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Books on Boxing: A Reader’s Guide
Biographies     Essays     Fiction     How to box    
February 2018

  "I find man revealing himself more completely in fighting than in any other form of expressive endeavor."
W.C. Heinz, The Professional (2001)

Most books about boxing focus on a single, notable boxer, but the boxing genre is wide and varied. There are plenty of how-to-box books and there are some entertaining essays about boxing. Those are the kinds of boxing books we know best. Often overlooked is the role of boxing in fiction. There is a lot to learn about the social role of boxing and boxing history as it is used in novels. There are a few comments on boxing fiction below.

My goal is to say something about the book and the writer’s attitude towards boxers and boxing, and also what I thought about it and now it helped me understand the connections between boxing and masculinity. For every book I’m including the publication information and what I paid for the book on Amazon.

Choose from the following four subject areas and you will be taken to a list of books in that area that I have reviewed. Reviews are linked to titles. My glove scale ranges from 1/2 to 3 (no glove means I haven't entered comments yet):
= Ok.   = Pretty good.   = Worth reading.   = A must.

Biographies and autobiographies by and about boxers
14 reviews
Essays on boxers, boxing, and boxing history
13 reviews
Fiction: novels and short stories about boxing culture and history
13 reviews
How to box
2 reviews

I’m interested in hearing from readers who care about books not on this list or who want to share their views. I have no ambitions for starting a blog or a chat room and won’t be incorporating views, although if I modify mine I might ask permission to give you credit. I will correct factual errors called to my attention.

August 2017 (February 2018)


    Boxing in fiction   Back to top

Too much writing about boxing in fiction and elsewhere is limited by the most popular stereotype about boxing itself, which is that boxing is a way for losers to gain self-respect. "Boxers are desperate men," a friend once said to me. "Me too?" I asked. "Am I desprate?" Then I asked, "How many other boxers do you know?" It turned out a) that I was the only boxer she knew and b) that no, she did not think I was desperate.

But never mind. Stereotypes stick. If boxers are desperate men, stories about boxers will be largely about redemption (Rocky) or downward spirals (a lot of others).

The fiction I review includes more than novels about boxers. I also focus on books in which boxing is used to characterize a historical period or to tell us something about a man who has a boxing history but who is now engaged in other work. For example, Patrick O'Brian makes effective use of boxing in his naval fiction, and few writers can top Sebastian Barry's use of boxing in a novel about World War I.

Barry, Sebastian. A Long Long Way
Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. Two Years before the Mast and Other Voyages
Gardner, Leonard. Fat City.
Heinz, W. C. The Professional
Kennaway, James. Tunes of Glory
Lehman, Ernst. "The Comedian," The Short Fiction of Ernest Lehman
McGivern, William P. The Big Heat
O'Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen
O'Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral
Prosper, Proz. Closer to the Sun
Roth, Philip Roth. American Pastoral
Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums"
Traver, Robert. Anatomy of a Murder.

    Biographies and autobiographies, alphabetical by boxer   Back to top
Ali, Muhammad: Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life
Ali, Muhammad: Walter Dean Myers, The Greatest
Atlas, Teddy, & Peter Alson, From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man
Argüello, Alexis: Christian Giudice, Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello
Duran, Roberto
: Christian Guidice, Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran
Greitens, Eric, The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL
Leonard, Sugar Ray, with Michael Arkush, Sugar Ray Leonard: The Big Fight; My Life in and out of the Ring
Mancini, Ray: Mark Kriegel, The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini
Pacquiao, Manny: Gary Andrew Poole, PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao
Patterson, Floyd: Alan H. Levy, Floyd Patterson: A Boxer and a Gentleman
Patterson, Floyd: W. K. Stratton, Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion

Spinks, Michael and Leon Spinks: John Florio & Ouisie Shapiro, One Punch from the Promise Land:
Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title

Tyson, Mike: Peter Heller, Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story
Tyson, Mike, & Larry Sloman, Undisputed Truth

    Essays on boxers & boxing   Back to top
Baumer, William H., Jr. Not All Warriors
Baumer, William H., Jr. Sports as Taught and Played at West Point

Fried, Ronald K. Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers

Gorn, Elliott J. The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America
Hamill, Pete. The Times Square Gym, Photographs by John Goodman
Heinz, W. C. The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz
Heller, Pete. "In this Corner ... !": 42 World Champions Tell their Stories
Kimball, George, and John Schulian. At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing.
Liebling, A. J. The Sweet Science  
Oates, Joyce Carol. On Boxing.
Plimpton, George. Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring.

Sammons, Jeffrey T. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society

Silverman, Jay, ed. The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told

Books on how to box   Back to top

Lachica, Alan, with Doug Werner. Boxing’s Ten Commandments: Essential Training for the
    Sweet Science
O’Reilly, John Boyle. Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport, ed. John W. Hurley.


Christian Giudice, Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012. $26.95.

Another boxer, not unlike Ali and Duran, with a large political following, although in this case a murky affair in which the boxer is seen as, first, the whipping boy of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, and then as their puppet, perhaps even their murder victim. Argüello was an underappreciated boxer who fought between 126 and 140 lbs. and compiled an extraordinary record. Giudice feels that he never got the recognition he deserved until he lost to a much younger and fitter Aaron Pryor not once but twice. The "rise" narrative is a tedious chronicle of victories spiked by the very rare loss, 88 fights, 80 wins, 70 knock-outs. The "fall" is briefer and grimmer, but also a spotty tale told in a disjointed and meandering style. Giudice does an impressive job of interviewing sources and gathering details, but he's no detective and he tends to swamp the narrative in details. It's a better book than his book on Duran, however, even though Duran was a more compelling subject. This comes about in part because, unlike Duran, Argüello learned English and could communicate directly with the author.

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  From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man. New York: Harper, 2006. $7.00.

A cut above most of the books listed here, punctuated by some wise and useful comments. Atlas takes what's left of the gloss off the Tyson-D'Amato father-son myth, showing both men to be thoroughly worthy of contempt. In the fashion of these books, Atlas buffs his own tough-guy image and doesn't attempt to justify his carelessness in financial matters. Some unexpected gems include his work with dancer Twyla Tharp and actor Willem Defoe. There's a lot of good sense in this book even though its take on Atlas's father-son connection fades in most of the chapters. Still, this is a useful boxing book with a point of view not many trainers express.

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William H. BAUMER
Not All Warriors. New York: Smith & Durrell, 1941.

Baumer taught at West Point and wrote about the non-military careers of some of the men who attended West Point, among them James McNeill Whistler.

Baumer's book is available online, since it is in the public domain: go to this link, provided by Bill Thayer.
There is more about Whistler's pugnacious side to be seen, very much incidentally, in Daniel E. Sutherland's biography, Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), which material I include in the following.

Whistler was a combative man in more than the intellectual sense. He loved to argue into early morning hours with the pre=Raphaelite brotherhood formed by Swinburne and Rossetti, among others, and Sutherland writes that they "encouraged Whistler's combative streak quite literally" (p. 73). One of them, William Holman Hunt, often boxed. Whistler had lived in Paris before moving to London and commented on "the boxing matches of English students" there. So far as I know, Whistler might have taken boxing lessons in Paris but did not have much training in the sport. What Whistler did do was get into fights with, for example, a cab driver in Paris (p. 74), a Haitian passenger on a steamship (p. 98), and even a weapons merchant (pp. 95-96, p. 98). After a scene caused by Whistler's fight with a construction worker in Paris, Sutherland writes, it seems that "Whistler had come to accept combat as a natural state" (pp. 106-7), an obvious problem for a man seeking to make his way by selling controversial paintings to wealthy.

William H. BAUMER
Sports as Taught and Played at West Point. Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing, 1939.

Along with football, soccer, basketball, fencing, gynmasium, hockey, swimming and diving, wrestling, baseball, golf, and 7 others, boxing had a place at West Point in Baumer's day. The boxing chapter, like the others, includes illustration. It is short (pp. 89-105) but full of good advice as well as valuable historian perspective, both provided by Baumer with the help of then-boxing-coach William J. Cavanagh. The amateur boxer works for pleasure, physical exercise and fame in more or less circumscrbed circles," Baumer writes. Collegiate boxing was slow to take off because of the stigma created by corruption in boxing at professional levels.

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Richard Henry DANA
Two Years before the Mast and Other Voyages. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2005. $29.95

Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882) wrote a famous memoir, Two Years before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea, which was published in 1840. Two Years is not a boxing book but it does contain an account of an unusual ship-board boxing match that reaches an unexpected conclusion. Nat, who is “broad-backed, big-headed” and about 16 years old, bullies George, a younger, smaller boy from a Boston school who is on the sea for the first time. George begins “to assert his rights against his oppressor.” One day the two get into “a violent squabble” and George offers to fight Nat “if he could have fairplay.” The ship’s chief mate forces them to stop and says that they will either make peace or “fight till one gave in for beaten.” The boys refuse to make peace and so the mate calls up the crew (the captain is ashore). Following contemporary practice for a boxing match, the mate “marked a line on the deck, brought the two boys up to it, making them ‘toe the mark.’” He stretches a rope at a height just above their waist and forbids them to strike below it.

The boys fight, Nat taking the offense and quickly bruising and bloodying his opponent, whom the crew “expected to see give in every moment.” However, “the more he [George] was hurt, the better he fought.” George defiantly says that he will fight until one or the other is killed, and at this the men cheer him on, with shouts of “Well crowed” and others. At this Nat seems to lose heart. He sees that he has nothing to gain and a lot to lose, while his smaller opponent is already gaining glory in the contest, since he fights “for honor and freedom, and under a sense of wrong.” Nat gives in, “not so much beaten, as cowed and mortified,” and that is the end of his bullying. George thereby “became somebody on board” and the two do not quarrel for the rest of the voyage (pp. 224-25).

Dana went to sea to recover his health--not an obvious choice of a venue for this goal, it must be said--during his years as a Harvard undergraduate. Lucid and as gripping as many a sea novel, the book concerns Dana’s journey from Boston to California, departing August 14, 1834, and returning Sept. 22, 1836. An account of his journey to Cuba was published in 1840 and a chronicle of his trip around the world much later, in 1968.

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Sebastian BARRY
A Long Long Way. New York: Penguin, 2006. $14

There is a great boxing match in Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, a splendid novel about World War I. Like most authors of war novels, Barry writes about those on one side of the conflict, in his case the Irish. His narrative comprises many wars within The Great War. These include (but are not limited to) conflicts between Ireland and England, between Catholic and Protestant, the British Exepditionary Force and the Germans, fathers and sons, soldiers and civilians, and others.

In chapter 15, Barry writes about an inter-regimental boxing match between a boxer from Belfast named William Beatty and another Irishman named Miko Cuddy.

Irish soldiers from north and south had taken part in battles at Guillemont and Guinchy, so the Irish were now seen as one group, "Micks," with boxers from two different divisions. Prior to those battles, it seems, the Irish had not fought together, and north and south were considered enemies (p. 191). Carpenters have constructed a "beautiful arena" in a large hall where the chaplain, Father Buckley, said Mass. Making the arena even more church-like, Barry notes that there was "some Gothic detailing on the uprights."

The soldiers are excited by the prospect of a fight without death—in other words, a game. The Ulstermen and Southerners roar approval when the fighters enter and the men are shocked to see how large Beatty is, "a giant" compared to whom Cuddy is "a midget" (p. 193).

After the first round it appears to be an even contest, and the competing factions begin to banter among themselves, bringing to the surface the politics of Dublin, Derry, and Belfast. In the next round Cuddy goes down and the referee starts the count. After the second round some fights break out in the hall (p. 197). The during the next four rounds the boxers more than prove their skill and determination, and "no one could be entirely partisan now," since it was "a fight of equals" (p. 198).

I won’t spoil the ending, and Barry’s art is by now self-evident. One would expect the boxing match to be used to draw out and intensify ethnic and social differences between ethnic regions, officers and enlisted men, and others. That’s what boxing is apparently about: fighting to settle differences. Here the boxing match has the opposite effect, at least on the audience. Both fighters are heroicized. Their mastery of the sport, and their determination and ability to tolerate pain without giving in, unify the men in the audience, and in the end their cheering is "a tuneful roar, like a choir, an awful, simple and beautiful note of deep-throated approbation" (p. 199).

Seldom has a boxing match been put to better use in fiction!

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Ronald K. Fried
  Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991. $35.
This collection of essays about nine memorable boxing trainers is both a history of the sport in America from the 1920s to the late 1980s and a digest of the advice these trainers offered their famous boxers. The trainers are Ray Arcel, Jack Blackburn, Charley Goldman, Whitey Bimstein, Mannie Seamon, Freddie Brown, Al Silvani, and Eddie Futch. Lou Stillman’s legendary New York City gym, where many of these trainers worked for a time, gets its own chapter, which in itself is a brief history of American boxing up to 1967, when Stillman’s closed.
Fried’s opening essay is a marvelous introduction to boxing, and not just to its history. It’s an essay that revolves around the central question of success in the ring: is it the boxer, or is it the trainer? Larry Holmes is quoted as saying that “fighters make trainers, trainers don’t make fighters” (p. xiv). Most boxers give much more credit to their trainers, and even Jake La Motta, who told Fried that “a great, great, great majority of trainers, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” came around to admitting that Futch, Dundee, Arcel, and others were exceptions to his rule (p. xv).
For amateur boxers like me, the book is a rich source of insight into ring technique, the “sweet science.” Memorable pages include Futch’s detailed recollection of Ali’s weak uppercut. Ali dropped his right hand to throw the punch, and Futch told Joe Frazier, his boxer, to take that moment to “step in with a left hook.” That’s what Frazier did to knock Ali down in the fifteenth round of their fight in 1971 (pp. 322-23).
Futch and other trainers had amazing powers of recall. They not only saw everything that happened in the ring, it seems, but also remembered how it happened. Many of the essays and interviews stress the trainer’s need to know his boxer inside and out and how to bring out the boxer’s best. These trainers display an equally impressive ability to see into their boxers’ opponents and figure out not only how to exploit their weaknesses but when to do it. (Give Fried credit for expressing skepticism about some of the trainers' claims.)
I learned more about boxing technique from reading this book than I did reading any of the biographies and autobiographies discussed on this page. It’s often the case that the boxer is the jumbo jet, but he’s not going up or down without air traffic control, and for him, air traffic control is the trainer, the fighter’s “chief second” (p. xviii). He’s the man who takes charge of everything that happens between rounds and keeps his cool. He’s the one who makes sure that takeoff, flight, and landing go well.

Roberto DURAN
Christian Giudice, Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran. Wrea Green, Lancashire (UK): Milo Books, 2006. $15

A great boxer but a hard one to like. As a man, Duran comes off as someone whom it would be difficult to admire. This could have been an honest and unsparing book, but Guidice seems frequently to be overwhelmed by his material. A lot must have been lost (or added) when his interviewee’s remarks were translated. There are anecdotes within anecdotes. Guidice he seems to have written down and included nearly everything everybody told him in his relentless pursuit of Duran’s history. For all the yarns and interminable tales, however, Guidice never pierces the boxer’s armor or brings the reader closer than an arm’s length to the man’s heart. This is a shame, because every successfl boxer brings with him an entire world that is biographer can explore. The best chapters are the early ones that put Duran in the context of boxing in Panama. Duran's deline seems like that of a dozen other great boxers--generous to a fault, little money left to show of the wealth he gave away, and so on. "A fighter who made war on life," Guidice says in his final summary (p. 310). There's a phase that bears thinking about, as does Guidice's statement that in the ring Duran "punched to kill" (p. 309).

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Jonathan EIG
Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
Review pending.

  Fat City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.  

Fat City, Gardner’s first (and only) novel, was greeted with great enthusiasm when it was published, and his essay on the fight between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 is regarded as a classic (“Sweeter than Sugar” is included in At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, ed. George Kimball and John Schulian [New York: The Library of America, 2011, pp. 276-87].) About Fat City Ross Macdonald wrote, “I have seldom read a novel as beautiful and individual as this one.” Walker Percy’s praise was more modest: he described the novel as “a solid good job.”
Fat City is tells the story of two boxers, Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, who believe that boxing is the route to a better life. They spar at the beginning of the book, after which point their lives follow separate paths. This is a book about men of modest boxing talent steered by a well-meaning but self-serving trainer who is not above exposing them to fighters with far superior talents. The boxers’ expectations rest on the illusion that even modest boxing ability will lead to financial and professional success.
A boxing novel stands or falls on its account of boxing, not on its version of the world of boxing, the poverty, the managers, the gyms, and other elements that make boxing what it is. When it comes to action in the ring, Fat City skims the surface. The inner workings of fights are not explored; rounds are painted in broad terms.
However, the book draws considerable power from its account of two worlds outside the ring: married life, invariably desperate and impoverished; and California’s cultures of migrant labor. Both Tully and Munger are forced to work as day laborers who pick fruit and vegetables in miserable conditions that emphasize the economic and social traps they have fallen into. Gardner does not have a light touch. Here’s a memorable scene that brings the boxers together for the first time after they spar (this is from the start of chapter 17).

In the midst of a phantasmagoria of worn-out, mangled faces, scarred cheeks and necks, twisted, pocked, crushed and bloated noses, missing teeth, brown snags, empty gums, stubble beards, pitcher lips, flop ears, sores, scabs, dribbled tobacco juice, stooped shoulders, split brows, weary, desperate, stupefied eyes under the lights of Center Street, Tully saw a familiar young man with a broken nose. His first impulse was to move away through the crowd to avoid being seen, but they had both come here for the same reason. He approached him, calling, and even the name came to him. "Hey, Ernie." The other looked around blankly. "How's it going? You making the day hauls now?"
Ernie stood with his hands in his pockets. "Shit, man. Wife's pregnant, I get up in the middle of the night two times now and come down to pick up a few extra bucks and run into a mob like this" (p. 116).
That’s 20 descriptive terms, all striking the same note, before we get to Ernie’s broken nose.

We frequently see the boxers’ unrealistic expectations mirrored in those of Ruben Luna, their trainer, who cannot separate his welfare from that of his fighters. What he wants for himself (the image of a successful trainer, winning boxers) determines what he makes possible for them. It is no surprise that his interests and theirs diverge at every point. Luna has his merits, however. He knows that boxers shouldn’t be booze hounds and ought to eat well and live orderly lives like his. Unlike his boxers, he has a union job (p. 19).
Wisdom seldom shines through to relieve the book's thick gloom. There is a glimmer. Near the end of the book, Ruben reflects on his many boxers' many failures: “As if in rebellion against his influence, they had succumbed to whatever in them was weakest, and often it was nothing he could even define. They lost when they should have won and they drifted away” (p. 169). The coach seems to have decided that his boxers did not want to win badly enough. It's pretty clear throughout the novel that he is right. His boxers do not train as if they want to win. Success in the gym (showing up, working hard) and in the ring would have firmed up the self-confidence that, as men, they seem to lack in every part of their lives. Gritty, but a good book.

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Elliott J. GORN
  The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America
The Manly Art is an outstanding book that has worn its three decades well. The book traces the history of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States from the colonial era to the last such fight in 1889. Two big ideas drive the argument.
The first concerns social class. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Gorn writes, boxing “really belonged to working-class males who rejected bourgeois standards of value, laborers dispossessed by new economic alignments, and men who lived in the netherworld of gambling, bootlegging, and petty crime.” The sport and its spectacular contests spoke “to these men—deeply divided by cultural and religious conflicts, by competition for status and power, and above all by a wrenching transformation of America’s economy” (pp. 96-97). Later, white-collar men would take to boxing, either as an activity for themselves or as spectators, as a way of reinforcing their sense of masculinity, which was eroded by their sedentary, managerial occupations.
The second idea pairs nicely with the first. Gorn believes that American society always had an dualistic view of boxing. “Boxing’s appeal always rested on a creative dualism between violence and order, impulsiveness and self-control, brutality and restraint,” he says (p. 171). It was because boxing was indeed a “sweet science” requiring a lot of skill and discipline, Gorn believes, that the sport became acceptable to spectators outside the working class.
The book returns to these ideas often. They are rich, but they have their limits. It seems entirely possible that laborers and managers liked boxing for the same reason. White-collar workers were divided by the same cultural and religious conflicts that divided workers, and they too competed for power and status. Boxing no doubt gave some of them the same temporary sense of freedom it gave their social and economic inferiors, whose masculinity was probably not in doubt.
Likewise, the idea of dualistic views of boxing has its appeal and its limits. It enlarges the simplistic view that boxing is about one thing (i.e., violence). However, dualism replaces one oversimplification with another. It teaches that is boxing is really about two things. This too seems to be a conceptual trap. An ambiguity defined between brutality and restraint imposes a pair of terms designed to limit possibilities of the sport. How deep is the tension between violence and order, for example. Great boxing might require both brutality and restraint, if not at the same moment. Boxing is about more than two, or three, big ideas and the tensions between and among them. The dualistic hypothesis is better than a monolithic one, but dualism can also oversimplify.
These reservations aside, however, Gorn’s book is a model cultural history and a pleasure to read. Hats off to him for saying, in his preface, that “the same biases that rendered women voiceless in the writing of history simultaneously excluded the majority of men, in particular workers, ethic minorities, and the poor” (p. 13). So much for the idea that all history was about men. As Gorn implies, all history, in the conventional sense, was about the few, not the many.

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The Heart & the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. $15.95

A stretch to call this a biography, but in a sense it is, certainly worth reading for any man who wants to find his warrior. Greitens points out that fear grips warriors of all kinds. This book, which is about how he became a Navy SEAL, Greitens has good things to say about fighting fear. He writes that “uncontrolled fear rots the mind and impairs the body.” Greitnes boxed as a college student and as a Rhodes scholar. He was successful in part because he could fight fear. “I’d learned in boxing and in my [humanitarian] work overseas that human beings can inoculate themselves against uncontrolled fear,” he writes. “When I first stepped into a boxing ring to spar, my heart rate was high, my adrenalin pumped, my muscles were tense—and I got beat up” (142). After years of training he could still appreciate the danger his opponent posed but he could keep his heart rate steady, relax, and fight well. Greitens states that men in the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs training program—among the most physically fit and aggressive men in the country—were overwhelmed by fear during training exercises. “They quit, I believe, because they allowed their fear to overwhelm them,” Greitens writes. “ These men “focused on all of the pain that they thought they might have to endure and how difficult it might be” and chose to leave the program (p. 186). If fear can be decisive at that level, how much more discouraging is it for the new amateur boxer?

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The Times Square Gym, Photographs by John Goodman. New York: Evan Publishing, 1996. $24.95

A splendid book. Hamill's short essay is full of drama, history, and nostalgia. His is a very dark view of boxing, which he sees as a "blood sport" as ritualized as the Catholic Mass, "brutal, primitive, and dangerous." His definition of "heart," a much-loved virtue among boxers, is equally dark: "the willingness to endure pain in order to inflict it." For him, the famous gym on Times Square was, like Times Square itself, part of a vanished world that has since been replaced by a far inferior one. Hamill thinks that World War II was responsible for the Golden Age of boxing. He takes his hat off to Muhammad Ali, a showman whom Hamill calls a "terrible example" for the next generation of boxers, lesser boxers who lacked Ali's gift for showmanship. Hamill's take is not the same as that of many boxing historians. Hamill believes that men returning from World War II understood not only violence but social class in ways that could not endure. These men grew up in the Depression with rough people, fought the war, and returned to lives of low expectations. But they had honor and they had respect. Hamill thinks that what they admired most in great boxers was great intelligence. There's an angle you don't often see developed. This book should be in every collection of boxing books, a real period-piece and full of beauty.

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  The Professional. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001

Ernest Hemingway read this book and sent Heinz a note, saying “the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read and an excellent novel in its own right.” Heinz’s wife, hearing this, said to Heinz, who was a life-long fan of Hemingway, “This must be the greatest day in your life.” Elmore Leonard, no slouch, recounts these details in his introduction to the book, which is, by any standard, a remarkable and clever boxing novel.
As Leonard notes, Heinz’s creed about fiction was that “the writer should be kept out of there. He should not tell, but show.” This is a familiar dictum (along the lines of “A poem should not mean / But be,” Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica” [1926]) and it creates a dry, tense narrative that forces the reader to work, make inferences, and connect points that the writer does not make himself. The principle on display on every page is “less is more.” The understatement and brevity of expression contrast with the garrulous, self-congratulatory tone and style on display in many of the books listed here.

A stellar sports writer, Heinz had a gift for compression. Each of the novel’s 27 chapters is a vignette and a reminder that the author was used to packing a lot into 900-word newspaper columns. The same gift emerges in The Top of His Game: The Best Sports Writing of W. C. Heinz, a collection of Heinz’s columns and magazine essays (Library of America, 2015), noted briefly below. Events and people seem bigger and more imposing because the author does not inflate them or their psyches.

The Professional seems to be about the fighter, but it’s really about his trainer and the sports writer/narrator. Can there be a boxing book that offers less direct insight into the man who stars in the ring? Not one that I can recall. His manager talks a lot, but rarely in sentences more than a few words long. For a boxing fan, the gold nugget is on pp. 235-37 of the 2001 edition reviewed here. It has to be said that Heinz cheats a bit. The narrator, a sports writer, is talking to the boxer about boxing. I see this as Heinz the writer talking to Heinz the boxer, which is to say that the telling and the showing seem close together.

The scene: the training camp, a few days before the big fight (chapter 19). The writer (Frank) asks the boxer (Eddie) how he feels about the men he fights. Eddie says he likes some of his opponents and Frank explains why: "Each guy brought out the best in the other guy and gave him the greatest fight and his greatest moment" (p. 234).
Eddie describes a very good fight that forced him to use everything he had, both in skill and in strength: Eddie: "I mean, for ten rounds I wanted to kill him and he fought like he wanted to kill me, and then I wanted to kiss him. First I wanted to kill him. Explain that."
Then Eddie asks Frank a question I’ve been asked: "How come you like boxing so much?"
Frank: "Because I find so much in it."
Eddie: "How do you mean?"
Frank: "The basic law of man. The truth of life. It’s a fight, man against man, and if you’re going to defeat another man, defeat him completely."
In the next exchange, Frank elaborates: "I find man revealing himself more completely in fighting than in any other form of expressive endeavor. It’s the war all over again, and they license it and sell tickets to it and people go to see it because, without even realizing it, they see this truth in it" (pp. 235-46).

Frank is referring to World War II, the subject of the first essay in The Top of His Game. Reading "Transition," the first essay in this collection, one can see how closely connected Heinz's experience as a war correspondent was to his early career in sports writing. More than once he ran into athletes who, as soldiers, were fighting battles Heinz, as a correspondent, witnessed. Heinz himself saw some of these men at war against the Germans and then, later, at war on the football field or in the boxing ring.

Not to be lost in this discussion is Frank's use of "expressive endeavor." Not many people I know think of boxing or any sport as an "expressive endeavor," and in football or basketball one can see why--in any team sport. But in boxing, with tension so high and just two men involved, expression and interpretation are paramount.

Heinz's years as a writer close to athletes is clear in sections of the novel that parallel his columns. When Frank describes Eddie’s day leading up to the championship fight at ten p.m., it’s clear that numerous details, down to Eddie’s dinner and cups of tea, were taken from Heinz’s observation of Rock Graziano before his September 27, 1946, fight with Tony Zale, ranked as one of the great fights in boxing history. Many writers include their three fights (1946, 1947, 1948, with Graziano winning the 2nd) among the great battles in boxing.

About boxing and warfare:
Some people don’t understand boxing is not only that they don’t understand violence (see the quote from René Girard below) but also that the can’t think of anything worth fighting for. If you are not one of those people, you will love both The Professional and The Top of His Game (noted briefly just below).

On Violence. I recommend Jack Donovan’s celebrated essay, “Violence is Golden” (in A Sky without Eagles, pp. 17-23). As he points out, those who like to say they “abjure” violence rely on it every day—they rely on police protection, for example; they want home invaders stopped. It takes violence to protect those who denounce violence. The theologian and philosopher René Girard also identified this symbiotic relationship, writing that “people fail to realize that they are indebted to violence for the degree of peace that they enjoy” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p. 211).

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  The Top of His Game. New York: The Library of America, 2015. $16.

The first essay, "Transition," from Fall 1945, is worth the price of the book and will be difficult to forget for anybody who cares about battle and boxing. The brevity of many entries (900-word columns) is frustrating because they begin to feel formulaic, terse, even oracular, for sports insiders. The longer pieces (the day of Graziano's first fight with Zale, the memoir of Graziano) are the best. Lots of red meat here for the true boxing fan.

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  Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story. New York: Penguin, 1989. $18.95.

Heller writes a good boxing book because he has been a manager and a trainer of boxers. His unique perspective on boxing and its recent history is outlined in "In This Corner . . . 42 World Champions Tell their Stories (Da Capo Press, 1973, 1994). This book appeared in 1989 and was written well before the "upset of the year," Tyson's February 11, 1990, lost to Buster Douglas in Tokyo. Tyson racked up 8 more wins before his Nov. 9, 1996 loss to Evander Holyfield (and another a few months later). So the Tyson of this book is 36-0, the man at the peak of his performance. This book is a valuable history of boxing for the span of Tyson's best years, but bad signs are everywhere, and it is impossible to read this book and settle for the myth that boxing reformed Tyson and turned a thug into a sports hero. The books ends with a forest of dark predictions about Tyson's lack of discipline and his multiple character defects (bully, arrogant, thug, criminal behavior, etc.). Depressing, but a very good if not great read because there is so much of Heller in the book.

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  "In this Corner ... !": 42 World Champions Tell their Stories. 1973; expanded ed., New York: Da Capo, 1994 $15.95.

Nobody writes a better boxing book that Peter Heller. For this book, first published in 1973 and enlarged in 1994, Heller interviewed boxers whose careers began before World War I. The enlarged edition includes interviews with Roberto Duran and Alexis Arguello (1970s). Before each interview Heller offers a short summary of the boxer's career, so the book is a history of boxing as well as an anthology of memorable statements from the 42 men Heller talked to. The boxers speak in their own voices. Tyson's trainer, Cus D'Amato, claimed to have used the 1973 edition as a training manual for his boxers, and Joyce Carol Oates used it as a research tool. It's no doubt both of those things, but it is also a moving tribute both to boxers and to the history of the sport, a chronicle of the changes that have been reshaping it for more than a century. There are some opportunities for cross-referencing, such as reading about the same the fights from Willie Pep's and then Joe (Sandy) Saddler's point of view. An anthology with a good index is a treasure. If you love boxing and want to immerse yourself in its history, here's a lively read for you.

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  Tunes of Glory. 1956; Edinburgh: Canongate, 1988. $7.50

Tunes of Glory must be one of the best first novels of the mid-twentieth century. Published in 1956, Tunes of Glory is better known as the splendid film made from the book in 1960. The film was directed by Ronald Neame, and the screenplay was written by Kennaway himself, who was nominated for an Academy Award for it. (The Oscar went to Richard Brooks for his adaptation of Elmer Gantry, the Sinclair Lewis novel of 1927.)

  Boxing figures into Tunes of Glory, from first to last a military novel, indirectly but powerfully. The novel is about a regiment of Highlanders and Jock Sinclair, their tempestuous Acting Lieutenant-Colonel. He is a central character so powerful and compelling that he appears on nearly every page of the book, usually by name or, if not, by implication. Other characters seem either to be thinking about him or talking about him all the time. Jock Sinclair is very the definition of “commanding presence.”

  The subject of boxing comes up first after Jock plays the bagpipes for a young soldier. Jock, who is good at everything, is an accomplished piper. Although he is completely intoxicated, he plays a march and its variations, known as pibroch, so well that he leaves the corporal “dumb with admiration.” Jock then offers to teach the corporal and to help him with the pibroch, which is defined “a form of music for the Scottish bagpipes involving elaborate variations on a theme, typically of a martial or funerary character” (Wiki). Both words, “martial” and “funerary,” loom large in this book. Jock suggests that they might meet at mid-day the following day. But the corporal says he cannot do so because he will be in the gym boxing (p. 23). Jock sends him on his way, and the corporal goes back to his freezing barracks, thinking of the pibroch in his bed, even though he really wants to think about his girlfriend. He falls asleep and dreams of her, but “her face was transformed, for the Corporal dreamt of his Colonel” (p. 24).

  About 80 pages later this episode acquires new significance. Jock walks into a lounge area in the barracks, carefully groomed and looking his best: “He found his charm again that morning,” the narrator says (p. 101). Jock settles in with his drink and talks about his career during the war, during “his glory days.” The is a rare topic for Jock, who mostly talks about everything else. While the other men “had all heard about his piping days and his boxing days,” few of them had heard him talk about the war (p. 102).

  Kennaway again aligns piping, boxing, and combat a few pages later. Jock is arguing with the Colonel who has been sent to take over Jock’s command. The Colonel, unlike Jock an educated gentleman, is looking for some concession, some sign on Jock’s part of a willingness to compromise. “But Jock never fought to finish with a handshake,” the narrator says. Instead, “he fought to kill” (p. 116). Tirelessly competitive as well as ruthless, Jock is seen by all as a great leader and a great piper who was also, at one time, no doubt also a great boxer.

  Jock is last seen as a boxer near the end of the book. Jock is addressing a roomful of his men. “Like a boxer at the start of another round, Jock moved away from the desk again and stretched himself straight” (p. 169). I can’t develop this scene without giving away the ending of Tunes of Glory, and I’m afraid of what Jock’s ghost, or Kennaway’s, would do to me if I did that. It is enough to note that Jock’s address is given the form of “another round” of boxing, a broad hint of the spirit of his words.

  I can expand on briefly on the connection between Jock and the Corporal who boxes. Like Jock, the Corporal is a piper and a boxer, two elements of warrior identity in this book that might well be shared by several others in the regiment. What sets Jock apart, though is that he “never fought to finish with a handshake. He fought to kill.” (3/2017)

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  Boxing’s Ten Commandments: Essential Training for the Sweet Science, with Doug Werner. San Diego: Tracks Publishing, 2007. $12.95

A tight, no-nonsense guide for committed beginners. These authors have published two other books about boxing, Boxer's Start-Up and Fighting Fit, and this book seems to begin where those leave off. Lachica jumps right into stance and rhythm, and talks about footwork, range, the jab, angles, and many other boxing skills. The rules make sense and sound great on paper, but putting them into practice, especially when sparring, is far from easy.
  The book is loaded with photographs showing stages of important boxing moves. The pictures give the boxer a good idea, for example, of what he looks like when he drops his hook and signals his move. Puzzling expressions, such as "keep the hook arm within the frame of the body," quickly become clear. The authors use their last "commandment," which is having a plan, to outline workouts and routines for the highly disciplined boxer and also to spell out the boxer's equipment needs.
  This is a book for a serious boxer. I think that just about anybody who could meet the high expectations of this guide would already know quite a bit of what the authors have to offer. Trainers who don't coach a lot of boxing will find this a very useful source for picking up tips and strategies for their boxers. PR for the book calls it "the real deal," and I agree. If you are really new to boxing, work with their Boxer's Start-Up first.

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  "The Comedian." Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000. $25.

This is a novella about Sammy Hogarth, a nationally-famous comedian, and his brother Lester, who is his legal counsel and business manager. A key part of Sammy’s televised comic routine is to set up Lester as a clueless bungler, as the butt of his jokes. Sammy is preoccupied with launching a new comedy series. Lester himself has become famous as a result and has to put up with mockery and even cat-calls on the street. Lester is about to lose his girlfriend, who wants him to stand up to his bully-brother. Sammy’s program is moving into broader syndication, and Lester insists that his brother make the new start complete by dropping the jokes about his brother. Knowing that he has a good thing going, Sammy flatly refuses.

Al Preston, who narrates the story, is a writer who works for Sammy. He has his own conflicts with the comedian, whom he sees as cruel and heartless. In the opening pages, Preston recalls a boxing match he had with Sammy in O’Reilly’s Gym “only yesterday.” What at first seems like boyish horsing around turns serious. Sammy belts Al with “a savage right” and keeps going. “‘This is for Gleason,’” he sneered, closing in, “‘and this is for Berle’” (124). Sammy matches other famous comedians’ names—Caesar, Benny, Berle—to short punches to the ribs, as if to punish Al for not making Sammy as famous as these figures are. Al grabs Sammy in a clinch, sidesteps a blow, and then “catches him with everything [he] had, flush on the button” (125). Startled but uninjured, Sammy makes a joke—it turns out to be his stock-in-trade—about Lester, who “‘happens to be a salami sandwich’” and could not “‘fight his way out of a paper bag’” (125). This bit of humor that brings laughter from the men who are watching the famous entertainer throw punches.

This boxing scene is well-handled. It reveals that both Al and Sammy know how to box. It also shows how easily Sammy can use an event to ridicule Lest. Equally important, it reveals that, unlike Lester, Al is no patsy.

The opening boxing sequence and its stunning recapitulation at the end of the story are both omitted from the marvelous “Playhouse 90” version of the novella (1957). The play was, incredibly, done for live television, and justly regarded as a classic. Given that the telecast was live, it would have been very, very difficult to work a sweaty boxing scene into the opening, not to mention stage the scene at all, most actors being unable to meet the athletic demands of the scene, say nothing of doing so in a single take.

The TV version does not adhere to the ending of the novella, which is discussed below. If you read beyond this point before you read the novella, you will find the ending spoiled, so you are advised to read the novella first. If you intend to see the TV version, the following material won’t spoil the ending for you.

[You have been warned. Spoiler material follows.]

Kelly watches Julie, Sammy’s wife, who is having an affair with Lester. Kelly has figured this out. To buy his silence, Al offers him cash, which Kelly refuses. Instead he demands the watch that Connie (a secretary who is doing to marry Al) gave to Al. The watch later ends up in Sammy’s hands, meaning that he has learned from Kelly about Lester’s affair. As Sammy holds the watch, Al notices his bruised knuckles and things, “Kelly, the poor son of a bitch . . . (166). The novella has cleverly avoided a scene between Lester and Sammy, but at the very end Lester walks onto the set on which Sammy is performing one of his celebrated monologues. Sammy smothers his brother in “a welter of blows . . . pummeling the senseless, battered head, finishing it off with a final crack . . .” (175). All this has taken place before a live studio audience and a television audience of millions. As the significance of what he has done dawns on him, Sammy turns and walks off stage, “off all the screens of all the living rooms in the land” (176).

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  Sugar Ray Leonard: The Big Fight; My Life in and out of the Ring. New York: Viking, 2011. $26.95.

Boxers and their co-authors never seem to realize that other boxers have written books just like the one they are writing. Leonard's book is true to form in lots of ways but stands out for its unusually smug and gloating tone. From time to time humility is manufactured to cushion that rare defeat or divorce, but it quickly disappears behind the boasting façade that is the genre's most predictable feature. There's almost nothing to be learned about boxing from this book. Leonard himself is the usual wasteful drugging drunk who sobers up on cue to win his next big fight and prove to himself that he is indeed still a man. Where he might have said something interesting about his performances--e.g., his clowning around that led to Roberto Duran's famous "No mas" conclusion--he fails. "I won't fight with this clown any more" is a lot different from "No more," as if Duran had been taking a beating. He wasn't. A book full of clichés deserves to be remembered with one: Leonard pulls his punches. It's not a tell-all book; it's a tell-a-bit book, smile for the camera, look into the mirror just long enough to tell yourself how wonderful you really, truly are. Nah. Skip this one.

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  At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. New York: The Library of America, 2011. $35

If you buy just one collection of essays on boxing, buy this one. There are 48 essays covering many eras of boxing in America. Many of the essays can be found in other collections, but this one has unusual range. Very useful are the short introductions the editors give to each entry, since these often contain an assessment of the strengths of the piece that follows and information about the author that has a comfortably "insider" feeling.

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  The Sweet Science. New York: Ferrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004. $16
This is a frequently quoted source by a famous New Yorker writer. The phrase "the sweet science" alludes to "the sweet science of bruising," meaning that it takes skill (science) to hit your opponent. It comes from Pierce Egan's essay collection Boxiana (1828; Egan lived 1772-1849).
There’s a good introduction to this edition by Robert Anasi, who takes a long view of boxing history very much like that of Liebling himself, and who, again, like Liebling, is a man who knows about boxing because he watched it for many years. These men’s view of boxing has just about disappeared. Boxers have overtaken boxing, and media favors boxers more notable for their misbehavior than for their skills in the ring. Liebling's deep knowledge of boxing, however, rests on some assumptions we might want to think about.
To get a sense of Liebling’s view, consider a passage that Anasi quotes from Liebling’s essay, “The University of Eighth Avenue,” found in another essay collection called A Neutral Corner. Liebling writes that boxing is “an art of the people, like making love, and is likely to survive any electronic gadget that peddles razor blades” (Liebling, A Neutral Corner, p. 25). This tart reference to television (electronic gadget) and peddling razor blades (Gillette) is a jab at televised fights that once were part of American’s home entertainment. That’s a nice phrase, “art of the people,” getting to both the skill of boxing and its connection to populism. It is also clever to compare boxing to making love, an analogy that reverberates well below its surface, and is one reason why I am calling my book on my boxing experience "The Boxer's Kiss."
I can’t say that I fully subscribe to Liebling’s view of boxing, which is partly conditioned by the time in which he wrote, and partly by the things that made him the observer he was. He writes: A fighter’s hostilities are not turned inward, like a Sunday tennis player’s or a lady M.P.’s. They come out naturally with his sweat, and when his job is done he feels good because he has expressed himself. Chain-of-command types, to whom this is intolerable, try to rationalize their envy by proclaiming solicitude for the fighter's health. (Sweet Science, p. 5) The white-collar idea that Liebling challenges is that boxing is not good for fighters. The boxer's enviable freedom to express himself is said to come at the cost of damage to his well-being. Liebling thinks that white-collar types envy boxers their opportunity to vent. To compensate, they seem to associate boxers’ misfortunes (but not their fortunes) with the punishment they take in the ring. This only works to the boxer's disadvantage. When those who are skilled in other arts--the dancer Nijinsky, for example--misbehave, nobody wonders who hit them (i.e., boxing had nothing to do with it), as Liebling observes. When Hemingway won the Nobel prize, Liebling notes, nobody said getting hit in the ring made him a great writer--that is, boxing had nothing to do with his success (Sweet Science, pp. 5-6).
Two things seem amiss here. First, Liebling underestimates or seems to dismiss the danger of the sport. Even in his time, authorities worried about the dangers of the sport. Second, and more important, boxing is not venting.
I would say that it is a fundamental error to claim that the art of boxing is an outlet for “a fighter’s hostilities.” Angry and uncontrolled boxers are likely to make errors and pay for them. Smart boxers are not emotional boxers. Liebling must have known this. His view that boxing was naturally healthy both physically and emotionally is one I would support. Unfortunately, however, he aligns his views with those who see boxing as an expression of anger, rage, and frustration. If it is a "sweet science," it takes discipline and control, and this too every boxer knows. If you just want to hit something, work the bags. If you want to box, you have to think.
We wonder why so many people fear and loathe boxing. Perhaps we can start with statements like these found in the work one of the sport's most influential writers.

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Mark Kriegel, The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. New York: Free Press, 2012. $18.50.
For many readers the heart of this book will be the account of Mancini's fight with Duk Koo Kim, the Korean boxer who died of injuries received in this fight in 1982. This is indeed an important moment in boxing history, but it should not overshadow all that distinguishes Mancini's boxing career before that point, or after it. Kriegel's book bravely pairs Mancini's family history with the family history of man who died, and for this reason alone it is a moving and memorable book. The motif that delivers the most in The Good Son is not life vs. death, however, but father vs. son. It is the story of Mancini, his fighter-father, and the ancestral obligation Mancini felt he owed to his father. After Mancini defeated Jorge Morales on CBS in 1981, the boxer kissed his father on the mouth. Kriegel writes:

This was Saturday afternoon. American sons did not kiss their fathers, much less on the mouth. Unless they were Ray Mancini: "My dad used to tell me, 'You're not a man if you can't kiss your father on the mouth."' (p. 92)The book also has a memorable and very moving conclusion. It is written with love that does not spill over into admiration. This is a rare account of successful boxing in middle-class white America .

William P. McGIVERN
  The Big Heat. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1952.
Boxing plays a slight role in this detective mystery but a satisfying one. Writing in an age in which author could assume a certain familiarity with sports, McGivern uses boxing to give his male characters authority and to reflect their self-defense skills. On the novel’s first page, two detectives are playing cards and a third is handling the phone. One of the card players is described as having “tired, sagging features and thinning hair.” The other is “a big man with the roughed-up features of a preliminary fighter” (p. 9).

The detectives discuss a Negro who is “young and solidly built” and who has been picked up on suspicion of murder by Burke, “a tall, well-groomed man with a long, intelligent face” (p. 9). These details acquire meaning when Bannion, the hero, walks into the room, “inches taller” than Burke, who is the tallest man in the room. Bannion’s “two hundred and thirty pounds” are evenly distributed “upon a huge, rangy frame” (p. 11). Bannion’s size matters because he takes a protective view of the unfortunate suspect (who is twice described as “solidly built” on the first page). When Burke suggests that he could get a confession out of the suspect “in ten little minutes,” Bannion says “there won’t be any of that stuff on my shift.” Burke backs off. It is clear that these men are comfortable using their fists.

Bannion’s prowess is on view later, in a mob boss’s office. The mobster’s bodyguard, George, attempts to throw the detective out. George approaches Bannion like a fighter, watching him “carefully, thoughtfully.” “All right, big boy,” George says. Then “he feinted for Bannion’s stomach with his left” and threw his right to Bannion’s jaw. Bannion “picked the punch off with his left hand” and slapped George across the face with all his power, “a terrible blow” that “sounded like a pistol shot.” George is down, if not for the count. The mob boss orders George to get up and fight, but his jaw appears to be broken. “I’m not getting up,” George says (p. 72).

McGivern uses ring-based boxing skills to create menacing police officers. Bannion is no “preliminary fighter” or “opponent.” A detective who defends the weak and who unravels the coverup to which the novels’ title refers, he is a prize fighter in every sense.

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Muhammad ALI
  Walter Dean Myers, The Greatest. New York: Scholastic, 2001. $5.50.  

Myers believes that professional boxers are by definition men who “bring rage to the ring” (17). The book seems to reinforce the stereotype of the angry young man who seizes on violence in the ring as an expression of revenge against the social injustices of his upbringing. Myers points out that Ali had a near-middle-class upbringing in a loving home and that the boxer was radicalized by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam early in his career. Ali is a poor example of the enraged boxer, a cliché that fits Duran, Tyson, and others much better. The book is touching, if tirelessly admiring.

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Joyce Carol OATES
On Boxing. New York: Dolphin / Doubleday, 1987. $14.99
Not your typical boxing writer, not your typical boxing book. Oates went to Golden Gloves fights with her father in Buffalo in the 1950s. Some three decades later she collected her essay about boxing, which Jeff Silverman calls "passionate, eloquent and learned," all of which praise many others echo. Her work, he says, goes "beyond the surface of sport to explore 'The Sweet Science' as metaphor, madness, spectacle, and history" (The Greatest Boxing Stories, p. 7).
Oates's work is not for everybody, and although I too find it eloquent, I also find it overwrought. She writes, for example: To the untrained eye most boxing matches appear not merely savage but mad. As the eye becomes trained, however, the spectator begins to see the complex patterns that underlie the “madness;” what seems to be merely confusing action is understood to be coherent and intelligent, frequently inspired. Even the spectator who dislikes violence in principle can come to admire highly skillful boxing—to admire it beyond all "sane" proportions. A brilliant boxing match, quicksilver in its motions, transpiring far more rapidly than the mind can absorb, can have the power that Emily Dickinson attributed to great poetry: you know it's great when it takes the top of your head off. (The physical imagery Dickinson employs is peculiarly apt in this context.) I don't think the poet's observation is apt, myself. Nobody loses the top of his head in boxing. It's not swordplay. Losing your head, maybe, is saying that we can admire boxing "beyond all 'sane' proportions." What proportions would those be?
For Oates, the "early impression--that boxing is 'mad,' or mimics the actions of madness" has validity. She thinks that the impression "simply sinks beneath the threshold of consciousness, as the most terrifying and heartrending of our lives' experiences sink beneath the level of consciousness by way of familiarity or deliberate suppression." She adds, "All boxing fans, however accustomed to the sport, however many decades have been invested in their obsession, know that boxing is sheerly madness, for all its occasional beauty. That knowledge is our common bond and sometimes—dare it be uttered?—our common shame" (pp. 101-2).
Maybe it is the function of great writing to show us sides to our own thoughts that had not occurred to us, but I keep finding my admiration for this writer's intelligence qualified by the hollowness and exaggeration of assertions like this one about "all boxing fans" knowing that boxing is "sheerly madness" (whatever that is). Madness, dreams, and memory are, for Oates, big bowls of clear water into which she dribbles boxing facts and anectodes, as if they were drops of color. We watch as the color spreads, takes form, changes, and creates a pattern in the bowl. It becomes its own thing, far removed from boxing and the ring.
Admirable writing, yes, and beautiful in places. But I'm more interested in the anecdotes and facts, and less interested in the forms they take once this wizzard drops them into the water and describes them as they swim through her consciousness.

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  Gary Andrew Poole, PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 2010 [2011]. $15.
There are many admiring books about boxers on this page. Poole’s book is a fan’s book with a difference.
Most boxing books are written after the star boxer has given up the ring. At that point his achievement can be assessed from a safe distance. By contrast, PacMan is a “behind the scenes” book. Most of it looks ahead, not back. It ends with an account of Pacquiao’s win over Joshua Clottey in 2010, his election to the Philippine Congress in his home province of Sarangani, and the drawn-out negotiations the led up to his fight with Floyd Mayweather.
Poole tells Manny Pacquiao’s story from his youth, spent in the abject poverty of the southern Philippines, to his discovery as a boxer and his arrival in Los Angeles. Readers get a close-up view of the period during which the boxer’s star began to shine. Poole added the last chapter (or epilogue) a year after the book was published. It offers a more pessimistic view of the boxer, as both fighter and politician that the rest of this mostly up-beat book.
The first part of PacMan is about talent, daring, and great ambition. It develops Poole’s thesis that the best boxers come from the worst circumstances. But as Pacquiao’s career blooms, we soon start to see familiar signs of over-reach. The boxer is involved in too many things, has too many aides, and wastes money. On the boxing side, this part of the book is strong. There are good fight narratives, and Poole relates insights into ring strategy that he picked up from Pacquiao’s trainers. Poole writes about trainer Freddy Roach and gives a memorable account of Pacquiao’s first few minutes with the man who would shape his fighting style. Poole himself tallied punches at some of the boxer’s fights, a level of expertise not every boxing writer can claim.
During much of the early period, Pacquiao is on the rise. He has tremendous appeal, owing in part to his boxing performance and in part to his role as a voice for the poor. But soon the boxing takes second place to politics, stardom, and other distractions. Poole builds up to the extended on-again, off-again matchup between Pacquiao and Mayweather. We all know how that turned out.
As either politician or as boxer, Pacquiao is no longer a magical figure. He lost the WBO welterweight title to Mayweather in May 2015. He regained it with a unanimous decision over Jessie Vargas in 2016. Then he lost it to Jeff Horn in 2017, again in a unanimous decision. Now it is the rematch with Horn that is the melodrama of on-again and off-again.
Pacquiao is going to be 40 in 2019, and his boxing career—with or without a rematch with Horn in 2018—is all but over. As for politics, Poole points out in his epilogue that Pacquiao was poorly prepared to step into the political spotlight once he was elected congressman. To judge from many accounts, he has been anything but a star politician.
The claim at the heart of PacMan is that Pacquiao’s impoverished early life is what explains his greatness as a boxer and is the key to the iron discipline he displayed in training for his fights. Pacquiao was gifted with exceptional speed and power and made the most of these strengths in the ring. But Poole believes in the link between poverty and boxing greatness. Poole observes that the greatest Mexican boxers have come from that country’s poorest areas, and he suggests the same for Pacquiao:

Given its historically dire economic state, Mexico has created some of the best and most numerous champions [i.e., Mexico has created numerous champions who rank among the best boxers]. . . . Not only did these fighters have ring bravery to match Pacquiao’s nearly suicidal aggression, but they were technicians par excellence. (pp.117-18) Developing his thesis about boxing and poverty, Poole writes:Boxers overcome so much to become the conqueror. That experience can wipe away a lot of injustice and is more fulfilling than money—and more pure than politics. (p. 278)
I admire Poole’s confidence and his optimism, but I don’t think his epilogue supports his conclusion. It is hard to see in Pacquiao behavior, in the ring or outside it, the anger and rage that marks other boxers known to have impoverished early histories. Pacquiao is often described as smiling before his fights, and he is unusually humble and polite in his conversations with journalists, fans, and others.

(More on this book)

  Alan H. Levy, Floyd Patterson: A Boxer and a Gentleman. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. $15.
Many boxers are admired for their success in the ring, not for who they were as men. Books and essays tend to make the opposite point about Floyd Patterson. He was an unusually kind and considerate man, a “sensitive male” before his time, but he was seldom a great performer in the ring. Levy’s book, published in 2008 (Patterson died in 2006), was the first biography of the boxer. In this highly satisfying and rewarding work, Levy, a social historian and skillful narrator, digs into the puzzling contradictions that make Patterson a boxer unlike any other.
In some ways, Patterson’s life fits a pattern that writers are all too likely to see in boxers. We see the boxer growing up in dire poverty and learn about his youthful skirmishes with the law and his time in an institution. Then the young man discovers boxing as a way to earn money and subsequently realizes that self-respect comes with victory in the ring. The boxer triumphs, but ups and downs mark his career. Inevitably there is a slow decline for both the boxer and the healthy man he was.
In others ways, Patterson’s life story resists those traits. Few boxers who grew up in poverty blamed themselves for the family’s living conditions and, to compensate, hid in a subway tunnel to minimize their impact on their home. Few boxers converted to Catholicism and made Christian charity a key feature of their public conduct. He took an unpopular stand on civil rights when doing so was dangerous to life and limb.
The ups and downs of his Patterson’s boxing career are striking. When he beat Archie Moore for the crown in 1956, he became the youngest heavyweight champion in the world. He lost the title to Ingemar Johannson in 1959 and then regained it in 1961, another first. Those were the peaks.
The valleys were more numerous. They include two devastating losses to Sonny Liston, in some ways Patterson’s evil twin, and two losses to Muhammad Ali, who shamed and belittled Patterson until Ali felt secure patronizing him. Just as Ali, late in his career, was declared the winner of fights most observers believe he lost, Patterson lost fights that most believers believe he won.
Sometimes Patterson sounds like the boxer we expect him to be. “We’re a strange breed,” he says at one point, “we are men who make our living with our fists” (33). But he often acted like a different kind of man altogether, as when he picked up the mouthpiece he knocked out of his opponent’s mouth in a fight (32).
His behavior and sometimes his statements created doubts about how great a champion Patterson actually was. He was harmed by the devious strategies of his manager and would-be savior, Cus D’Amato, who devised ways to profit not only from Patterson’s winnings but from those of Patterson’s opponents. D’Amato lined up a long string of mediocre fighters for Patterson, a ploy that eventually created doubts about the champ’s ability to defend his title.
Levy shows how Patterson’s importance was further diminished by both Tyson and Ali. The “gentlemanly, soft-spoken champion” (68) quickly became a conventional anachronism as the bold sexual and anti-social behavior of the younger boxers captured the imagination of the media.
Patterson is said to have had “the instincts of a fighter and the compassion of a priest” (253; see Heinz, Top of His Game, 310-11), as if this explains the puzzle of this boxer. It does not. Patterson had too few of the instincts of a fighter, some of the foremost of being self-respect, confidence, and a belief in the judicious use of power. It’s true that compassion is the hallmark of a good priest, but a good cleric also knows that he has to fight for what he believes in and stand up for himself.
Patterson seems never to have used the spiritual resources available to him to explore the psychic damage of his youth or to grasp clearly his right to a happy life. He learned to fly an airplane, a dangerous and adventurous thing to do, but Patterson was unable to be firm with junior-high students who disrespected his daughter—even after flying his own plane from his training camp to his home to defend the little girl (164-65). A boxer-pilot who could not stand up to teen-agers who bullied his daughter: meet Floyd Patterson. There is no doubting his talent, but talent in the absence of the will to use it creatively and constructively is no blessing.
Levy is an attentive social history and a good observer of boxing, a sport for which he has an obvious affection. In his introduction, he writes, “Actors, musicians, stars of other sports and other such for example, have often commented on their attraction to boxing as an embodiment of a most stark version of what they do.” He also quotes Joyce Carol Oates’s comment that “boxing is life and hardly a mere game” (6).
I would say that Patterson failed to grasp the opposite point. It’s not that boxing is life but that life is boxing. Success in life requires offense as well as defense, determination, self-preservation, and a self-respect. Patterson seems to have made the same mistakes in life as he made in boxing. Neither was “a mere game.” He had the talent and skill, but not the confidence, to do better at both.

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  W. K. Stratton, Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012.
This book appeared in 2012, the second biography of Floyd Patterson to appear in the short interval of four years. Alan K. Levy’s biography (reviewed above) came out in 2008. The two works discuss many of the same events, including the boxer’s boyhood and his fight history. There is little to separate their views on these matters, or their approach to this perplexing, renowned figure, and the social significance of his place in the history of American boxing. Given the proximity of these books, it's disappointing that Stratton did not underline some of his differences with Levy. Some response to the earlier biography (apparently the first for Patterson) would have helped readers get more out of both books. The book is slightly less admiring of its chief subject than Levy's.
If it were a competition, I would give Stratton’s book the advantage. He takes a wider view of Patterson’s world and offers more about the boxing scene in Patterson’s time. He is especially pointed about the boxer’s ties to Cus D’Amato.
Neither book has anything good do say about D’Amato, a legendary boxing manager. He is sometimes thought to have rescued lost young men and helped them find themselves as boxers. But D’Amato was devious at best. As Stratton shows, he exploited Patterson and cheated him. At one point he managed one of Patterson’s opponents, a British boxer named Brian London, and Patterson in the same fight (90-91). Patterson did well to put distance between himself and this dangerous man, but not before D’Amato had inflicted permanent damage on Patterson’s reputation, refusing to get him the kinds of matches that would have established his claim to the heavyweight title.
Stratton is well-connected to the boxing world and used his ties to dig deeply into the Patterson archives. In the acknowledgments he describes the extensive sources available to him, which also tell the story of Patterson’s legacy as boxing writers have shaped it.
It might seem odd to praise a book for its index, but Stratton's index is a marvelous tool, very detailed and revealing. By consulting the entries under "Patterson, Floyd," the reader can get an excellent idea of the scope of the book's coverage. As I recall, there is an entry on the boxer's fear of flying, but there's no discussion of how he overcame this fear and learned to fly his own plane, a considerable achievement for a man so burdened with doubts about himself.
The book is enriched by many side-glances at other black boxers, especially Jack Jackson and Joe Lewis, both of them important to Patterson. Stratton also has a lot to say about Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, boxers Patterson lost to in more ways than one. This book does a great job of positioning Patterson, a man of many contradictory impulses, between the old and the new in the twentieth-century history of American boxing.

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Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 1977. $6.79
Plimpton's account of his 3 rounds with Archie Moore is the best part of the book, which ends with a very long and uneven set of chapters on the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974. There are memorable glimpses of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway as boxers, and a highly entertaining chapter on Ali's lunch with the poet Marianne Moore, an account that is worth the full price of the book. Plimpton arranged for the boxer to meet her at tea, and Ali brought along a photographer to record their efforts to write a poem together. When they posed, Ali said to her, "We've got to show you thinking, Mrs. Moore. How you show you're thinking hard is to point your finger into the middle of your head" (p. 119). She complied.
Plimpton himself was not much in gloves, but I give him a lot of credit for throwing himself into the boxing world. He belonged to a lot of other worlds, that's for sure. How many people could start a sentence with "One thing that Ernest Hemingway had always told me was that . . ." (p. 66)? Not many.
The book is called Shadow Box. A shadow box is what Plimpton created. His essays are meant to be seen as objects presented in a thematic grouping with personal significance. Fair enough, and, in terms of the action behind the essay, brave as well. There is only a very loose sports theme to the book, however. It's the kind of book that can only be written be a man who knows everybody.
I was not able to find an edition of this book with a table of contents or an index, hard to believe, all these famous names and no way to find them for reference.

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Patrick O'BRIAN
  Blue at the Mizzen
Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000) is the author of a twenty-volume adventure series about shipboard life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars (set between 1803 and 1815). These are by no means books about boxing, but the sport gets good coverage in Blue at the Mizzen, the last completed book in the series, and in The Yellow Admiral. The series is often called the Aubrey-Maturin novels, after the names of the two main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship surgeon, Stephen Maturin.

At the start of Blue at the Mizzen, Aubrey and his crew are in England and about to set off on a voyage that mixes espionage with natural science. William Henry, Duke of Clarence, later to become William IV (1765-1837), asks Aubrey for a favor. William, who was king of the United Kingdom and Ireland 1830-37, was also known as the “Sailor king” (see the Wiki entry “William IV of the UK”). His Highness wishes to place Horatio Hanson as a midshipman on Jack’s ship. Hanson is the son of a man lost during William’s service with Lord Nelson in the West Indies.

This will be an arduous and dangerous voyage, and Aubrey is reluctant to take on anyone who might be considered a “suckling” (6276-77). He agrees to interview Horatio, whose name not only bows to Horatio Nelson but recalls that of Horatio Hornblower, the hero of C. S. Forester’s series of naval novels. Aubrey quizzes Hanson, who is 15, on algebra and geometry and finds that he knows a fair amount. He then asks Maturin to speak to the boy in Latin and French, and this test too the boy passes easily (6279).

The voyage beings with rough seas. Aubrey interviews Hanson to see how he is getting along and notices the boy’s bruised knuckles. It turns out that Hanson has had a fight with someone who called him “a pragmatical son of a bitch.” Examining Hanson’s hands, Jack concludes that “a heavy left-handed blow” has split the skin forbids further fighting. Later Jack notices that the boy’s knuckles are bleeding onto his trousers. When he inquires into Hanson’s boxing experience, Jack learns that Hanson and other boys “used to mill” after school and that a coachman’s son, who himself learned to box from an uncle who was “a real prizefighter” (6291), taught Hanson to fight. Jack recalls seeing boxing matches between ships when he himself as a midshipman and thinks that perhaps he might set up something similar for the Surprise. Hanson learned to box from his social inferior, the son of a coachman, but that’s no compromise because the coachman himself was a prizefighter who even had gloves.

A boxing match takes place on the ship a few pages later, when several British ships are anchored off Sierra Leone. After one match Maturin sees that Hanson has a black eye and has dried blood on his face. But Hanson has won and will be fighting again in a few hours. He answers the doctor’s questions “with a cheerful and full-toothed smile” (6327) and then bests a burly fighter from another ship in five rounds “of a singular ferocity” (6330).

A few days a master’s mate dies, and Hanson is promoted to replace him. Hanson’s advancement over other midshipmen causes some tension among them, but the promotion is greeted “with general approval by the lower deck. This happens because the men “set an even higher value on physical courage than on the finer points of seamanship—not that Mr. Hanson was so deficient in them, either” (6332).

Hanson is an exemplary gentleman boxer, as well-schooled in prowess as he is good manners. We might even say that his conduct is princely, since it seems to be assumed that William is not really Hanson’s uncle but rather his father. Boxing is used to fill out the character in a clever way. Hanson is the most able seaman among the midshipmen; he superior in mathematics and the science of navigation. He is also the bravest. Boxing establishes his dominance over the seamen who work the ship. Although he appears very late in the series, Hanson recapitulates the outstanding qualities of Jack Aubrey himself, a balance of quick-thinking nautical knowledge and physical courage. One could easily imagine the young boxer as the hero of a series of novels about his own exploits.

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Patrick O'BRIAN
The Yellow Admiral
Patrick O'Brian (d. 2000) is the author of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, a twenty-volume adventure series about the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815); the 21st volume was published, unfinished, after the author's death. These are by no means books about boxing. The sport gets good coverage, however, in The Yellow Admiral, the eighteenth book in the series.

The series takes its name from the two main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin (also a naturalist, and, not incidentally, intelligence agent of murderous capabilities). Aubrey's coxswain, Barret Bonden, is one of the Royal Navy's champion boxers and is stationed near Aubrey’s home between voyages. Bonden gets into a tavern brawl with Evans, the gamekeeper of a property near Aubrey’s estate. Outraged at the disorder, Aubrey tells the men to settle their differences with “a proper mill,” i.e., a boxing match, and this is quickly arranged (Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral [New York: W.W. Norton, 1996], p. 51, end of ch. 2).

Before the match, Bonden informs Maturin, who is not a boxing fan, about the rules of boxing. His fans know that O'Brian is celebrated for an exceptional grasp of historical detail. The author seems to have commanded knowledge from numerous disciplines, ranging from sailing ships and their complex workings, to navigation, ornithology, entomology, and much more—how coaches were built, guns fired, and so on. It is no surprise that he should have turned in a comparably fine account of boxing as it was known to sports fans of the Aubrey-Maturin era, including the boxing space, length of the bout, and other matters.

The fighting space could be defined either as a ring marked by posts or as a circle of bystanders with their arms linked. Bonden prefers the former, since, he says, in a ring formed by linked arms the “other man’s friends” might well kick his opponent if he were knocked down (p. 54).

Bonden says a round lasted as long as it took for one man to knock the other down or throw him down, be that one minute or twenty. After a rest of either thirty or forty-five seconds, the referee would scratch a mark in the middle of the ring and the fighters would go at it again at the command “start the mill.” This is repeated until one of them cannot come up to the mark—that is, doesn’t come up to scratch, the origin of that idiom (p. 55).

Number of rounds
Such fights were famously long. Bonden reports one of 43 rounds that lasted over an hour. He himself went 68 rounds in an hour and twenty-six minutes for the naval championship of the Mediterranean (p. 56). Just as naval officers in O’Brian’s books can describe every phase of combat between two ships or between whole fleets, Bonden is an encyclopedia of boxing history: Jem Belcher and Dutch Sam fought over two hours, as did Gully and Game Chicken (all these are boxers whose histories are to be found in boxing books and Wiki). Fighters war no gloves, Bonden says, although some boxers used them.

Bonden says that new fighters usually could go a quarter of an hour and perhaps three or four rounds if they fought “with some pluck but with little wind and no science.” He describes common fouls, including moving “to catch your man by the hair and batter him something cruel with his head held down” (p. 56). Something very like this happens to Bonden himself, who is so proud of his pigtail (i.e,. his hair, a tail long enough to sit on, uncut for ten years) that he does not trim it for the fight. His head injuries are so serious that he has to be shorn anyway, and takes to wearing a wig until his hair grows out.

The fight
Bonden’s fight with Evans, bloody and long, and comes to a shocking end when Evans grabs Bonden’s pigtail in both his hands and throws him against a corner post (pp. 65-68). Bonden suffers a concussion and is unable to come up to scratch, meaning that Evans wins, although he has to be helped to the mark by his friends. The fairness of the outcome is disputed and fights break out in the crowd. Between rounds the boxers to go their corners (p. 67). This and the reference to the corner post indicate that the match is fought in a square space, not a circle.

Bloody indeed, but as with all the battles in O'Brian's matchless books, absolutely riveting, quickly told, and then succeeded by a host of other memorable and equally idiosyncratic events.

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John Boyle O'REILLY
Ethics of Boxing. Boston: Ticknor and Co., 1888. Repr. Lexington, KY, 2014. $15
This volume contains two books: Ethics and Evolution of Boxing (pp. xi-99); and The Training of Athletes Tested by Every-day Life (pp. 101-75). A life of the author, an Irish and American martial artist and writer, follows the second volume.

If you think boxing isn’t much more than throwing smart punches, you should read Ethics and Evolution of Boxing. O’Reilly offers pithy insights into the social and psychological importance of the sport. He was writing 130 years ago, but his observations ring true today. He knows that boxing is effective in building manly character. He knows that boxing works against the feebleness that the culture of his time—and ours—seems to instill in the young. O’Reilly criticizes those who believe that the world has become “too intelligent for idle games and exercises” (p. xii).

Even in O’Reilly’s day, it seems, intellectual activity, including academic study, took all the prestige. People to look down on physical activity. Working against this bias against what we would think of as blue collar culture, O’Reilly stresses the leveling effect of boxing and other martial arts. Boxing and other martial arts are, he notes, closely connected to democratic and populist ideals. In some of the boxing fiction I review here (e.g., Barry’s A Long Long Way) one can see this connection at work. When two men face off in the ring, it is often the case that they are expressing combat between competing cultures. O’Reilly comments in the role of boxing in Ireland—Barry’s book is about Irish soldiers in World War I—and the danger it and other combative sports posed to the island’s cultural masters.

A marvelous, exciting book, highly recommended.

Parts of the second book, The Training of Athletes, are out of date, something we would expect, given its focus on diet and physical fitness equipment in the nineteenth century. Even here, however, O’Reilly is never less than entertaining and informative, and sometimes surprisingly current. He quotes the famous English novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873, author of The Last Days of Pompeii and many other works): “In these days, half our diseases come from the neglect of the body and the overwork of the brain. In this railway age the wear and tear of labor and intellect go on without pause or self-pity” (O’Reilly, p. 153). And that was before cell phones!

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Closer to the Sun

Closer to the Sun tells the story of a Billy Infante, a Philadelphia construction worker whose talent for boxing wins him some early recognition and a few promising fights on what might be his way up.

Good fight scenes make or break a boxing novel. The book has several, including a gripping match in the opening chapter.

In boxing novels, these bouts have two subjects. One is the fight itself and its consequences for the boxer’s career. The other is the battle going on within the boxer, or between the boxer and somebody else, such as his coach or love interest or his family. The classic boxing novel turns a success in the ring into a success outside it. In some examples, however, a failed fight means failure outside the ring as well.

As the title suggests, Closer to the Sun belongs to the first category and focuses on the boxer’s success, although his victory is not a conventional one and is the book's big reward for the reader.

Nobody in boxing novels boxes just to box. Boxers in novels seem to fight because they need something they don’t have (maybe success or recognition) or want to be rid of something they do have (often anger or guilt). The boxer in Closer to the Sun is angry because he was raised by a poor father who ultimately abandoned his family. This is a standard device in novels about boxing and angry young boxers.

Billy fought with his mother when he was young and at one time blamed her for her husband’s failure. Of course, men with fathers at home can make the same mistakes, and the reader plausibly looks for further cause of Billy’s anger. Apart from using his skills in the ring, we don’t see Billy at war with the world. We don't see him getting fired from his job, or getting in trouble with the law, or exploding in bar fights.

In fact, Billy is far from the conventional bottled-up macho man of boxing film and fiction. He weeps easily and often and seems devoted both to his mother and to the nurse he dates. He loves jazz and comes across as a foodie. That he boxes is the only violent thing about him.

In these ways, Closer to the Sun offers several refreshing changes from the usual boxing novel. But the boxer’s nice-guy aura relieves rather than builds tension and suspense and, in my view, works against the premise that he’s a boxer so angry he sometimes loses control in the ring. He seems to have pretty good control all around.

Billy is aware of the power his anger exercises over his skills as a boxer. Anger isn’t the mark of a good boxer. Like some other emotions, anger can’t be entirely kept out of fights, but successful boxers don’t allow their feelings to cancel out good strategy and sportsmanship. Billy’s apparent inability to master his emotions in the ring suggests that he is not meant to be a great boxer after all.

Key events in the plot involve some disagreements with trainers, coaches, and promoters, and even figures in organized crime and the FBI. These tensions keep the plot moving forward, but more might have been done with them. In my view, the novel resolves many of them both too quickly and too easily, and this becomes predictable. The reader can see already in the early chapters that things are probably going to turn out well.

The narrative is a succession of short episodes, with point of view changing frequently from Billy to his girlfriend and others. Multiple points of view are useful, but they tend to push Billy’s development as son and lover—as well as boxer—out of the spotlight. Much of the book isn’t about the boxer as a boxer. His love life and family life are the book’s main concerns, and it sometimes seems that what the women in his life want for him is more important than what he wants for himself.

In my view, contrasts in the boxer’s moods, his moments of decision, and other narrative turning points could be more marked. If the narrative had been divided into chapters, stages of his growth would be easier to see. It is a rather long book, and its both shape and dynamics of development are hard to find.

A couple of details ring less than true. It's not likely that Danny, a hard-nosed business agent and big name on the city’s boxing scene, would have to explain to Sid, Billy’s manager, the meaning of "opponent" (that it, an obscure boxer paid to boost a rising star’s record). And even a good-natured and anxious-to-please kid like Billy doesn't need to tell his guests twice where he bought the gelato he’s serving for dessert. The novel makes the most of its Philadelphia setting and is rich in detail. Some boxing novels overdue the gloom; this one is definitely prepared sunny side up.

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Philip ROTH
American Pastoral. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. $26

Boxing figures into the narrator’s recollection of his military service and how it broadened his view of society (Nathan Zuckeman). This is a common boxing theme, boxing as a social leveler, an activity in which a man’s background and education are not the best predictors of his success, and it has timely resonance in a novel about the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. As one might expect with Roth, the focus, even in boxing, ends up on Jewish identity.

Here is Zuckerman’s recollection:

[In the Army I met] Guys I would never have life met in my life. Accents from all over the place. The Midwest. New England. Some farm boys from Texas and the Deep South I couldn’t even understand. But got to know them. Got to like them. Hard boys, poor boys, lots of high school athletes. Used to live with the boxers. Lived with the recreation gang. Another Jewish guy, Manny Rabinowitz from Altoona. Toughest Jewish guy I ever met in my life. What a fighter. A great friend. Didn't even finish high school. Never had a friend like that before or since. Never laughed so hard in my life as I did with Manny. Manny was money in the bank for me. Nobody ever gave us any Jewboy shit. A little back in boot camp, but that was it. When Manny fought, the guys would bet their cigarettes on him. Buddy Falcone and Manny Rabinowitz were always the two winners for us whenever we fought another base. After the fight with Manny the other guy would say that nobody ever hit him as hard in his life. Manny ran the entertainment with me, the boxing smokers. The duo—the Jewish leathernecks. Manny got the wiseguy recruit who made all the trouble [211] and weighed a hundred and forty-five pounds to fight somebody a hundred and sixty pounds who he could be sure would beat shit out of him. ''Always pick a redhead, Ee-oh," Manny said, "he’ll give you the best fight in the world. Redhead'll never quit." Manny the scientist. Manny going up to Norfolk to fight a sailor, a middle-weight contender before the war, and whipping him. . . . [212]

It would be hard to find a denser collection of fixed ideas about boxers. One of them concerns mismatched opponents, which sets up the expectation that the underdog will win. That's why it is important that Manny hits his opponent harder than anybody ever hit that opponent before. Roth tranfers the commonplace ideas to a Jewish boxer population, itself a novelty, and also to Jewish leathernecks, also a novelty in war fiction. In this novel, boxing is part of the all-American wallpaper; it also helps to establish Zuckerman's warrior credentials, such as they are. The interest here is that the Jewish buddies are theselves very different, and it's the one with the lesser status, Manny, who takes the lead and gives the advice. This is another convention: less educated means more worldly-wise.

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Jeffrey T. SAMMONS
  Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Review pending.

  The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2002.
Wonderful range, Homer to Joyce Carol Oates. Not many books offer so many ways to see boxing. Fifteen of the 36 authors here are also in Kimball and Schulian, At the Fights, but not always represented by the same essays. The introduction is good (if corny). Silverman points out that boxing is not just about the score and who wins or loses. These stories show that men who win in the ring are not necessarily winners. Everybody knows that boxers who lose are, very often, anything but losers (see his comments, pp. ix-x).
The writing talent on display here--William Hazlitt, O. Henry, Jack London, Ring Lardner, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Red Smith, W. C. Heinz, A. J. Liebling, and more--is marvelous. The collection offers a series of sharply observed boxing events with a lot of contemporary culture on view. Gathered around the ring in every story are the some of the fundamental social and economic operations of the boxers' cultures--ominous, evil, comic, absurd. Immensely enjoyable and engrossing.
I found this book to be a good way to learn more about boxing writers. One of the values of a book like this is that works as a sampler. There were a lot of boxing books and some boxing writers I learned about by reading through this collection.

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Leon SPINKS & Michael Spinks
    John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro, One Punch from the Promise Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2013. $25

A depressing tale, twice told. The sadder case is Leon, also the better boxer with the more impressive career. But what a loser, short on discipline and decency. Once the heavyweight champion of the world, a title he held briefly and rapidly lost to Ali, from whom he took it, Leon has ended up sweeping floors in Columbus, Nebraska.
Michael did better up to the end of his career, when it developed that Butch Lewis, his trusted manager, a man described as "friend, partner, and surrogate father" (p. 240), had shrunk Michael's career earnings of $25 million to less than $8.5 million, all of that in Lewis's own estate, and that Michael's retirement was $2.5 million. Well, many of us would be happy if that were the size of our retirment account, of course, but then we didn't earn 10 times that in the ring. As the authors point out, Michael did better than most boxers on the money front.
This book is a cut above many on this page. It's got a good structure, it's clearly written, and it fills readers in on two careers. But like most of the people who write these books, the authors don't push into the hard questions. They seem to encourage the view that people like Leon are victims of their environment--compare Tyson, who also came from a bad background. Bad habits can't be broken; unhappy men can't change. Or so it seems to go. What's the answer? Blame the slums? My view: tell it to Oprah. She changed her life. Why couldn't Leon?

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  "The Chrysanthemums," The Long Valley.
Published in The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936-1941. 1938. New York: Library of America, 1996.

This short story develops an idea about boxing in relation to, a woman’s self-expression and her sense of herself as a competitive, expert gardener. A visit from a peddler stirs her sense of her power and draws her into a competitive spirit that she recognizes first when her husband suggests that they attend a boxing match.

Elisa and Henry Allen are ranchers in the Salinas Valley. About 35 years old, Elisa is a gardener whose strength overflows the quiet chores that make her day. She cuts off dead stems from her chrysanthemums with a pair of "short and powerful scissors" and she "destroys" pests with her "terrier" fingers (pp. 5-6). Steinbeck uses her work of dividing and transplanting chrysanthemum roots to juxtapose life and death.

Henry has just sold some steers and proposes that they go to town to celebrate. Elisa agrees and is in celebratory mood herself. She has had a good year for flowers, and not the first one. "I’ve a gift with things," she says, adding that her mother also had the gift of "planters’ hands" (p. 6). Putting on his "joking tone" but perhaps responding to her confidence, Henry tells her that "there’s fights tonight. How’d you like to go to the fights?" (p. 7). "No, I wouldn’t like fights," Elisa replies. He was "just fooling," however, and he promises to take them to a movie following dinner at the Cominos Hotel.

After Henry goes to look after his cattle, a peddler drives his wagon into the yard and greets Elisa. He is big man, not old, and he is down on his luck. He asks if he could he fix a leak in a kettle or sharpen scissors or knives for her. Elisa she says no, perhaps too firmly. It is as if his offer of assistance insults her own skills and her proud independence. A better salesman than he might seem to be, the peddler changes the topic to her flowers and she warms to him. Her “giant” chrysanthemums are "bigger than anybody [else’s] around here," she boasts (p. 9). When he tells her that a woman down the road would like some chrysanthemum seeds, "Elisa’s eyes grew alert and eager." These flowers grow best from roots, not seeds, she says, and she puts some roots in a flower pot so he can take them when he goes. As she speaks to the peddler, Elisa makes other changes.

She tears off her battered hat and shakes out "her dark pretty hair" (p. 10). Talking about flowers seems to bring her into bloom. She tells the peddler about "planting hands," her words for gardener’s hands that are both sensitive to plants and skillful. Steinbeck indulges in some sexual innuendo. Her breasts swell when she asks the peddler if he’s ever felt that his hands "can’t do anything wrong," and he says yes, he does, "sometimes in the night wagon." Elisa is drawn to him and almost touches his pants leg. He seems unmoved. Proud feelings are nice to have, he admits, but not "when you don’t have no dinner" (p. 12).

Elisa quickly finds a pot for him to mend and pays him fifty cents for his labor. He claims that such repairs are not women’s work. Not about to be put in her place, she claims that she can mend pots and sharpen scissors herself. Indeed, she could show him "what a woman might do" (p. 12). She might even like to live his life and wander between Seattle and San Diego every year. He disagrees, saying that his is no life for a woman. Then he takes the pot from her, although she has to remind him of her instructions for transplanting the roots.

Later on, when Elisa and Henry drive to town for dinner, she sees her precious chrysanthemum roots lying on the road. Saddened by the sight, she thinks that the peddler might at least have thrown the roots in the ditch where they would have been out of sight. It was the pot he valued after all. As their car passes him, she averts her eyes. Bravely she says she is looking forward to dinner and asks Henry, who knows nothing about what has taken place, but who has several times expressed surprise at her changes in of mood, if they can have wine with dinner.

And just as suddenly she remembers boxing. "Henry, at those prize fights," she asks, "do the men hurt each other very much?" "Sometimes a little,” he answers, "not often." "Well," she replies, "I’ve read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood." Startled, he says he didn’t know she "read things like that" (p. 15). She asks if women go to the fights, and Henry says that some women do. Does her question mean that she wants to go? No, it turns out, she does not. "It will be enough if we can have wine," she says. "It will be plenty." She turns up the collar of her coat so Henry cannot see her tears (p. 16). It will be enough for what, or plenty of what, she does not say, but compensation and consolation are among the words that come to mind.

In unusual form in thie story, Steinbeck, who so often is dogmatic, lets the reader to the work. The peddler’s pride in his craft parallels Elisa’s pride in her "planters’ hands." When he shows interest in her flowers, she becomes more beautiful, less a farmer’s wife and more a woman proud of what she can do, and also woman with a competitive spirit. But she is defeated when she discovers that the peddler has used flattery to con her into an unnecessary repair. He exploited her strength, not her weakness; he took advantage of her ambition to transplant her chrysanthemums—and her power—into another woman’s garden. The discovery that he was reduced her gift to its container awakens her interest in boxing. The peddler’s cynicism points to the toughness of men who "hurt each other very much," much as she has been hurt by a man, that is. It seems to be a long way from boxing gloves soaked in blood to the peddler’s cynical exploitation of Elisa’s desire to spread her flowers. When she sees her beloved chrysanthemum roots lying in the roadway, she begins to wonder how violent men can be, and how directly women experience this side of manhood.

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  Anatomy of a Murder. New York: H. Wolf, 1958.

This is an impressively literary "trial novel," as the genre is known. The author (Traver being the pen name of John D. Voekler, 1903-1991) was a prosecuting attorney whose novels focused on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He became a justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan.

The book contains references to some important heroic works, including Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (113-15). Also quoted are poems by William Blake (437), essays by William Hazlitt (247), and other writers. Among the titles is Blake's "King Edward the Third," a heroic verse drama in which the prince declares that it is better to fall with glory than not to fight at all. This hard-won glory might be snatched away by the tricks of the world. Even so, "the pure soul shall mount on native wings, disdaining little sport, and cut a path into the heaven of glory." Such hunger for battle and glory strikes the narrator, who often seems to be thinking of boxing, describes as "Saxonly muscular and bleeding" (437).

In the book, a lawyer is learning about the character of a man whose murderer the lawyer will be defending. The deceased, named Barney, a bar owner who realized he could make more money from tourists than lumberjacks and truck drivers. As his area became gentrified (so to speak), Barney got tough with the "seedy and besotted local gentry," including the workers, and the latter, not about to go gently, fought for the right to drink in Barney's bar. But to no avail. "If the interlopers wanted to box, Barney boxed ‘em; if they wanted to wrassle, he wrassled ‘em," and so on, we learn. Barney won all of these fight. But then a lumber jack, twice Barney's size, showed up. The lumberjack had been "an amateur pugilist of no mean attainment." He had, among other distinctions, reached the semi-finals in the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament. Barney and the lumberjack fight for an hour and seven minutes (without round breaks, of course). Both men were exhausted, but Barney had enough wit to feint with is left and knock out the lumberjack with his right. The lumberjack left his camp the next day, and no more truck drivers or lumberjacks tried to drink where Barney did not want them (144-45).

This epic contest might have been fought a century earlier, when bouts could last for hours. Traver returns to boxing superficially several times. The young boxer's defeat is recalled by someone on the witness stand (163). Boxing becomes a metaphor for arguments between the defense and prosecution in the trial (e.g., "a smart boxer stung in the first round" has to reassess the opponent; the judge dismisses the arguments as "sparring," 206-7). Trial sessions are described as "bouts" with rounds (220, 235), and surprises in court are referred to as "jabs" (243).

Traver uses other sports in this way, such as baseball (259, "fast knuckle balls"). His sport of choice, however, was fly fishing, as an admiring article in Wikipedia indicates.

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Mike TYSON and Larry Sloman
  Undisputed Truth. New York: Penguin, 2013. $25.

Part of the interest of this overly long book is its candid disclosure of the state of mind of the hero and his anxious rise to power. The book gives the lie to the tale that boxing reforms tough boys who grow up in hard circumstances (no disputing this in Tyson's case).
Tyson was taken under the protection of Cus D'Amato. But the youngster hardly reformed his criminal intentions as a result of this mentoring. For example, Tyson notes that he skipped out on weekends to go back to the ghetto and connect with his theft ring.
Tyson's pride in his sexual exploits and lavish homes makes for tedious and depressing reading. That so many books by so many boxers make exactly the same points says a lot about what the reading public expects of men who rise to the top rank of boxing. It's not good.
Readers are supposed to enjoy the boasting, perhaps, because we know that the boaster will come to a bad end. We enjoy his exploits on the way up. Perhaps male readers are expected to envy the tales about women and drugs. But in the end we see that the boxer is dense, however powerful he was in the ring, and easily duped. He gets his due. How can this be the b est boxing has to offer?

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Continued from above     Poole, PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao.
Much in Poole’s book shows a boxer’s ascent to “conqueror” status does not “wipe away” injustice. In many cases (including this one), success seems to highlight inequality, as does Pacquiao’s (and his family’s) conspicuous spending on luxury items in a nation of widespread poverty. Can we think of a boxer who became more just or honest because of his boxing success? Despite the commonplace view that boxing lifts up the boxer, such figures as Tyson, Ali, and Duran were not transformed into wise gentlemen by their boxing success. Men with a social conscience and respectful demeanor—Floyd Patterson being the archetype, Ray Mancini, a few others—claimed those attributes before they claimed success in the ring.
I also doubt Poole’s claim that the boxer’s struggle to dominate and to achieve conqueror status is “more fulfilling than money.” Pacquiao never had enough money and in his most successful days gave large sums to strangers. His generosity was motivated by a history of knowing what it was like not to have money, and also, one suspects, by a sense of inferiority related to poverty. Like Ali in this regard, Pacquiao’s good judgment took second place to a need to be liked.
Like a long list of champion boxers, Pacquiao lacked financial good sense and business acumen, and like them he seems to have been susceptible to the whims and greed of his managers and hangers-on. The boxer’s rags-to-riches career explains the financial clouds that form part of his history (and that of so many other boxers). Pacquiao outdid all other boxers in amassing an entourage. In Poole’s account, more than 130 people sometimes traveled with the boxer, at his expense, many of them friends of friends without clearly defined duties.
In another similarity to Ali, Pacquiao has had a political career. Ali’s was chiefly a career of protest and resistance, while Pacquiao, even less well-educated than Ali, chose to run for office and was elected a congressman in 2009. He has been seen as a national hero for a more than a decade. Having lost four of his last nine fights (as of February 2018), Pacquiao faces an uncertain future. At the time Poole was writing, however, his future seemed a lot brighter than it has turned out. And whether future authors will compare him as often to Muhammad Ali as Poole does remains to be seen. That comparison is itself complicated and in many respects is no compliment to Pacquiao.

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