While boxing has experienced a three-month stagnation, many have embraced the lockdown as a time to catch up on reading. Steve Bunce is still enthusiastic about boxing’s literary future. “I still think there’s a market for boxing books. Hard copy and Kindle [both] work well. There’s still a big following for the sport despite lockdown and as long as we can keep churning out quality publications, there will always be a market of people to read them.”
Bunce kindly allowed Hannibal Boxing to shine a torch on his boxing bookcase, explaining which authors have inspired him along his journey to date, but also sharing what he’s been up to during lockdown. “BBC Podcasts. Loads of them. Sharing an hour with men like Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, Carl Froch, Andy Lee, Ricky Hatton, going over some of their greatest fights, which has been an absolute pleasure. I did near enough the same thing with BT Sport, with a series called, What Went Down, where we had a fighter to talk about a couple of fights and we sometimes got him on with the opponent. We had David Haye and Dereck Chisora talking about their fight and we also had Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler. They were good shows.”
Switching the conversation to boxing books, Bunce gave an insight into the size and depth of his literary sources. “I don’t count them, but if I include Boxing News Annuals, British Boxing Yearbooks, Ring Books, there’s probably about one hundred of those record books. Then I suppose I have about another hundred good solid books, of which, I have about thirty books which I work from all the time, whether I’m writing columns for the now-deceased Boxing Monthly or a weekly column for Boxing News or my Independent column, those are the books I will use to check for facts and stats.
“I still tend to use books as my absolute number-one source and that’s why they are so important to me. I very rarely go online to check dialogue. I’ll look at boxer’s records online, yes, but I won’t read a column online about say Carlos Zarate against Alfonso Zamora that happened in 1977, that was written say last year for a website which I can’t prove how good the website is. For that, I’d search say, L.A. Times and then I’d search through my books and sure enough, in say, Dave Anderson’s In the Corner, I’ll find something about that fight.
“Or say for example Joe Frazier’s autobiography by Phil Berger, you’ve got loads of reference points. You’ve got the Olympics, the Bugner fight, Ali, Foreman. That book is one of my thirty regular users. I managed to interview Frazier not long before he died, for the BBC. I was in Philadelphia filming Bernard Hopkins and we went to Frazier’s gym and his son said, ‘You need some ‘love’ for the interview,’ and the ‘love’ he referred to was money. So, we left the gym and his son chased us and he said, ‘My dad has changed his mind,’ and he gave us twenty minutes, which was pure gold. Nine months later he died.
“I’ve got a signed copy of Frazier’s book, which comes with a bit of a story. I was coming out of the heavyweight boxing finals of the 1996 Olympic games and Wladimir Klitschko had just beaten Paea Wolfgram to win the gold medal. As I was walking out into this really busy street I noticed this whole middle area wasn’t moving at all, so I walked down the side of it and about a hundred feet on, sitting on a couple of old beer crates, was Joe Frazier signing copies of his book. I thought, ‘fucking great!’
“I went to the back of the queue and it took about an hour to get to the front. When I got there, I found out it was fifty bucks to get an autographed book! I was stuffed. I paid fifty bucks for a fifteen-dollar book, but I got it signed for my dad, so it was worth it.
“The guy who ghosted Frazier’s book, Phil Berger, I wrote to him back in the ’80s. I’d just started working for Boxing News in 1984 and a few local papers and back then I lived in Finsbury Park, London as a student, but I had a friend in New York and her parents used to send me Phil Berger’s New York Times columns about Mike Tyson and other fighters. You just couldn’t get them in the UK back then. Put yourself back to 1984 and think, ‘How do I read a Phil Berger column?’ You’d have to go to the British library and put in a request for a specific New York Times edition and hope that the international edition had boxing in it, which it probably didn’t.
“Then, in 1989 I was in New York for a fight and I contacted him, old school. I sent him a letter explaining where I was staying in Yonkers and this was the telephone number he could get me on. I wasn’t expecting him to call, but he called! I managed to get together with him at Atlantic City for a fight and had a chat with him, which I thought was really, really kind of him to take the time and do that.
“His book, Punch Lines: Berger on Boxing, which is a book of his columns and articles is one of my favorite books. To me, it’s one of the five essential tools that I’ve got.”
Bunce took us through three of his favorite boxing books. “If you put me on the spot, these are the three I’d go with, but it’s a struggle, because these are all really good books.
“George Whiting, Great Fights of The Sixties. I like context, and if I’m going to read about a fight that took place, unless it’s a million years ago, I want to read something by someone who was there, and I want to read something, ideally, that was written soon after, not looking back at something that was written a few days later through rose-tinted glasses. George Whiting worked against deadlines almost all his life, so you are guaranteed that fresh content with him. He’d stay on after big fights in America and he would be scribbling at ringside, because it was about four in the morning back home and he needed to get his copy in for the Evening Standard for about five. Legendary stuff.
“Another one I like is from 1958 and it’s a novel. Boxing novels are rare and they are also hard to get right. Trust me, I know. This book is called The Professional by W. C. Heinz. It’s about a very long training camp and how everything can go right in a training camp and how everything can go wrong in one. The fight doesn’t go on very long and the ending is not particularly joyous, but boy oh boy, the detail is the kind of detail you can only get if you are right in the middle of the boxing beast.
“If you ask me for my top boxing book choice, the obvious thing is to go for say George Kimball or Thomas Hauser, with Four Kings and the main Ali book, but I’ve got to go with Harry Mullan, who was my editor at Boxing News in the ’80s. He put out a self-published book in 1993 called Fighting Words. It’s a collection of Mullan’s Boxing News articles and also articles he later wrote for The Sunday Times. It goes from moments at Muhammad Ali fights, to Mike Tyson fights and Lennox Lewis fights. The fight profiles deal with, say, John Conteh down to the referee Harry Gibbs, then the likes of Azumah Nelson. I love reading this book because I trust the content. I really trust it.
“As far as my best autobiography I’ve read? We’ve talked about Phil Berger’s Joe Frazier autobiography, but I also like Barry McGuigan and Sugar Ray Leonard’s last books. It would be a combo of those. I struggle with a lot of autobiographies, though, because of the amount of mistakes in an awful lot of autobiographies is unbelievable. How can people get the balls to write an autobiography and then fill it with so many inaccuracies?”
In 2017 Bunce released Bunce’s Big Fat Short History of British Boxing. The affable writer described the motivation behind the body of work and how long it took to pull together. “The motivation to write this was that there was no definitive British boxing history in one book. If you wanted to find out about any of the fighters from the ’70s you had to try and track them down, or you would go through annuals, autobiographies, magazines and loads of other books to get all your statistics. And let’s just say not everything is accurate. I’ll leave it at that.
“I’d been to a lot of fights and already had a lot of information, but I also didn’t want to write a book talking about fights I had no direct contact with, for example the 1960s. I don’t remember seeing the fight with Muhammad Ali against Henry Cooper in 1966 at Highbury [Football Ground]. My dad did, though. He was there and he’s got the program. However, from the ’70s onwards, I was there. I was either in an amateur boxing club, at the fights, or I was reading about them in Boxing News.
“However, I didn’t want it to be a traditional history book, I wanted to use what I’d done in journalism and make it a book with small episodes for fast reading. Each year is about three thousand words and there’s about one hundred and fifty thousand or so words. It took a couple of solid months where I was averaging about three or four thousand words a day, then I’d have two days off because I’d have to go to a fight somewhere. The book took a lot of concerted effort and I wanted it to be that way. I’d been acquiring the knowledge for fifty years of my life, but I wanted to get it our fast.
“For fights I’d never seen, I was really selective with my sources. I didn’t use Wikipedia once. I used the Boxing News Annuals, British Boxing Yearbook, Harry Mullan’s and Hugh McIlvanney’s books for facts and details, but I also watched the fights. I watched for example, fifteen rounds of Henry Cooper against Joe Bugner. I watched them all and watched them again. Then, the moment I’d finished watching them, bang, I was straight into writing my copy. It was like I was filing live copy and I’d like to think that speed and urgency comes across in the book.”
With Hamilcar current unleashing a host of successful boxing books into the market, Bunce commented on the Hamilcar Noir series. “I’ve got all these books on my list to read. Tapia, Valero, and a few others. The intention is to read them this summer. I like the size of them. Pocket-size. Pick it up, read it, come back to it, then read it again. I’ll let you know how I get on.”
With the entire planet unsure about the future of all industries, Bunce gave his take on how he sees the future of boxing evolving over the next twenty-four months. “I think there’s no need to rush. Nothing at the moment will put us back to where we were in early March. It doesn’t matter how many shows you think you can cram into six weeks or two months, it’s not going to take us back. We went into lockdown really fast, but we won’t come out of it really fast. It needs to be a planned, sensible slow road back.
“Announcing at a press conference to ten national newspapers is not going to work anymore, or having fifteen guys with cameras in their hands for YouTube channels is not going to be enough. We’ve got a find a way to really reach people. That may mean getting in touch at a more localized level in terms of papers and websites. Content is vital. Nobody wants to read or watch a one-hour interview on Instagram with a fighter with no story who had a draw in his second fight. Who watches that? But there’s a lot of content like that out there, unfortunately. Getting the attention of the boxing public again means we need to get sharp, relevant content. Let’s give proper press a go and make sure boxing stays on the map.”