Category Archives: Book Reviews

Jess Willard, The Reluctant Giant

Jess Willard: Heavyweight Champion of the World

by Arly Allen with the assistance of James Willard Mace

McFarland Publishing
300 pp. $35.00

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Not a lot has been written about Jess Willard. Part of the reason for that is because his championship reign was bookended by two champions who not only are considered all time greats, but who were also very colorful figures. It is unfortunate the Willard story has not been told as it is a very interesting one. That oversight has now been rectified with the very detailed account of the Pottawatomie Giant’s life written by Arly Allen. Mr. Allen was fortunate to have had the assistance of Mr. Willard’s grandson James Willard Mace. He also had access to Jess Willard’s unpublished autobiography. The result is a lively story about a man who, while preferring a peaceful life, was repeatedly finding himself in controversial situations.

Willard only had 22 bouts in his 23 year career, but at least two of those bouts are still argued about by boxing historians to this day. Arly Allen digs deep into the details of both those bouts, the title winning knock out of Jack Johnson and Jess’ loss to Jack Dempsey. Mr. Allen has strong views on both of these fights and he presents plenty of evidence to back up his conclusions. Whether or not he changes minds remains to be seen. He certainly has added much to the discussion. Did Jack Johnson take a dive in the 26th round of the bout in Havana? Were Jack Dempsey’s gloves loaded in Toledo? There isn’t a boxing historian on the planet who doesn’t have an opinion on these controversies. Agree or not, they should all enjoy reading this book.

Johnson vs Willard

Jess was born in Kansas in 1881. The young Willard was tall and lanky and was an excellent athlete who excelled at swimming and running. He was also an excellent horseman. The easy going Kansan hardly seemed the type to go in for boxing. In fact, he didn’t really care for the sport, but did get caught up in the search for a Great White Hope to defeat Jack Johnson. Willard’s size, six foot six and a half coupled with his agility got him noticed. His lack of a killer instinct was also picked up on. It seems Jess found it difficult to throw the full force of his body into punches unless he was hit hard first. He also had an aversion to fighting men smaller than he was as he was afraid he would cause them serious harm. Indeed, Willard did kill a man in the ring. His bout with another big man, William “Bull” Young ended in tragedy when Young died the day after his fight with Jess. Willard was devastated by this event but continued to pursue a career in boxing.

The Jess Willard story is a fascinating one.

Mr. Allen’s research comes up with many interesting facts about Willard’s life. He was repeatedly ending up in court  because of boxing in places where the sport was illegal or not clearly defined, because of financial disputes, and the Young situation where he was charged with manslaughter of which he was acquitted. It becomes clear that Jess was an honest man who, and with good reason, didn’t trust anyone around him. This distrust led him to enter the ring against Jack Dempsey without having solid people in his corner to watch out for him. If he had, the results of that bout may have been different.

In an interesting story leading up to the Dempsey fight Mr. Allen relates how there were three people who thought Jess might very possibly kill Jack that afternoon in the ring. They were Jess, Tex Rickard, and Jack Dempsey himself. Jack wouldn’t make eye contact with Willard when he entered the ring. There is much more and it is all very thought provoking.

From the time Jess won the title in 1915 until his loss to Dempsey in 1919 he only defended the title one time. He did, however, make quite a bit of money by making personal appearances, putting on exhibitions, and investing in a traveling circus. Willard made and lost fortunes over his life time.

Jess Willard

Willard’s blunt manner often got him into trouble. Mr. Allen relates the time Jess was booked for an appearance in Boston. He was to be paid $2,000.00 for one evening, a very substantial amount of money for that time. His visit also coincided with the running of the Boston Marathon. When Jess was asked to appear at the finish line he refused saying that if people wanted to see him they would have to pay. Needless to say, this left a bad taste in the mouths of Bostonians and only a small crowd showed up for his paid appearance. There is a similar story regarding Jess and Harry Houdini. These tales all make for fascinating reading.

There is much for boxing historians to learn from Mr. Allen’s well written book. For instance, I knew that the actor Victor McLaglen had fought Jack Johnson in an exhibition bout when Johnson was champion. I did not know that he also once boxed Bob Fitzsimmons and that he went four rounds with Willard.

The Jess Willard story is a fascinating one. He was a decent man who managed to get the public to turn hot and cold for and against him. He always felt he could beat Dempsey and even when nearing the age of forty he campaigned for a rematch. That bout would have happened if he had not been stopped by Luis Firpo. An interesting note, the Firpo bout was held at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in New Jersey, the site of the Dempsey v Carpentier bout. The fight drew nearly 100,000 people, approximately 10,000 more than the Dempsey / Carpentier fight. Willard received nearly $210,000.00 for the fight. That is an astronomical amount for the time.

There is so much more to this book. Willard was champ during WW I and during flu epidemic. The stories of his real estate and farming investments, his sixty year marriage to Hattie and the lovely family they raised all make for fascinating reading. Jess Willard deserves the attention of boxing fans and this book is the place to start. He was not just the guy who held the title between Johnson and Dempsey. He was a deeply interesting man.

Talking With Stephan Pastis The Creator Of Pearls Before Swine And Author of the Timmy Failure Books

By Bobby Franklin

Stephan Pastis
(Photo: Bobby Franklin)

Stephan Pastis is the creator of the very popular comic strip Pearls Before Swine that he has been drawing for sixteen years and now appears in 750 newspapers worldwide. The lawyer turned cartoonist’s latest book is Pearls Hogs The Road: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury. He is also the author of the Timmy Failure books that are now going to be turned into a movie by Disney. His characters Rat, Pig, Goat, Guard Duck, The Crocs, and many others are irreverent and funny. Judging by the very large crowd that gathered at the Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner, MA to watch him give a presentation and do a book signing he is extremely popular, and that popularity extends to all age groups. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Pastis before his appearance.

“I think most (cartoonists) have a background in art. I don’t have any and I think that’s probably unusual.”

I begin by asking him if he is self-taught, he replies “Yes. Well, I don’t know what school you would go to for cartooning, but I didn’t. I think most (cartoonists) have a background in art. I don’t have any and I think that’s probably unusual.”

Mr. Pastis started drawing as a kid. He tells me, “I guess we all draw at a certain age.” When I ask him if he was good at it he responds, “I was never really good at it. I still don’t see myself as very good at it. I really struggle with the art, and I think the only reason I have a career is because of the writing. If it was because of the art I’d be in trouble.”

With a character like Rat leading the cast in Pearls I ask if many people take offense to his work. “Yeah, for sure. They’re rare, maybe one out of a hundred, but they’re certainly the most fun.”

Later in the evening I find out just how much fun he has with them. During the presentation, he gives examples of messages he has received from people and organizations that were not happy with a particular strip. These range from the International Polka Association to the Turkish Embassy. In true Rat like manner he has an answer for all of them. And his responses are all hilarious. For example, in an apology his publishers drafted for the Turkish Embassy the Greek American Pastis, he ask that they add a P.S. asking that Turkey give Cyprus back. Guard Duck may have to work on that one.

Drawing a comic strip that appears seven days a week has to be a daunting task. I ask if he writes one a day. “Two days a week I do three, two days a week I do two, Monday through Thursday. I’m six months ahead. Probably five and a half when I get home (from the book tour) which makes me scared.”

Writer’s block can be a problem but it never slows Mr. Pastis down. He tells me “…if that happens I switch to something else. Promotional stuff, or Timmy, or the movie I’m working on. I always have some other project I can go to. Just not being able to write doesn’t stop the train entirely.”

Before he had a career as a cartoonist he got to meet Charles Schulz. When he quit being a lawyer he took a part time job at the Schulz Museum where he helped them with their licensing. Eventually, he went onto the board of the museum. Mr. Pastis tells me, “…I wrote the first animated special made without Charles Schulz called Happiness Is A Warm Blanket Charlie Brown.”

Our conversation turns back to Pearls Before Swine and I ask, “Is Rat you?” Mr. Pastis tells me, “Yeah, they’re all me. I think Rat is more me than the others, but they’re all me.” How old is Rat? “I’ve never really said. He doesn’t have an age. None of them do.”

As to how he decides what characters to use each day, “I don’t really think about that. I’ll look back on a time when I do nothing but Rat. It’s probably a time when I’m angrier and more stressed, and then when I’m vulnerable and fail at something I imagine Pig predominates more.

”I’ll look back on a time when I do nothing but Rat. It’s probably a time when I’m angrier and more stressed…”

The Crocs, which are almost a whole different comic strip just came to Mr. Pastis one night. He says, “It was just a weird middle of the night idea that struck me as funny.” Fortunately, he keeps a pad and pen by his bedside so he is able to save these ideas.

Often times in the strip one or a number of the characters will confront Mr. Pastis and get on his case. This leads me to ask if there is some self-loathing going on? At this he shouts over to his publicist who is in the room with us, “Tracy, Do I have some self-loathing going on?” Tracy laughs and responds, “With good reason.” Pastis says, “It’s fun to have them make fun of you.”

He goes on to tell me something I had not thought of but when he says it I have to agree, “People don’t want to see a strip where people succeed. They want to see losers. They want to look down on them. All comic strips are created on losers. Calvin, Peanuts, Bloom County, Doonesbury.”

Before becoming successful as a cartoonist Mr. Pastis had a career in law. When I ask about it he responds rapid fire, “Yeah, ten years. Litigation. San Francisco. Insurance defense. Never liked it. Bad job. Don’t do it.” He then laughs and says, “I’d like to see how that prints…like ten two word sentences all in a row.” Sounds like a man who enjoys words.

“Take two stick figures, totally unadorned art, three panels, and see if you can make somebody who doesn’t necessarily like you laugh.”

His advice for aspiring cartoonists? “Take two stick figures, totally unadorned art, three panels, and see if you can make somebody who doesn’t necessarily like you laugh. So, don’t show it to your mom. Don’t show it to your best friend. Coworkers are good. Stick figures make it so you don’t rely on the art. It will prove whether or not you can write funny. If you can make that coworker laugh three out of ten times you have a hit. It’s harder than it sounds.”

As I wind up my conversation with the very interesting and talented Stephan Pastis I ask if there is anything he would like to add. Referring to recent Pearls strips where his wife has thrown him out of the house leading many readers to wonder if he was getting a divorce he says, “I’m still married. People always ask that question.” He adds, “I do these Timmy Failure Books which most people know is a series of middle grade books. I’m on the sixth volume. It’s being turned into a movie. Disney bought it.”

Millions of readers look forward to reading Pearls Before Swine each day. I have to admit, I am not a big follower of the comics, but I am one of those people. Once you start you will not be able to stop. If you have the chance to see Stephan Pastis in person I urge you to do so. He is not only a talented cartoonist, but he is also a very, very funny speaker. Rat may take issue with that statement, but that just might be a case of that self-loathing.

Stephan Pastis’s latest book, Pearls Hogs The Road: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury, is published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Heavyweights Ruled

 Jerry Izenberg Recalls The Time And Excitement

Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing

Skyhorse Publishing, NY, NY

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

From the time of John L. Sullivan and through most of the 20th Century being the Heavyweight Champion of the World meant being the stuff of legends. It was as close to immortality as any man could get. Young boys would dream of growing up and one day being the next Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis. To hold that great title also meant being arguably the most famous man in the world. It is impossible to recall the Roaring Twenties without thinking of Dempsey. The 30s and 40s always have Joe Louis’s visage looking at us from that time of the Great Depression and WWII. As America got back to work after the War we had Rocky Marciano to remind us of the value of hard work and perseverance. In between each of these great champions were other great men who left their own mark on the history of boxing. The Heavyweight Championship was the most difficult to attain and most prestigious honor to capture in all of sports and I would argue in any realm of the world of entertainment.

It is sad that today it is just a memory. That great title no longer exists. Oh, there are people, a lot of them, who claim it but none who have earned it. I doubt there are any young men today who wake up in the morning with that dream their grandfathers and fathers had of being the Champ. Those days are far behind us, but they didn’t go away without a fight.

The final era when the Heavyweight Title still meant something was also one of its most exciting, Jerry Izenberg in his new book Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing (Skyhorse Publishing, NY,NY) brings us back to that very exciting time.

If you were fortunate enough to have experienced boxing from the 1960s until the late 1980s Jerry’s book will bring back terrific memories of what may have been the most competitive period in the history of boxing among the big men. Mr. Izenberg argues it was, and he is standing on solid ground when he says so. It was certainly a very exciting time to be a fight fan.

In a lively narrative Mr. Izenberg brings us to ringside and into the backrooms to visit with the fighters to relive many great moments.

As background Mr. Izenberg chronicles the rise and fall of the mob that took place from the 1930s up until the 1960s. We are introduced or reintroduced, depending on your age, to such characters as Owney Madden, Frankie Carbo, Jim Norris, Blinky Palermo, and many other gangsters who controlled boxing for decades. It is a sordid history of corruption and strong arm tactics and very worth reading.

After Rocky Marciano retired, the Heavyweight Championship fell into a sorry state. Cus D’Amato who had crusaded against mob control of boxing was able to take hold of the title with his young fighter Floyd Patterson. Mr. Izenberg sheds a lot of light on the real D’Amato who, it turns out, had his own mob connection. D’Amato also made it even more difficult for legitimate contenders to get a shot at the title because he was not going to allow his champion to step into the ring with any opponent who had a pulse. At least with the old mob a fighter could buy his way in. With D’Amato the division went into a period where having talent only increased a fighter’s chances of not getting a title fight.

Ironically, it took the underworld figure Sonny Liston to change things, though it took someone else to shake up the world of boxing. When Sonny won the title by destroying Patterson boxing epitaphs were being written. Boxing had gone from a mama’s boy to a man who was pure evil. It didn’t look like it could sink any further.

This is where Jerry’s book goes from the darkness to the glory times. A young Cassius Clay had returned from the Rome Olympics waving his Gold Medal and proclaiming himself “The Greatest”. He stepped up and whupped Sonny and began a new age in boxing. An age Jerry Izenberg was there to witness from beginning to end.

In a lively narrative Mr. Izenberg brings us to ringside and into the backrooms to visit with the fighters to relive many great moments. When Clay, now Ali, became champion he fought everyone. Of course, a number of these contenders had grown old waiting for a title shot, but they were no longer going to be denied. Ali fought often and was always heard from. He was loved and hated, and he was exciting. Boxing was now back in a big way, and Mr. Izenberg brings it all alive again.

As Ali was mowing down the old line of contenders a whole new crop was sprouting up. While none seemed an immediate threat to Ali, it was going to get interesting. Well, it did get interesting when Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army. With Ali sitting on the sidelines the heavyweight division still blossomed as many of the young prospects developed into serious contenders. By the time Ali returned to the ring boxing was a whole new picture. It had certainly become much more competitive and even more exciting.

Jerry Izenberg follows these events up until the implosion of Mike Tyson when it can be said heavyweight boxing was breathing its last. We are there for the three Ali v Frazier fights. The Foreman destruction of Frazier as well as Ken Norton’s win over and two controversial losses to Ali. And the rise of Larry Holmes, a fighter who never got the respect he deserved.

Mr. Izenberg’s insights are terrific, and his chapter on the Holmes v Cooney fight is particularly interesting. The racial overtones that fight took on were a sad episode, but it is good to know they were not shared by the fighters.

There are also many behind the scenes stories about the rise and fall of Mike Tyson that include one very personal moment the author had with the future champ as well as the story of Teddy Atlas’s break with D’Amato and Tyson. Boxing fans will love this.

And if that isn’t enough, Jerry takes you to the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis for a visit with Michael Spinks. The visit took place at midnight in the notorious project and it took plenty of courage for Jerry to show up. It does result in a very interesting story.

Jerry Izenberg and Ali

If you want to know what competitive boxing is like. If you want to know what it is like to have evenly matched contenders fighting for the title. If you want to get a taste of the electricity that would fill the air all across the country when the Heavyweight Championship was on the line you will find it in Once There Were Giants. It’s unfortunate it will never be seen again.

Johnny Risko The Cleveland Rubber Man

New Biography Gives Rugged Contender
The Recognition He Deserves

Johnny Risko: The Cleveland Rubber Man

By Jerry Fitch

Tora Book Publishing, 168 pages, $18.00

reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The 1920s and 1930s were truly boxing’s Golden Age. Just the shear number of participants in the sport guaranteed it. Boxing historian Mike Silver points out in his book, The Arc of Boxing, there were between 8,000 and 10,000 fighters licensed during this period. In 1927 New York and California alone had 2,000 licensed boxers each. That is way above the total number of fighters participating today, and these fighters were much more active. Because there were so many fighters there were also a huge number of fight venues. During these years, and even during the Great Depression, a boxer could make a decent living fighting every couple of weeks. Add to this the fact that there were gyms everywhere that were filled with excellent trainers. Where a boxer never lacked for sparring, and you can see why fighters from this period were so good.

While places like New York were certainly Meccas for boxing, the rest of the country did not lack in fight clubs. In these pre television days boxing was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Cleveland, Ohio had a very vibrant fight scene, and  boxing historian Jerry Fitch is working hard to keep the history of boxing in that area alive. Jerry is the author of a terrific biography of the great heavyweight Jimmy Bivins as well as “Cleveland’s Greatest Fighters of All Time”, and a memoir, “50 Years of Fights, Fighters, and Friendships.

Johnny Risko

In his latest work Jerry takes his keen historian’s eye and focuses it on one of the toughest and most prolific fighters to emerge from Cleveland, heavyweight contender Johnny Risko, also known as “The Rubber Man” because of his ability to take punches and still keep coming forward. This is not too say Risko just stood there and absorbed punches, no, he was also a skilled boxer, but it was next to impossible to knock him down or out. In fact, in approximately 140 fights (the exact number is not known) Johnny was only stopped three times one of which was by the great Max Schmeling. He was counted out only one time and that was in his last bout when he was 38 years old.

Reading Jerry Fitch’s book on Risko is a boxing history lesson in itself as it goes beyond the career of Johnny Risko. Just reading through the Cleveland contender’s record is amazing. The names that appear there, the people he fought, is a who’s who of boxing from that glorious period. It is staggering to see who the Rubber Man went up against. Jack Sharkey, Gene Tunney, Mickey Walker, Tom Heeney, Max Baer, Tony Galento, Tommy Loughran, Ernie Schaaf, to name just a few. And Risko was no “opponent”. He beat many of these men. He split a pair of decisions with Baer and beat Louhgran two out of four times. No, Risko was far from an opponent, he is more remembered as a “spoiler” as he ruined many a contender’s chance at getting a title shot.

Max Schmeling and Risko

While just looking at the Risko record can be enough to excite any fight fan, it is in reading Jerry’s lively account of his life and battles that is really a treat. Mr. Fitch has done tireless research in digging up accounts, many of them first hand round by round reports, of these great fights. You are there when Johnny beats George Godfrey, you have a seat at the Risko v Schmeling bout, you can see the smile of frustration on Max Baer’s face as he is unable to hurt the Rubber Man. This is living history.

Along the way Jerry also treats his readers to short, but detailed, biographies of many of Risko’s opponents. His treatment of Max Schmeling is very interesting. In just a few pages he gives a concise account of of the German’s career and fighting style.

Johnny Risko’s life is also covered in great detail. He was a smart businessman who walked away from boxing with money in his pocket and an appreciation for life. As I moved along in this book I felt I was really getting to know this interesting character from Cleveland’s past. He sounds like a guy who was quick with a smile and a happy remark. I doubt anyone would have felt uncomfortable in Risko’s company.

Risko Jabs Jack Sharkey

So why didn’t Johnny Risko ever get a shot at the title? Well, he came close many times but the timing was never quite right. Back then fighters didn’t score a victory over a top fighter and then wait around for the big fight. No, they kept fighting and sometimes would lose and get set back a bit. In the days of Johnny Risko, being a top contender really meant something. As is pointed out in this fine biography, Johnny was a top notch fighter. He was a true contender. Take a second to look at his record and I know you will want to learn more about him. Fortunately, thanks to Jerry Fitch you have that opportunity. His book will bring the Cleveland Rubber Man to life for you.

I would like to point out if it weren’t for dedicated boxing historians such as Jerry Fitch who devote untold hours researching these greats of the past they would be forgotten. Jerry, and others like him, deserve the eternal gratitude of all boxing fans who care about the legacy of this once great sport. It is important to support the work they do.

Thank you Jerry Fitch for the work you do. Johnny Risko and the others are looking down from above and smiling.

Information about and signed copies of “Johnny Risko, The Cleveland Rubber Man” by Jerry Fitch can be obtained by emailing Jerry at JerryFitch1946 [at] gmail [dot] com

Max Baer and Barney Ross: Jewish Heroes of Boxing

Jeffrey Sussman, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. 193 pages with photographs.
Reviewed by Len Abram

Jews were a vital part of the ascendancy of boxing. From 1901 to 1939, according to boxing historian Mike Silver, they produced 29 world champions, about 16% of the total. Why did Jews enter boxing in such numbers? Why would sweatshop workers spend a $1 to see a match when they earned perhaps $5 a week?

Jeffrey Sussman’s answers these questions by focusing on two Jewish world champions, Max Baer and Barney Ross. Others have written at greater length about Baer and Ross, their careers and lives. Sussman, however, focuses on the significance of their popularity. Part American history and part family nostalgia, Sussman’s book deals with what Jews did for boxing and what boxing did for Jews.

The two fighters didn’t begin from scratch. They had predecessors, who fought before them and made their achievements if not possible, at least more likely. The great lightweight Benny Leonard, oft quoted for calling boxing a game of chess more than brawn, and Abe Attell , “the Little Hebrew,” were both early Jewish champions. Leonard won the Lightweight championship at age 21 in 1917 and defended it seven times. His success, Sussman says, undermined anti-Semitic stereotypes.    Attell was Featherweight champion from 1906 to 1912, with a reputation of being afraid of no one.

Baer and Ross were unalike in many ways. Baer, of course, was a heavyweight and Ross a world champion in three lighter divisions. Beryl Rosofsky (Barney Ross) came from the Jewish ghetto in New York City, his parents Orthodox Jews, his father a Talmudic scholar. The neighborhood was dangerous; Ross’s father was killed in a robbery. Max Baer grew up in rural California, a farm, his mother a Gentile, and his father a non-practicing Jew. Both fighters wore the star of David on their trunks, but for Baer, it may have been to promote his bout with the German Schmeling, a favorite of the Nazis. Regardless, Baer wore the Jewish symbol for the rest of his career. Like Ross, he accepted his role to represent Jews.

Their boxing styles were also different. Baer was a big heavyweight, over six feet and 220 pounds, whose right hand punch was so powerful that he won over 50 fights by knockout. He was also famous for not training hard, a handsome man, who later became a movie star, more involved in gossipy romances, than in hours at the gym. He relied on that powerful punch to stay competitive. Ross was of medium height, no more than 147 pounds as a welterweight. He was the superior athlete, who trained hard, winning championships in three different divisions. Rather than a slugger, Ross was a “scientific” fighter, following the Benny Leonard model, boxing as a chess game.

Ross was a “scientific” fighter, following the Benny Leonard model, boxing as a chess game.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews faced rising anti-Semitism, both here and abroad. Here, Father Charles Coughlin spoke to millions on the radio about Jewish bankers controlling our country. Industrialist Henry Ford, whom Hitler admired, published that a Jewish conspiracy was out to control the world. National hero Charles Lindbergh accused the Jews of pushing America into war with Germany.

When Max Baer stepped into the ring in 1933 to fight Hitler’s favorite boxer, Max Schmeling, the star of David on Baer’s trunks proclaimed that the Jews had a champion. Victorious, Baer became the first Jewish heavyweight champion. Ross’s famous bout with Jimmy McLarnin in 1935 had a similar appeal for Jewish fans: McLarnin was called the “Hebrew Scourge” because he defeated so many Jewish boxers. Ross won the decision. Although neither Schmeling nor McLarnin were anti-Semites, they were painted by social conflicts of the time.

Jews in boxing became “symbols of courage and defiance in age rife with anti-Semitism,” Sussman concludes.

After Baer and Ross retired, Baer went to Hollywood to make movies, one of which was banned in Germany because Baer was Jewish or defeated Shmeling, no one is sure. When World War II began, Baer joined the Army. When war broke out, Ross at age 32 (and plagued with gambling debts) joined the Marines and volunteered for combat.

On Guadalcanal, Ross was badly wounded, yet saved what was left of his platoon against many Japanese attackers. He won the Silver Star, but the narcotics he received for his wounds lead to life-altering addiction.   At the infamous rock bottom addicts often face, Ross put himself into drug treatment. Successful, he later he lectured to youngsters about the dangers of drugs. Ross was a strong supporter of the state of Israel. The star of David, like the one on his trunks, is on the stone marker of his grave.

The sport of boxing is in decline, Sussman admits, certainly far from its golden era. He notes that mob influence tainted the sport, along with exploitive managers and promoters, indifferent to the wellbeing of the boxer. The threat to a boxer’s health from brain damage, pugilistic dementia, also hastened the decline. Today, the professions and trades have more to offer young people than the ring. The sport appears to be more popular in films than in arenas.

Yet, for a time, Jews found champions in boxing to defend and to affirm them until acceptance as valued members, to share and to shape American life.

(This review first appeared in the Jewish Advocate.)

 

 

Ezzard Charles, A Gentle Terror

Ezzard Charles; A Boxing Life
By William Dettloff
Published by McFarland, 232 pages $35.00
www.mcfarlandpub.com

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

imagesEzzard Charles was not someone you would look at think of as vicious fighting machine. He looked more like a member of Duke Ellington’s jazz band. He was also very mild mannered with a gentle air about him. As a kid in Lawrenceville, Georgia and later in Cincinnati, Ohio he was friendly but quiet. He did always love boxing and dreamed of one day becoming a world champion.

In 1949, after an amateur career and almost ten years of fighting pro he attained his dream by beating Jersey Joe Walcott for the title Joe Louis had vacated. Unfortunately for Charles he had two things against him. He was stepping into the shadow of the beloved Louis, and he did not possess the exciting and dramatic style of the Brown Bomber. The public just did not take to him. It’s not like Charles hadn’t earned respect. He had fought and beat a number of the Black Murder’s Row fighters. He had two wins over the very great Charley Burley as well as a decision win and a knockout over Archie Moore.

It has often been said that Charles is the most underrated of all heavyweight champions.

While Charles may have looked more like a piano teacher out of the ring, when the bell rang he was a brutal competitor. As I was reading William Dettloff’s excellent biography of Charles I couldn’t help thinking that Ezzard had to have a lot of anger in him that he could only express in the prize ring. He could also be erratic in his performances, sometimes not looking motivated enough to win convincingly. Charles would be a ripe candidate for for some psychoanalysis, and in fact, before his rematch with Rocky Marciano the press, in an effort to drum up interest in the fight had a psychiatrist visit the camps of both fighters. The doctor described Charles as “A dreamer type…who loses the spontaneity in his dreams” because of his many “inhibitions”. Interesting insight even if it was just hype to sell tickets.

Mr. Dettloff has done exhaustive research on the life and fighting career of Ezzard Charles. He takes us to the tragic night in 1948 when Charles fought Sam Baroudi. Baroudi would be carried from the ring and die the next day. Ezzard was devastated by this tragedy, but just three months later would step back into that very same ring and knock out the very formidable Elmer “Violent” Ray. In fact, he would fight four more times in 1948 including a win over Jimmy Bivins.

Louis vs Charles
Louis vs Charles

Charles would continue winning and fighting often, finally landing a fight with Jersey Joe Walcott for the vacant heavyweight crown. Beating Walcott may have made him champion, but he still had to live in the shadow of Joe Louis. He defended the title numerous times and even went on to defeat his idol Louis in a brutal fifteen round affair that should have removed all doubt to his legitimacy as champion. It did not. The problem was, as Dettloff points out, Ezzard Charles was not Joe Louis.

This lack of public support may have had something to do with his not always being to motivate himself. Another reason was his fighting so often and against such tough competition. Ezzard rarely got an easy opponent. In fact, in reading this biography we are treated to a history of the light heavyweight and heavyweight divsions in the 1940s and 50s. Mr. Dettloff gives brief but very interesting biographies of many of Charles’s opponents; Archie Moore, Walcott, Bivins, Harold Johnson, Bob Satterfield, and many others. This all makes for a very interesting book.

Dettloff also introduces us to many of the characters who occupied the world of boxing during that era. One of the most quotable was Charles’s manager (he had many) Jake Mintz. Mintz could twist the English language in amazing ways. For example, when recounting surgery he had to repair a hernia he said “They thought I had some golf stones there so they took an autograph of my heart and said, ‘One of your ulsters is worn out’. William Shakespeare would be envious.

There are also other interesting facts related here. It turns out a young Charles while serving in the military fought a three round exhibition with Joe Louis. Also, while training for his bout against Bob Satterfield the Charles people brought in a crude young heavyweight by the name of Sonny Liston to be a sparring partner. Liston was not up to the task at that point in his career.

After Charles lost the title to Walcott, and a rematch with Jersey Joe, it looked like his hopes of ever regaining the title were over. He began campaigning for another shot at the title but lost back to back matches against Nino Valdez and Harold Johnson. Charles was getting tired and old, but he did come back to life with wins over Satterfield and Coley Wallace. It was enough to earn him a shot at the new and exciting young champion Rocky Marciano.

William Dettloff has written a fine biography of a great champion, and one that Ezzard Charles deserves.

Dettloff writes about this fight in detail. He discusses Charles’s training and strategy for the fight, a strategy that at first glance may have sounded foolish but made sense. Ezzard went into the Marciano bout motivated to win but came up short. He did earned the distinction of being the only man to take the Rock the full 15 rounds and came closer than any fighter to taking the title from him, though the decision was clearly in Marciano’s favor.

Charles would get a rematch based on this performance, and even though he severely cut Rocky’s nose, he just did not have anything left. Though he would continue to fight on for another four years it was all downhill from there. He would end up broke, take up professional wrestling, and struggle to make ends meet. His final years were spent suffering from Lou Gehrigs Disease. A very tragic end for such a great fighter.

William Dettloff has written a fine biography of a great champion, and one that Ezzard Charles deserves. Boxing fans should take the time to read this very interesting book and learn about this man who deserves to be remembered. It has often been said that Charles is the most underrated of all heavyweight champions. Mr. Dettloff has down a terrific job in changing that history.

Figuring Out Sonny

Figuring Out Sonny

After 46 Years Liston’s Death Is Still A Mystery

The Murder Of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, And Heavyweights Blue

by Shaun Assael, Rider Press

reviewed by Bobby Franklin 

sonny-assaelIt has now been almost 46 years since Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home by his wife Geraldine. His death was officially ruled as being from natural causes, though there were traces of heroin in his blood and needle marks on his arm. There were and are many who believe he was murdered, but nobody has been able to come up with any proof. Geraldine Liston died in 2005. Most of the people who knew Sonny, if it was possible to know him at all, have passed on.

 

Much has been written but little is really known about the former heavyweight champion. Nobody knows for sure when Sonny was born, and that includes the late champ himself. Springs Toledo in his fine book The Gods Of War did some excellent research and pegs Liston’s birthdate as July 22, 1930. If not exact, I believe it has to be close. Listening to some people you would believe The Bear was born in the Middle Ages.

 

sonny-liston11-530x317Liston, in his prime, was devastating. While champion Floyd Patterson ducked him, Sonny singlehandedly cleaned out the heavyweight division. When Patterson finally agreed defend the title against him in 1962 Liston walked right through Floyd knocking him out in the first round. He repeated his performance a year later. At this point it appeared Sonny would be champ forever. His association with crime figures kept him from being able to obtain a license to fight in New York. It has been said that after he won the title and was en route back to his home in Philadelphia, he wrote a speech expecting to be greeted by well wishers when he disembarked from the plane. The story goes that he wanted to be a good champion and show the world a different side. When he arrived there was nobody there to greet him. He tore up the speech and accepted his role as the bad guy of boxing.

 

Liston would go on to lose the title when he took on the only heavyweight even more controversial than he was, Cassius Clay. He also lost the rematch. Both fights have been shrouded in mystery and have defined Liston. He would continue to fight but never again was he able to get another chance at the crown.

 

sonny_airport_waving-530x317In a new book (The Murder Of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, And Heavyweights, Blue Rider Press) to be released in October, author Shaun Assael, a member of ESPN’s investigations unit, takes a look at the life of Sonny Liston. While Mr. Assael touches on the controversial Clay/Ali fights, he focuses primarily on Liston’s final days and his life in Las Vegas. He also delves into finding out the real cause of Sonny’s death.

 

As Liston’s boxing career started to fade, he became more and more involved with the drug scene in Vegas. Liston was always in need of money. He had nothing from his days as champion. For his last fight, defeating Chuck Wepner, Liston received $13,000.00, $10,000.00 of which he used to pay a gambling debt, the rest went for expenses.

 

Mr. Assael gives a great overview of the crime ridden Las Vegas of the late 60s heading into the 1970s. The mob was still active there as Howard Hughes was making inroads in buying up hotels and casinos in an effort to clean things up. It was a murky and sordid world, but one in which Sonny would have felt very comfortable moving through.

 

Sonny and Geraldine
Sonny and Geraldine

If Liston was indeed murdered, what was the motive? The author speaks with the few remaining people who were involved in the Vegas scene back them. Former cops, undercover drug agents, and dealers. He tracks down a good cop gone bad in Larry Gandy whom he interviews. Assael considers Gandy a prime suspect in Liston’s murder, but is sent on another trail after speaking with him.

 

He traces events back to a drug raid where Liston was present but was allowed to walk while everyone else was arrested. Was this a sign that Sonny was an informant? I don’t think there is enough here to back that up. Liston didn’t like cops. He also appears to have been a fairly small time dealer who ended up using. Is it possible others mistakenly believed he was an informant and had him taken out because of that belief? Sure, but again, there is no solid evidence.

 

One part of the book I found to be very enlightening was where the author dug in and found information about a car accident Liston was involved in not long before his death. I had heard about a crash, but I did not know how seriously Sonny was injured. In the head on collision Sonny’s chest was jammed up against the steering wheel. He had shards of glass in his face that had to be removed in the hospital. A week later Liston asked his wife Geraldine to take him to the hospital as he was experiencing discomfort in his chest. I see this as being more of a contributing factor in his death.

 

Liston was somewhere around forty years of age when he died. He had led a hard life. Heavy drinking and drug abuse were showing on his face. I doubt he had the best dietary habits. The injuries from the car accident coupled with his complaints about chest pain make heart disease appear to be a stronger suspect in his death than a mob hit.

 

liston-graveNobody really knew Sonny Liston, and that includes Liston. Mr. Assael’s book adds to the little that is known and is a good contribution to the literature about the champ, but, as much as it may fit into the narrative of Liston’s life, I am not convinced Liston was murdered. He was a man who was old beyond his years. I believe he wore his body down and finally succumbed to heart disease.

 

Mr. Assael makes a strong argument for Liston’s death being murder, but he is unable to tie it all up. The value in this book, and it is very well worth reading, is in tracing Sonny Liston’s final days. In exposing the corruption of Las Vegas back in the day.

 

It is important to know there is much more mystery to Liston’s life than his two fights with Ali. For a man who said very little he was actually a quite complicated individual. Mr. Assael’s book, while trying to answer questions, actually raises many more. Sonny’s life is like a mystery novel with the final page torn out. Will we ever know the truth about him? I doubt it, but with books like this he will remain a fascinating subject.

Ali’s Last Fight

Drama in the Bahamas: Ali’s Last Fight

by Dave Hannigan
Sports Publishing, 2016

reviewed by David Curcio

51bn64anucl-_sx329_bo1204203200_In Drama in the Bahamas: Ali’s Last Fight, Dave Hannigan eschews the usual narratives that dominate the literature on Ali, generally comprised of sycophantic biography, vilifying exposé, or exhaustive, blow-by-blow accounts of Ali’s most famous bouts. Instead, he turns his attention to the swift, ignominious (and unnecessary) decline of this once-towering figure while subtly laying down the gauntlet (especially to fans of the current boxing scene) in the shape of an indictment of the sport in general. Since its inception over a century ago, boxing has been under various forms of scrutiny, with state commissions banning, reinstating, and amending its legality (more often due to financial and legal concerns than for the protection of the fighters). But the

brain trauma caused by the sport can no longer be ignored

brain trauma caused by the sport can no longer be ignored Muhammad Ali has come to exemplify the traumatic brain injury brought on by a game in which the goal is to render one’s opponent unconscious, or at least knock him down with enough force that he is unable to stand up. Despite Ali’s remarkable ability to absorb blows, the repeated, brain-addling blows to the head he received over the course of his twenty year career and sixty one fights number in the tens of thousands.

The book starts out with Ali’s loss in 1980 to Larry Holmes. At 38, he had grown soft, and was already showing signs of Parkinson’s Syndrome (different from Parkinson’s Disease but still diminishing to motor-function) and what is broadly classified as Dementia Pugilistica. He frequently slurred his speech, his movements were slower – this lean machine who averaged around 215 pounds in his prime was into the mid 230s. The fight was a devastating spectacle. Ali moved as if in slow motion, his punches lacking all their previous power. The speed and reflexes that, more than anything, had made him a great fighter had vanished. In the words of Mark Kram, Ali had fallen to “embodying the remains of a will never before seen in the ring, a will that had carried himself so far – and now surely too far.” Ali lost by a TKO when his trainer, Angelo Dundee, refused to let his fighter answer the bell for the eleventh round.

Even the World Boxing Commission wanted him to stop fighting, going so far as attempting to revoke his fighting license in Nevada and New York. Even England refused to sanction another Ali fight as the British Boxing Board did not want one of its fighters to face the washed up ex-champ. But Ali wanted a rematch. “I’m a long way from a shambling wreck,” he told the BBC before delivering a poem in the form of a challenge to Holmes that we will never hear as it was so slurred that the BBC opted not to air it.

The book drives the message home, in no uncertain terms, how badly the public were ready for an Ali retirement – sportscasters, writers, friends, even his wife pleaded with him both publicly and privately to call it quits. For fear of being party to what would surely be the his final downfall, no promoter wanted any part of the spent fighter. Then a Muslim by the name of James X Cornelius stepped in. His resume was not impressive: complete unfamiliarity with the fight game and deep in debt to boot with the reputation of an untrustworthy charlatan with an FBI warrant out for his arrest. But he was certain he could make the fight happen in the newly sovereign islands of the Bahamas.

aliberbick94xu7The fighter chosen as Ali’s opponent was Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican who came to America by way of U.S. employment on the military base at Guantanamo Bay. Details of his childhood, including his year of birth, are murky. We do know he was a deeply religious man who claimed to have had “visions” by the age of sixteen, preferring to return to his room after fights to settle in with his bible than to celebrate with the usual misbehaving. He learned to box in Cuba and had his first professional fight in 1976, The manager Doc Kerr could see through his powder puff punching and poor form and groomed him through the ranks to become the Canadian heavyweight champion. Upon his victory against John Tate as an undercard for the first Leonard-Duran match in 1980, he took a page from Ali’s book upon his victory, parading around the ring and demanding a shot at Holmes (who beat him in a unanimous decision a year and a half later). Still, Berbick had garnered enough credibility that Cornelius was able to orchestrate a fight with Ali in Nassau, Bahamas set for December 11, 1981, exactly eight months after Berbick’s defeat by Holmes, and fifteen months after Ali’s.

In comparing the two fighters, it should come as no surprise that Hannigan instills little menace in either.

If Berbick was more or less a lucky tomato can, Ali wasn’t much better at this point.

If Berbick was more or less a lucky tomato can, Ali wasn’t much better at this point. early as 1970 his long-time doctor Ferdie Pacheco was injecting Ali’s hands with cortisone and Xylacene before fights to dull the pain, and by 1977, could not condone sending the fighter back into the ring. After Ali’s fight with Earnie Shavers, Pacheco said of the bout “He won the fight, but his kidneys lost the decision.” When Ali asked him a year later why he said he was “all washed up,” Pacheco replied “I don’t. What I do say is you should not be fighting,” adding portentously to the promoter Bob Arum, “In two or three years we’ll see what the Holmes fight did to his brain and kidneys. That’s when all the scar tissue in the brain will further erode his speech and balance.” X-rays discovered two years after the fact revealed other symptoms, including an enlarged third ventricle. Ali found a new doctor named Harry Demopoulis who would provide him with a glowing bill of health.

The setting of the Bahamas did not seem to motivate either fighter. Neither were particularly diligent about training: Ali was down to a third of his usual roadwork and sparring, instead enjoying the lax atmosphere of his camp while the notoriously undisciplined Berbick was referred to more than once by the press as a bum and a tomato can. Despite the idyllic island setting, promotion became a nightmare when Cornelius was unable to come up with the cash for Ali’s advance of a mere $100,000. It was time for Don King to step in, who departed for the Bahamas post haste.

The frustration and hesitant support from Ali’s corner can be positively painful to read about. Angelo Dundee, out of fealty or nostalgia (who can say?) believed that, while his legwork was gone and Ali was “only half of what he used to be… half is good enough to beat Berbick.” He added that money held no interest to the fighter. This was his way of erasing the terrible specter of the Holmes fight that continued to haunt him. Dubbed by Bert Sugar as “The Trauma in the Bahamas,” the fight was fast approaching, and Ali began using Thomas Hearns (one of the undercards) as a sparring partner. Hearns spoke with guarded confidence of Ali’s abilities, though other attendees of the sessions were less generous. A wag from NBC quipped, “He floated like an anchor and stung like a moth”; a reporter from the Montreal Gazette described his coverage as a “death watch”; Ray Arcel called it “a damn shame”, promoter Dan Duva referred to it as “a disgrace”; and even Don King said “As a fan and a friend, I’d rather he didn’t [fight].” The two fighters, however, saw it as a win-win prospect. Berbick believed that, win or lose, the fight would elevate his status and credibly with the boxing world. Ali, meandering in non-sequiturs during press conferences, generally concluded with a declaration that the fight was a means of paying homage to Allah.

Cornelius found help from a wealthy American backer with deep ties to the Bahamas through a proposed casino and a lucrative money-laundering scheme named Victor Sayyah to put up the $450,000 he believed was sufficient to move forward without King’s intervention. But as fight day arrived, Berbick was still owed his money, as were judges who flew to the Bahamas on their own dime. The fighters, including the undercards, expressed outrage over the organizers’ failure to attend to the most basic aspects of preparation. They’d neglected to provide new gloves for the fighters and, having forgotten to acquire a bell, stole one off a nearby cow.

tumblr_mxo2wlexcg1rnxl9do1_1280The fight was both a disaster and dull at the same time. Berbick was almost twenty pounds lighter than Ali, who was unable to shed the weight he had planned and was a puffy 236. Slow and plodding, perhaps the fight’s most memorable moment was Berbick’s begging the referee to stop the fight in the middle of the seventh, so much punishment was he inflicting on the former champ. Ali lost by unanimous decision. When asked at a press conference if he believed his skills may have gone, he responded “They have gone. Not may have gone. They have gone.”
This was an admission of the diminishing skills all fighters experience, not an acknowledgenmnt of anything else being wrong. When Berbick was chewed up and spit out by a young Mike Tyson in 1996, he too had already begun showing signs of brain damage. He’d become erratic, fabricating bizarre and highly improbably excuses for his losses and contriving outlandish conspiracies against him. Turning to crime, including sexual battery, housebreaking, and larceny, he was summarily deported back to Jamaica where soon he was again back on the lam.

The story reads like a coda – which in a sense it is – not only to a great career and captivating personality, but to a time that served as a kind of wake-up call to the public. Like the recent Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, Hannigan’s book is exhaustive in its research, providing a narrative of a later chapter in the life of this twentieth century icon. Unfortunately, with Ali’s passing last June, it will be a hard sell to the casual fan who wants action, trash talk, and courageous stories of standing up to the system and who will probably grab more fawning reads such as David Remnick’s biography, Life Magazine tributes, or Joyce Carol Oates essays instead of facing the hard truths about how their favorite athlete arrived at the state in which he lived out his remaining thirty two years. But to anyone truly interested in the darker chapters of Ali’s life and the dangerous nature of his chosen field, it is essential reading.

There’s A Lot More To Ingo

Ingemar Johansson:
Swedish Heavyweight Champion
By Ken Brooks
(McFarland, 272 pages, $29.95)
www.McFarlandpub.com 800-253-2187

reviewed by Bobby Franklin

978-0-7864-9847-5A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Post Gazette about Heavyweight Champion Ingemar Johansson. In the limited research I did on that story I learned what a fascinating character the man with Toonder in his right hand was. In the time since that column appeared I have had the opportunity to read Ken Brooks’ detailed biography of the former world champion.

In recent years biographies of boxers have been coming out on an almost daily basis. Most are labors of love. Many are well researched but poorly edited. Some are quite good. And a few rise to the top of the heap. This book is one of those that deserves a wide readership.

Mr. Brooks has done meticulous research, organized his material, given an array of footnotes to back up that research, and ends up with a lively narrative about a fascinating figure in the world of boxing

a lively narrative about a fascinating figure in the world of boxing

. Though he clearly admires his subject, this is no hagiography.

Ingemar was born in Goteborg, Sweden in 1932, the son of Ebba and Jens Johansson. His father, Jens, was a street paver and it is from him that young Ingo inherited his great physical strength.

The young Swede was not particularly fond of school work, nor did he do well when dealing with authority figures. His career in the military was less than stellar. But this disdain for being a team player made him a perfect candidate for the sport of boxing where an athlete is on his own and answers to no one but himself.
Ingo ran up an impressive amateur boxing record culminating in his representing Sweden in the 1952 Olympics. Fighting against American Eddie Sanders in the final Ingo was disqualified for “lack of effort”. Johansson returned to Sweden in shame and with the press writing off any hopes of his having a future in boxing.

Well, not only did he prove the press wrong by going on to win the European Heavyweight title, he also became the first Swede to hold the World Heavyweight Championship. But, he did much more than that.

Even though Ingemar was champion for less than a year, he singlehandedly revived boxing which, under the reign of Floyd Patterson, had begun to become more of a sideshow.

Ingo1In this book Ken Brooks writes not only about Johansson, but also pens an excellent history of boxing during the late 50s and early 60s. It turns out Cus D’Amato was not the valiant warrior against organized crime that so many believe he was. He had his own criminal connections, and Mr. Brooks lets us in on them. While D’Amato is remembered for standing up to Jim Norris and the IBC, he was not looking to clean up boxing. Rather, he was attempting to make his own power grab. This all makes for fascinating and enlightening reading.

It is interesting to contrast Johansson’s rise up the ranks with the two best known of D’Amato’s protege’s, Patterson and Mike Tyson. Mr. Brooks points out the fact that Ingo never fought an opponent who had a losing record

Ingo never fought an opponent who had a losing record

. Every one of his fights were against fighters who had more wins than losses. Compare that with the steady stream of hand picked opponents that both Mike and Floyd faced on the way up. Ingo earned his title shot by knocking out number one contender Eddie Machen, a man Patterson refused to grant a chance to.

On the night he won the title from Patterson with a devastating seven knockdowns in the third round, very few people gave Johansson any chance of winning the fight. He didn’t appear to have trained very hard for the fight, and in the first round he didn’t appear particularly fired up. Ingo’s laid back personality carried through with him when he climbed through the ropes. The reality was, even though he often seemed disinterested in boxing and more interested in having a good time, Johansson loved boxing and took it very seriously.

Johansson loved boxing and took it very seriously

He had developed an awkward yet effective style that worked well enough to gain him the world title.

Ken Brooks covers much ground in his taut and concise book. Readers learn about Howard Cosell’s first time behind the mic for a national broadcast. The unlikely friendship between Sonny Liston and Johansson. Ingo actually made Sonny smile, and they enjoyed each other’s company. We get the truth behind the two round sparring session between a young Cassius Clay and the former champion that took place before the third Patterson fight in Miami. A myth has grown around this, and once again, the author delves into what actually happened that day.

Ingo and Sonny
Ingo and Sonny

Ingemar’s social life was more one of Hollywood celebrity than professional athlete. The new champion was extremely popular in the United States, particularly among females. His good looks and dimpled chin coupled with his charm made him very sought after. Among his paramours was Elizabeth Taylor. You can get a glimpse of this attraction by looking on Youtube at his appearance on What’s My Line as well as his time on the Dinah Shore Show where he sings and banters with his host. The Champ had a great singing voice.

Mr. Brooks also gives us details on Ingo’s marriages and home life. The saddest part is the description of his final years when dementia set in. Johansson did not want people to think his illness had come from boxing. He loved the sport that much, but it was indeed the tragic outcome of the blows he took to the head.

On a happier note, Ingo was one of the few boxers to leave the sport financially well off. He eventually bought a small motel in Florida where he enjoyed a number of very happy years. He also resisted a number of lucrative offers to return to the ring. When he was done fighting the decision was final.

Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion is a must read even for the most casual of boxing fans. Ingo deserved to have a good book written about him, and Ken Brooks has done him that service.

UP TO SCRATCH: Bareknuckle Fighting and Heroes of the Prize-Ring

 by Tony Gee

Foreword by Sir Henry Cooper OBE, KSG 

Book review by Mike Silver

51romSRaslL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Boxing is a very ancient sport with a history going back thousands of years. But the origins of modern boxing can be traced to 17th century England where the sport reemerged after a 1000 year hiatus. After the death of Oliver Cromwell the restored monarchy of Charles II (1660-1685) freed England from the yoke of Puritan restraint. As a result, the populace began to enjoy a wide variety of old and new sporting diversions, including boxing. London, with its roiling urban suburbs and large population of poor people, became the perfect spawning ground for a new generation of fistic exponents, although the sport did not properly take off until the following century.

Three hundred years ago the rules for the sport were quite different than today.

Three hundred years ago the rules for the sport were quite different than today. Combatants fought bare-fisted and were allowed to throw an opponent to the ground provided he was grabbed above the waist. A round ended when a fighter was punched, thrown, or wrestled to the ground. The downed fighter was then carried back to his corner by his seconds and given 30 seconds to rest before both fighters had to return to the “scratch mark” (originally their side of a three-foot-square drawn in the center of the ring). If a fighter was too damaged to “come up to scratch” or “toe the mark” within the allotted time, he forfeited the match. The loser was considered “knocked out of time.”

There was no proscribed time limit to a bareknuckle prizefight. The contest ended only when a boxer either failed to come up to scratch or was disqualified for fouling. After the “New Rules” of 1838 superseded the rudimentary “Broughton’s Rules” fouls included butting with the head, striking a fallen opponent, kicking, gouging the eyes, and biting. Depending on when it ended the length of a bareknuckle fight could be measured in minutes or sometimes hours. Contests ran the gamut from insufferably boring (much wrestling and stalling) to extremely savage, bloody, and sometimes fatal.

Both the rich (including members of the aristocracy) and poorer elements of English society enjoyed betting on the outcome of prizefights. From the 1780s to the 1820s, boxing’s popularity had reached a point where it was considered the country’s national sport. Important bouts attracted thousands of spectators from all walks of life. Some of the best fighters even enjoyed the patronage of a member of the royal family.

Author and historian Tony Gee immerses us into this colorful and fascinating world.

Author and historian Tony Gee immerses us into this colorful and fascinating world. The meticulously researched book was originally published in 1998 and has recently been reissued in both soft cover and kindle version. It remains to this day the quintessential history of the English bareknuckle scene.

Few people are as qualified as Tony Gee to chronicle this history. He is the world’s foremost authority on the bareknuckle era of pugilism and has advised the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Jewish Museum of London and has contributed several articles to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

“Up To Scratch” describes, in exquisite detail, the lives and battles, triumphs and tragedies, of some 70 pugilistic stars of the era. The vignettes are written in chronological order. Included are the exploits of such well-known bareknuckle bruisers as Daniel Mendoza, Tom Johnson, Jem Belcher, James “Deaf” Burke, Tom Sayers and Jem Mace.

While reading the bios of these hard men of the ring I was awestruck by their remarkable endurance and ability to withstand punishment often under the most trying of circumstances. Keep in mind that bareknuckle prizefights were fought outdoors and usually on bare turf. One of the many memorable stories the author describes is an 1827 contest between Ned Savage and Jem Wallace. During the bout a sudden and continuous downpour soaked the spectators and turned the ground into a quagmire. But no one wanted to see the fight called off, so the officials allowed it to continue.

As described by Gee: “The two combatants, covered in mud, waged an even, determined battle for two hours, although action then understandably flagged. At length, after a marathon 127 rounds lasting 147 minutes, Wallace was so completely exhausted that his friends gave in for him. Both men, totally insensible, were conveyed to the Swan, put to bed and bled. (This practice was then customary amongst the medical profession, but how it could help revive a fighter who had often already lost a lot of blood is difficult to comprehend – in fact, sometimes it could only have made matters worse.)” It is this type of detail that is common throughout the book.

One of the most unusual bouts described is a set-to that occurred in 1828. Both protagonists were dwarfs. Each fighter stood less than 4 feet tall and weighed under 100 pounds. “Despite the lack of interest shown by the Fancy, a large crowd was drawn to the event because of its strong novelty value.” The contest ended after 37 minutes.

Tony also describes an 1842 bout between the visiting American giant Charles Freeman, who was measured at 6 feet 9 inches tall (his height often exaggerated to over 7 feet) and the “Tipton Slasher”, William Perry. Other than size Freeman had little to recommend him.
“Unfortunately, like other giants who have attempted to find fistic fame through the years, Freeman’s boxing ability did not quite match up to his imposing physical appearance.” After this fight Freeman never fought again, preferring instead to concentrate on stage performances. The author’s research reveals what happened to the visiting American boxer after he retired from fistic combat: “Less than three years later he died, far from home, a victim of consumption brought on by careless living.”

There are also descriptions of fixed fights, fatal encounters, and behind the scenes maneuverings that shows how little things have changed over the centuries when it comes to the more corrupt and outlandish aspects of the sport.

The book comes to an end with a description of the downfall of bareknuckle boxing and the eventual acceptance of the Marquess of Queensberry rules that mandated boxing gloves and three minutes rounds with one minute of rest in between. As noted by the author; “Whilst its critics rejoiced in the demise of the traditional prize-ring, there were many who mourned the passing of an often corrupt, yet essentially noble, activity.”

In addition to a comprehensive bibliography and index the book is enhanced by several appendices that feature the nicknames of the fighters and another that defines boxing slang that was popular at the time such as “Bottom (Courage and fortitude), “Cove” (fellow), “Claret” (blood), “Fancy” (enthusiasts of a particular amusement, especially followers of the prize-ring), “Mill” (pugilistic encounter between two persons), “Muff” (someone awkward or stupid at an athletic pursuit), and many others.

Tony Gee is a wonderful storyteller. “Up to Scratch” provides a treasure trove of information about the lost world of bareknuckle boxing. It is an insightful look into one of boxing’s most dramatic and colorful eras and should be on the book shelf of every boxing fan in addition to anyone interested in this important aspect of England’s history.

Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing, 2008), and most recently “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, 2016)