Category Archives: Book Reviews

Boxing’s Lessons

Punching From The Shadows

Memoir Of A Minor League Professional Boxer

Published By McFarland (McFarlandbooks.com) 

265pp

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Glen Sharp had a professional boxing career that consisted of three fights of which he lost two. In Punching From The Shadows: Memoir Of A Minor League Professional Boxer he chronicles his time in the ring and the gyms, along with his experiences with the many different and unusual characters that populated the world of boxing in the 1980s. He also discusses why a young man decides to take up such a brutal sport, and the effect it had on his life, both short and long term. 

Sharp has written a fast paced book that gives the reader much insight into what it takes to become a fighter. Unlike other sports from that era, when a young man would first enter a boxing gym it was very likely he would be training alongside seasoned professionals. This was true for the author, who would become friends with and a sparring partner for five time world title challenger Yaqui Lopez. I don’t think many young football players get a chance to workout with Tom Brady, but boxing was a very egalitarian sport. It was one of the things that made it so attractive.

Glen Sharp wasn’t some poor kid from the mean streets who sought out boxing as a means to escape a life of poverty. In fact, he explains how the belief that boxing is a poor man’s sport is overhyped. Dipping into the writings of Jose Ortega y Gasset as well as Homer, he describes boxing as a form of expression, an artistic pursuit. With the advances man has made, many skills that were once required for survival are no longer needed on a daily basis. However, there is still an urge in many a young man to test himself to see if he can pass the test when challenged on his ability to implement those qualities. These include strength, skill, courage, and endurance. Sharp found the best way for doing that was in taking up boxing.

Yaqui Lopez and Glen Sharp

In Punching Through The Shadows, Glen Sharp gives us an honest telling of his life in boxing. His self doubts and second guessing will be familiar to anyone who has taken a shot at practicing the sweet science. Along the way we meet people such as former Middleweight Champion Carl Bobo Olsen who trained Sharp for a period of time. Reading about the relationship between the former champ and the young prospect only strengthened my belief that having been a top ranked fighter does not necessarily mean you will be good at teaching the art of boxing. In fact, I came away from this book believing Glen Sharp gained more insight into what goes into making a boxer on his own than most trainers do. He really understands the “theory of boxing”.

In an interesting chapter entitled Boxing Is Economics Theory Expressed In The Flesh, Sharp, who has an undergraduate degree in economics puts that knowledge to use in explaining things like the cost/benefit calculation when throwing a punch. When a boxer throws a punch he is most vulnerable to being hit with one. How to mitigate that risk is something every fighter thinks of, though maybe not in economic theory terms. It makes for interesting reading.

When I say Sharp understands the “theory of boxing”, this is made very clear when he describes the styles of some of the leading boxers of the time. His analysis of Joe Frazier as not a slugger but as a skillfully aggressive boxer is both insightful and right on the mark. He also makes  great a point when he writes “What a fighter fears most is not physical discomfort…but rather a failure to live up to the image the fighter has of himself.” There are a number of such gems in this book.

Glen Sharp (left) On The Attack

Along with many insights into the world of boxing, Sharp also delivers a compelling personal story. His comparison of boxing with art  serves him well when discussing his own journey. His story is honest and open. He freely discusses his fears, his self doubts, and his disappointment in not being able to become a top boxer. Boxing is a sport of dreams that are rarely fulfilled. Glen Sharp, like just about any kid who ever put on a pair of boxing gloves, dreamed of one day becoming a world champion. As far a long shot as that is in reality, it is still painful to have to accept the fact that it just isn’t going to happen. In boxing, the default mode emotionally is to look upon one’s self as a failure in so many ways, most of all in believing it means you have failed the test of manhood. 

Sharp With Carl Bobo Olsen

It took Sharp some time to work his way through those feelings. After his third pro fight he stepped back from boxing. A while later he decided he wanted to give it another try. He still felt he could do it and the need to prove himself still burned inside of him. After speaking to a trainer and promoter about making a comeback, he was advised not to. It was a tough message to get and it hurt. He again uses the comparison with the arts to describe his feelings and how he dealt with this emotionally. It turns out he proved himself solidly.

When visiting a boxing gym today, the odds are you will see something more akin to a huge aerobics class setting than the boxing gyms from a few years back. Boxing gyms are now a platform for group exercise rather than places to learn the expressive art Sharp so well describes. He was around for the waning days of the old school boxing gyms and trainers who understood what it was all about. Punching Through The Shadows is a terrific chronicle of what boxing was and should be. It is also a great story of a young man’s quest to test himself and to deal with the emotional turmoil that is so much a passage into manhood.

If you spent time in a boxing gym before they became group fitness centers you will find much of what Sharp has written will bring back memories. If you missed out on those days, you will learn much about what it meant to train in an authentic boxing gym at a time when it was very different than today.

Glen Sharp With His wife Punky

I can’t think of another boxing book out there that gives such an inside look at what it was like to pursue the dream of boxing in the way Glen Sharp did. It is a great read on so many levels. Most of all, it is a very human story. I doubt there are many who will not be able to relate to some portions of Sharp’s book. I know I did.

 

The Ros Muc Legend

THE MAN WHO WAS NEVER KNOCKED DOWN: The Life of Boxer Sean Mannion.

By Ronan Mac Con Iomaire.

Rowman & Littlefield, June 2018. 240 pages.

Reviewed by Len Abram

Boxing biographies, like boxers in fiction and film, are usually about champions, those who reached the craggy peak of success, a title. This book is about a contender, who missed being champion, by not that much. In the 1980s, although Sean Mannion was a top contender, with many great fights, he never wore the gaudy belts of the WBA or the WBC, arbiters of the sport. For fellow Irishman Ronan Mac Con Iomaire, his biographer, Mannion deserves a second chance for the public to respect the fighter he was, and honor the man he is. The man who was never knocked down is still standing.

Iomaire has already helped produce a documentary about Mannion. In 2017, his “Rocky Ros Muc” was well received by Irish film critics. Mannion’s story begins in the village of Ros Muc in Connemara, western Ireland. Its most notable inhabitants, including Mannion, had to leave to find fame and success. Ireland’s people, it has been said, is its greatest export. The mother of the current mayor of Boston came from the village.

When Sean Mannion climbed through the ropes for every fight, the label on his trunks read “Rosmuc,” for his village of 500. Mannion was once offered thousands of dollars to change the “Rosmuc” to the name of a business or a product, but he refused. He wouldn’t do it for a million, he said. “Rocky Ros Muc” is a reference to the Rocky of the most popular boxing story on film. That Rocky was a thick tongued, Phillie native, who punches his way to glory against all the odds, from lower class to sports aristocracy. The 20 foot square of the ring has its own truth to tell in the sweat and blood of opponents. Pedigree, privilege, and position don’t count a whit once the bell is rung and the fight is on. At its best, the ring is a meritocracy.

In reality, as Iomaire explains, boxing is a big business, where few are fortunate – Sugar Ray Leonard was the first to make $100 million in the sport – and most of the rest, like Mannion, barely make a living. Managers, those who direct the talent and careers of the boxer, make a major difference, the choice of manager a mix of opportunity and luck. Mannion’s best manager, the legendary Angelo Dundee, appreciated his boxers and called each “my guy.” For Dundee, boxers, their well-being, came first. His job was to enhance their physical and psychological health to make them champions.

Dundee finished his career with 15 champions. He considered Mannion as one of his most talented boxers. Dundee noted how tough Mannion was. It was he who remarked that Sean had never been knocked down, the title of Iomaire’s biography. Mannion could take a punch and distribute its force, roll with it, to lessen its impact. Mannion was a natural fighter, and often sparred out of his weight class. Dundee’s regret is that he didn’t manage Mannion when he was 20, instead of 30, nearing retirement.

Iomaire has a convincing example of the other kind of management, where the boxer’s interests do not come first. In the early 1980s, a fight between the highly ranked Tommy Hearns and the unknown Sean Mannion was proposed. Aside from more money, success or even a good showing in the matchup would have elevated Mannion’s career and prospects. NBC commentator Dr. Ferdie Pacheco vetoed the fight because of Mannion’s manager then, Jimmy Connolly.

In June 1981, Connolly had committed Mannion to fight Davey “Boy” Green in London, but Mannion remained stateside for a wedding. Connolly was on the hook for a fighter against Green. He put in Danny Long after Long, just coming off a hard loss against Alex Ramos, had only 10 days of rest. Against Green, Long was beaten in four rounds, and his face, according to Iomaire, looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to it.

Pacheco was furious. Allowing Long only 10 days of rest was abuse, an example of what’s wrong with boxing. To the newspapers, he complained that’s how boxers got killed. Pacheco wouldn’t  allow any fighter managed by Connolly to be on NBC, not because of the boxers, but their manager. So the bout between Mannion and Hearns didn’t happen.  (Pacheco also told Muhammed Ali to retire when Ali’s reflexes slowed, but the champ ignored the advice.) 

Mannion continued his rise in the ranks until he got his chance to fight for the light middleweight crown. On October 19, 1984, in perhaps the most meaningful contest in his career, he went 15 rounds against one of the best of his class, Mike McCallum, whom Tommy Hearns reportedly feared and avoided fighting. A veteran of over 250 fights, a natural warrior like Mannion, McCallum would be his toughest opponent. Mannion, however, was fearless.

Fortune did not smile on the Irishman. Five weeks before the fight, Mannion’s eye was cut by an errant elbow during sparring. The stitches made it impossible for him to spar. The wound had to heal. Mannion trained, hit the bags and pads, and ran the miles, but he lost the sharpness gained through sparring. In the fight, McCallum’s punches reopened the cut and shut Mannion’s right eye. Although he was lucky to last through the 15th , Mannion lost the decision. McCallum went on to defend his title many times after, but never faced Mannion again, his toughest opponent.

The fight at Madison Square Garden, as Iomaire describes it, explains elements of Mannion’s identity, what made the fighter into who he is. South Station ran extra trains to New York to accommodate all the Boston Irish, on their way to attend the fight. Iomaire estimates that 10,000 of the 20,000 in the arena were Mannion fans.

Like the “Rosmuc” stitched onto his trunks, the Gaelic language of Ireland epitomized Mannion’s roots, and perhaps Ireland’s painful history, the poverty, wars, famines, and oppression. Paddy, Mannion’s brother and cornerman at his fights, used to shout at him in Gaelic to lift Mannion’s spirits and remind him who he was. Mannion feared no man, but he was worried that he would bring shame to Ireland and Ros Muc.

That wasn’t the case. When he returned to Ros Muc after his defeat, he was treated as a hero for representing Ireland in a championship bout. Sean Mannion never became champion in any division. He fought until retiring in 1993 at age 36. He worked construction in Boston to make a living. For a while, he trained boxers, but apparently his gym closed, the interest in boxing waning and the interest in property rising, as poorer sections of Boston gentrified.

Iomaire says little about Mannion’s personal life (we learn late he was divorced, remarried, and has a daughter) or his problem with drinking, perhaps those empty calories one reason he struggled to make his weight class. Readers will be fascinated by the episode when Mannion had to lose nine pounds in a day to make the welterweight requirement, or forfeit the fight. Mannion got through that ordeal, as he did through every challenge in the sport of boxing – except winning the title, champion.

The Monster Speaks: Dr. Jordan Peterson at the Shubert

By
Edmond D. Smith

Tuesday night, May 22 at the Shubert Theater in Boston the monster spoke. Dr. Jordan Peterson the Canadian clinical psychologist, author, professor and newly minted YouTube and media sensation gave a two hour (a one-and-a-half-hour lecture followed by a half hour q&a) presentation expounding on the themes of his internationally bestselling book, 12 Rules For Life, An Antidote To Chaos. Dr. Peterson’s emergence as a public intellectual with a growing following has been met by howls of protest and derision including accusations of his being a Nazi, homophobe, misogynist, anti-Semite and the leader of a cult of neocavemen.

Tuesday night, the monster himself took the stage at the Shubert to a capacity house of, if his critics are to be believed, exclusively male, knuckle-dragging troglodytes. The first shock of the evening came when it turned out that in reality his audience consisted of casually dressed, polite (predominantly but not exclusively) men; but women were certainly there in abundance as well. The evening’s second shock came when Dave Rubin walked onstage to warm up the audience and introduce the monster. Rubin is a former liberal, a Jewish comedian, and host of the increasingly popular podcast The Rubin Report. He is also a happily married gay man. His introduction of Peterson was funny, warm and admiring.

Then came the main event. The monster walked out onto a stage bare but for a stool holding bottles of water. He was thin, of average height, wore a gray suit and tan shoes (loafers?). When he began to speak his voice was mild. His mannerisms were restrained. He presented as the antithesis of the fire-breathing hate monger that much of the press has portrayed. Over the next two hours he covered a wide-ranging territory that included some personal history, (He grew up in a small, rather bleak town in Alberta, Canada. The closest big city was Edmonton, five hundred miles distant.) much discussion of his intellectual heroes Carl Jung and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, his distaste of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, and his fascination with both biological and social hierarchies. Apparently, his audience of devolved knuckle-draggers had come out to hear a lecture about ideas.

And he was an explosion of ideas. His manner of speaking was professorial without being didactic.

And he was an explosion of ideas. His manner of speaking was professorial without being didactic. He gave the impression of a man who isn’t just teaching: he paused often as he seemed to be carefully considering what he would say next, checking it in his mind for consistency, veracity and value. Its an unusual style that has the effect of making his audience feel as if they are discovering ideas with him, as if they are part of his process. And he readily admits that he doesn’t have all the answers but is sincerely interested in finding them.

At times he was personal and emotional, choking up a bit in remembering his mother-in-law’s difficult passing. At other times he was amusing as when he talked about the need rats have for physical nurturing. He also addressed some of the criticism he has gotten from the media including his now infamous TV interview with British journalist Cathy Newman, in which prior to the TV cameras coming on she was polite, charming and sympathetic and then completely changed her demeanor when the cameras were  turned on. He also addressed another recent controversy in which a phrase, “enforced monogamy”, has been used to delegitimatize him. His explanation of his actual meaning was dealt with in the post-speech q&a which can be seen in the link below:

If there was any one issue that propelled him into the spotlight it was his stance on a piece of Canadian legislation, Bill C-16 which stipulates that people must address transgendered or other “non-binary” people by a pronoun of their choosing. To fail to do so can lead to governmental sanctions. Peterson took to YouTube to voice his objection to the idea of compulsory speech which he vociferously contends is a violation of the principle of free speech. Suddenly he went viral.

Much of what Peterson has to say is his extrapolation of what are the consequences of the hierarchical structure of society, itself embedded in the biological foundations of humanity. His analysis considers the stories of ancient heroes and stories of how man succeeds and fails. This leads him to Christianity which relies on the primacy of the individual. This he contrasts with the collective, which history shows invariably leads to tribalism and the segmentation of society into separate interest groups. And it is here that we can see the genesis of the Left’s hatred of Peterson. By his reckoning history is rife with the failures of collectivism, including the horrors of Nazism, socialism and communism. And he sees the current growth of intersectionality, the collision of differing groups invariably leading to the strong marginalizing the weak, bringing about group conflict, with groups of the privileged victimizing the groups of the less powerful.

He believes that the only way out of these constantly recurring collectivist societies which distort man’s true nature and inexorably leads to societal disaster is through making the individual preeminent. Thus Christ is literally and metaphorically the individual who shoulders responsibility and saves the world. Individual consciousness, the individual’s sense of responsibility despite the burden it places on man is the way out of the collectivist trap.

And it is Peterson’s utter rejection of collectivism as anathema to the flourishing of the human spirit that makes him such a target for the Left.

And it is Peterson’s utter rejection of collectivism as anathema to the flourishing of the human spirit that makes him such a target for the Left. If people once again start to believe in the primacy of the individual, the individual with a sense of meaning, then the Left’s entire narrative crumbles and blows away like dust. This is why they see him as such a danger, as such a monster. To watch the cheer that rose up from the audience when Peterson pointed to the necessity of their taking responsibility for their own actions would be enough to drive the Left to the paroxysms of hate that they have directed at Peterson.

So the monster concluded with a call to people to live up to their “true nature” by accepting personal responsibility for their lives, and taking up… “an ethic of fair play and courage” which “…keeps us a good distance away from Hell.”

By the conversations that could be heard when Dr. Peterson had concluded his presentation the now obviously non-troglodytic audience left inspired to shoulder heavier burdens of responsibility in order to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose.

At this point it became impossible to view the humble academic whose words had just held our attention for two hours as having any of the characteristics of a monster. If a monster had been expected to show up on the Shubert stage that night, he never appeared. In fact he seems never to have existed at all.

 

When Everyone Knew Who The Heavyweight Champion Was

The Boxing Kings:
When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring
By Paul Beston
Rowman & Littlefield
356 Pages

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

From the time of John L. Sullivan up to the reign of Mike Tyson just about everybody knew who the Heavyweight Champion of the World was. It was the most prestigious of all sporting titles and the man who held it was one of the most famous, if not the most famous man on the planet. From 1885 up to 1990 only 30 men were able to claim that title.

Being the Heavyweight Champion went beyond just winning fights. Unlike other sports, the Champ did not compete as part of a team. This was a solitary accomplishment that was the epitome of rugged individualism. It took more than just physical prowess to win the title, it also took strength of character and a determined will.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations. In that period I doubt there was a boy alive who didn’t at one time dream of holding the title. The history of those men who did reach that goal is a very rich one that often mirrors society as a whole. While many books have been written about individual title holders, there has been a need for a broad history of the era when everyone knew the names John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and many others.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations.

Now, thanks to Paul Beston, the Managing Editor of City Journal, that need has been filled. In The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring Mr. Beston tells the story of these unique individuals with insight and respect while at the same time not glossing over their weaknesses. If you are not already familiar with this history there is no better book for you to learn from. If you are an experienced boxing fan you will find this work refreshing and informative. I consider myself to be a bit of a boxing expert and I still found much that was new to me while reading this lively narrative.

It was interesting to find out that John L. Sullivan, who is well known for drawing the color line when it came to defending the title against black challengers, was one of the first people in the ring to congratulate Jack Johnson, the first black champion, when he defeated Jim Jeffries. Sullivan also rode on the railroad car with Johnson and his black supporters after the fight. There may have been an ulterior motive for Sullivan’s actions, but it is still surprising to read about this considering the time in which it took place.

There is so much more. Johnson, who is seen today as a man who stood up and broke through the color line drew one of his own and would not defend the title against some of the finest “colored” heavyweights of his day. Johnson, with his extreme behavior, not only offended whites but finally even blacks who did not find him a good example for their children. To quote the author, “As a black man living on his own terms-not those of whites, not those of blacks, and not those of Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois-Johnson had no home in the America of his time. But he didn’t have to make the choices he made.”

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved.

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved. In the case of Jack Dempsey, a man who would become one of the most beloved figures in the history of sports, we learn he had his problems stemming from his not having served in the military during WWI. It was a stain that would haunt the great champion for years. Yet, even with that baggage his magnetism provided for the first million dollar gates in history. Dempsey also brought boxing out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Mr. Beston shines in this book in that he not only has done painstaking research, but he is also a great writer who never gives his readers a dull moment. In a chapter entitled The Substitutes he covers the period between Dempsey and Joe Louis. For many this time is looked upon as a lull between two great champions, but it was actually a fascinating period. It was during this time that two of the champions were not from the United States, making it truly a world championship. As that world was slipping into chaos it appeared the Heavyweight Championship was too. Max Schmelling won the title on a foul, the only fighter ever to do so. Gangsters were becoming heavily involved in the game, and there was even a question of whether or not Jack Sharkey threw his fight with Primo Carnera.

It took Joe Louis to bring stability and honor to the sport. While reading Mr. Beston’s chapter on the Louis years one is filled with joy and sadness. Louis was not only arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, but also one of the most important figures of the 20th Century when it came to unifying the nation and breaking down racial barriers. Louis does not receive the credit he deserves for all he accomplished. He is given his due here. As Mr. Beston writes “Louis was a light in black America’s darkness, and a generation would never forget him for it.” When reading that line I can’t help but think of how Muhammad Ali would later mock the aging champion.

Louis was the first black golfer to play in a PGA event, another wall he broke through. I have to admit I was almost bought to tears reading about Joe’s days after boxing. This man who had done so much for boxing and for his country was hounded for years by the IRS and relegated to being a greeter in LasVegas. Paul Beston gives this great man the respect he earned and deserves.

Mr. Beston brings us Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Blockbuster. Marciano possessed the grit, determination, and sheer will that allowed him to overcome his physical shortcomings to become the only undefeated champion in history. He was also a hero to working class America. Following Rocky, Floyd Patterson’s rise to the throne ushered in a period when boxing appeared to be fading away. Then along came the colorful and handsome Swede Ingemar Johnson who briefly shot some adrenaline into the veins of the sport. We see Sonny Liston, the man whose stare paralyzed opponents and whose lifestyle made him unwanted as champion. Mr. Beston gives us insight into this complicated man who is almost impossible to understand. If boxing were the works of Shakespeare, then Liston would be one of the “problem plays”.

In reading the chapter on Muhammad Ali, the man who certainly saved boxing but at at a cost, I can’t help but think of how different things would have been if Ali had made some other choices. His decision to become part of a radical black separatist movement that preached racial hatred was so at odds with the unifying movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This charismatic young champion could have done so much to further race relations but chose to take a different path. It is ironic he is looked upon as a great Civil Rights leader when he preached separation of the races. Mr. Beston gives us much insight into Ali’s career, but I think he could have a whole book just on this one subject where he would be able to delve more deeply into this subject.

Paul Beston closes his history with the years following Ali and ends with Lennox Lewis taking over as champion. In these chapters he discusses the bitterness of Larry Holmes and even made me feel some sympathy for Mike Tyson. He gives his thoughts on why the Heavyweight Champion is no longer a recognizable figure.

Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown.

I read a lot of books on boxing. There are a number of good ones out there. However, some are well researched but poorly written and not well edited, while others are plain awful. In The Boxing Kings we have the rare book that is well researched, well written, lively, informative, and fully conveys the author’s love for the sport while taking an honest view of it. If books were fighters some would be tomato cans, some journeymen, some contenders, and a very few would be Champions. Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown. I highly recommend it.

 

 

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.