Sean Nam: The Arc of Boxing by Mike Silver
Few notions throw contemporary fight fans into an airless tizzy than the one that Bernard Hopkins would not have been an exceptional boxer in an earlier era, say from the 1920s through the 1950s. This breed of enthusiast points to his twenty defenses of the middleweight title (a world record only recently equaled by Gennady Golovkin), his famously spartan lifestyle, and his uncanny sense of guile in the ring as evidence of an elite fighter who would have obliterated the competition in any era. If Hopkins, the thinking goes, is not the very paragon of the “old school boxer”, then who is? In The Arc of Boxing, Mike Silver not only suggests that Hopkins would have been a less successful fighter in the days of yesteryear, but extends the claim to the likes of Pernell Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr., and, alas, even the untouchable, P4P darling of the Internet Age, Floyd Mayweather Jr. “Let’s be perfectly clear,” Silver writes. “There are no great fighters today, and under the present circumstances it is impossible to produce one.” You can almost hear the Twitterverse quaking with rage.
Nobody likes to be told that their favorite sport is in a state of near-irreversible decadence, but what separates Silver’s critique from just another cynical “hot take” on Twitter is that it is backed by deep research and shrewd observations (imagine that!). In addition to culling first-hand accounts from respected industry professionals—from trainers like Emanuel Steward and Freddie Roach to cornermen Bill Goodman and lightweight world champion Carlos Ortiz—Silver draws upon a wealth of illuminating statistics. For example, in 1927, New York had two thousand registered professionals and produced over nine hundred cards; in 2006, those numbers are fifty and thirty-eight, respectively—a marked, almost grotesque difference. (Indeed, in New York today, club shows and gyms have virtually become extinct). Along with the declining number of knowledgeable trainers, boxing today, according to Silver, is in comparative shambles. Enjoy it, by all means, he says, but don’t mistake it for any kind of renaissance.
Oliver Goldstein: This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own by Jonathan Rendall
If ever a book was the image of its author then This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own would be that. Published in 1997, by Faber and Faber no less, Jonathan Rendall’s greatest work oscillates between memoir and history in a manner whose volatility and distinctiveness is entirely his own. Rendall was ostensibly a boxing writer until he became manager of the featherweight Colin “Sweet C” McMillan after the latter suffered an upset defeat early in his career on cuts. Many of the best episodes from the book concern their strange, tender relationship. Rendall adored McMillan as a fighter. After a bout in which McMillan looks especially good: “One sportswriter described Colin’s awareness in the ring as a ‘consumption of vision.’ But it went beyond this, beyond the ring, as if he was sitting high up outside it watching himself, weighing up how he looked.” After McMillan’s star-making victory over Gary De Roux: “Something big had been born, and something else had died. But as with most funerals that end up in nightclubs, the mourners were happy despite themselves.” The prose is stylish with more than a hint of ultraviolet noir, as if boxing’s seedy glamour were somehow sedimented inside it. Rendall seems to have experienced boxing as a kind of compulsion. Simultaneously the sport is overwhelmingly attractive and brutally repugnant. In the book, there is always one last fight. “And I walked out of Binion’s Horseshoe with new confidence in my step, because just like everyone else in boxing, I thought I’d found one last payday that would enable me to get out of it.”
Jimmy Tobin: Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists by John Schulian
John Schulian wrote about boxing. What you encounter in Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists, a collection of his columns, are fighters, trainers, promoters, the rest of the characters—charming, nefarious, or both—who comprise the fight game. What you don’t find is Schulian, at least not in the self-important way that too many writers have taken to covering their subject. Instead, Schulian focuses entirely on the other and does so with respect—something that should be modeled as the barriers to access fall. That respect is at its most beautiful in his coverage of Leon Spinks, whose career is an almost Platonic form of the boxer’s arc (though one accelerated as if to augment the impact of its end). Schulian treats Spinks with honesty and preserves the man’s dignity thereby. His successes to this end speak to Schulian’s uncanny ability to write about people; to give fighters, too often men commoditized, their humanity. Schulian can do this because he understands boxing (and boxing people) better than most, and can distill that knowledge into crisp, penetrating sentences. Like when he says of the fight racket that “the only standard it has ever had is that lying and succeeding often go hand in hand,” and in that simple relationship crystallizes the corruption of our beloved sport. Then there is this passage near the book’s end where Schulian, writing of the infamous “Long Count,” observes that “most of the people who saw events half a century ago are gone, or their memories are. And even if that weren’t so, their stories might not be straight, for athletic history can be as much fable as fact.” There is truth here, skillfully posed, truth that makes this book, published in 1983 and now nearly half a century old, even more wonderful. Because it gets the stories straight, ditto the fables and the facts.
Frank Lotierzo: In This Corner by Peter Heller
Trying to decide which boxing book is your favorite, at least to me, is like trying to pick one fighter above all the others and say he’s your favorite—and I can’t do it. And when it comes to boxing books I have no favorite. The best I can do is highlight the one I’ve read the most and that’s In This Corner by Peter Heller.
In it, Heller interviews forty world champions and asks them to tell their stories. At the time Heller was twenty-two years old and working as a news writer and sometime producer for ABC news who was hooked on boxing. Unfortunately, former heavyweight champions Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston couldn’t be included because they died while the book was in its infancy. What an addition those two would’ve been to an already outstanding collaboration. The interviews were done starting in early 1970 through late 1973.
Of all the things said in the book by the fighters, former light heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran’s words below on Harry Greb stayed with me the most. “We fought six times; they called him the ‘Pittsburgh Windmill.’ He’d never stop throwing punches but he wouldn’t do that with me. See, everybody he fought backed up, and I didn’t. I moved in on him. I got him before he got a chance to get set and I don’t think he ever figured that out.”