Review by Mike Silver
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?
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.
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.