing this fight from a distance is the Russian revolutionary (in exile) named Souvarine. He keeps others from intervening in the fight, and leads one man away from the fight, back to his table, saying, “It's nothing to do with you. . . . One of them's got to give, the weak must give way to the strong” (405).
This is a reference to Darwin and the survival of the fittest. This idea was new in Zola’s time and was greeted with skepticism by socialists, who doubted that natural selection would lead to socialist rather than capitalist communities.
Here, as in other novels that feature brief boxing scenes, including those by Sebastian Barry, James Kennaway, and Leonard Gardner, a boxing match starkly frames a tension that operates at the heart of the work.
The rules of boxing are part of Étienne’s idealism, which is contrasted not only with the equally extreme brutality of his opponent but with the cynicism of Souvarine, whose deterministic perspective plainly favors the larger, stronger man who loses the match.
Not just any novelist, Zola was a master of the "documentary novel," also called the "pedagogical novel" and given similar names. This kind of fiction requried the novelist to know a great deal about his subject. Zola spent time in the coal mines and visited miners in their homes. The reader finds sweat, spit, coal dust, and other earthly elements on every page. No doubt Zola knew something about boxing as well. In American fiction, think of John Steinbeck ("The Chrysanthemums," a story reviewed nearby) as another author who believed that knowledge of the material world and its details was essential for good fiction.
In the boxing scene, Étienne’s idealism seems to win, but Chaval is the more resourceful fighter, however little regard he has for the rules. Chaval departs in disgrace, but one has the feeling that the fight is not over, and indeed the opponents meet again underground in an unforgettable sequence that overwhelms the personal conflict between them, and that also overwhelms the much larger conflict between owners and workers. In the end, the danger of pitting human effort (mining) against nature (gravity) engulfs all other conflicts in the book, which it also neatly sums up. Leave it to Zola to create, out of this horror, a closing page of great beauty and, amazingly, of optimism as well.

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Continued from above     Poole, PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao.
Much in Poole’s book shows a boxer’s ascent to “conqueror” status does not “wipe away” injustice. In many cases (including this one), success seems to highlight inequality, as does Pacquiao’s (and his family’s) conspicuous spending on luxury items in a nation of widespread poverty. Can we think of a boxer who became more just or honest because of his boxing success? Despite the commonplace view that boxing lifts up the boxer, such figures as Tyson, Ali, and Duran were not transformed into wise gentlemen by their boxing success. Men with a social conscience and respectful demeanor—Floyd Patterson being the archetype, Ray Mancini, a few others—claimed those attributes before they claimed success in the ring.
I also doubt Poole’s claim that the boxer’s struggle to dominate and to achieve conqueror status is “more fulfilling than money.” Pacquiao never had enough money and in his most successful days gave large sums to strangers. His generosity was motivated by a history of knowing what it was like not to have money, and also, one suspects, by a sense of inferiority related to poverty. Like Ali in this regard, Pacquiao’s good judgment took second place to a need to be liked.
Like a long list of champion boxers, Pacquiao lacked financial good sense and business acumen, and like them he seems to have been susceptible to the whims and greed of his managers and hangers-on. The boxer’s rags-to-riches career explains the financial clouds that form part of his history (and that of so many other boxers). Pacquiao outdid all other boxers in amassing an entourage. In Poole’s account, more than 130 people sometimes traveled with the boxer, at his expense, many of them friends of friends without clearly defined duties.
In another similarity to Ali, Pacquiao has had a political career. Ali’s was chiefly a career of protest and resistance, while Pacquiao, even less well-educated than Ali, chose to run for office and was elected a congressman in 2009. He has been seen as a national hero for a more than a decade. Having lost four of his last nine fights (as of February 2018), Pacquiao faces an uncertain future. At the time Poole was writing, however, his future seemed a lot brighter than it has turned out. And whether future authors will compare him as often to Muhammad Ali as Poole does remains to be seen. That comparison is itself complicated and in many respects is no compliment to Pacquiao.

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  Ross, Ron, Nine . . . Ten . . . and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith.
Long form of review follows.

Some boxers fit the warrior image of the bare-chested man soaked in sweat and ready to roll. Others don’t, and Emile Griffith was one of them.

Griffith was a good boxer. In the 20 years that he fought (1958-77), Griffith held championship titles in welterweight, junior middleweight, and middleweight divisions (85-24-2, 23 knockouts). But Griffith is mentioned in boxing books because of Benny “Kid” Paret, a twenty-five-year-old Cuban boxer who died of injuries sustained in a match with Griffith in 1962.

To complicate matters, Griffith was known as bisexual playboy, and his sexuality is connected to the fight that cost Paret his life.

Unusual in some ways, Griffith was typical in others. He grew up in poverty in the Virgin Islands. His boyhood in New York was filled with instability. He started boxing after he was discovered by Howard Albert, who saw Griffith as a shirtless employee in a hat factory and thought he had a boxer’s build. Ross notes that Griffith was a natural athlete who could have excelled in any sport and who learned quickly everything his trainers taught him. It happened that he was discovered by somebody who had contacts in the boxing world, and so Griffith became a boxer.

For Griffith and numerous other young men, boxing offered a way up. A boxing career promised a big paycheck and prosperity for the fighter and his family. That’s a familiar story. But once he became successful, Griffith’s background worked against him, and that’s familiar as well. He could not refuse constant requests for handouts from family and friends. He defeated his handlers’ modest attempts to build a retirement account for him. He was another boxer who had to keep fighting because he needed the money, who died penurious, and whose last years were spent in a fog of dementia.

Ross wrote Nine . . . Ten . . . and Out! while Griffith was still alive (he died in 2013). Griffith could not relate his history accurately (see p. 230), so Ross relied on statements supplied by those who knew the boxer. Ross notes that “the thoughts and memories may be [Griffith’s] but very often after being nurtured and influenced” by others. They include those on whom the elderly Griffith depended “for his daily needs, those who cared for him as a person . . . and those who cared for him as a tool” (p. x). This means that readers cannot separate the boxer’s words and ideas from the words and ideas of those who knew him.

Ross contributes to the muddying effect of these “nurtured and influenced” memories. The prologue refers to the boxer in the third person and then includes two paragraphs in Griffith’s voice without quotation marks. Griffith says, “I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin” (p. xiv). No date or place is given. Did Griffith actually make the statement?

The first chapter begins in Griffith’s voice, but again without quotation marks, and then switches to the third person. Are these quotations really the boxer’s words? Or are they words that the author and others “nurtured” and “influenced” and then presented in Griffith’s voice?

When Griffith himself is Ross’s source, lets us know. “You know that Emile Griffith means every word that he says because as he speaks his eyelids flutter in an unconscious effort to hold back the misting tears” (p. 110). These observations, from a conversation about young gay men, suggest that Ross was looking at Griffith as he spoke.

Ross’s central claim is that Griffith inhabited two unconnected worlds. “An impregnable barrier” separated Griffith’s gay world from his boxing world,” Ross maintains. “The two worlds of Emile Griffith have no common base. They are both ‘home’ to him” (p. 35).

Griffith’s worlds did indeed have a “common base,” and it was Griffith himself. He frequently connected his personal world to his boxing world. Before his fight with Gaspar Ortega in 1961, for example, Griffith gave an interview on fashions in women’s hats (p. 45). Was this interview part of his team’s pre-fight strategy of lowering expectations? The kind of speculation that this interview fueled would not have been to Griffith’s advantage. Was it reverse psychology? Arriving in England for a match with Brian Curvis in 1965, Griffith presented Curvis’s wife with a hat he had created for her (p. 112). Reverse psychology again?

In their 1961 fight, Griffith stopped Ortega early in the twelfth round. In 83 fights, Ortega had been defeated but had never been stopped. After Griffith’s demonstration of speed and power, the smirking about Griffith’s gayness stopped, but only for a while (pp. 46-47).

Griffith was closeted, Ross claims (p. 18), but the boxer relished opportunities to exhibit his private side in public, as the hat gift and hat interview show. Griffith insisted that what he did on his own time was his own business. Although many people would agree with that view in 2018, it is likely that fewer people shared Griffith’s conviction fifty years ago. With his flashy clothes, disco mania, and mix of boyfriends and girlfriends, Griffith maintained an image that would still be considered very risky for boxers. Even today, how many openly gay men compete in contact sports, including sports that showcase masculinity much less ostentatiously than boxing does?

Griffith insisted on standing out. Few are the boxers who claimed to design women’s hats. Griffith did. Few are the boxers whose mothers picked them up and carried them around the locker room. Griffith’s mother did, and Ross includes a picture of her doing so (p. 157). These and similar eccentricities effectively undercut his reputation as a formidable boxer. He failed to appear at some press events and cultivated a reputation that emphasized his “kind disposition, gentleness and love of everyone,” in Howard Albert’s view (p. 48). As he fueled gossip about his sex life, even a triumphant Griffith must have seemed like an easy target for opponents and their managers.

Griffith’s three fights with Paret followed his two fights with Ortega, both of which Griffith won. Before their fight in 1962, Paret stood behind Griffith at the weigh-in, according to Griffith, and made “suggestive motions with his body.” Paret said, “Hey, maricon [faggot], I’m going to get you and your husband!” (p. 58). Boxing historian Bert Blewett calls this encounter a “rumor” (A to Z, p. 127), but I have not seen the anecdote challenged elsewhere and other sources confirm it (see Gary Smith's essay).

In 1962, Paret was repeating a remark that he had made before his first fight with Griffith in November 1961, the fight in which he took the middleweight title from Griffith. The 1961 weigh-in was “the first time anyone made fun of me like that,” Griffith said. He added that Paret’s remark “started me thinking of other things” (p. 50). Ross does not elaborate on the “other things.” However, readers might well suppose that they included physical abuse by the aunt who raised him, sexual abuse that Griffith endured as a boy (see p. 12), and homosexual encounters at an orphanage (p. 18).

If we expand Griffith’s comment about “other things” to include these shaming experiences, his behavior in the 1962 fight can be seen as a response to more than Paret’s pre-fight strategy. In a few seconds, Griffith pounded Paret with “twenty-one full force blows,” even though Paret’s “upper body was outside the ropes, his arm tangled in the middle strand” (p. 64). The event was witnessed by some 14 million television viewers.

What was in Griffith’s mind in those few seconds? When Griffith returned to the dressing room, according to Ross, the boxer wept. Griffith said he was “asking myself if I could have been so angry that I wanted to kill him. . . . I had to admit that I hated him so much for what he said but I really didn’t hate him—the person—Benny Paret” (p. 65).

Griffith’s comment ties his fury to Paret’s homophobic ridicule. His shocking assault repaid Paret “for what he said.” Perhaps it also settled old scores concerning “other things” said and done by people whom Paret had imprudently brought to Griffith’s mind.

Many people see boxing as an outlet for anger and rage. For them, boxing serves a hydraulic model of emotions (a model psychologists dismiss as naive). In that model, feelings are liquid. They heat up, boil, and then burst out under pressure, overwhelming (in this case) both the boxer and his opponent. The thinner the skin, the more likely the boxer is to blow up. Griffith was likely to blow up; he certainly was thin-skinned.

Coaches know that uncontrolled boxers—boxers whose emotions are boiling—are dangerous chiefly to themselves. Smart boxers are disciplined. Griffith was not disciplined. Ross describes the boxer’s lack of emotional balance and control. “Emile Griffith’s life was a sea of emotions,” Ross writes. “He cried as easily as he laughed and taking care of someone, usually many someones, was very important to him” (p. 153).

Griffith was a volatile combination of deadly force and emotional instability. He seemed weak to those around him, and, as his reputation as a hat designer and fashion authority indicates, he and his trainers exploited images and events that showcased the boxer in areas very far from physical prowess. As Ross observes, “It is difficult to correlate [Griffith’s] petulant, slightly breaking voice” (something else Paret mocked) with “fists that flash out with venomous, destructive force” (p. 110). And that was just his voice. Pictures in the book say much more.

Paret’s death did not impede Griffith’s career, however much it must have compromised his peace of mind. He had 31 fights before his match with Paret in March 1962 and 80 fights after it. Griffith fought five more times in 1962 alone, winning each time. In 1963 he was named Fighter of the Year by The Ring and in 1964 was named Boxer of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Griffith believed (so Ross suggests) that the world forgave him for Paret’s death, but not for his homosexuality: “I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin” (p. xiv). It is not clear that the world was forgiving. After the fight, Ross writes, “Emile couldn’t walk down the street without being threatened or cursed at.” Paret was a hero to what Ross calls “Cuban/Latin” fans (p. 66), who threatened Griffith, and they were not the only ones who were disgusted at Griffith’s performance in the fatal fight (see p. 66, for example).

It is not really clear that the boxing establishment forgave Griffith, either. Griffith’s awards in 1963 and 1964 might be read as compensation from an industry that was in decline. Boxing historian Bert Blewett notes that Paret’s death was a blow to televised boxing, although he also points out that boxing’s television audience had begun to shrink before 1962 (entry on "Televison," A to Z, p. 393).

In Nine . . . Ten . . . and Out!, Griffith’s boxing career seems to be a by-product of his personality, not the passion of his life. As if to underscore this point, Ross writes that Griffith was “not a prize fighter. At least, not by definition, not by stereotypic classification and not even by choice” (p. 240). To this one must reply that a prizefighter is, by definition, a man who fights for titles and prizes, which Griffith did. He falls well within the “stereotypic classification” of a boxer, since he had 112 professional fights.

Yet Ross gets to a sad fact about Griffith, which is that he was a playboy first and a boxer second. It is as if he climbed into the ring to give a performance akin to his performances in dance clubs. Being a boxer seems to have been a role that paid well and that answered or at least obscured the questions that his bisexuality raised about his manliness.

Griffith’s conduct before and after Paret’s death kept those questions front and center. It is safe to say that both he and his promoters got something out of his notoriety. After Paret’s death, Griffith and his managers used the boxer’s reputation as a homosexual and a playboy to offset his violent side and to take the focus off his inability to control his rage.

In 1965 Griffith fought Don Fullmer. Fullmer’s brother Gene was the announcer for the fight. Leaving the ring, Gene Fullmer asked Griffith to “take it easy on my kid brother.” Fullmer’s wife and child were at ringside. Griffith “couldn’t bring himself to hit Don,” Ross writes, and he lost the fight (p. 134). Was Griffith compensating for the deadly beating he gave Paret? Ross does not point out that Griffith also fought Fullmer in 1962. Fullmer was Griffith’s third fight after Paret’s death. Griffith won that fight, which presumably was not refereed by Fullmer’s protective brother. Griffith’s compassionate streak recalls Floyd Patterson, another fighter who suffered from niceness (see Alan H. Levy’s book on Patterson, this page).

In 1962, Griffith could not stop hitting Paret even when Paret was unable to defend himself. Three years later, Griffith could not bring himself to hit Fulmer. Going too easy is as unmanly like going too hard. I say this because the boxer who doesn’t fight, like the boxer who continues to beat an unresponsive opponent, is using boxing to serve a hidden, personal end, be it revenge or atonement. That is not the aim of this or any sport—or sportsman. The violence of boxing is controlled violence, as Blewett emphasizes (p. 122).

Ross seems to be having it both ways, as Griffith tried to do, using one extreme (violence) to offset another (bisexual playboy). Griffith seemed to insist that his sexual identity, and not his prowess as a boxer, was the most important thing about him. If he really believed that what he did on his own time was his own business, he might have found ways to emphasize those character traits he shared with others, including other boxers. Instead, he showcased traits that set him apart not only from other boxers but also from the majority of gay men, who, in 1960 or in 2010, were not in discos until 5 a.m. or photographed being carried around locker rooms in their mothers’ arms or having their hair done in a beauty salon.

Griffith had a serious side, but Ross does not emphasize it. Griffith comforted Ray Mancini, who fatally injured the Korean boxer Kim Duk Koo in 1982 (see The Good Son by Mark Kriegel, reviewed in on this page, pp. 133-47). Two months after that fight, Mancini resumed his workouts at the Times Square Gym. According to Mancini, “Emile came up to me and he says: ‘Welcome back.’ That’s all he said. I said to myself, ‘That’s it. That does it for me’” (Kriegel, p. 160). Mancini went back to boxing, just as Griffith had.

Perhaps this irresolution explains another unusual aspect of Emile Griffith place in boxing history, which is his posthumous place in the performing arts, where the story of his life, with its loose ends, is simplified and turned into a homophilic parable.

Thirty years after Paret’s death, Oliver Mayer wrote a play called “Blade to the Heat” about a gay boxer that seems to echo the Griffith-Paret fight. The play concentrates on discrimination against gay men and was staged in New York (1994, 2006) and in Los Angeles (1996). Griffith’s life is also the subject of a 2005 film by Ron Berger and Dan Klores called “Ring of Fire,” which includes parts of the fatal fight and which Griffith saw.

Recently, drawing on the film and on Ross’s book, jazz trumpeter and composer Terrence Blanchard, with librettist Michael Cristofer, turned Griffith’s story into an opera. “The Champion” premiered in St. Louis in 2013, the year of Griffith’s death, and has since been performed in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. Reviews suggest that the opera, which I have not seen, focuses on institutional racism and homophobia, not on boxing.

Earlier I quoted Griffith’s comment on the paradox of a world that accepted death in boxing but not homosexuality. Blanchard refers to Griffith’s “autobiography,” and he gives the quote in a more polished form: “I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man and the world wants to kill me.” Griffith did not write an autobiography, and, given Ross’s dubious reliance on “nurtured” sources, it is not clear that the boxer, rather than Ross, is the origin of these sentences.

Griffith made much of his sexual preferences outside the ring, and then he objected when others used his behavior against him. He never saw himself as a man who could both love some men and fight others. It is easy, fifty years later, for others to explain this puzzle, so long as they don’t know much about boxing. Even today, fans fail to understand how a gay or bisexual man can box. Orlando Cruz, a gay Puerto Rican boxer, is booed for being gay because some fans cannot reconcile gay sexual preference with the masculine image of the boxer.

Boxing has nothing to do with homosexuality, any more than football or wrestling does. These sports, and many others, testify to strength and manliness when men play them well, and to unmanliness when men play them badly. Think of Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear. Mike Tyson screamed homophobic insults at the press and bragged about it. “That was the audacity Cus [D’Amato] had instilled in me,” Tyson said. He called it “talking like my momma” (Undisputed Truth, p. 406). Like Griffith, Tyson had a thin skin, was emotionally unstable, and cried easily. Teddy Atlas reported that he had bully Tyson into continuing a fight the boxer was preparing to quit (Atlas, pp. 81-82).

Those who insist that great sportsmen must be heterosexual are confusing athletic dominance—which every sport privileges—with sexual dominance, which would perhaps be an implied factor in those sports in which men compete against women (those sports being—?). Homosexuals and bisexuals can dominate heterosexuals in the boxing ring, something Griffith proved over and over. But it was a physical competition of strength, skill, and stamina, not a sexual competition.

Those who cannot recognize excellence in gay athletes in contact sports assume that contact sports are a theater for heterosexuality. But they would be hard-pressed to explain why gay men and women excel in sports (swimming, tennis, golf). Heterosexuality is not hard-wired to athletic excellence. These same people also, in reference to male athletes, misunderstand masculinity. Griffith demonstrated that being a homosexual does not have to compromse a man's power in the ring. Personality defects such as Griffith and Tyson had can compromise a man's performance, since performance is the end to which that power is put. But performance itself is not related to sexual preference. Heterosexual boxers can fight for revenge too, just as Griffith did. The ideas that get in the way of accepting gay boxers are not simply stereotypes about homosexuality. They are equally blinkered stereotypes about boxing itself, and about other contact sports.

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Posted 6-28-2018

  Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life
Review, continued.

Luckily for the reader who is skeptical of hero worship, Eig the historian balances Eig the tragedian (and Ali fan). Ali's courageous political positions have to be set against other facts about him and his place in the boxing world. There is no concealing Ali’s shortcomings as the husband of four women and the father of nine children or as a boxer. Ali's personal life is not my concern. I focus here one Ali as a boxer, and begin with Eig's jaundiced view of the sport, which Eig positions as Ali's foe rather than his friend.

Eig's view of boxing
A book about a boxer is also a book about the author’s view of boxing. Many writers of boxers’ biographies are boxing fans first and fans of the boxer second. These authors get interested in their subjects because they are interested in boxing. This is not true of Eig. Like Ron Ross, author of a book about Emile Griffith, but unlike most of the authors whose books are reviewed here, Eig is disapproving of boxing. “The objective of boxing is to hurt, torture, and render a man unconscious,” Eig writes. Eig is attempting to justify Ali’s unsportsmanlike behavior during his fight with Floyd Patterson. “Come on, white American!” Ali shouted at Patterson; Ali also called him an Uncle Tom (p. 206). Eig puts this shoddy verbal abuse on par with the physical "torture” of boxing. Others might argue that the langauge degraded boxing and Ali, not Patterson. Nothing can excuse Ali's lack of respect for Patterson's place in the social history of boxing, which W. K. Stratton and others have acknowledged. Eig apparently could not bring himself to comment positively on Patterson's civil rights record anywhere in 539 pages, which looks like repayment for Patterson's political criticism of Ali (also omitted by Eig). I will give Eig credit for saying that Ali's race-baiting of other black fighters was Ali "at his worst" (p. 357). In this book, that is saying something.

Eig's animosity towards boxing surfaces in a later comment. The reader might think that boxing was a way up for the opporessed. No so, Eig writes. It might seem that “astonishing riches were going to black men competing in the animalistic ritual of boxing,” but “the black men were, in fact, being wildly underpaid while the white men promoting the fight would capture the really big money” (p. 306).

Let's deal with "animalistic" first. This poorly-chosen language insults men and women who box and who love boxing. It also exhibits a remarkable animus for a sport with a long and honorable tradition. Animals do not have rituals, however prominent animals might be in some human rituals. So far as I am aware, animals do not gear up when they fight or confine themselves to timed rounds. Animals fight for survival, not for prestige or prize money. But why go on?

Eig's criticism of boxing is deeply felt. BUt it is a ploy used it to solve one of this book’s problems. Eig admires the man who boxed but Eig detests boxing. Ali invested heavily in the sport as a route to riches a fame, which began coming his way after he won the Olympic gold medal in Athens in 1960. His investment rewarded him richly but also cost him dearly.

By condemning boxing as "animalisic" and as a form of “torture,” Eig seeks to shift the blame for Ali’s condition (his “downfall”) from the man to the sport. Boxing is at fault, not the boxer. Such a design would be consistent with Eig's tragic view of Ali, who is seen as a victim of boxing and the sinister forces that control it. The white men whom he enriched robbed him. Then, in his penury, they forced him to box many years past his prime, exposing him to great bodily harm, but not the kind he inflicted on his opponents. When he lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, he was a shocking sight, and that was twenty years before his death.

America had all but forgotten Ali by the time he lit the torch. In his prime, Ali became a political hero because he had been a political victim. After Atlanta, he became a boxing victim because he had been a boxing hero. Eig's account of Ali's last fight, which was in 1981, ends on p. 498, when Ali was 39. He had another 35 years to live. Eig devotes about 40 pages to those years.

Ali was famous for believing that he was the greatest at whatever he attempted. Eig writes, “His lip helped, as did his accurate predictions and good looks. He evoked a sense of merriment and mystery, an irresistible combination for the media.” He believed that he could have it all, money, women, fame, “without getting bloodied, without getting hurt” (pp. 98-99). This proved to be an illusion, and it seems that nobody managed to prepare the boxer for a world in which his fantasy was not going to come true.

When he talks about Ali's verbal abuse of other black boxers, Eig mentions that some observers attributed the fighter's celebrated "lip" to his insecurity, which was rooted not in poverty but, ironically, in Ali's middle class status (p. 357). The boxers Ali ridicled grew up poor, as did Patterson. Ali did not. But that was not all. Ali had other reasons for his insecurity.

Ali's dyslexia
Ali had two serious problems. First, he had dyslexia, and not a mild form of it. Second, Ali never mastered some defensive techniques that are called "boxing fundamentals" for a very good reason.

Ali had difficulty learning and handling words and numbers. Eig gives examples of the boxer'sproblems with numbers, which also translated into financial misunderstandings of consequence. As a high school student, Eig notes, Ali engaged in “attention-getting ploys” (dangerous stunts on a motorized scooter, for example), and used them perhaps as “compensation for his deficiencies with the written word.” Written numbers were no easier for him. It is reasonable to suggest that later in life other, much grander "attention-getting ploys" were the boxer's stock in trade, and also to suggest that they compensated for other deficiencies as well.

These “deficiencies” having been noted, Eig the fan tries to turn them to the boxer's advantage. Eig observes that some experts consider dyslexia “an advantage for some people,” including boxers, since literacy causes “certain kinds of visual processing skills” to “get lost” (p. 34). This is a very big claim, especially in specific relation to boxers, but there is no support offered and no references given. Eig proposes that Ali was quick in the ring because he was dyslexic and he did not learn to “block out the world,” which is something that reading (Eig says) causes us to do.

If you look into arguments about the advantages of dyslexia, you will find that most of them relate to the success of Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and a celebrated business tycoon. He emphasized ways in which he worked to minimize the impact of his dyslexia. He kept communication simple and direct and to carried a notebook with him at all times. It safe to surmise that Ali’s learning disability was more significant as a disadvantage than as an advantage. Unlike Branson, Ali does not seem to have taken steps to manage his dyslexia.

However much his dyslexia might have helped Ali in the ring, he conceptual limitations outside the ring were considerable. He bought gasoline for his car 50 cents at a time because he thought he saved money by doing so. He could not divide 35 by two. He asked those around him what month it was. He does not seem to have known the sequence of the months of the year. He needed half an hour to read a newspaper column others could read in five minutes (p. 100). The faculty of Louisville High School sent him into the world with a “certificate of attendance,” thereby washing its hands of a mission in which we might reasonably conclude they had failed. These are not small matters in the life of any adult.

Ali’s conceptual limitations were most damaging to him financially. Ali thought that cash was king and that it was worth more than money in other forms, an idea drilled into him by his promoter, Don King. He signed away more than a million dollars in fight earnings to King. They were rightfully the boxer’s, but King, through his lawyer, persuaded Ali to exchange the relevant contract for a briefcase containing $50,000 in cash (p. 491; see also pp. 206-7 and pp. 468-70).

Eig maintains that white men took the big money, not black boxers (p. 306, cited above). Who captured the big money in this transaction, which cynically exploited the boxer who enriched many others? Who captured the big money in virtually every dealing that Ali had with King? It was not one of “the white men” Eig criticizes here, among them Bob Arum. Aram was the “white Jew” (p. 208) who persuaded Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, to support Ali’s own promotional company, Main Bout, at great financial advantage to Elijah Muhammad (pp. 208-10). Eig points out that the group of white men who backed Ali in his early years earned modestly from the risk they took. They made sure that the boxer was paid what he earned. It was the boxer’s “unrealistic” financial propositions that caused his split with the group (pp. 198-201).

Failure to master fundamental boxing techniques
Many championship boxers have problems with managers and agents similar to those Ali had. Few have had his second problem, which concerns his skills as a boxer. Eig writes that Ali had a “relatively weak grasp of boxing fundamentals.” In his matches after 1970, Eig writes, it became apparent that Ali would “pay a price” for having failed to master basic techniques. “He had never learned to properly block or duck punches because he hadn’t needed to” (p. 300), Eig writes, excusing Ali's deficiency.

This is debatable. Every boxing coach I have worked with would say that every boxer needs to learn how to block or slip a punch as well as circle away from one.

Ali could not slip and stay in the pocket to find at close range. Before long, his physical condition suffered from his lack of training and discipline, and this happened well before he was 30 years old. He slowed down and “he absorbed more punishment, curling up against the ropes and trying to absorb or deflect [his opponent’s] blows instead of dodging them.” This strategy was called “rope a dope” and was presented as a clever way of trapping his opponents. They punched until they tired, “and then he would fight back” (p. 300).

How was this a clever strategy? Powerful boxers can throw dozens of punches in a few seconds without stopping or getting tired. As for the “and then” moment, his opponents could step back as adroitly as Ali once could when Ali was ready to fight back.

The idea of “rope-a-dope” was that the opponent was a dope who had been “roped” into a trap. The man against the ropes is the man who is trapped, however. Since he could not run any longer, Ali had no choice but to take shots until he could find an opening to throw some. It was his lack of fundamental skills as a boxer that placed him in this very dangerous position.

Eig exaggerates Ali’s gifts in the ring. He writes that when young Ali had boxing “style of his own” (pp. 36-37). What Eig describes, however, is perfectly ordinary and not a “style” at all. Some fighters like to move forward and step in for big punches, but the young Cassius Clay

preferred to circle his opponent clockwise, to punch and move away, to pull his head back from blows rather than duck them. Bobbing and weaving won't work when an opponent gets in close. But Cassius learned that if he could keep his distance and keep circling, sticking, and moving, he would absorb less punishment. His greatest talent may have been measurement; he had a brilliant knack for staying just beyond the reach of his opponents and, then, getting just close enough to throw punches that hurt. Eig calls this the boxer’s “built-in radar.” Hype aside, circling the ring to the boxer’s lead side (as an orthodox boxer, Ali led with his left and circled left) is a basic technique taught in boxing classes. The quote is revealing, in any case. Ali "learned" that he could avoid getting hit if he stayed outside his opponent’s range. Anybody who has sparred one round knows as much, and also knows that if you stay outside all the time, you can’t land punches.

Boxers know that it is important to get in and out fast. As for pulling the head back rather than ducking punches, that is something many boxers do, but it is no substitute for bobbing, weaving, and slipping punches. The objective is to avoid a punch without giving up proximity to the target. As we have seen, Eig states that Ali did not learn “to properly block or duck punches” because he didn’t have to. Those moves were among the “boxing fundamentals” that Ali did not master (p. 300). There was nothing “brilliant” about Ali’s knack for staying out of his opponent’s reach. Had he learned more about how to do that, he would have been hit less often later in his career. His legs were his “first line of defense,” and like his hands, they gave out (p. 301).

Why didn’t Ali learn how to bob and weave, skills that many young boxers seem to have almost by instinct? The short answer is that Ali seems to have thought that the result was not worth the effort required to achieve it. He thought he could “float like a butterfly,” which describes the circling motion that distanced Ali from his opponent. So long as the boxer has room to run, floating is fine. When a boxer is trapped, though, as Ali was repeatedly in his later fights, floating is not possible. The slips and weaves would have been the only ways to avoid the blows that Ali took.

It wasn't only his defense that failed him. In his later fights, Eig shows, Ali threw fewer and fewer punches. He was “out-hit with power shots” in his last nine fights by 1,565 to 833, nearly two-to-one. Much worse, “in his two final fights, opponents would land 371 power punches to Ali’s 51.” Eig observes that these problems were not unique to Ali’s last five years in the ring: “the man who called himself ‘The Greatest’ was below average [as a hitter] for much of his career” (pp. 300-1).

Ali’s list nine fights took place over five years. He won the first five (1976-1977) and lost three of the last four (1978-1981). In those nine fights, using Eig’s numbers, Ali threw 53% of the power shots his opponents threw; in his last two fights, both losses, he threw 18% of the power shots they threw. “Shots to the head were the price he would pay to continue his career,” Eig writes (p. 436; see p. 300). They proved to be a higher price than anybody anticipated.

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Posted 7-12-2018