Category Archives: Book Reviews

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)

Sting Like A Maccabee: Jews in Boxing



“Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History”, By Mike Silver, Lyons Press, 2016. 344 pages with 255 photographs.

Reviewed by Len Abram

StarsAs coffee table books go – landscape printing and pictures prominent – this one is double expresso: a photographic history of Jewish boxers through the Golden Age of the sport, as well as a study of the context, from which Jews in boxing emerged, fought, lost and triumphed. Silver is an award-winning expert on boxing. Among his contributions was an exhibit in Philadelphia in 2004, “Sting Like A Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer.” This book may be its definitive outcome.

Silver’s scope here is larger than American Jewish boxers. England, the Netherlands, and Italy are also represented. We learn, for example, that the French boxer Victor “Young” Perez died heroically in the Holocaust. We find outstanding boxers among Jews, who were forced to flee the Nazis, all the way to Shanghai, China. Silver also covers Jewish managers, promoters, and writers, who contributed to the sport, including the owner of the famous gym of champions in New York, Stillman’s. With his American fighters, however, Silver’s story is as much about America as about any fighter with the Star of David on his trunks.

Silver’s story is as much about America as about any fighter with the Star of David on his trunks.

“No other sport lends so perfectly to metaphor,” Silver says. ‘Against the ropes’, ‘roll with a punch’, ‘down for the count’, ‘in your corner’, ‘on the ropes’, ‘throw in the towel’ – these clichés are drawn from boxing and perhaps remain more popular than the sport itself. The “Rocky” movie series and most recent pugilistic “The Southpaw” remind us that the theme of the down-and-out (another boxing reference) individual, who can redeem himself through boxing, is still compelling.

In the early decades of the 1900s, boxing was the most popular sport in America. In 1927, Babe Ruth earned $80,000 a season playing baseball, but the heavyweight champion Gene Tunney got around one million. At a time when a man in a sweatshop earned $20 per week for 12 to 14 hours a day, he might overlook his son’s black eye, if the young man had earned $20 for a four round bout.

During the Golden Era of Jewish participation in boxing, from the early 1900s to the late 1930s, upwards of 3,000 Jewish professional boxers were active, or about 7 to 10 percent of the total number.

From 1901 to 1939, Jews produced 29 world champions

From 1901 to 1939, Jews produced 29 world champions about 16% of the total. Silver is thorough with his statistics and little known details. Leach Cross (Dr. Louis Wallach), “the Fighting Dentist,” practiced dentistry during the day and fought at night. He made twice as much fighting. The first use of a mouth guard to protect the teeth came not from him, but from Ted “Kid” Lewis (Gershon Mendoloff) , who had a dentist make one out of rubber. The idea caught on.

Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard

How did Jewish mothers feel about their sons pummeled in the ring? Silver says that Jewish fighters feared their mothers, who opposed the sport, as unbefitting to the gentler Jewish values, of compassion and kindness. When lightweight champion Benny Leonard (Benjamin Leiner) was knocked down in a fight, his mother fainted. Leonard retired undefeated in 1925. A photograph shows the champion holding up his mother’s hand, a sign that she was the final victor.

Boxing is a violent sport, its purpose to inflict harm, its touted achievement to win by a knockout. Silver acknowledges that repeated blows to the head can damage a brain for life.

However, boxing can be an art and science, meaning the application of brain over brawn. Boxers use agility and speed to avoid being hit. They anticipate the moves of opponents and counter. An 18th century fighter, an English Jew named Daniel Mendoza, was so famous that he had an audience with King George III. At medium height and weight, Mendoza took on bigger and heavier opponents (weight classes later determined a fair match). Mendoza used his wits to outbox his competitors.

Silver’s outstanding figure among Jewish boxers is Benny Leonard

Silver’s outstanding figure among Jewish boxers is Benny Leonard champion from 1917 to 1925. The athlete as thinker, Leonard approached boxing as “a game of chess.” Silver reports that the day after a bout, Leonard was back in the gym, reviewing mistakes and successes from the night before. Leonard learned from everyone , including the youngest boxers in the gym.

Like so many others, including the great Barney Ross (Beryl Rosofsky), Leonard was the son of immigrants. He came out of a Jewish ghetto in Manhattan and fought his way to wealth and success. Many American fighters changed names according to the interests of the paying public for Irish, Italian and later for Jewish fighters.

Boxing leveled the playing field beyond the sport, as well. Joe Louis, a black man, became a national hero to both blacks and whites. The celebrated writer Pete Hamill grew up in a New York Irish-American home. As a youngster, he complained to his family about a “kike” boxer. His father corrected his anti-Semitism for good.

“Benny Leonard is a Jew,” he said.

(This article first appeared in the Jewish Advocate and is reprinted here with permission of the author.)

Shadow Box, A Second Look At An Amateur In The Ring

by Bobby Franklin

Shadow Box: An Amateur In The Ring
By George Plimpton
(Little Brown, 347 pages, $20.00)

Shadow BoxEvery young man who steps into a boxing ring for the first time sees himself as a future champion. Appearing so basic in its nature, prizefighting is the one sport where it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see one’s self as landing that knock out blow against the champion and taking the title. Reality is a bit different.

For many, that first experience getting punched on the nose by a blow that seemed to come out of nowhere is enough to send even the most imaginative packing and leaving the gym never to return. For others, it is just the thing that gets the adrenalin flowing and the desire spiked to move forward in pursuit of the nearly impossible dream.

George Plimpton was the editor of the The Paris Review from 1953 until his death in 2003. He was also a frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated Magazine. Mr. Plimpton earned a reputation as a participatory journalist by stepping onto the mound to throw against a number of MLB All Stars, play quarterback briefly for the Detroit Lions (he lost thirty yards in his few minutes on the field), and being beaten at golf by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer among other things.

In 1960 he also decided to experience boxing first hand. Now most people would have gone to a boxing gym and taken a few lessons, stepped in with a sparring partner of similar experience and gotten a good taste of what it is like to be in the ring. Not so in Plimpton’s case. His first choice of opponent was Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson. When that arrangement failed to materialize he moved down a weight class and sought out Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore. The Old Mongoose agreed to meet George in the ring at Stillman’s Gym in New York City.

He recounted his session with Moore in Shadow Box: An Amateur In The Ring first published in 1977 and now reissued by Little Brown as part of a delightful set of the sports books by George Plimpton. This title is one of seven in the group, and it is a wonderful read.

I first read Shadow Box in 1977 while I was still active in the ring. Rereading it now has brought back so many memories of that time when boxing was quite different than it is today.

Moore and Plimpton (Photo: Walter Daran)
Moore and Plimpton
(Photo: Walter Daran)

Mr. Plimpton begins with his bout with Archie Moore. He took this match quite seriously enlisting a professional boxing trainer to prepare him for the fatal day. He also read numerous books on the subject and learned he was not unique among writers in getting into the ring with a champion boxer. The poet Arthur Craven, reputed to be the nephew of Oscar Wilde, fought Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson in Paris. It should be noted that Mr. Plimpton fared much better in his match against Archie Moore.

George had one fatal flaw as a boxer, something he called the “sympathetic response”. This was an involuntary reaction to being hit that resulted in tears flowing from his eyes giving the appearance he was crying. This reaction was a far cry from the Sonny Liston stare and would hardly send chills done the spine of an opponent.

The three rounds with Moore went well in front of a large crowd that had gathered in Stallman’s for the event, and George was very proud of the bloody nose he came away with.

The book moves on from there to many interesting experiences Mr. Plimpton had in the boxing world as well as some wonderful stories about authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote. In one of these tales we learn of how the author attempted to arrange a meeting between Hemingway and Mailer, but it never happened. Perhaps, this was for the better as any restaurant the two would have met in almost certainly would have been busted up. We also learn that Mailer was undefeated at thumb wrestling.

Some of the best parts of the book are about the time Mr. Plimpton spent with Muhammad Ali and his covering both the first Frazier fight as well as the Foreman fight in Zaire.

The author was in Ali’s dressing room immediately after the Frazier bout and describes the pain Muhammad was in after his fifteen rounds with Joe. Most fans are not aware of just how much punishment boxers take in a fight, and this was no ordinary fight. Ali was exhausted and in excruciating pain. He could barely walk. I am sure the situation was as bad if not not worse in the Frazier camp. Mr. Plimpton’s wonderful writing brings this moment in boxing history vividly to life.

The last portion of the book is devoted to Ali’s fight with Foreman in Africa. After the press had arrived the bout was postponed for six weeks due to a cut eye the champion received in training. Being so far from home the writers stayed in Zaire for the six weeks. This leads to a number of tales such as the one where Norman Mailer thought he was going to be eaten by a lion.

Mr. Plimpton spends a number of pages writing about Hunter Thompson. Thompson was sent to cover the fight for Rolling Stone Magazine but didn’t go to the bout. I really don’t know why so many pages are devoted to Thompson as I really never understood why he was ever taken seriously, but it is an insight into the time.

The author talks quite a bit about Drew Bundini, Ali’s sidekick. Mr. Plimpton refers to him as Ali’s trainer. In one depressing scene Ali belittles Bundini and slaps him in the face in front of a roomful of reporters. Mr. Plimpton, who worshiped Ali, says he hated him at that moment.

Shadow Box is a delight. It is a book by an author who is a master with words. A man who brings the enthusiasm of the dedicated boxing fan along with just enough knowledge of the sport to make it all come alive. It is a book about the sport when it was much different and much more exciting. That excitement comes through on every page. If you have not already read Shadow Box, I urge you to do so. if you read it years ago, go to it again. You will not be disappointed.

Springs Toledo Delivers With In “The Cheap Seats: Boxing Essays”

Boxing Writing At Its Best In This Fine Collection 

by Bobby Franklin

Springs Toledo is back with another collection of essays on boxing.

Springs Toledo is back with another collection of essays on boxing. In 2014 his first collection, The Gods of War, was widely acclaimed. It has joined the ranks of boxing classics.

With this latest collection, In The Cheap Seats, he has created another contender. I am not sure it will go on to winning a world title the way The Gods Of War did, but it certainly deserves a wide readership.

In The Cheap Seats
In The Cheap Seats

Many of the essays contained in this latest work by Mr. Toledo focus on more recent fights and fighters. Springs makes connections with the styles and personalities of past greats and those vying for greatness today. He does a fine job of this, but I have a hard time buying a lot of the comparisons. Maybe I am just old and cranky, but to me the glory days of boxing have long passed. While Springs does a wonderful job of linking the past with the present, he knows boxing history and understands the art, I sometimes found myself questioning if he truly believed what he was writing or was trying to convince himself as much as his readers about the quality of today’s sport.

He points out how when Henry Armstrong held three world titles simultaneously there were only a total of eight recognized divisions. It is staggering to look back on that time with the competition Armstrong faced and comprehend his accomplishment. Springs has written about the proliferation of divisions and titles that exist today which makes having a multi belt holder nowhere near the challenge it was in Armstrong’s time, so I wonder why he felt if Floyd Mayweather had added a middleweight title to his array of belts it would have put him up there in stature with the great Henry Armstrong. I am not trying to take anything away from Floyd, but it is a very different sport now than it was in 1938. Again, maybe I am just too jaded to get excited about almost anything in today’s world of boxing.

In The Cheap Seats has many other great essays contained between its covers.

Mr. Toledo’s piece on Bruce Lee and the influence boxing had on him is fascinating to read.

Mr. Toledo’s piece on Bruce Lee and the influence boxing had on him is fascinating to read.Not only does he explain how Lee adapted his martial arts style because of boxing, but, and here is where Springs’ knowledge of the fine points of the Sweet Science come into play, he explains the difference in defensive posture that gives a boxer the upper hand. It is essays like this that set him apart from so many of those who think they know the sport and try to write about the mechanics of boxing. I once remember a self appointed authority on boxing giving a lecture and telling the audience that it was impossible for a boxer to throw a double left hook. These pretenders should not be allowed to use up the perfectly good paper that could be utilized by writers like Springs Toledo.

I found myself really getting into the rhythm of Toledo’s writing when he was recounting a conversation he had in Hyannis, MA with former welterweight contender George Maddox. Using the magic of his pen Springs captured the humanity of this wonderful man. I know George and what I read could only be compared to a fine portrait of him painted by a great artist. This is Springs at his best, describing the movements and words of an eighty-one year old former boxer who still takes great pride in his accomplishments. In just a few paragraphs you will come to know George Maddox. You will also feel the respect the author has for such men. It is beautiful stuff.
There is much more to savor in this collection. In Where Have You Gone Harry Greb? you find out why the Pittsburgh Windmill is rated by Springs as the greatest pound for pound fighter ever.

You get the inside scoop on the sparring sessions between Greb and Jack Dempsey

You get the inside scoop on the sparring sessions between Greb and Jack Dempsey that will lead you to seriously wonder if Harry could have taken the Manassa Mauler. I believe Springs thinks Harry could have done it. I think it would have been a great fight and a difficult one for Jack, but his strength would have won the battle.

You’ll also get to read interesting pieces about how if boxing was more widely taught there could be less need for people to use guns. This subject is discussed in the context of the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy. Springs strips away the knee jerk emotions on all sides of the controversy and takes a measured look at how to prevent such things from happening. It is a refreshing piece to read in this age of media sensationalism.

There is even a chapter devoted to the effects a vegetarian diet can have on punching power. Being a vegetarian myself it has made me want to get to the gym and test out my old left hook.

Springs closes out his fine collection with a piece about Mae West and her connection with the boxing world. It is a very interesting piece about a one of a kind personality, and will go down as a classic.

Springs Toledo
Springs Toledo

While I find it difficult to share Springs Toledo’s love of present day boxing, I do enjoy his writing. He is a throwback, an old school writer along the lines of A.J. Leibling whom he admires. Throw in a dash of Raymond Chandler and stir it up with Springs’ own unique style and you have a writer who leaves you wanting more. Many younger readers of these essays will be hearing about the greats of the past for the first time. I hope, and believe they will, be inspired to find out more about the rich history of this great sport.

Review: Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

Basic Books, Hardcover, $28.99, 392 Pages

An Important Book About Two Flawed Men Who Influenced History And Boxing

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

 

Blood BrothersThere have been more books written about Muhammad Ali  than any other boxer, perhaps more than any other athlete. The vast majority of these books play into the Ali myth that has been orchestrated for years by many in the press as well as the former champ’s own publicity machine. Every so often an author digs in and takes an unbiased look at this very complicated man, and the truth is more interesting than the myth.

 

Two of these books, Mark Kram’s The Ghosts of Manila and Jack Cashill’s Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream, are among the best when it comes to uncovering the puzzle of understanding the real Muhammad Ali. Joining these works is the meticulously researched Blood Brothers by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith.

Delving into previously unviewed FBI files, the personal papers of Malcolm X, the notes of Alex Haley, and interviews from the past and present, the authors have written an important history of not only a tragic relationship, but also of the Nation of Islam (The Black Muslims) as well as a very interesting account of Cassius Clay’s early boxing career up to his bouts with Sonny Liston.

Malcolm and Cassius first met in 1962.

Malcolm and Cassius first met in 1962.Clay, after winning Olympic Gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, was making a name for himself by not only winning fights, but by his unique self promotion influenced by the wrestler Gorgeous George. Malcolm had no interest in sports believing it was just another way that the white establishment exploited the black man in America. However, he was immediately taken by the young contender. In many ways they were similar in that both were outspoken, charismatic, and couldn’t resist the limelight. Malcolm also recognized what an asset Clay could be to the Nation. Having a popular and well-spoken athlete coming out in support of and even joining the Muslims would surely attract many new and young members. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation didn’t share this view. He not only was not interested in athletes, he also believed Clay was going to be destroyed when he stepped into the ring against Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston. That would certainly not look good for the Muslims.

Roberts and Smith explain how Malcolm had from the beginning unwavering confidence that Clay would not only win the title, but would go on to become the Nation’s greatest asset. While he would prove to be right, it would also be his undoing.

Most people believe the Black Muslims are part of the Islamic religion practice throughout the world. In reality, under Elijah Muhammad, it was a Black Nationalist and separatist movement that was very much at odds with the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Muhammad considered King an Uncle Tom who was being subservient to the white establishment by demanding African Americans be fully integrated into society. The Muslims were envisioning an armed revolution with the goal of retribution and creating their own state.

There is much in this book that will make those who have looked up to Muhammad Ali as a great civil rights leader uncomfortable. For a large part of his career Clay/Ali preached separation of the races, though it can be argued his belief in this was not very deep but more of a young man taken in by a cult. It may have also been driven by fear. When asked why he was not joining in on the marches and demonstrations with Dr. King he responded that he did not want to go to a place where he would have dogs set upon him, be clubbed by the police, or worse. Also, once he was involved with the Nation he quickly learned about the punishment, quite often brutal, they would handout to those who did not stay in line.

It can also be questioned just how deep the friendship between Malcolm and Cassius was. The two were certainly very drawn to each other, but as much as Malcolm felt affection for Clay he also knew he would be a useful tool in advancing the cause and also Malcolm’s own stature within the Nation.

For Clay, Malcolm served as a father figure

For Clay, Malcolm served as a father figure one who could teach the barely literate boxer how to speak out on issues, even if he didn’t understand what he was talking about some of the time.

Malcolm’s biggest miscalculation was in believing his friendship and mentoring of Clay would protect him from retribution when he stepped beyond his bounds with the Nation. After Clay defeated Liston Elijah Muhammad also came to the realization of how useful Clay, upon whom he now bestowed the name of Muhammad Ali, would be to the Nation not only for propaganda purposes but as a financial asset.

Boxing has always been a shady sport with underworld figures in the background controlling and robbing fighters. Ali, who may have thought he was escaping being exploited by gangsters, had come under the control of another mob filled with hit men and leg breakers.

When Elijah Muhammad turned on Malcolm, Malcolm saw Ali as his protection only to have the champion turn his back on him. Ali joined in the chorus of those who wanted Malcolm punished and worse. Their friendship meant nothing to him any longer. He had a new father figure to please in Elijah.

The authors’ very detailed account of Malcolm’s last days, constantly under threat of assassination, is harrowing. Incidents such as when his home is firebombed while he, his wife, and two daughters are sleeping, make you feel what it is like to be a hunted man with very few friends.

 

A couple of minor points on the content. The authors describe the Nigerian born Hogan Kid Bassey as former world bantamweight champion. Bassey held the featherweight title. In the chapter about the lead to Clay’s first fight with Liston they say that Sonny stood to make millions from the fight. I don’t recall any heavyweight champ from that era making millions from one bout. I would be curious to know how they determined that figure. Neither of these two items takes anything away from this very fine book.

This is an important book that will leave you rethinking your opinion of Muhammad Ali.

This is an important book that will leave you rethinking your opinion of Muhammad Ali.It is in no way an attack on one of the greatest fighters of all time. It is an unbiased look at a flawed human being and a tragic friendship that will leave you asking. What if?