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Book Review

Literary Notes: Rocky Marciano and More

John Jarrett has been writing about boxing since 1951 when his first article, a piece about Rocky Marciano, was published in Boxing News. Since then, he has been involved with the sweet science in myriad ways

Thomas Hauser

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Marciano

John Jarrett has been writing about boxing since 1951 when his first article, a piece about Rocky Marciano, was published in Boxing News. Since then, he has been involved with the sweet science in myriad ways including ongoing service as Northern Area Secretary for the British Boxing Board of Control for forty years. During that time, he has written nine books, he most recent of which (Rocky Marciano published by Pitch Publishing) brings Jarrett back to his creative roots.

All biographies of Marciano are written in the shadow of Russell Sullivan’s definitive work, Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times (University of Illinois Press, 2002). But Marciano is a subject who continues to inspire writers to write.

Rocco Francis Marchegiano was born into a struggling working-class family in Brockton, Massachusetts. The first time that he auditioned in the gym for trainer Charlie Goldman (who would ultimately sculpt the rough-hewn block of marble into greatness) Goldman told him, “If you done anything right, I didn’t see it.”

Shirley Povich of the Washington Post later quoted an unnamed observer of the boxing scene as saying, “Rocky Marciano can’t box a lick. His footwork is what you’d expect from two left feet. He throws his right hand in a clumsy circle and knows nothing of orderly retreat. All he can do is blast the breath from your lungs or knock your head off.”

No fighter trained harder than Marciano. That was one of the keys to his success. Asked to elaborate on his training regimen, he noted, “After a while, you get to hate all the guys around you. You get to hate the sight of their faces and the sound of their voices.”

Marciano lost four of the twelve amateur fights that he engaged in. Three decades later, Bob Girard (one of the men who beat him) reminisced, “I beat him because it was three rounds. There were a hundred guys who might have stayed three rounds with Rocco. But no man in the world was gonna beat Rocco in fifteen rounds.”

Jarrett offers an extensive recounting of Marciano’s ring career. There’s a particularly good retelling of the September 23, 1952, fight between Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott when Marciano, trailing on all three scorecards at the start of round thirteen, seized the heavyweight throne with a highlight-reel knockout.

But as is often the case in this book, the most compelling writing with regard to Marciano-Walcott I comes from Jarrett’s judicious choice of quotes rather than his own prose. Here, the choice verbiage originated with Peter Wilson of the Daily Express, who wrote, “Then, like the car you never see on the dark road, the shell which you never hear, shocking, irrevocable, came that tremendous horrifying right. It left Walcott looking down his own spine with eyes that could not see. He crumpled forward, clutching for a rope, knees grayed by the resin dust. A brown paper bag burst by a thoughtless child. A headless, thoughtless, sightless, senseless, paralyzed man. Style, skill, pacing of the fight and good punching, all had availed nothing. Youth and strength are invincible.”

In his dressing room after the fight, Walcott was asked about the knockout punch and acknowledged, “I don’t remember anything. He caught me open and that was it. I don’t know if it was a right or left. I just don’t remember anything.”

Jarrett has done a great deal of research regarding Marciano’s fights. But there’s no new scholarship in his book, nor does he do much to place Marciano in the political and social context of his times. Also, when it comes to Marciano’s personal life, Jarrett tends to view him through rose-colored glasses, painting the portrait of a man who felt ambiguous about boxing because “he hated the time it took away from his family in Brockton.”

In truth, the historical record developed by Sullivan and others suggests that Marciano was more interested in whoring around than in being a good husband and father.

That said; Jarrett’s writing flows nicely and he’s passionate about his subject. Fans of Rocky Marciano will enjoy the book.

*     *     *

Never Stop by Simba Sana (Bolden Books) isn’t a boxing book. It’s a coming-of-age memoir written by a man who grew up in inner-city poverty, escaped, and then had to navigate the world outside it. But boxing keeps popping up in his life.

There’s a warning flag of sorts in an “author’s note” at the beginning of Never Stop that states, “This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of Simba Sana’s memory. While all the stories in this book are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.”

Changing names to protect privacy is understandable. And memory is what it is. The phrase “creative fiction” might leave readers a bit wary.

But Sana writes well and his work demands attention from the start. The opening paragraph reads, “My mother never told me anything about her past – not one thing. This may be hard to believe, but she talked to herself more than she ever actually spoke to me. I grew accustomed to this at home. But as I got older, I became keenly aware that her habit of engaging in intense conversations with herself was not ordinary behavior.”

As Sana (then named Bernard Sutton) moved through adolescence, he trained at several boxing gyms and developed an affinity for the sweet science. Later, he earned master’s degrees from Howard University and St. John’s College and moved into the corporate world.

The most intriguing portion of Never Stop insofar as boxing is concerned deals with the period of time that Sana managed Beethaeven Scottland.

During his sojourn through various gyms, Sana had established a rapport with Scottland. By 1997, “Bee” had fallen out with his manager and walked away from boxing with an 11-4-2 record. In 1998, Simba began managing him on a handshake agreement. Scottland won his first fight back and, by late-2000, had a 20-6-2 record. Meanwhile, Sana was roughly $5,000 in the hole, not having cut Bee’s purses for most fights and having advanced the money for various expenses.

In November 2000, Scottland dumped him. It hurt.

“All the work I’d put in with Bee,” Sana recalls, “and then bam! Just like that. I was no longer Bee’s manager. It was like all my work meant nothing. Bee avoided me, and I didn’t go out of my way to find him either.”

On June 26, 2001, Scottland fought his first fight under new management against unbeaten George Khalid Jones and was knocked out in the tenth round. Sana watched it unfold on ESPN2 and acknowledges, “As Bee lay on the canvas, I felt vindicated. I had been wronged and part of me wanted him to pay for what he did to me.”

That’s impressive honesty given what soon turned Sana’s “sense of satisfaction” to concern. Scottland was carried from the ring on a stretcher and died six days later.

Never Stop is a good book.

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

Close Encounters of the Trump Kind: Reviewing ‘Scoop’ Malinowski’s Latest Book

Jeffrey Freeman

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If you happen to follow boxing or tennis closely, you might know who reporter Mark “Scoop” Malinowski is. Author and editor of fourteen books, Malinowski made his name (and earned his media moniker) by writing informative Biofile write-ups about sports and entertainment stars.

Over time, Scoop’s lost track of how many he’s done. Or who his rookie subject was. His first ever published Biofile (in the Morris County Daily Record) was the NJ Nets’ Derrick Coleman.

His Biofile of Boxing Hall of Famer James Toney was published in a 1992 issue of The Ring. Malinowski remembers Toney had an affinity for the stylish suits of sharp-dressed men like Ray Robinson and Thomas Hearns. “He loved their class. How they conducted themselves.”

For most folks familiar with Malinowski, it is these popular Biofiles that readers fondly remember. According to TSS editor-in-chief Arne K. Lang, Scoop’s Biofiles also ran in Boxing Update and Flash, a pair of well circulated pre-internet newsletters he once subscribed to.

Malinowski gained infamy in 2002 when a close encounter with Mike Tyson resulted in a scary press conference brouhaha where the maddest man on the planet threatened bodily harm to Malinowski and his mother. That’s right, it was Scoop who yelled, “Get him a straightjacket!”

Don’t worry, they’re good buds now.

And Scoop’s next book, Facing Guillermo Vilas, will be for sale on Amazon next week. It’s a tennis book but Scoop tells me that Vilas is a “huge boxing fan” and was friends with the late great Carlos Monzon. “Vilas,” says Malinowski, “shares some fascinating Monzon stories.”

But before we get to my review of Malinowski’s new self-published book, “Close Encounters With Donald Trump,” a boxing-centric collection of Trump recollections told by more than 50 contributors (available on Amazon in paperback and kindle editions), I thought I’d have the colorful writer give TSS readers his first ever Biofile—done on himself.

Biofile “Scoop” Malinowski

Born: Philadelphia, PA Status: Reporter, author. Resides: Teaneck, NJ, Bradenton Beach, FL

Childhood Dream: I just wanted to get involved in professional sports somehow, to be a part of the scene. To contribute my own unique original work and make a positive impact. My visions became clearer later. To write books, do Biofile interviews for newspapers and magazines.

First Journalism Memory: Creating homemade boxing programs and a magazine for our neighborhood boxing cards in junior high school.

Why You Love Boxing: It’s man at his best. A great fight is inspiring on many levels.

Favorite Boxing Movies: “Rocky” and “Gentleman Jim.” When Apollo Creed decks Balboa and he somehow gets up and wants to continue. The look Creed gives him, of pity, respect and awe. I get chills and a tear every time. In “Gentleman Jim,” the scene where Sullivan goes to meet Corbett after their fight at the hotel. The class and respect they show each other.

Favorite Artist: Raoul Dufy, LeRoy Neiman.

Childhood Heroes: Roberto Duran, Carl Kolchak.

First Famous Person You Met or Encountered: Alex Ramos drove by us on the Garden State Parkway, me and my friend Mike Pinto were going with his parents to the Jersey Shore for the weekend in junior high in the 80s. Ramos was driving a white Buick with Yankee pinstripes. He waved to us too! He told me two decades later when we met that the Yankees gifted it to him.

First Car: 1979 Toyota Corolla.

Funniest Boxer: Andrew Golota – great sense of humor, but you have to know him. I’ve been to his house, got him tickets for a week at the 2017 US Open. He drove all night from Chicago to watch the US Open the next day. Huge tennis fan. Also, Lennox – subtle. Very smart, sharp. Maybe the greatest of all time. Joel Casamayor told me he eats rocks and nails for breakfast.

Favorite TV Show: Columbo, Honeymooners.

Embarrassing Career Memory: Misspelling Ross Greenburg’s name for his Biofile in the Boxing Update newsletter. I spelled it Greenberg. He was totally cool about it.

Funny Boxing Memory: I had lunch with Jack Dempsey’s wife Deanna and we did a Biofile in NYC. She told me how she first met Jack. She had a little boutique in a hotel in Manhattan and Jack used to visit her there. That was how the courtship started and evolved. She said when he first told her his name, he didn’t say he was Jack Dempsey. He told her he was John L. Sullivan.

Favorite Movies: Citizen Kane, Three Days of the Condor, Dial M For Murder, Camille.

Greatest Career Moments: Doing hundreds of Biofiles with great boxers like Holmes, Lewis, Klitschkos, Pacquiao, Duran, Hearns, Archie Moore, Jake LaMotta, Holyfield, Bowe, Toney. Meeting artist Leroy Neiman at the Toney-Tiberi fight in 1992 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ. We became close friends. The friendship lasted until his death at age 91 in 2012.

Musical Tastes: 70s and 80s. Steely Dan, Wham, Olivia Newton John, Abba, Bee Gees.

Most Painful Moment: My Muhammad Ali Biofile was aborted after one question. It was at an NBA All-Star function in NYC in the mid-90s. I asked him the first question, his childhood hero. He answered Willie Pastrano. But he motioned with his hand to turn off the tape recorder.

Ali didn’t want to be recorded as his speaking was not strong. So, I ran over to my table to get a pen and paper. But the bodyguard blocked me and wouldn’t let me continue the interview. I should have just done it with no pen or paper, I would have remembered everything!

Favorite Sport Outside Boxing: Tennis. Tracy Austin said it’s “a fistfight without the fists.”

Favorite Fights: I like masterpieces. Duran vs Leonard in Montreal. That fight took over my life. Hopkins vs Trinidad. Lennox Lewis vs Tyson, Rahman 2, Ruddock. The revenge of Vitali vs Corrie Sanders. Tarver KO Jones in two. Klitschko vs Joshua was incredible. Duran’s redemption vs Davey Moore. Pacquiao vs Cotto was magic. Toney vs Jirov was incredible. They embraced each other three different times after that fight in the ring! Major respect. Nunn vs Kalambay. Leonard vs Hearns. Dempsey vs Willard. Ali vs Foreman. Holmes vs Norton. Tyson vs Spinks and Berbick. Tyson could have beaten any man in history on those nights.

***

Fortunately for Scoop, Tyson didn’t beat him for his senseless outburst. The pair now share a friendship that could only have been brokered in boxing. Both are also admirers of President Trump and Tyson’s quotes about Trump are prominent in Close Encounters With Donald Trump.

The book also contains contributions from George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Chuck Wepner, Jackie Kallen, Randy Gordon, Andrew Golota, Michael Marley, Iran Barkley, Randy Neumann, Vinny Pazienza, Bobby Czyz, Montell Griffin, Steve Lott, John Scully, and Paul Vaden.

Oh, and yours truly.

Yes, that’s right, I had my own close encounter with Donald Trump to share in Malinowski’s new book. You’ll have to read it for the whole story but what I can tell you is that it’s published with a photo I snapped of then boxing promoter Trump backstage at Holyfield-Stewart II in 1993.

Almost to a man, the many boxing personalities polled had nothing but respectful and insightful things to say about the human lightning rod who today runs America. Malinowski begins by making it clear his 156-page Trump book has nothing whatsoever to do with a political agenda.

Explains Malinowski: “It is simply a collection of memories and anecdotes from a wide range of people who have had close encounters with the current President of the United States of America, Donald Trump. That is all this book is about, nothing more, nothing less.”

The truth is that Malinowski loves Trump and Close Encounters With Donald Trump reflects that. After his obligatory political disclaimer, Malinowski recalls his own close encounters with Trump in 1988 (at an Azumah Nelson fight he was covering live from press row at Trump Plaza) and again at the 1998 US Open being held at the Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York City.

LITERAL REVIEW

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The opening quote presented in the book doesn’t come from one of the fifty-two contributors but from former two-term President Ronald Reagan. “For the life of me, and I’ll never know how to explain it, but when I met that man, I felt like I was the one shaking hands with the President.”

How novel in the age of coronavirus.

California born super-welterweight Paul Vaden recalls that Trump was seated at ringside in 1999 the night he fought Stephan Johnson at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Tragically, Johnson passed away from injuries suffered in the bout. Vaden’s memories are foggy but he states: “In the hallway of my dressing room after the Stephan fight is where we talked. Trump complimented me on my boxing skills and hand speed. That individual was a huge boxing fan.”

Rocky Balboa inspiration and current Trump supporter Chuck Wepner recalls that Trump really enjoyed the company of fighters and that he once invited him to Mar-A-Lago in Florida. “He was interested in promoting a cage fight, me with Tex Cobb. But it never happened.” Known as the “Bayonne Bleeder” in boxing circles, Wepner laments that Bayonne is a “Democrat town.”

New York City boxing icon Randy “The Commish” Gordon tells for the first time how in 1984 he came to be pushed out of his post at The Ring. “As editor-in-chief, I was interviewing Trump for the cover story in the following month’s Ring. I had intended to put Trump on the cover.”

But the publishers were clearing house.

And editorial heads would roll.

“Doing a great job of saving his job,” Gordon matter-of-factly recalls, “Nigel Collins said it should be me who should be fired, as I was going out of town nearly every week for TV assignments. He didn’t tell them I was interviewing Donald Trump for the next month’s cover and they bought his story. My days at The Ring ended that day with Collins going on to run the magazine.”

Gordon’s Trump feature never ran.

BIG George Foreman isn’t shy about his respect and appreciation for Trump. “‘I will always be grateful to entrepreneur Donald Trump. And now President Donald Trump. A lot of people don’t like him but evidently more do, because he was elected President of the United States.”

Because I’m seven feet tall, I enjoyed heavyweight Randy Neumann’s input. “I met Trump in Atlantic City. He’s pretty tall. I remember being in the elevator with him. He’s bigger than me.”

Donald Trump is 6-foot-3.

One-time welterweight title challenger Larry Barnes keeps it simple: “I never had a problem with Mr. Trump. He always gave me what I needed. I met him at a press conference in Atlantic City. He was a very nice gentleman. I wish him the best because I care about Donald Trump.”

A bitter Larry Holmes veered into “Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap” territory in his description of trying to meet Trump at one of his hotels. “I walked up to him (and said), ‘Hey Donald. How are you?’ He looked at me like I was a piece of shit. So I don’t care for Donald Trump. That’s Donald Trump. He’s the man. It’s all about him. If it’s not about him, it isn’t about nothing.”

Blaming Trump for Mike Tyson’s breakup with manager Bill Cayton, trainer Steve Lott alleges that Trump basically conspired with Robin Givens to steal Mike’s money before Don King could get to it. “Trump is a great con man,” he says. “He quickly realized Robin was a con artist too.”

Judicious boxing manager Jackie Kallen has many memories of Trump. She first met him in 1988 at the Tyson-Spinks fight. Kallen was impressed by his ability to throw a party. “The room was packed with A-listers including Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Billy Crystal, Herschel Walker, and so many others that you didn’t know where to look.”

Kallen also remembers the day in 1992 that her fighter, James Toney, received a gift decision at the Trump Taj Mahal against underdog Dave Tiberi. “Trump thought it was an outrage and went straight to Tiberi’s locker room to console him,” says Kallen. “I remember him looking at me in the ring as the referee held Toney’s hand in the air. He shook his head in disgust. Even though I had nothing to do with the decision, I could tell he was upset with me, and I did not know why.”

Manager Mario Costa shared a poignant story about the night Matthew Hilton was upset by Robert Hines in 1988. Hilton was hurtin at the Hilton. But guess who else was there in Vegas?

You guessed it. The future American President. Costa remembers that Hilton was in a dressing room trailer in the back lot of the hotel. Hilton was rightly devastated. Then somebody knocked on the door. “Trump came to the trailer and wanted to talk to Matthew,” explains Costa. “Matthew said, ‘Okay, let him in.’ He came in. Trump kneeled down on one knee to talk with Matthew.”

John Scully still has a memento of Trump he gained in the dressing room with Derrick “Smoke” Gainer in 1995 at Convention Hall in Atlantic City. “Trump came in after the fight to congratulate Smoke. I saw that and I took a picture of it as it was happening. I thought it was pretty cool at that moment that he came back to the dressing room to congratulate an undercard fighter.”

The photo is in the book.

Andrew Golota is sure that Trump came to his dressing room before his brawl with Michael Grant in 1999 at the Trump Taj Mahal. But not surprisingly, Golota can’t recall what was said during the meeting. Golota also couldn’t remember to keep his punches up. He lost two points for low blows against Grant and then told the referee he couldn’t continue after a knockdown.

Sports writer Michael Marley (incorrectly spelled Micheal in the book) recalls meeting ‘The Donald’ several times in the 80s during his years of covering boxing for the New York Post. Marley says that Trump and then wife Ivana always told him the same thing, “Enjoy yourself.”

Bobby Czyz reveals he almost retired in 1989 to work for Donald Trump as a representative in one of his casinos but it never happened because Czyz kept on fighting until 1998. His love for the President is clear. “I didn’t think he had a chance to win the Presidency because of the Clinton conspiracy. Look, I know they’re all crooked. So many people died under the Clinton regime that it doesn’t make sense. But Donald beat her. I love the guy. I think he’s incredible.”

Rhode Island’s “Pazmanian Devil” Vinny Pazienza hilariously insists that Trump loves HIM for the millions of dollars he made for Trump. “I fought a lot of fights with Trump. Hector Camacho, Greg Haugen, Roberto Duran, Roy Jones, so many fights. I fought in Atlantic City a lot.”

***

For readers looking for less than positive recollections of Trump, there are some in the book, they’re just not told, with the exception of Larry Holmes and Steve Lott, by the boxing people.

A lawyer named Pat English contends that Trump gleefully defaulted on his casino contracts and killed every mom and pop shop from there to Washington DC. Attorney Benjamin Clarke prosecutes Trump for his hair, saying he’s only sure of one thing—that it’s not of this Earth.

For nearly everyone else heard from, from tennis players to golf pros to hockey legends, the general themes expressed in Close Encounters With Donald Trump are those of special memories with a special person. I enjoyed my copy last month on the beach in Aruba.

I’ll never forget my close encounter with Trump.

Boxing Writer Jeffrey Freeman grew up in the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts from 1973 to 1987, during the Marvelous career of Marvin Hagler. JFree then lived in Lowell, Mass during the best years of Irish Micky Ward’s illustrious career. A new member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a Bernie Award Winner in the Category of Feature Under 1500 Words, Freeman covers boxing for The Sweet Science in New England.

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Book Review

“12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym” by Todd D. Synder: Book Review by Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser

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12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym by Todd D. Snyder (West Virginia University Press) is a memoir about Snyder, his father, Appalachia, and boxing in coal country.

Snyder grew up in Cowen, West Virginia, and paints a grim picture of life there.

“There is only one stoplight in the entire county,” he writes. “And that stoplight isn’t even necessary. Nothing much happens and when something happens that looks like something, everyone talks about it. To be a man, for the younger version of myself, was to dunk basketballs, catch touchdowns, score knockouts, and have sex with beautiful women, all before finding your place in the coal mines.”

The coal mines.

“When economic times get tough,” Snyder recounts, “so do the coal company lawyers. They’d shut down the mine, file bankruptcy, and cheat the workers out of their retirement money.” In 2015, Patriot Coal Corporation unfolded a plan to divert money that had been set aside for health care benefits for 969 retired coal miners to pay bankruptcy lawyers and other costs. “Now you see them, now you don’t,” Snyder writes. “No more health care benefits. Life in Cowen is no fair fight. You work till you die, be it in the early or late rounds of life. Folks know the judges aren’t gonna give them a fair shake when it goes to the scorecards. They know a fixed fight when they see one.”

And there’s one thing more to know about life in Cowen.

“Our heroes are defined by their ability to take punishment, their willingness to grit their teeth through pain. Even Jesus Christ with all his talk of peace, love, and forgiveness would have never made it big in my town if not for that long ring walk to Calvary. He had to prove that he was one tough son-of-a-bitch or nobody in Cowen would have taken him seriously.”

Todd’s father was Mike “Lo” Snyder. The nickname “Lo” came from his penchant as a star running back in high school to run low to the ground to hit holes that the offensive line opened for him and, when need be, open holes on his own.

“You can be a big fish in a small pond in a town like Cowen, West Virginia,” Todd notes. “You can be the prettiest girl in school or the richest kid in town or the toughest guy on the block. That’s what my father was – a big fish in a small trailer park.”

After graduating from Webster County High School, Mike Snyder exchanged his helmet and shoulder pads for a miner’s accessories.

“For years,” Todd continues, “he and my grandfather worked side by side at the Smooth Coal Company. Most young men from Cowen dream of becoming something better than their fathers, but their fathers are what they eventually become. That’s how cyclical poverty works.”

The cycle gnawed at Mike Snyder’s insides.

“My father was the kind of fellow who was always much happier in retrospect,” Todd remembers. “Never quite enjoying the moment itself. By the time he turned thirty-five years old, my father resigned himself to the fact that he’d accomplished all that he was ever going to accomplish. Those touchdowns hadn’t gotten him anywhere but right back to the place where folks had always told him he’d end up.”

“My only fear of death,” Mike Snyder once said, “is that hell might be coal powered. The devil will have a coal mine down there in hell heating things up, and I’ll have to be a damn coal miner the rest of eternity.”

Within that milieu, boxing was an important part of Mike Snyder’s life.

“My father’s childhood dream,” Todd recounts, “was to climb through the ropes at Madison Square Garden to beat the hell out of some poor fellow on national television and score a symbolic victory for the town of Cowen, for all of Appalachia perhaps.”

Several months after starting work at the Smooth Coal Company, Mike took up boxing. He had five amateur fights, winning all of them by knockout. Then marriage and the demands of coal mining ended his sojourn as a fighter. “If the right person would’a come along and paid some attention to me,” he later lamented, “I could’a made something out of this boxing shit.”

In 2000, Mike set up a makeshift boxing ring in a small room in the back of the Classic Curl Beauty Shop (a business run by his wife). It would be a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary life, he thought, to teach a few young men how to box. Four years later, the First Baptist Church of Cowen opened a community center and gave Mike the upstairs portion of the building for a gym as a way of enticing young men at risk into the church family. Then, in 2009 when it became clear that young men were coming to the gym to learn to box but not coming to Jesus, the church elders shut the gym down. Thereafter, Mike erected a small training facility in the yard behind his house.

“The second [Baptist church] reincarnation of Lo’s Gym was a big deal in our small town,” Todd recalls. “My father found himself with a gym full of thirty to forty kids a night, mostly teenagers. He’d work each kid three rounds on the hand pads, sometimes doing fifteen or twenty rounds in a row before taking a break. This after working a 4:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shift in the coal mines each day.”

Mike Snyder had to convince his charges that conditioning and technique were as important as strength and toughness.

He was cautious about sparring.

“A bad sparring match,” Todd explains, “would run a kid off. He’d get whipped and you’d never see him again. My father wasn’t in the business of running kids off or getting them hurt. He mostly viewed the gym as a safe haven for poor and troubled kids. He didn’t care if any of the guys competed. Rarely would he let fighters take part in what trainers call live sparring.”

“One of my father’s biggest flaws as a trainer,” Todd continues, “was that he almost completely focused on the positives, rarely getting on a kid and telling him what he was doing wrong. My father’s formula was to build a kid up, give him as much confidence and self-respect as possible, occasionally nudging him about minor flaws in his technique.”

“Fighters from West Virginia don’t have many hometown heroes,” Todd acknowledges. “West Virginia fight towns have never been fortunate enough to have a working-class champion, at least not in the same way Youngstown, Ohio, celebrates Ray Mancini. Our boys were always in the tune-up fights, the last-minute replacements, the underdogs. A few ol’ boys from the Mountain State had the opportunity to get in the ring with boxing’s elite. Our boys always came out on the wrong end of it. When you turn eighteen years old, you get to chew stuff, buy lottery tickets, and sign up for your first Toughman Contest. But the working-class man-boys from my town always had their carriages turned back into pumpkins. Everyone thinks they can box until they give it a try.”

For the young men training in Lo’s Gym, a “champion” was a fighter who won a minor regional amateur title. Or maybe a local toughman contest.

The three gyms saved Mike Snyder’s life as much as they enhanced the lives of the young men who learned to box there. They gave him purpose. And ultimately, they brought him recognition. As word of “Lo’s Gym:” spread, he was honored by the Jefferson Awards Foundation in a ceremony at the state capital and later invited to attend the national awards ceremony in Washington DC.

The Jefferson awards, Todd explains, were designed “to highlight the accomplishments of ordinary folks who did exceptional things in their communities without expectation of recognition. My father had never been to our nation’s capital. I’m not sure if he had ever been to West Virginia’s state capital. He hadn’t been much of anywhere outside of the Tri-State Boxing Association. My grandmother bought my father a J.C. Penny suit for the award ceremony. It was probably the first suit he’d owned in his life.”

Meanwhile, Todd’s life had taken him away from Appalachia. Writing of his early years, he recalls, “I didn’t fish. I didn’t hunt. No turkey season. No deer camp. No tree stand. I didn’t ride four-wheelers. I didn’t drive a jacked-up Ford truck with a lift kit. I didn’t chew Skoal or score touchdowns. I didn’t fit.”

Thus, the move away from home.

“My decision to ship off to college required a new identity, a new understanding of my own Appalachian manhood. We are born into communities and family work histories that demonstrate a very rigid pathway to becoming men. If we earn college degrees, we become The Other. We’ll never be able to come back home.”

He’s now an associate professor of English at Siena College in Albany, New York, far removed from the coal mines of Appalachia.

Snyder is a good writer. He crafts well-drawn portraits and moving vignettes about the dozens of young men and the occasional woman who filtered in and out of Lo’s gym and became, however briefly, boxers.

“Stereotyped and stigmatized,” he says in summary,” Appalachian folks are easy prey, socioeconomically bullied by privileged society, the by-product of a uniquely Appalachian socioeconomic system, one that lacks access to both economic and educational opportunity. Our stories are tragic and beautiful. In these parables of Lo’s Gym’s, I write the story of Appalachia. This is who we are – fighters. We fight like hell, knowing the other fellow has the advantage.”

12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym is as much about brawling in a boxing ring as boxing. It’s about gym fights, toughman contests, and amateur bouts with a few low-level professional encounters thrown in. And it’s a reminder of what boxing can do to lift up young men and women who have gone through life without much hope or self-esteem and have little else to celebrate in their lives.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published this autumn 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

Roy McHugh’s Monument

Springs Toledo

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A Review of When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town (2019)

Roy McHugh never met Harry Greb. He was eleven when the Pittsburgh Pandemonium passed away on a rainy day in 1926, and it’s fair to say he just missed him. He was, however, pals with Greb’s pal and sparring partner Cuddy DeMarco, which means he has one degree of separation to my fifteen from the greatest fighter of the last hundred years. As if that wasn’t enough, he also shook the hand of Mike Gibbons, whose hands had been bouncing off Greb’s head just a few years earlier at Forbes Field. McHugh was a child then and still wiping the stars out of his eyes when a package arrived at his door. Inside was a pair of boxing gloves and a handwritten note by Gibbons himself:

Put on these gloves and do your stuff,

Prepare for the days when the roads are rough;

You’ll get a little groggy, but just give life an uppercut.

Those gloves and that note sparked a lifelong passion for fighting and writing. “Some of the other neighborhood kids helped me wear out the boxing gloves,” he told me. His last bout was a “bare-knuckle affair” on a thoroughfare in Alexandria, Louisiana in the summer of 1945. McHugh was stationed there with his company where he served as a machine gun instructor. Did he win? “I thought I was leading on points when the M.P.s broke it up after a minute or so,” he said. “They took both me and the other guy to the city slammer.”

He was already in print by then. His first byline appeared in Iowa’s Coe College Cosmos in the mid-1930s and when the war came, he was on staff at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. In 1947, he was hired by The Pittsburgh Press and spent more hours than anyone else crafting three columns a week for decades. His writing, the work of a perfectionist, is pressed gold. Elegant, economical, and yet rich with little-known facts and wry humor, it appears in a dozen anthologies, among them the 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1985, and 1986 editions of Best Sports Stories.

McHugh’s career opened during the Depression and didn’t close for seventy years give or take. He could write about any subject, though his favorite—the sweet science—was never in question. No boxing writer saw so much for so long or can exceed his talent for transforming a backward glance into living color. And his purpose was plain; he sought to reintroduce his heroes to successive generations, to remind a city increasingly infatuated with ball throwers in black and yellow about the radical individualists whose fists fanned the smoke and whose feats once dominated sports pages.

He tried retirement in 1983. “What are you going to do?” The Press sports editor asked him at the time.

“Nothing,” said McHugh. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll become the biggest bum on Shiloh Street.”

“Would you consider writing a book—?”

Over the past dozen years, McHugh’s vision deteriorated and his fingers stiffened with arthritis; his typewriter quieted, but was never quite put away. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s major dailies did no more than mention Greb’s name a handful of times. They needed reminding. In 2008 a full-page feature discussing Greb alongside Billy Conn appeared in the Post-Gazette. McHugh wrote it. He was 92.

Pittsburgh has since forgotten about Harry Greb. It hardly ever knew him.

Only weeks after he was buried at Calvary Cemetery, a delegation of citizens won the mayor’s support to erect a statue in his memory in Friendship Park, not far from where he was born. It ran into opposition when a few members of city council scoffed at the idea of honoring “a pugilist.” “No proper thinking person would be for it,” griped one of them, “a great majority of the people would be against it.” The plan was forwarded to the art commission, and stalled out.

In August 2018 a petition appeared online to memorialize Greb by renaming the Highland Park Bridge in his honor. The goal was modest—1,000 signatures. It stalled out at 359. Pittsburgh’s population is 301,048. I was downtown in the lobby at the Marriott City Center that summer, leafing through a travel guide book and scoffing aloud about who was not included in either the “Famous Pittsburghers” or “City of Champions” sections. Greb was not mentioned, nor was Conn, Charley Burley, Fritzie Zivic, Teddy Yarosz, or Frank Klaus. The councilman, it seems, was right.

On February 25, 2019 I got a message from Douglas Cavanaugh. “Roy passed today,” it said. He was 103. An introvert averse to accolades, he asked for no ceremony. His ashes are buried at Calvary Cemetery, near Greb and Conn.

Much—too much—was buried with him.

Four months later, he spoke.

When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town is a 115,000-word monument to those pugilists he idolized during his living years. Much of it was written while he was in his eighties and nineties, which strongly suggests that McHugh had the longest literary prime on record. His mastery is evident immediately, in the preface, where he launches into a treatise of his adopted city’s history as a warm up.

Writing about history is more of a hardship than reading it but McHugh shows us how it’s done. He moves quickly to ward off narcolepsy, brushing aside widely-accepted inaccuracies one after another as if loosening his tie, ushering the reader back to a time when smoke and soot hung heavily in the air and only fools and tourists wore white shirts. “The very atmosphere affected behavior,” he remembers, and taps a spell on his typewriter to conjure up streetlights piercing the gloomy noon, open sewers, and rubbish in vacant lots. And he’s full of surprises. Outsiders complained, he said, not the natives. “They liked the lurid red glow of the steel mills at night. They liked the smoke, because smoke meant jobs.” He speaks with the authority of one who was there, and sets you on a sidewalk or at ringside and lets you eavesdrop on conversations—often one of his own.

You leave these encounters edified. Was Greb really the light puncher of internet boxing forums? Jack Henry, who carried Greb’s spit bucket, said his relative dearth of knockouts is better attributed to sadism. “He’d beat the hell out of guys,” he said. “When they’d start to fall, he’d grab them and hold them up.” Another insider confirmed this. He told McHugh that Greb “never showed mercy to anybody he trained with.”

Did you know that Conn never wore a mouthpiece until Fred Apostoli persuaded him in gruntspeak while socking his jaw during a brutal bout in 1939? Me neither.

Did you know that Burley was offered a shot at Zivic’s welterweight crown? The terms are on page 151, which happens to be what Burley weighed when he stopped a heavyweight in 1942. How did he manage that? McHugh asked him for you. He met the great uncrowned champion when he was a novice filling in for The Press’s regular boxing writer before Burley faced an up-and-comer at the Aragon Gardens. McHugh dismissed Burley as over the hill and then Burley sent the up-and-comer into a slumber in the first round. “I apologized to him,” McHugh admits. “Get me a fight with [middleweight contender Lee] Sala and we’ll be friends,” said Burley. McHugh tried and saw first-hand what the problem was.

If you were watching TCM’s Noir Alley in May, you’ll remember Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley. McHugh tells us that she wrote letters to Billy Soose “almost every week” after he enlisted in the Navy. If you watched WWF wrestling in the 1970s and 80s, then you’re familiar with Bruno Sammartino. In the 1950s, he was showing promise as a boxer in Pittsburgh and so was hooked up with Whitey Bimstein in New York. “And then one day,” (McHugh again) Sammartino was told to lace ’em up to spar with a scowling hulk fresh out of the clink. Sammartino went five rounds with Sonny Liston at Stillman’s Gym.

Curious about what happened? Buy McHugh’s book. Boxing history buffs be advised, there is much in it you don’t know. Read it and be humbled. I know I was.

The book ends with McHugh in the presence of Muhammad Ali in the early 1960s and in 1980—at the bookends. He stands unblinking in the brilliance, bemused as the twenty-year-old contender introduces himself in his hotel room by rolling out from under a bed; bemused and out of place as he accompanies him on a date to a Louisville bowling alley. We see McHugh looking up when beckoned (“You ready to write?”) and meticulously writing down lyrics.

They all knew when he stopped in town

Cassius Clay was the greatest around…

“Pretty good, ain’t it?” said the poet, eagerly.

(It wasn’t, yet, though McHugh was too polite to tell him so.)

When he met Ali again twenty years later, the ex-champion was at his Deer Lake training camp, 250 miles east of Pittsburgh and sporting an ill-advised mustache during an ill-advised comeback. He was overweight and slurring his words between gulps of grapefruit juice. But he recognized the diligent little man with the pen and pad.

“He never wanted to be the star of his work,” writes Cavanaugh, his friend and the book’s copy editor, “and remained a humble scribe from the beginning of his career until the end of his life.” Even so, McHugh reveals his worth, despite himself, in the early prints of his posthumously-published book. He did it in a most unexpected way. While reading, I noted double commas and rogue colons appearing here and there on the pages. “His original manuscript had absolutely no mistakes,” Cavanaugh told me. “I was mortified to get the report that there are a bunch of typos in there.” It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t McHugh’s either, not really. “Apparently, Roy went back and tinkered a bit,” Cavanaugh continued, “but I didn’t know it. His eyesight had been so bad at that point that it allowed for typos.” At that point, he was a hundred years old.

When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town is his monument—a monument that carries names forward, names that must never be allowed to recede beyond reach and recognition, names that now include Roy McHugh.

 

______________________

unnamed

Available now on Amazon

Original photograph (1984) courtesy of The Pittsburgh Press.

Springs Toledo is the author of Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 (2019).

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

To comment on this story in The Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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