Category Archives: Book Reviews

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?

Review: Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football

Passing Game : Benny Friedman and the transformation of football. Murray Greenberg. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 358 pages. $26.95.

Reviewed by Len Abram

Passing Game
Passing Game

In 2005, eighteen years after NFL quarterback Benny Friedman died, coach Bill Walsh welcomed Friedman into the NFL Hall of Fame. In the long overdue induction, Walsh addressed Friedman as if he were in the audience:

“Benny, you were really the catalyst that started the forward pass in professional football … the person who demonstrated and proved to everyone that the forward pass can be effective and, more importantly, … consistently effective.

The forward pass had been around two decades before Benny Friedman took the melon-sized ball of the 1920s and made it into a formidable offensive weapon. Walsh acknowledged Friedman’s achievements: “[You] completed a good percentage of your passes and you got into the end zone …. You circumvented a lot of wear and tear on the players. So, I would say that Benny, you were really the person who changed the face of football.”

Today, Benny Friedman is hardly known as the person who changed the face of football. First-time author Murray Greenberg intends to right that wrong. For football fans, Greenberg also charts the history of the NFL from poor cousin to collegiate football into America’s favorite and richest sport. He also tells a story of American meritocracy, of a Jewish kid from Cleveland, son of Russian immigrants, who experienced national greatness – and a personal tragic end.

American football has always been a rough sport, an inheritance from English rugby. Long before we winced when Tom Brady’s knee snapped, football reveled in brutality, of hardened men with little safety equipment, who hurled their bodies at one another, sometimes with fatal results. In 1905, college football had 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had led men in war and recognized the its value in strengthening bodies and character, intervened and saved football. One new rule promoted the forward pass, which could literally leap over the brutal grind of gaining yardage through contact and collision.

The bias of the game was still against the forward pass (the passer had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage and an incomplete pass meant losing possession). In addition, the ball was hard to hold, let alone throw. Greenberg shows Friedman as a teenager strengthening the tendons and muscles of his hands and arms. Over time, he developed a method of passing and follow through that was the model for form and accuracy, emulated by quarterbacks since (the book jacket has frames of the passing style).

Benny Friedman
Benny Friedman
Friedman’s conditioning had to be superb.

Friedman’s conditioning had to be superb. High school, college and professional football players were required to play both offense and defense. Now the NFL has more specialists than the Mass General, but in the 1920s Friedman passed, carried, tackled, ran interference, and kicked extra points. Moreover, Friedman and his peers often played the whole game, and Friedman once played three games in one week. Players were lucky to earn $150 to $200 per game, whereas Friedman in his prime earned $750 (and thousands more in annual contracts).

Coaches and competitors marveled at Friedman’s ability to stay cool in the mayhem of the game and fire accurately to his receiver. In the evolution of American football, toughness and bravery are required, but intelligence decides success. To get Friedman onto the New York Giants, the owner of the Giants bought his entire lackluster team. Friedman turned the Giants into winners and money makers, even in the Depression. Sports writers referred to Friedman with 20 touchdown passes (his closest competitor had six) as a phenomenon, an observation that makes questionable his late inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Friedman brought so much excitement and innovation to the game of football that by 1934 the NFL changed its rules about passing and the football itself. The ball became the sphere of today – easier to hold and especially to pass. Friedman did indeed change the face of football.

Friedman did indeed change the face of football.

Friedman’s many achievements and lasting influence are all the more remarkable given his Jewishness.

According to stereotypes around 1920, Jews could not compete in athletics. Friedman, however, did not consider himself a Jewish athlete, but an athlete who was Jewish. He was neither atypical or typical, just himself. Within a decade, Jews were making their mark in boxing and baseball. Friedman was chosen to be captain of his college team, the Michigan Wolverines. Hundreds of Jews across the country sent the young man telegrams of congratulations, and kids lined up for autographs. He was their hero and representative.

Like many of his generation, Friedman joined the military after Pearl Harbor. In his late 30s, Navy Lieutenant Friedman insisted on a combat tour on board ship during the Battle for Okinawa. After the war, he continued playing semiprofessional ball and coached professional football. Friedman then had another opportunity to be a hero for Jews. Because Abram Sachar wanted Brandeis to be a secular Jewish university, the new president believed a competitive football team would emphasize that point. Sachar pleaded with Friedman be its first – and as it turned out – last coach.

The faculty and student body perhaps never had Sachar’s passion for football and argued against its weak academics and high costs. One of the most outspoken students was radical Abbie Hoffman, whose values and politics were antagonistic to those of Friedman’s generation, and to what football represented. By 1959, Friedman felt betrayed by Sachar and Brandeis. The football program closed down, and eventually Friedman left.

Without much comment, Greenberg lets Friedman’s words and actions speak for themselves. Readers may find Friedman easier to admire than to like. His supreme confidence and his outspoken candor were not always appreciated. He could be petty. He also annoyed the NFL when he complained about its treatment of NFL veterans and when he promoted himself for the Hall of Fame – possible reasons for his late induction.

Friedman, however, is remarkable a long way from the football field. He lived his life on his own terms, even with severe illness. Religion and society cannot endorse his choice of suicide, but we can still admire how Benny Friedman played the game.

(This article originally appeared in the Jewish Advocate. Used here with permission of the author.)


 

 

 

 

Book Review: “Stars In The Ring”

“Stars In The Ring:
Jewish Champions In The
Golden Age Of Boxing” by Mike Silver

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

StarsMike Silver pegs the first four decades of the 20th Century as Boxing’s Golden Age. It was a period where the sport was at its peak in both popularity and talented participants. The boxers of the period were extremely well schooled. Most trainers considered themselves teachers, and were comparable to college professors in the seriousness they brought to teaching the fine art of pugilism.

Mr. Silver also considers this time in history a Golden Age for Jewish boxers. In his new book “Stars In The Ring: Jewish Champions In The Golden Age Of Boxing” (Lyons Press, 366 pgs., $29.95) he does a magnificent job of not only telling the story of the many great Jewish fighters, he also gives a concise and fact filled history of the overall sport of boxing.

Joe Choynski
Joe Choynski

The book is is divided up into an introduction, six chapters, and an extensive appendix. The introduction along with chapters one and two give a wonderful overview of the sport along with setting the background of how Jews became such a big part of boxing. It is filled with such interesting fact as pointing out how Jewish boxers who held world titles during the 1920s ranked only behind Italians but ahead of the Irish in numbers. There were close to 3,000 professional Jewish fighters active during the Golden Age. But make no mistake, “Stars In The Ring” is not just a compilation of statistics; it is a wonderful narrative of a very exciting time not only the history of boxing but also of our nation.

Barney Ross
Barney Ross

In the chapter entitled “The Melting Pot Sport” we learn much about the immigrant experience in America. The various ethnic groups that were at the lower rung of the economic ladder were proud of the fighters who shared their background. Often, matches pitted boxers from the different groups against each other.

Mr. Silver also discusses the Jewish fighters who took on Irish names, or a nom de box, when that became more advantageous for getting fights. There was another reason, perhaps more compelling, why young Jewish men would fight under an assumed named. I’ll quote the author, “Jewish boxers were brave and tough, but they did fear one personage above all others – their mothers.”

“Jewish boxers were brave and tough, but they did fear one personage above all others – their mothers.”
Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard

Benny Leonard was one such fighter. Leonard’s real name was Benjamin Leiner, but he changed it to keep his parents from finding out what he was doing for a living. When a black eye proved to uncover his activity he was quickly forgiven when he handed his father the purse from his evening’s work.

The book is filled with stories like that, but that is just the beginning. Chapters 3 though 6 break the sport up by its various eras. Each chapter begins with an overview of the time period that is extremely fact filled and interesting. These narratives  lead the reader biographies of many of the fighters from the period that has just been discussed.  There are also photographs of the participants. A total of 166 biographies are contained in the book. You will meet the young Charley Goldman, who has an official record of 129 fights, but is believed to have participated in over 400 bouts. If the name sounds familiar, it is because Charley went on to become one of the great boxing trainers, teaching world champions Lou Ambers, Joey Archibald, Marty Servo, and a kid from Brockton, MA named Rocky Marciano.

Georgie Abrams
Georgie Abrams

There is also Georgie Abrams whom Silver ranks as the greatest Jewish middleweight who ever lived. I think Sugar Ray Robinson would agree with that assessment as Abrams gave the great Robinson all that he could handle while losing a disputed decision to him.

Sid Terris, Al Singer, middleweight champion Al McCoy (real name Alex Rudolph), Abe Simon, Ruby Goldstein, Saoul Mamby, “The Fighting Dentist” Leach Cross, Herbie Kronowitz, and Victor Young Perez, who’s tragic story is both heartbreaking and inspiring, are just a few of the many fascinating biographies contained in this wonderful book.

Leach Cross
Leach Cross

Mike Silver could have left it at that and had an outstanding work, but he went even further by interspersing vignettes throughout the book discussing all sorts of boxing related subjects from boxing trading cards to boxing in the movies to a piece about the Shanghai Ghetto. The story of the ghetto in China was new to me and incredibly fascinating. You’ll also learn about the boxing careers of Entertainers Billy Joel and Woody Allen.

To top the book off, Mr. Silver has compiled an extensive appendix that contains, among many other things, his picks for the greatest Jewish boxers of all time. Given Mike’s extensive knowledge of the sport this list is one to be taken very seriously. I know I would not argue its merits with him. He also lists Jewish boxers that have competed in title bouts along with date, location, and results.

Charley Goldman
Charley Goldman

A very interesting section lists the Madison Square Garden Main Events that featured Jewish boxers from 1920 to 2014. It is a very long list. The appendix is an encyclopedia that boxing aficionados will find themselves referring to time and again.

I have to comment on the book as an object as well. When I opened the package it was mailed to me in I was astonished to see how pleasing to the eye it is. It is not a book to be left on a shelf. It is beautiful to hold and look through. Copiously illustrated with hundreds of amazing photographs it is a piece of art unto itself.

Mike Silver, who’s previous book “The Arc of Boxing” rates as one of the all time great works on the Sweet Science (I consider it the best) has not let his readers down with “Stars In The Ring”. This is a book to be displayed so that friends may share it when visiting. I guarantee it will be the cause for hours of interesting conversation. You can pick it up and turn to any page and find something interesting to read.

Mike Silver knows his boxing

Mike Silver knows his boxing, he also knows how to write, and that combination (pun intended) makes this book a joy to own.

If you are one of the many misguided souls who chuckle when you hear someone mention Jewish fighters, you will come away from this book with a healthy respect for the very tough and very honorable men who were Stars in the Ring.

Book Review: The Proper Pugilist: Essays on the Milling Art by Roger Zotti

Review by Mike Silver

Proper Pugilist
Proper Pugilist

Aside from being an astute observer of the boxing scene Roger Zotti is also an avid film buff, which makes his observations in this little gem of a book all the more interesting. Throughout the book Roger intertwines stories of the sweet science with his vast knowledge of Hollywood filmdom. I don’t know of any other author who can find something in common between the spectacular comebacks of Archie Moore vs. Durelle and Marciano vs. Walcott to the comebacks of film actors Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity and Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But that is the subject of an essay titled “Fistic and Film Comebacks” and it’s what makes The Proper Pugilist: Essays on the Milling Art the perfect book for readers of this site.
Reading this concise collection of 22 short essays (each about three to four pages long) is akin to spending several enjoyable hours in conversation with a master story teller whose expertise and knowledge of his subject is obvious with every sentence. Several essays draw from the author’s personal experience as an enthusiastic young fan of televised boxing in the 1950s. In one essay he writes that his love of film and boxing was encouraged by his Uncle Cheech, citing comments he recorded in a decades old interview. “I love film noire”, says uncle Cheech. “Richard Conte, an Italian boy from New York, and McGraw—Charles McGraw—seemed to be in every film noire ever made. In many of Conte’s movies he was usually returning from somewhere—maybe from jail or from the service. In Cry of the City he gave his best performance. McGraw’s best movie was “The Narrow Margin. Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?

Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?
Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

In another essay titled “Dempsey According to Roger Kahn” the author takes issue with Kahn’s impugning the honesty of the referee in the famous Dempsey-Tunney long count fight that appeared in Kahn’s bio of Dempsey. In the same essay is an explanation as to why Dempsey, while heavyweight champion, refused to spar with Ernest Hemmingway.

Court Shepard and Paul Newman
Court Shepard and Paul Newman

In “Where Have You Gone Court Sheppard”, he writes about the actor that portrayed Tony Zale in the 1956 film biography of Rocky Graziano. The real Tony Zale was first hired to play himself in the movie but was unable to pull his punches during rehearsals with Paul Newman, who portrayed Graziano. After nearly flattening Newman twice, Zale was let go and replaced with Sheppard. We find out that Sheppard boxed professionally as a light heavyweight from 1937 to 1941 and compiled a 14-2-3 record. He also appeared in over two dozen other films. But even more impressive is that in 1936 he won the St. Louis Golden Gloves title by defeating future ring great Archie Moore in the finals! There are additional information filled stories on Dempsey, Sonny Liston, Stanley Ketchel, Jake LaMotta, Gene Tunney, Jack “Doc” Kearns and lesser known boxers from the 1950s television era such as Coley Wallace, Jimmy Herring, Roy Harris, Walter Cartier and Artie Diamond. Each of the 22 essays is just long enough to keep your interest and eagerly turn to the next story. I found it hard to put down this delightful foray into the colorful nether worlds of Hollywood and boxing.

The Proper Pugilist is a wonderful companion piece to Roger’s other book about boxing—Friday Night World: A Tribute to Fighters of the 1950s. That book is both a homage to the author’s favorite boxers of the 1950s and a memoir about growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, during the fifties era.

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, paperback 2014). His new book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press) will be published in March 2016.

The Company of Men – Leonard Gardner’s Fat City

by David Curcio

Last month the redoubtable New York Review of Books reissued Leonard Gardner’s novel Fat City. Even for a publisher widely acknowledged as reviving out of print masterpieces and curiosities, this has been heralded as a major event by countless writers influenced by Gardner’s curt, direct style and his ability to suggest the inner workings of cyclical and tormented minds with a staggering economy of prose. He is likely counted as a “writer’s writer” for his ability to reveal his characters’ inner lives without the well-worn trope of endless internal monologues to which so many lesser writers fall prey.

Let us make no mistake: Fat City is not a boxing novel

Let us make no mistake: Fat City is not a boxing novel as so many capsule reviews would have us believe. Readers seeking the sweat of the gym, the blood of the ring, or corrupted promoters would do better to look to W.C. Heinz’s The Professional, Jack London’s The Game or, better still, the many great biographies of fighters in the canon of boxing literature. The subject of Fat City is regret and the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure; and of the horrid, wholly invented revelation among young men that the die of their life has been cast when it is only just beginning.

 

Fat City
Fat City

At the heart of the novel is Billy Tully, a twenty-nine year-old ex-fighter tormented by the belief that “he had given up his career too soon.” Broke, drunk, and abandoned by his wife, he fleetingly pins his hopes on a young fighter named Ernie Munger in order to revive his own life that he already believes “was coming to a close.” At The Lido Gym in Stockton, CA, Tully begins to train the young Munger. Ruben Luna, the gym’s paterfamilias and a genuinely altruistic individual, is the bright spot in this grey urban landscape, though even he is not without his demons as he (rightly) blames himself for the death of one of his fighters years before. After a day of training, the young Ernie, “bruised, fatigued and elated, felt he had joined the company of men.” We long for this three-way relationship to blossom.

And it is the relationships of men – with each other and with women – that give shape to this novel of the constant tension between union and isolation. Billy lives his life regretting every moment that he didn’t appreciate his wife. Ruben is married to a widow with children and, while he is happy (enough) in this union, his eyes still wander, and the fear of pregnancy dampens intimacy. Ernie – in all likelihood a virgin when we meet him – tries desperately to sleep with Faye, the woman he is dating on the eve of his first fight: “To appear in the ring tomorrow without ever having won this other battle seemed presumptuous and dangerous.” When he does manage to sleep with her in his car that night, the rain that follows serves as a pathetic fallacy with ominous overtones: the car won’t start, he goes knee-deep in mud to get it to move as Faye loudly voices her regret and to top it off, she is impregnated. Although Billy tells Ernie (who, to his immediate regret, marries Faye) “you never appreciate [marriage] until it’s gone,” their first night portends the oppressive feeling of being trapped that directly follows.

The narrative zooms in to focus on Billy and Ernie and then pulls back again to reveal a wider cast of characters and a microcosm of a city crawling with future has-beens: Ruben, his hopeful amateurs, and Ernie’s Mexican opponent Arcadio Lucero. These men feel to us like life’s losers because they have already convinced themselves that they are. Working the fields picking cherries with the migrants, the drunks, the derelicts and addicts, they suffer from feelings that a life without meaning is to not exist at all. With nothing but time on their hands, fact and fantasy blur until all that’s left are memories, as when Billy bemoans being left by his wife, or drunkenly recounts his heroics in the ring despite having ultimately lost. But only in the ring can these men prove to themselves that they are alive. This, however, is a luxury difficult to attain, as we learn from the broke, violently ill Arcadio Lucero as he travels north to fight Ernie, and who fights because it is the only thing he knows how to do. So just what does a man need to do to prove to himself that he’s alive? To the men of Fat City, life exists solely in the past: in fights that were fought and are now forgotten; in happy times before the wife walked out; in days of what now feel like freedom before Faye became pregnant; in a life without guilt before the fighter was killed. They find redemption in helping others or solace in benders spent in squalid hotels. Ernie, now resigned to an unhappy marriage, is too young to throw in the towel, and so hinges his small hopes on a future in the ring.

As Ruben brings four protégés to and from a fight, there follows a lengthy, elegiac passage in which a young fighter named Wes, kayoed in the first round, reflects upon his fate: “…he should have known all along that he was nothing. Boxers were men in other towns, in big cities far from this car parked in the darkness alongside the highway between fields of vegetables.” The contrast of a dark night in the middle of nowhere with the idealized fantasy of a brightly-lit arena filled with cheering crowds and urban sophisticates exemplifies Gardner’s ability to conjure the thoughts associated with the sinking feeling that we have been put in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, and that this cosmic error has already destroyed any meaning life may have once held.

The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955 by Rolando Vitale.

Reviewed by Mike Silver

You do not have to be Italian to enjoy The Real Rockys. In fact, you do not even have to be a boxing fan. Rolando Vitale has written a book that accurately describes a colorful and fascinating chapter of American immigrant history with emphasis on the tremendous contribution of Italian American boxers to the sport of boxing.

You do not have to be Italian to enjoy The Real Rockys. In fact, you do not even have to be a boxing fan.

The Real Rockys
The Real Rockys

Few boxing books have been so thoroughly researched and richly detailed. The author begins with a description of the origins of boxing that includes a historical overview of pugilistic activity in ancient Rome, continuing on to the Medieval and Renaissance period, and then to the large scale Italian immigration to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the best parts of the book involve stories of the boxers’ family life and how the privations and poverty of their childhood motivated the drive to become a professional boxer.

The author also includes a description of the inter-racial boxing rivalries that were once so much a part of the sport during its golden age from the 1910s to the 1950s.

Few boxing books have been so thoroughly researched and richly detailed.

But the icing on the cake of this highly informative and lively written book are the 35 separate Appendices—183 pages in all—that are a treasure trove of information available nowhere else. Here is just a sampling: A breakdown and analyses of the most prominent ethnic American groups (Irish, Jewish, Italian, African) in the world’s top ten rankings (as per Ring magazine’s monthly ratings) across all weight categories 1924-1955; The results of head to head contests between Italian American and rival ethnic American boxers listed in the world’s top ten rankings 1924-1955; The names of every Italian, Irish, Jewish and African American champion from 1900 to 1955; A complete list of the nearly 400 title fights involving Italian American boxers; The names of hundreds of prominent Italian American prizefighters who fought using Irish or Anglicized names; Every Italian American Golden Gloves and National AAU amateur champion from 1900 to 1955; Post boxing occupations of the 51 Italian American world champions 1900-55 (including their father’s occupations); Also included are biographies of 50 great Italian boxers and the author’s picks for the top 100 Italian boxers who did not win a title. That is just a sampling. OK, you get the picture. This is a book that is both a historical document and a reference guide. It will be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone interested in learning about a unique and colorful aspect of American immigrant history but also savored by the serious and casual boxing fan. “The Real Rockys” deserves an honored space on every fight fan’s book shelf.

Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”

 

Reading The Gods Of War – Shadow Boxing With Golovkin

Review: The Gods Of War

Springs ToledoSprings Toledo is well known in boxing circles as a very good writer who also knows his boxing. Whether writing about Harry Greb or one of the current champions, his style is a throwback to the days when boxing writers knew the craft of writing as well as the sport. You do not have to be a boxing fan nor do you need a knowledge of the Sweet Science to enjoy his work. However, if you do know your boxing history Springs will make you think more deeply about it.

In his book The Gods Of War, Toledo has compiled a collection of his essays in the first section and then takes us on a run through his selection of the ten best fighters of the modern era (fighters who hit their prime after 1920) he calls this select group The Gods of War.

Gods of WarReading the essays in the first section you will hear echoes, not imitations, of A.J. Leibling and Raymond Chandler. Springs is not attempting to set the clock back with his style of writing, but rather he understands that boxing is the perfect subject for interesting and creative writing. I think of the term coined by Gay Talese, creative non-fiction, when reading these pieces as they all have a certain sense of drama to them that deserves to be explored.

I was pleased to see four essays on Sonny Liston, a fighter much too little has been written about. Springs absolutely nails it when he discusses the Ali Liston fight that was called off in Boston. If that fight had taken place history may have been very different. Much of what is revealed here I know to be true.

He talks about Alexis Arguello and the suffering this very decent man lived with all his life, a life that ended tragically and too soon, but one that is not uncommon in boxing. Boxing has a way of focusing our attention on the unfairness and cruelties of life, and Toledo uses his pen to paint a picture of this reality.

In the section entitled The Gods of War, Springs has developed a criteria for rating the greatest fighters. These greatest of all time lists are always controversial and guaranteed to raise the hackles of boxing fans, but in this case the author has used a very interesting and solid system for rating his picks. Will you agree with his choices? Probably not. But that is part of the fun. What will happen is you will be forced to think more deeply about your own picks. This is not just a list, but a series of short pieces that give the reader insight into each of the Gods of War. I feel I am pretty knowledgeable about the sport having spent a lifetime around it, but I learned much by reading these essays. For instance, I had not known about the connection between the Bob Fitzsimmons Shift and Roberto Duran. I would advise not jumping to the end to see the pick for the top spot, but rather read and savor each bio has you work your way to the end. There are surprises, but Springs backs up each of his choices with his terrific writing and deep insight.

There are many books on boxing being published today. Some very good, some that are labors of love that just don’t measure up, and some that would have been better off remaining as trees. The Gods of War is one that deserves to be read by everyone with an interest in boxing, an appreciation of good writing, and those with an a desire to know more about the human condition. I know it will remain in my library for many years to come.

Shadow Boxing With Golovkin

Gennady GolvkinA couple of weeks ago I watched the Gennady Golovkin Daniel Geale bout on television. I saw something before the bout when the cameras were in Golovkin’s dressing room, something you rarely if ever see today, Gennady was shadow boxing. This used to be common practice as fighters warmed up for their bouts, loosening up and getting ready to do battle. Today, they are usually spending their time warming up while robotically playing patty cake on the mitts with a trainer or having batons swung at them. Golovkin actually moves around the room getting loose and is practicing the movements he will be using in the ring. His mind is engaged. He is not just going through drills and repeating the same moves over and over again. He is visualizing his opponent in front of him, imagining what he will be facing in the ring. He is getting his body ready while engaging his mind.

Golovkin is a very good fighter. He showed that when he rolled with a right hand while delivering his own knockout punch in the Geale fight. He has power, is in great shape all the time, and knows how to think in there. He knows how to slip punches and create angles. He has been well taught and is learning his craft. He is also a class act, behaving as a gentleman before and after a bout. There is no cheap talk or language you wouldn’t want you kids to hear. He carries himself well and sets a very good example.

Golovkin GealeI do see problems for him though. I think he can dominate the division, but I doubt we will ever see him reach his full potential. We may even see him regress a bit. This is because he does not have the level of competition to force him to improve. At this stage in his career he should still be forced to learn in each fight he has. He is a very focused and intellectual boxer, but he does not have the peers to pressure him to go beyond where he is now. I saw some signs that he was getting just a bit sloppy in the Geale match. This is not to take anything away from him, it just shows that he is so good he does not have to pay for his mistakes. I doubt his camp is even able to find good sparring for him. In an earlier age they would have had solid journeyman sparring partners for a fighter like Gennady. Guys that would make him work in there, forcing him to hone his skills and continue to learn new moves. I hope he continues to improve so we get to see if he is able to develop into a great fighter, but I fear that instead of improving, he may be brought down by the caliber of fighters he is facing in today’s game. He is very smart. He is very talented. I want him to prove me wrong.

Bobby can be reached at bob2boxer [at] yahoo [dot] com