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Book Review

Ernest Hemingway, Boxing, and “Fifty Grand”

Thomas Hauser

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Ernest Hemingway referenced boxing from time to time in his writing. But one of his works was devoted entirely to the sweet science.

Hemingway’s great novels were far in the future when he wrote “Fifty Grand.” He was a 27-year-old journalist and short story writer. The Atlantic Monthly published the 8,000-word piece in 1927.

Fifty Grand is told in the first person by Jerry Doyle, the trainer for welterweight champion Jack Brennan. There was a time when Brennan was a very good fighter. “He certainly did used to make the fellows he fought hate boxing,” Doyle notes. But Brennan is now tired and old. He has looked awful in training camp. In Doyle’s words, “He just hasn’t got anything inside any more.”

The odds are 2-to-1 against Brennan on the eve of his title defense at Madison Square Garden against challenger Jimmy Walcott. Two nights before the fight, Brennan tells Doyle that he has bet $50,000 on Walcott.

“It ain’t crooked,” Jack says to his trainer. “You know I can’t win anyway. How can I beat him? I’m through after this fight. I got to take a beating. Why shouldn’t I make money on it? I’ll give them a good show. It’s just business.”

The fight itself is dramatically told, as one would expect. After all, this is Ernest Hemingway.

Brennan controls the early rounds with his jab.

“Walcott was after him,” Hemingway writes, “going forward all the time with his chin on his chest. All he knows is to get in there and sock. But every time he gets in there close, Jack has the left hand in his face. That left-hand is just automatic. It’s just like it was connected with Walcott’s face. After about four rounds, Jack has him bleeding bad and his face all cut up. But every time Walcott’s got in close, he’s socked so hard he’s [put] two big red patches on both sides just below Jack’s ribs. Every time he gets in close, he socks Jack in the body so they can hear it outside in the street.”

By the middle rounds, Walcott is dominating the fight. Jack’s left arm is getting heavy. His strength is gone. His legs have deserted him. He’s taking a terrible beating, especially to the body. All he wants now is to avoid the indignity of a knockout, finish on his feet, and collect his purse plus the $25,000 profit on his bet.

“It was going just the way he thought it would,” Doyle recounts. “He knew he couldn’t beat Walcott.”

Round eleven.

“The gong rang and we pushed him out. He went out slow. Walcott came right out after him. Jack put the left in his face and Walcott took it, came in under it, and started working on Jack’s body. Jack tried to tie him up and it was just like trying to hold on to a buzz-saw. Jack broke away from it and missed with the right. Walcott clipped him with a left-hook and Jack went down. He went down on his hands and knees and looked at us. The referee started counting. Jack was watching us and shaking his head. At eight, Jack got up. The referee had been holding Walcott back with one arm while he counted. When Jack was on his feet Walcott started toward him.”

Then the plot becomes a bit contrived.

“Walcott came up to Jack looking at him. He backed Jack up against the ropes, measured him, and then hooked the left very light to the side of Jack’s head and socked the right into the body as hard as he could sock, just as low as he could get it. He must have hit him five inches below the belt. I thought the eyes would come out of Jack’s head. They stuck way out. His mouth come open. The referee grabbed Walcott. Jack stepped forward. If he went down, there went fifty thousand bucks. He walked as though all his insides were going to fall out.”

Now the dilemma. If Jack collapses from the low blow, he’ll win by disqualification and be $75,000 poorer than if he’d lost. He struggles to maintain his feet and assures the referee that he can continue.

“It wasn’t low,” Jack says. “It was a accident. I’m all right,”

“Come on and fight,” Jack says to Walcott.

The referee waves Walcott in.

“Jack’s face was the worst thing I ever saw, the look on it. He was holding himself and all his body together and it all showed on his face. All the time he was thinking and holding his body in where it was busted. Then he started to sock. Walcott covered up and Jack was swinging wild at Walcott’s head. Then he swung the left and it hit Walcott in the groin and the right hit Walcott right bang where he’d hit Jack. Way low below the belt. Walcott went down and grabbed himself there and rolled and twisted around. The referee grabbed Jack and pushed him toward his corner. There was all this yelling going on. The referee was talking with the judges and then the announcer got into the ring with the megaphone and says, ‘Walcott on a foul.’”

Walcott has been unable to rise and thus been declared the winner by disqualification. Did he have a fix of his own in mind when he deliberately went low on Jack? From Hemingway’s point on view, that’s secondary to the belief that Jack Brennan fought like a champion by continuing to fight after the low blow even though his goal was to deliberately lose.

But Hemingway didn’t just write about boxing. He considered himself a boxer.

How good was he? Not very.

Hemingway’s most notable ring encounter came at The American Club in Paris in 1925 when he sparred against a Canadian writer named Morley Callaghan. The two men had squared off on several previous occasions. Callaghan, in an account corroborated by third parties who were present, wrote about the experience in a book entitled That Summer in Paris.

“Ernest was big and heavy,” Callaghan recalled. “Over six feet, and I was only five-foot-eight and fat. Whatever skill I had in boxing had to do with avoiding getting hit. I was a little afraid of Ernest. All of the lore and legend of the pros seemed to be in his stance and in the way he held his hands. His chin down a little to his shoulder, he made an impressive picture. Watching him warily, I could only think, ‘Try and make him miss, then slip away from him.’ All I did for the first three-minute round was slip away.”

Then, between rounds, Callaghan realized, “I’m not trying to box with him. I’m trying to defend myself against the wild legends I’ve heard.”

The Canadian was more competitive for the rest of that first sparring session.

Hemingway and Callaghan sparred together several times thereafter.

“The truth,” Callaghan reminisced, “was that we were two amateur boxers. The difference between us was that he had given time and imagination to boxing. I had actually worked out a lot with good fast college boxers. He was a big rough tough clumsy unscientific man. In a small bar or in an alley where he could have cornered me in a rough-and-tumble brawl, he might have broken my back; he was so much bigger. But with gloves on and in a space big enough for me to move around, I could be confident. I could see that, while he may have thought about boxing, dreamed about it, consorted with old fighters and hung around gyms, I had done more actual boxing with men who could box a little and weren’t just taking exercise or fooling around.”

Their final sparring session was particularly intense.

“Ernest had become rougher,” Callaghan recounted, “His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me. I had to punch faster and harder myself to keep away from him. It bothered me that he was taking the punches on the face like a man telling himself he only needed to land one punch himself. Then Ernest came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing must have been just right. I caught him on the jaw. Spinning, he went down, sprawled out on his back.”

The fly in the ointment was that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was serving as timekeeper, had become so engrossed in the proceedings that he’d let the round run a minute long. Hemingway reportedly never spoke to Fitzgerald again.

Who else did Hemingway spar with? Well, at least one man wouldn’t spar with him.

Jack Dempsey visited Paris while heavyweight champion and later recalled, “There were a lot of Americans in Paris, and I sparred with a couple, just to be obliging. But there was one fellow I wouldn’t mix it with. That was Ernest Hemingway. He was about twenty-five or so and in good shape, and I was getting so I could read people, or anyway men, pretty well. I had this sense that Hemingway, who really thought he could box, would come out of the corner like a madman. To stop him, I would have to hurt him badly, I didn’t want to do that to Hemingway. That’s why I never sparred with him.”

Then, years later, Hemingway engaged in a sparring session of sorts with Dempsey’s conqueror, Gene Tunney. George Plimpton told the tale as follows:

“It happened at Hemingway’s home outside Havana, where Hemingway was always trying to get Tunney, whenever he came to visit, to spar bare-fisted. Tunney would grumble and get up on occasion to do it, though mostly he looked up at Hemingway from his armchair and said no. On this occasion, the two men began shuffling around the big living room, and Hemingway did what Tunney half-expected. He threw a low punch, perhaps out of clumsiness, but it hurt. It outraged Tunney. He feinted his opponent’s guard down and then threw a whistling punch, bringing it up just a millimeter short of Hemingway’s face so that the fist and the ridge of bare knuckles completely filled the other’s field of vision, the punch arriving there almost instantaneously so that immutable evidence was provided that, if Tunney had let it continue its course, Hemingway’s facial structure – nose, cheekbones, front teeth, and the rest – would have snapped and collapsed inwardly. And Tunney looked down the length of his arm into Hemingway’s eyes and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’”

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing  – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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Book Review

British Boxing Writer Tris Dixon Has Authored a Long-Overdue Book

Arne K. Lang

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British Boxing Writer Tris Dixon Has Authored a Long-Overdue Book

“Terrific beatings taken on the head reduced some of the old boxers to a state of utter simplicity in so far as their mental processes are concerned.” – Nat Fleischer “As We See It,” The Ring, October, 1924.

Nearly 100 years have elapsed since Nat Fleischer wrote those words in the influential monthly magazine that he co-founded two years earlier, the self-styled Bible of Boxing. Four more years would elapse before the term “punch drunk” entered the lexicon of medical terms. And in the ensuing years, there would be scattered reports in medical journals and to a lesser extent in boxing magazines suggesting that the condition that Fleischer described was far from rare; indeed, that some degree of neurological impairment is almost inevitable for boxers who answer the bell for many rounds (unless, of course, they happen to die young, predeceasing the decomposition).

It’s boxing’s dirty little secret and, up until now, no one has bothered to gather up the scattered medical reports and then place them along a continuum to show how our understanding of this affliction has evolved. Enter prominent British boxing writer and former amateur boxer Tris Dixon who performed this exercise for his newest book, “Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing,” the newest release from Hamilcar.

Don’t be misled. This is no dry medical treatise overburdened with polysyllabic medical jargon. True, Dixon interviewed many neuroscientists in the course of his research, but he leavened these interviews with historical tidbits and with insights culled from conversations with boxing people, fleshing out the story in imagery that will leave a lasting impression on general readers. Several of Dixon’s fellow boxing journalists turn up in the pages of this book, as do a number of retired boxers speaking candidly about a subject too often swept under the rug – Herol “Bomber” Graham, Bobby Quarry, Chuck Wepner, Matthew Macklin, Gerry Cooney, and Freddie Roach, to name just a few.

Dixon even had the foresight to interview the wives of several ring-damaged boxers: Frankie Pryor, widow of Aaron; Rose Norton, widow of Ken; and the newly-widowed Brenda Spinks, wife of Leon. These ladies, who formed a support group, provide insights from the caregivers’ perspective.

Nat Fleischer framed his quick 1924 observation in words that were insensitive and yielded a portrait of a damaged fighter that was too broad in its outline. A more exacting portrait emerged in “Punch Drunk,” a seminal 1928 paper by the noted American pathologist Dr. Harrison Martland.

Martland’s paper, notes author Dixon, established the term “punch drunk syndrome” in the medical literature, a syndrome characterized by slurred speech and Parkinson’s-like symptoms such as clumsiness in walking, memory loss, and tremors.

“Punch-drunk” was a poor choice of words; unintentionally derisive. Over time, it evolved into the somewhat less condescending pugilistic dementia and then to CTE, the acronym for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The early literature on punch-drunkenness assumed that second-rate boxers were most at risk, especially crowd-pleasers. That opinion would be debunked. CTE doesn’t discriminate: “Slick movers, punchers, warriors” are all susceptible.

As for ways to make the sport safer, Dixon lets his interview subjects speak for him. Neurologist Dr. Charles Bernick, who works with retired athletes at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, and Tom Moyer Jr, producer of the heartbreaking documentary, “After the Last Round,” build a compelling case that boys and girls should not be pushed into boxing while their brains are still developing. In a related vein, says Dixon, there’s been talk of decorated amateurs already showing signs of slipping even before they turn pro because “all those rounds add up.”

(As an aside, this reporter was reminded of something he read while researching the career of Tacoma’s Davey Lee Armstrong, the two-time U.S. Olympian who died earlier this year from complications of dementia at age 64. In a story that appeared in the Detroit Free Press, Armstrong’s professional trainer/manager Emanuel Steward said that Armstrong, although only 26 years old and a pro for less than three full years, was already a shot fighter. “He’s been fighting since he was 9 years old. Because he was the best, he was consistently fighting the best. When you do that, the wear and tear on your body is going to be heavy…It’s just not there for him anymore. I’ve got to tell him. I can’t let anything happen to that boy. I just couldn’t deal with it if something bad happened to him,” Steward told sports columnist George Puscas. Armstrong would have three more fights before heeding Steward’s advice, leaving the professional ranks with a record of 24-3.)

Another recurrent suggestion is that boxers should do less sparring between fights. Headgear is useful for reducing the incidence of cuts, but does not diminish the long-term effects of blows to the head. Chris Nowinski, the founder of Boston’s Concussion Legacy Foundation, told Dixon that he believes that 90 percent of the damage that a boxer accrues over the course of his career comes from sparring.

Every young boxer believes that he is bulletproof, complicating reform efforts. And, it is true that CTE isn’t inevitable. Archie Moore, who had 220 documented pro fights and fought some of boxing’s hardest hitters, lived to be 81 and was sharp as a tack deep into his eighth decade. Most of the top campaigners during the Golden Era of Heavyweights struggled with neurological issues in retirement, but not George Foreman (now 72) or Earnie Shavers (77) – or at least not yet; CTE can regress from almost imperceptible to full-blown very quickly.

Then there is the hodgepodge of state regulatory bodies and the lack of uniformity between them. Moreover, it should be noted that health privacy laws prohibit individuals such as Dr. Bernick from sharing their findings with others without the consent of the boxer.

I wouldn’t lump Tris Dixon with the muckrakers of the Progressive Era. That would only be true if his intent in writing the book was to provide ammunition for the abolitionists, and it most certainly was not. As Thomas Gerbasi was quick to note in his review of “Damage,” Dixon actually loves boxing. “What (Dixon) created,” says Matt Christie, Dixon’s successor as editor of Boxing News, “is not a book that should see the sport outlawed but a survival guide for all within it.”

It would have been nice to learn more about how the great trainer Freddie Roach copes with his ring damage; the cocktail of pills he must take each day to keep his condition from worsening to where he can no longer be an effective coach. The inspirational Roach has lived with Parkinson’s-like symptoms for more than half of his adult life and yet he hasn’t let it hold him back. Also, since this is a book that I will be using as a reference source again and again, it’s frustrating that there is no index.

But what is a book review without quibbles? Kudos to Tris Dixon for writing a book that should be on the shelf of every library in every corner of the English-speaking world.

(Editor’s note: Dixon’s book provided the inspiration for Ted Sares’ latest TSS survey, arriving shortly. Also forthcoming is an interview of the author by TSS correspondent Rick Assad.)

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Book Review

“The SuperFight” Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Sugar Ray Leonard

Thomas Hauser

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BOOK REVIEW by Thomas Hauser — Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler were two of the greatest fighters of all time. On April 6, 1987, they met in the ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in one of the most anticipated fights ever. The SuperFight by Brian Doogan (published by Brian Doogan Media) revisits that historic encounter and puts it in context.

“Leonard,” Doogan writes, “was Ali’s successor, the most charismatic, bankable, and virtuoso exponent of his trade. The standard-bearer for his sport. Apolitical with multicultural appeal, courted by corporate America, championed by the TV networks, paraded and fawned over on the chat show circuit. The cool acceptable face of a dark, squalid, ultimately indefensible profession.”

Or phrased differently, as Mike Tyson put it, “Ray Leonard was a pitbull with a pretty face” who became the highest paid athlete of his time.

Hagler loved the craft and hated the business of boxing. His early years were spent in riot-torn Newark, New Jersey. His mother moved the family to Brockton, Massachusetts, where Marvin dropped out of high school after fathering a son. Trained and managed by Goody and Pat Petronelli, he earned his championship by cutting a wide swath through the middleweight division.

“Hagler has done everything you could ask of a champion,” Hall of Fame great Archie Moore said after Marvin (or, as he was legally known by then, “Marvelous Marvin”) destroyed Thomas Hearns over three of the most enthralling rounds in boxing history. “He’s fought one top contender after another and beaten them all. I rate him right up there with Sugar Ray Robinson. He’s a hard hitter with both hands. And he’s cruel in the ring, like a great fighter must be.”

Hagler was hard-working, disciplined, and honest. Pure fighter, if there is such a thing. “His aura,” Doogan observes, “spoke for him.”

“I’ve gotten meaner since I became champion,” Hagler noted. “They’re all trying to take something from me that I’ve worked long and hard for years for. And I like the feeling of being champ.”

For most of their respective ring careers, Leonard and Hagler plied their trade in parallel universes, dominating the welterweight and middleweight divisions. The thirteen-pound weight differential between them was considered too wide to bridge. From time to time, Ray dangled the possibility of a super-fight in front of Marvin in the manner of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip of that era. But he was toying with Hagler. And over time, Marvin’s resentment grew, fueled by the disparity in purses between them.

Mike Trainer was a constant throughout Leonard’s ring career. Ray trusted the attorney to look after his business interests, and Trainer did so brilliantly.

Hagler’s purse for his first pro fight was forty dollars. Leonard, the darling of the United States boxing team at the 1976 Olympics, made $50,000 for his pro debut. Leonard earned $1,000,000 for his first title opportunity against Wilfred Benitez. Hagler’s first title challenge was against Vito Antuofermo on the undercard that night. Marvin was paid $40,000. And he got screwed by the judges, who ruled the bout a draw.

Four fights later, Hagler earned a second title shot, this time against Alan Minter who he stopped in three rounds. Marvin’s purse that night was $150,000. Meanwhile, Leonard was paid $17 million for two fights against Roberto Duran (a loss avenged in an immediate rematch) and $12 million (equal to more than $35 million today) for knocking out Thomas Hearns.

“No one,” Doogan writes, “wanted to take a look beneath the mask that was Sugar Ray, the ATM machine for family and friends, the all-American and international star, [But] to Hagler, he was always ‘pretty boy’ – a description the middleweight king spat out with contempt. The antithesis in almost every respect of the spartan blue-collar outsider who, by overwhelming force of will, climbed the ranks to establish himself as the feared ruler of the sport’s red-light district.”

Five months after beating Hearns, Leonard disposed of Bruce Finch in three rounds. Then he suffered a detached retina and left boxing, only to return in 1984 to fight Kevin Howard. Howard knocked Ray down – the first time in Leonard’s career that he’d been on the canvas. Ray prevailed on a ninth-round stoppage that brought his record to 33-1. But he’d looked mediocre, and the assumption was that his days as an elite fighter were over.

Meanwhile, Hagler was becoming increasingly marketable with victories over Duran and Hearns elevating him to superstar status. On March 3, 1986, he added to his laurels by stopping John Mugabi in eleven rounds.

But against Mugabi, Hagler seemed to be slipping a bit. And outside the ring, for the first time, he was growing ambivalent about fighting.

At the same time, Leonard was getting an itch that he had to scratch. Commenting during the telecast of Hagler-Hearns, Ray acknowledged, “I would be lying if I told you I didn’t envy those two men up there right now. There is a lot you don’t miss in boxing. You don’t miss the roadwork while the rest of the world is sleeping. You don’t miss all the hype, all the promotion. But you do miss moments like these. You miss the feeling that, for a little time, the whole world is looking at you and the guy you are fighting. You miss the fact that, for a few days of your life, you’re at the dead center of the world.”

Offers for Hagler vs. Leonard were forthcoming. Despite Hagler’s ebbing desire, it was a fight that Marvin had to take. Bob Arum, who would promote the bout, said as much when he declared, “If Leonard decides not to accept the offer, I think Marvin would be delighted. He really and truly doesn’t want to fight Leonard. He’s doing it to protect his reputation.”

Eventually, a deal was reached. For only the third time in his ring career, Leonard would be on the short end of a purse split. Leonard-Benitez and Duran-Leonard II had been the first two instances. This time, after all the revenue streams were added up, Team Hagler would take home roughly $20 million while Leonard’s end would be $12 million.

But in exchange, Leonard received several significant concessions. The fight would be twelve rounds, not fifteen. It would be contested in a 20-foot ring. The fighters would wear ten-ounce gloves instead of eight. And because Ray had previously suffered a detached retina, the fighters would wear thumbless gloves.

“I’m not coming back to have a career,” Leonard said. “I’ve had a career. I want Marvin.”

Hagler was a 7-to-2 betting favorite.

In the preceding five years, Leonard had fought once – his unimpressive outing at 149 pounds against Howard. Now he’d be fighting the dominant middleweight of his time and one of the greatest fighters ever.

Previously, Emanuel Steward (who trained Thomas Hearns) had opined, “A Hagler-Leonard fight would be a fraud on the public. It would be another Larry Holmes – Muhammad Ali show. A hoax.”

The sporting press was in accord:

*         Hugh McIlvanney (The Observer): “I think it’s ludicrous that Sugar Ray should be able to come back after one fight in more than five years – nine very unimpressive rounds – and step into a world championship fight. We all love Sugar Ray. He possessed everything essential to the great man’s fighting armoury. Superb technique, speed, fluency, imagination, punching power, and a strong chin. And behind his dazzling good looks and the readily summoned charm, there was the remorselessness of a street fighter. But what is being said about him now by his admirers relates mainly to what he was. I think he is more memory than substance.”

*         Jim Murray (The Los Angeles Times): “You look at Sugar Ray Leonard and you want to take him to lost-and-found and buy him an ice cream cone until you can find his mother and father. You look at Marvelous Marvin Hagler and you wonder where the police are when you need them. If this is a contest, so is a train wreck.”

*         Tom Boswell (The Washington Post): Hagler is the embodiment of the fighter we don’t want Leonard to fight. Hagler hurts you. He changes you. Permanently.”

“If he’s foolish enough to step in the ring with me, I’m foolish enough to rip his eye out,” Hagler said ominously. “Nobody is going to want Leonard when I get through with him. I’m gonna rip his brains out. Ray says he’ll use strategy. But I’ll be using something called punching. This guy is just a pretty boy.”

Sixty of 67 writers polled on site predicted that Hagler would win, 52 of them by knockout.

“It was almost like we were going to a hanging,” HBO commentator Barry Tompkins later reminisced “That was the mood in the air that week in Las Vegas. People thought there’s no way Ray Leonard can win this fight and, essentially, we’re about to watch an execution.”

“Maybe I don’t hit as hard as Marvin, but I hit consistently, “Leonard offered in response. “If I’d always heeded everybody’s advice, I would have stayed in school and never boxed.”

Hagler was 32 years old. Leonard was 30. In 1987, that was getting on in age for a fighter.

Earlier in his career, Leonard had battled an addiction to cocaine. Now that was behind him. Hagler, by contrast, had dabbled with cocaine after beating Hearns. Except with cocaine, it’s hard to just dabble.

More to the point; prior to fighting Leonard, Hagler had said, “For me, the fight with Tommy was World War I. This fight is World War II.” But when the bell for round one against Leonard rang, Marvin didn’t fight like it.

Richard Steele (who refereed Hagler-Leonard) later recalled, “I saw something different about Hagler. He wasn’t himself. As the fight unfolded, I began to realize he was trying to be a boxer instead of the fighter he really was. His ‘destruct and destroy’ mindset was what got him to be the great fighter, the great champion he was. But Leonard had won the mental battle. He got Hagler to change his style.”

Most notably, Hagler gave away the first three rounds by fighting from an orthodox stance instead of his usual southpaw stance. That would cost him dearly.

Equally important, Barry Tompkins later revealed that, before the fight, Leonard had confided in him, “I’m going to tell you how you beat Marvin Hagler. You’ve got to fight three times a round for fifteen seconds. At the beginning of the round, in the middle of the round, and you have to do it again at the end of the round. And you’ll steal the fight.”

When it was over, Dave Moretti scored the bout 115-113 for Leonard. Lou Filippo favored Hagler by a 115-113 margin. The deciding vote was cast by Jo-Jo Guerra whose scorecard was an inexplicable 118-110 in favor of Leonard. Guerra’s scorecard cast a stench over the proceedings. Had he scored the bout 115-113 for Leonard, the verdict would have been less controversial.

For the record; I scored Hagler-Leonard twice – once in a theater watching on closed-circuit TV and later viewing a replay on television. Each time, I scored the bout a draw.

“The truth is really simple,” Hagler said bitterly afterward. “And everybody knows it. Leonard didn’t come to fight. He came to run all night. With the politics, I knew if Leonard stayed on his feet, I was probably gonna lose. And he ran and survived.”

But Leonard wasn’t trying to win a war. He was trying to outpoint an opponent and win a prizefight. As Doogan states, “Whatever the vagaries of the scoring, the reality is Hagler was unable to make good on his vow while Leonard, against all odds, continued to execute his battle plan.”

Hagler never fought again. He retired and stayed retired, moving to Italy and landing roles in four action films.

“You always need to have another road ahead of you,” Marvin said of his new life. “If you ever feel it’s done, then it is done and you’re done too. You’ve always got to keep reaching and striving.”

Leonard, it turned out, was more of a junkie for boxing that Hagler was. Having engineered one of the greatest comebacks in boxing history, Ray would fight five more times over the next ten years, ending his illustrious career on losses to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho, both of whom did to him what people had thought Hagler would do.

The SuperFight is a good book. Brian Doogan did his homework conscientiously. He writes smoothly and fashions compelling portraits of Leonard and Hagler, bringing both men to life. He recounts the key fights in each man’s career leading up to their April 6, 1987, encounter and also their lives outside the ring, including Leonard being sexually abused multiple times as an adolescent, Ray’s troubled first marriage, and the descent into cocaine that almost destroyed his life.

Hagler’s life is similarly explored. One of many whimsical details Doogan recounts that caught my eye is the recollection of Robbie Sims (Marvin’s half-brother) who says of their childhood years, “Every day, he made sure I made my bed, cleaned my side of the room, put my shoes away and the dirty clothes in the dirty-clothes bag.”

Hagler succumbed to an apparent heart attack at age 66 on March 13 of this year. It’s a tragedy that he died as young as he did,

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Book Review

“Sparring with Smokin’ Joe” is a Great Look into a Great, Complicated Man

Phil Woolever

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BOOK REVIEW – Some rare moments arrive, as either a blessing or a curse, to cast definitive impressions of how someone might be remembered. As anyone reading this should well know, such a moment occurred 50 years ago today (March 8, 1971) at Madison Square Garden for Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

For Frazier, a punishing 15-round victory became the foundation to his legacy. That leads us to Sparring with Smokin’ Joe by Glenn Lewis, the latest biographical volume to focus on Frazier, with a timely release date close to the “Fight of the Century” anniversary that should provide plenty of solid promotional material for the book.

As a piece of literature the book, published by Rowman & Littlefield, stands up quite well on its own, and as a piece of boxing literature it stands out, through previously unpublished situational information on Frazier.

I found it to be a must-read for Frazier fans and a solid plus for most boxing libraries.

Author Lewis is a graduate school professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and director of journalism at the affiliated York College with decades of expertise on his resume. This project is expertly constructed and reads very smoothly throughout. Beside the many insightful instances regarding Frazier himself, a very thoughtful portrait of his son Marvis Frazier runs through the narrative, which also conjures a vivid depiction of Frazier’s Broad Street Gym in North Philadelphia.

The book’s unique highlight is the ongoing tale of traveling with Frazier and his all-white band (with multiple Berklee school members) during a tour of southern states.

The first 140 pages or so (out of a listed 256), make up a fascinating memoir of getting to know Frazier and his circle during 1980, around four years after his second crushing defeat to George Foreman. At that point in his life, Frazier was trying to settle into retirement, guide Marvis’s culminating amateur career, and transition from boxing superstar to fledgling vocal attraction.

I devoured the opening sections of the book with reader’s glee, far more than enough to highly recommend Lewis’ book, but toward the end it seemed maybe he should have quit while and where he was ahead.

The last third gets substantially less engaging. The author grew distanced from his subject’s proximity and it shows, as the tale becomes far more familiar in relating already well-documented fight data.

There is still some fine perspective from Lewis like Joe’s hugely destructive obsession with rushing Marvis into disaster versus Larry Holmes, but for many of the closing segments you could cut and paste the same period of Frazier’s career out of Mark Kram Jr’s recent book Smokin’ Joe (2019) and gain a bit more personal touch.

That’s not at all to imply that the boxing writing is weak. Lewis makes an excellent case that Frazier won the rematch with Ali, not only the first fight; which leads to justified speculation on what could have occurred had Frazier gotten the second nod. Back then I shared Lewis’ opinion on the scoring, and his detailed analysis inspires taking another look at the replay.

Some minor gym characters or business associates become animated as if they’re standing in front of you, but I was disappointed in how a charming, complicated guy like Jimmy Young was overlooked and how larger-than-life characters like Gil Clancy and especially George Benton (a living example of where playwright August Wilson drew inspiration) came across rather subdued compared to the boisterous conversationalists I spoke with many times not long after the year Lewis’s story begins.

There are also a couple of minor omissions that, though based on very brief listings, still stick out when considering Lewis’s scholarly, journalistic credentials.

James Shuler is mentioned, but there’s nothing about his tragic death in a motorcycle accident a week after losing to Tommy Hearns in a minor title fight, nor the touching story about Hearns at the funeral, offering to put the belt in Shuler’s coffin. Frazier’s restaurant, Smokin’ Joe’s Corner, is also listed a couple times but there is no mention of the horrible murders that took place there during an inside job robbery and how that tragedy probably put the final nail into Frazier’s aspirations in the food industry.

I also hoped for some tidbits from Frazier’s thoughtful and wise older brother Tommy who provided me with some rare insights (and had an offbeat sense of humor about his name), a stoic trickster who seemed to lovingly enjoy putting his famous sibling on the spot.

Still, the overall impression I got was fantastic. A memoir should share time, location, emotion, and reflection. Lewis achieves all those things many times over.

Which leads to my primary, personal takeaway of this very worthwhile book. Based on a few of the lengthy encounters I was lucky enough to share with Joe Frazier (boxing and non-boxing related), it’s difficult for me to imagine that a canny observer like Lewis didn’t emerge from the amazing and enviable access he got with more wild tales, especially from nights on the road.

So, I’d have to guess, and bet, that Lewis let some of the more sensational situations or quotes remain aloft in the mist of the past, which to me is admirable, even more so in these social media dominated days.

Here’s a non-controversial quote that is included, which provides a sample of the many fine nuggets to be found:

“I don’t think you’re less of a man for crying,” said Joe, taking me by surprise. “It’s healthy for you. I cry if something goes wrong- I’ll cry right out. But if I cry out of anger, look out! Somebody’s in trouble. Crying shows a man has heart and helps him out of his pressures. Just don’t cry for nothing.”

I could almost hear Frazier’s voice when I read that, and descriptions of places I’ve been like Frazier’s gym read true enough to give the entire book an aura of accuracy.

A dozen excellent photographs serve as a first-class coda.

Fifty years after his biggest triumph, Joe Frazier remains a compelling topic in the discourse of sociological significance. This well written tribute does him plenty of justice.

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