Writers on fighters - Some of the finest books ever written on boxing

19.01.06 - By James Slater: The great sport of boxing has inspired some of the very best work on the page by some of the very best writers. Certainly Norman Mailer and Budd Schulberg have produced absolute classics while using boxing as their muse. Mailer’s The Fight from 1975 is possibly his best book, and the legendary titles that Schulberg wrote while immersed in the fascination of the ring; On the Waterfront from 1954 and The Harder They Fall from ‘56, are respected as the masterworks they are.. And it was boxing that inspired them to produce such timeless and wonderful work. Mailer’s book, written with his firsthand knowledge of being at “The Fight”,is as skilfully woven a tale as one could give to depict the spectacle of a heavyweight championship match.

Norman was clearly enthralled, not only by Ali, but by the defending champion George Foreman, as well as by “The Rumble’s” intoxicating local. Anyone with a mind to reading can enjoy this book; never dare say it was written for boxing fans only. The brilliance of Mailer’s ability, and the subject matter of course, serve to produce a read that transcends the sport.

Some other writers who have shared with us their fascination with, and respect for, the boxing world who I think deserve credit are; Mark Kram, who wrote the un-put-downable Ghosts of Manilla; Thomas Hauser, who penned the equally engrossing Ali book His Life and Times; Phil Berger, who co-wrote autobiographies with Larry Holmes and Joe Frazier and Dominic Calder-Smith, who gave us The Long Round, a fascinating look at the men who fell to the prime Mike Tyson.

Regarding Kram’s effort, this is my own personal favourite book ever to have been written on the sport. It is simply superb and can’t possibly be given justice here. Mark has produced a must read for anyone wanting to know the real story behind today’s shameful beautification of the Ali legend. For although Kram admits to Ali’s extraordinary talent as a boxer, he repels the modern day history written by people only in school or not even born at the time Ali was “Shocking the world”, who choose to treat Ali as something of a Saint, ignoring his all too human flaws, content instead to give their fairytale version of the man. I believe Ali’s legend and the genuine moments of genius he gave us are strong enough to withstand both criticism and Kram’s attempts at a much more truthful and accurate story. The purpose Ghosts of Manilla serves is to look back without the rose tinted glasses. This is, as the back cover’s appraisal reads, “An exceptionally brave book”.

And understandably it underwent a lot of flack upon release. I think it’s a modern day classic and not only does it provide a much more sober account of Ali (and to a lesser extent Joe Frazier),it also describes the unforgettable epics between Ali and Frazier in vivid and masterful text. Kram’s words are soaked in a passion for the truth as well as for the sport’s intensity. An intensity his work more than adequately captures. Go out and buy this incredible book now!

Sadly Mark Kram passed away recently and the world of literature is the loser due to this. Ghosts of Manilla makes a fitting last work for which to be remembered by.

The autobiographies of Holmes and Frazier co-written with Berger are also thoroughly good books. And, with all due respect to Larry and Joe, Berger is the talent behind the text, making these two all time great fighters’ life stories such compelling reads. The Frazier book, entitled, what else? - Smokin’ Joe, is my favourite of the two and I devoured its pages in two sittings. Joe truly was a strong man and to emerge victorious in as many hard fights as he did is testament to his strength, determination and sheer guts. All the facts behind his achievements are included in the book, such as the recent shocking revelation that Joe is legally blind in one eye, and had fought his entire career with this handicap. This makes one appreciate Joe’s courage and heart all the more and, judging by the fine effort he gives in conjunction with the great man, Phil Berger definitely does.

Another fine book is the story of “The Easton Assassin”, Larry Holmes. Entitled, Against the Odds, Larry is rightfully proud of his accomplishments, more so due to what he considers to be a lack of respect that he had to endure while on the way up. Both he and Joe suffered in the shadow of Ali during their peak years and it certainly comes across how both men still carry bitterness when it comes to “The Greatest”, especially Frazier. Maybe they have some justification in doing so, after all,
the insults went way beyond too far when Ali launched into the well known “gorilla” monologue aimed at Joe, and Larry must have been hurt also, due to his talents being constantly judged against those of his former employer. Larry also rips into today’s heavyweights, questioning their ability to compare with the best of his era; no doubt not too many people will disagree with him on his opinions here. The stories behind these two legends are as fascinating as they are well told, and their personalities shine through via the page. Most boxers really do have incredible depth.

Sometimes it takes a great writer to educate us regarding the complexities and emotions of the prize fighter. And to anyone who still maintains the sport is simple brutality and aggression, I would say they could do with some of their ignorance removing. A good place to start would be by reading either one of these two intimate and honest portrayals.

Also on the subject of Ali, other than Ghosts of Manilla, I think His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser is the best ever book on Muhammad. Hauser lets all the relevant characters from Ali’s life, both in and out of the ring have their say. It is a painstakingly compiled book and although it was written with the cooperation of Ali, any potential reader should not be
put off by thinking it may make the book biased in favour of its subject. This is not the case and the book pulls no punches. There are plaudits as there are criticisms of Ali and as a result it is a refreshing and honest account of the best heavyweight champion of all- time. Ali fought the best and was victorious on nearly every occasion, and the recollections of his opponents and their differing views of Ali make Hauser’s book essential for any fan of Ali, or boxing. The bravery of Ali in his battle with Parkinson’s syndrome is also covered and Hauser had access to private medical records due to Ali’s generosity. Some of these records and the information held in them are quite alarming, particularly regarding Ali’s health when entering his ill-fated bout with Larry Holmes, there is no wonder these revelations angered many.

There is an absolute bookcase full of books available on Ali but to my mind one need only read the two mentioned here, unless a devoted Ali worshipper. Writing about a different boxer or two sometimes seems like a crime, however, and I for one would like to visit my local bookshop and see work dedicated to more than just a collection of Ali books and very little else when the sign reads - Boxing.

One writer who has obliged on this matter is Dominic Calder-Smith, who gave us The Long Round. A book giving the victims of the peak Mike Tyson a welcome voice. This is an original idea as, along with Ali, Tyson has far too many books written about him and Smith should be applauded for taking the opposite route, putting pen to paper regarding some lesser known but no less courageous fighters, while still staying with the Tyson theme. Tyson did look invincible in his prime years of 1985 - 1988 and this book focuses on the contenders who had to face the fury of the real “Iron Mike”. As enjoyable as interesting, it goes into great detail on the fights themselves while also bringing us right up to date with the boxers’ life stories. Where they are now, how their match with Tyson affected their lives and what the future holds. There are chapters on Marvis Frazier, Trevor Berbick, Tyrell Biggs, Tony Tucker and Pinklon Thomas among others, and the account of Berbick, especially regarding his current mental state, is almost unbelievable. There are stories of heartache to match the ones of glory in a fascinating read.

All the above books are extremely well written. They are as exciting and interesting as the sport to which they are dedicated. They also serve to remind us just how special and unique pugilism, and its practitioners, really are. Any fan of the sport could certainly do a lot worse than to find room on their book shelf for the titles focused on in this article.

Article posted on 20.01.2006

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