Update: Since this piece was written, I approached Carlos to contribute to this site and he now serves as its editor as well. We believe he’s one of the best boxing writers in the world, and we’re proud that he’s a part of Hannibal Boxing. We’re also publishing his first book, a collection of essays titled Sporting Blood, through our book publishing arm, Hamilcar Publications, in Fall 2019. Since the time of this piece, we have also been fortunate to have gathered what we feel is a team of the best boxing writers today.—K.S.
There are many fine boxing writers working today. Some are better than others. These are three I keep going back to.
Carlos Acevedo, editor of The Cruelest Sport, has written chiefly for Undisputed Champions Network since 2014. He contributes a regular series called “The Square Jungle,” which includes previews and recaps of fights plus other boxing news. But Acevedo’s talent shines best in his feature pieces covering subjects such as Don King, Jack Johnson, and Muhammad Ali.
In “Nothing From Sleep But A Dream: Don King at 85,” Acevedo looks at back at King’s life and reveals details most fans may not know. Notably, he killed another guy, not just the one whose death sent him to jail for manslaughter. Also, Don got his ass kicked—a lot. Choked by Mike Tyson driving his Rolls to Miami on I-95, beaten by a rival promoter and his thugs in the Bahamas, and smacked around by John Gotti in Little Italy:
“For years, King had been dogged by accusations that he was tied to organized crime. On September 14, 1982, King, while under surveillance by the FBI, was seen having dinner with John Gotti in Little Italy, only a few blocks from the Ravenite Social Club, where Gotti held court in the early 1990s. According to reports, King did not have a fine dining experience with the most notorious wiseguy of his era. Indeed, Gotti later told an associate that he had smacked King around for being late on payments.”
Jack Johnson’s open disdain for Jim Crow America, and in particular its laws against dating white women, makes King’s life look mundane by comparison. In “The Fugitive Days of Jack Johnson,” Acevedo elaborates:
“Johnson had been wandering through fugitive days for years, ever since fleeing Chicago in 1913 after being convicted of violating the Mann Act, a federal law meant to curb prostitution but occasionally used to enforce Bible Belt virtue by prosecuting celebrities with libertine tastes. And Johnson was a staunch devotee of low-life: Although he ran a lavish club in Chicago, his preferred milieu was brothels. And his preferred company? Prostitutes, usually more than one at a time and, to the dread of many Americans, white prostitutes. When Johnson took up with a pale-as-alabaster 19-year-old courtesan within weeks of his first wife, Etta, committing suicide, public fury prompted legal action. After his future mother-in-law charged Johnson with kidnapping her daughter, Lucille (who would eventually marry Johnson in a bid to avoid testifying against him in court), authorities closed in. But it was an earlier moveable tryst with another working girl, Belle Schreiber, which ultimately led to his conviction on May 13, 1913.”
On Johnson’s daring, Muhammad Ali said in a 1978 interview, “Jack Johnson, he had to be a bad, bad black man, wasn’t no black muslims to defend him, wasn’t no NAACP in 1909… he was by hisself. ” And although Ali’s formidable daring outside the ring may not have reached Johnson’s in terms of giving white society the finger, he backed up his smack-talking like no one else has. In a June 2016 tribute piece, “A Ghost Orbiting Forever: On Muhammad Ali,” Acevedo notes:
“What separates Ali from the contemporary fighter, an unusual species of blowhard, was his willingness to concretize his boasts where it mattered most: inside the ring. Yes, Ali was an unstoppable braggart, a man whose self-aggrandizement (which preceded his social-consciousness by several years) was often too conflated with racial pride, but there was little disconnect between his proclamations and his achievements. Not only did Ali face the very best heavyweights of two eras but he also faced a slew of tough contenders whose own legacies were stonewalled by the fierce competition of the 1970s: Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers. When Ali returned from his exile, which lasted three-and-a-half years, he faced No. 1 ranked heavyweight in the world: Jerry Quarry.”
Acevedo won a BWAA award in 2016 for the Ali piece, and another in 2013 for “A Darkness Made to Order,” which looks at head trauma in boxing in light of the increased awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in other sports, notably football and hockey. That, too, is highly recommended.
Ted Sares writes mainly for the excellent blog The Sweet Science. Also a true crime writer and jazz aficionado, he brings an old-school sensibility to his boxing features, while avoiding the dated, overdone style that you see some older—and younger—boxing writers fall into.
Sares’s piece on the Massachusetts mob enforcer Joe Barboza, “The Boxer Who Morphed From ‘The Baron’ to ‘The Animal’ and ‘The Rat,’” is a nice example of his true crime work. It also strikes a chord with anyone, like me, who grew up in Massachusetts in the seventies and eighties and is familiar with Barboza’s story through newspapers and this riveting interview on Channel 5. I still remember hearing from an old-timer that the FBI kept Barboza in protective custody in the lighthouse keeper’s house just off the rocks where my friends and I partied in high school. Nicknamed “The Animal,” and alternately, “The Baron,” Barboza’s boxing background was less clear, as was that of several other sixties-era Boston gangsters he sparred with:
“In the ring, The Baron had a fan-friendly, attack style and if he was given a free shot, he had the power to end the fight, but he lacked a defense and technical skills… Once, while sparring with journeyman Cardell Farmos at the New Garden Gym, Farmos tuned up Joe pretty good. Afterwards, Joe was incensed. He ripped off his gloves with his bare teeth, got a gun out of his locker, and went after Cardell who was doing some shadow boxing. When he saw The Baron coming, Farmos jumped over the ropes, ran down the stairs three at a time onto Friend Street, and headed for North Station with the grotesque caveman giving chase… Barboza also reportedly sparred with Patriarca crime family associate Americo “Rico” Sacramone (who would be murdered); heavy-handed middleweight Edward Connors (machine-gunned almost in half in a Boston phone booth); the aforementioned Tony Veranis, who would later be murdered by infamous James Bulger hitman John “The Basin Street Butcher” Martorano (20 confirmed hits); and world-class middleweight Joe DeNucci, the future state auditor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who lived clean and stayed clean.”
Most people don’t listen to jazz anymore and don’t know about its golden age in the fifties and sixties, which was arguably boxing’s too. Maybe they’ve heard of John Coltrane or know Miles Davis from t-shirts or a gifted copy of “Kind of Blue.” Sares’s jazz knowledge, however, is such that you know he lived through the period in question. The same applies to boxing. Someone my age can talk about Earnie Shavers’s punching power all day, but it’s a bit different if you were a little kid when he was terrorizing heavyweights in the seventies. In his piece “Boxing is like Jazz,” Sares ties the two singular art forms together well, matching legendary prizefighters with their bandstand counterparts:
“First and foremost, the connection between boxing and jazz is that both are improvisatory arts. Whether it’s riffing on the blues or a standard, the fundamentals are building blocks on which jazz artists, like boxing artists, can create a masterpiece in the moment. But the key word is moment and as Eric Dolphy said, ‘When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air, you can never capture it again’… When Jersey Joe Walcott stuttered-stepped his way in on Ezzard Charles in 1951 and then, with a slight juke, unlocked a left hook from Hell, it was a moment and it was pure music. Norton and Holmes’s fifteenth round was like Dizzy Gillespie and/or Max Roach doing their thing; it made total sense in a non-cacophonic sort of way… Ali was more Chet Baker—or maybe John Coltrane—than Miles Davis because he could both float and sting, but he could also be muscular at times… Jersey Joe Walcott and Thelonius Monk.”
Chet Baker and Ali. Now mostly forgotten, Baker was a fifties icon. The pretty poster boy of a jazz movement called “West Coast Cool.” A largely self-taught lyrical genius, equally at home with “cool” jazz or “hot,” from “Almost Blue” to “Milestones.” And then of course prime Ali, self-proclaimed prettiest dancer in the ring, in with Cleveland Williams, 1966, dancin’ like Sugar Ray, floating and stinging, floating and stinging. Cool and Hot. Dance, bap-bap. Dance, bap-bap-bap!
Hamilton Nolan, formerly of Gawker, now writes for Deadspin. His boxing pieces come periodically, but when they do they’re well worth the read. If you’re familiar with David Foster Wallace’s writing on tennis, and in particular on Roger Federer, Nolan’s is a pared-down version of that, minus the footnotes. With Nolan, you get something like this, describing Philly welterweight, Danny Garcia, before his 2015 fight with Paulie Malignaggi, in a piece called “Paulie and Danny Fought In Brooklyn And The Better Man Survived”:
“Danny Garcia has a devilish face; a Luciferian goatee; a muscular physique; an evil, laconic smile; a garish fashion taste; and a goading, belligerent father. You can imagine him whipping the ass of cowering middle school classmates for kicks… Am I reading too much into Danny Garcia’s personality, yes. But the brutal power matched by his just-above-mediocre boxing skills; the 31-0 record padded by undeserved wins; the tendency to wear leopard-skin shorts with no remorse; the father shouting racial slurs at opponents during press conferences… Danny Garcia is easy not to like, particularly if you’re not from Philly and have no obligation to root for the Philly guy.”
The rewarding thing about reading Nolan is that, like DFW, he breaks down the sport’s technical points in a way that both informs and entertains. Here, in “To Punch A Puncher,” he discusses Garcia’s March fight with Keith Thurman:
“These sorts of matchups are more like a swordfight than average boxing match. The margin of error is extremely low. Any mistake can mean death. It is only natural that both men will be careful. It’s funny, then, that such matchups are always touted for their potential ‘fireworks,’ as if both men are expected to wade right in and start trading punches until someone falls. No. That is how bums fight. These are good fighters. The more latent the danger, the more careful they are obligated to be. Each offensive move is a calculated gamble, with a very steep downside cost if it fails. The normal reaction of a lesser fighter is, as the rounds go by, to throw fewer and fewer punches and grow more and more defensive, because of the natural fear of being hit back. What distinguishes champions is the willingness to craft attacks even in the face of this mortal danger—to keep dancing on the knife’s blade, knowing that you could very well be cut in half.”
Check out the Nolan’s complete archive of boxing pieces, including these ones, filed here under “The Fights.” You won’t be disappointed.