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Book Review

Roy McHugh’s Monument

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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.

 

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Available now on Amazon

Original photograph (1984) courtesy of The Pittsburgh Press.

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

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Book Review

Thomas Hauser’s Literary Notes: Dave Kindred and Robert Seltzer

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Midway through reading Dave Kindred’s most recent book – My Home Team (published by Public Affairs) – I said to myself, “Kindred is such a good writer.”

Kindred, now 83 years old, has won virtually every sports journalism award worth winning. My Home Team is a memoir that weaves together three love stories – Kindred and Cheryl Liesman (his high school sweetheart and wife for more than fifty years) . . . Kindred and sports journalism . . . And late in life, Kindred’s immersion in a high school girls basketball team (the Lady Potters of Morton, Illinois).

The book is divided into two parts. The first (“Act One) details Dave’s career as a sports journalist and his personal life from early childhood through his retirement from big-time journalism. “Act Two” deals with the Lady Potters and the tragic stroke that ravaged Cheryl, leaving her bedridden and unable to control her environment or speak more than a few words in her final years. A short coda puts the final pieces in place.

Kindred wrote more than six thousand columns during his years at the Louisville Courier-Journal, Washington Post, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As his reputation grew, he covered virtually every major sporting event in the way he chose to cover it.

“Newspapers were never better nor did they matter more than in those days when they were rich with cash and ambition,” Dave writes. “Before the Internet, before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, newspapers were important in ways that social media could never be – as trusted messengers of the day’s news.”

“I was not a fan of a team, a coach, a player,” Kindred continues. “That relationship could only end badly. I was a fan of reporting and writing. Journalists root for stories. Whatever happens, good or bad, just make it something we can write. Sometimes we get lucky and the best story is the one we want to write.”

I met Kindred in 1989 when I was researching a biography of Muhammad Ali. Dave had just written a remarkable piece of investigative journalism about a lawyer named Richard Hirschfeld who was exploiting Ali and imitating Muhammad’s voice in telephone calls to members of Congress. It was a notable example of the ways in which Ali was being used by hustlers to advance their own economic interests. Kindred pieced the story together brilliantly. In later years, I got to know him better as a writer and a person.

Dave was with the young Ali in Louisville when he was king of the world, the old Ali in Las Vegas when he was brutalized by Larry Holmes, and each incarnation of Ali in between. He wrote that Ali in his prime was “as near to living flame as a man can get” and added thoughts like:

*        “You could spend twenty years studying Ali and still not know what he is or who he is. He’s a wise man and he’s a child. I’ve never seen anyone who was so giving and, at the same time, so self-centered. He’s either the most complex guy that I’ve ever been around or the most simple. And I still can’t figure out which it is. We were sure who Ali was only when he danced before us in the dazzle of the ring lights. Then he could hide nothing.”

*        “I never thought of Ali as a saint. He was a rogue and a rebel, a guy with good qualities and flaws who stood for something. He was right on some things and wrong on others, but the challenge was always there.”

*        “Rainbows are born of thunderstorms. Muhammad Ali is both.”

In 2010, when Kindred’s sportswriting days on the national stage came to an end, he and Cheryl moved back to their roots in rural Illinois. They bought a house on a big plot of land and envisioned a comfortable old age surrounded by family and friends.

Then, in December 2010, Dave went to a Lady Potters basketball game to see the daughter of friends play.

Three years earlier, Kindred recalls, “Carly Jean Crocker [had been] thirteen years old, blonde and blue-eyed, tall and trim in blue jeans, stylish in a denim jacket and red canvas sneakers.”

This was long before Caitlin Clark set the basketball world ablaze.

A neighbor had asked, “Carly, are you going to be a cheerleader?”

“No,” Carly answered, “I’m going to be the one you cheer for.”

Now Carly was on the Lady Potters roster.

“I climbed three rows up at the Morton High School Gym,” Kindred recounts. “The game was the first sporting event for which I ever bought a ticket. Though I resisted saying the word, friends counted me as, quote, retired. With newspapers and magazines dying in the Digital Age, there was also the unhappy circumstance of nobody looking to coax geezers out of retirement. Without a press credential for the first time since I was seventeen, I was an official spectator.”

Before long, Dave was hooked. He began writing about the Lady Potters for the team website and Facebook. “I had no agenda,” he recalls. “It got me out of the house. It made me pay attention to something other than growing old.”

His pay?

Before each outing, the team gave him a box of Milk Duds to eat in the stands during the game.

“But I like Milk Duds,” Kindred notes.

Then tragedy struck.

Cheryl was the only girlfriend Dave ever had. Her place in his heart was sealed at their high school senior prom when the awkward young man confessed, “I’m a very bad dancer.”

“She took my hand and squeezed it,” Dave told me decades later. “And then she said, ‘Bad dancing is better than no dancing.'”

On December 6, 2015, Dave and Cheryl were at the movies. She was eating popcorn when a massive stroke hit.

“It’s like a bomb exploded in her brain,” one of her doctors said.

For the next five years, Cheryl lay in bed in a nursing facility – in Kindred’s words, “her spirit gone, her body smaller and smaller, life disappearing.” He made the 36-mile round-trip from their home to her bedside more than a thousand times.

“Some days, I don’t even think she knows who I am,” Dave told me after one of his visits. “But I hold her hand and talk to her. I hope it comforts her. And it makes me feel better to be there.”

Cheryl died on June 24, 2021.

Meanwhile, the Lady Potters had become a very good basketball team. During one five-year stretch, they won 164 games and lost only 13, leading Kindred to refer to them as “the Golden State Warriors, only with ponytails.” In 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019, they won the Section 3A Illinois State Championship.

“Basketball is beautiful when people move the ball quickly and surely to places where it can be put in the basket easily,” Kindred writes in My Home Team as he looks back on his journey. “It is beautiful, too, when people play defense as if it is the most fun a teenage girl can have. A couple of years in, I understood my real reason for writing about the Lady Potters. No professional athlete ever introduced me to his parents or asked about my family’s well being. Slowly, I understood that I cared about the Lady Potters games in ways I had not cared about all those that came before. We met good people and shared good times. I loved the little gyms, loved the games. [And] writing was my life. Writing anything gave me a reason to stay alive.”

Kindred’s writing is as smooth as silk with some sharp barbs woven into the fabric. In that vein, I’ll close this review with an anecdote from My Home Team that Dave shares in chronicling his days as a national journalist.

Jenny Keller (a reporter for the New York Daily News) was assigned to cover the New York Jets and found herself in the team locker room confronted by a huge defensive lineman who held his male organ up for inspection and asked, “Do you know what this is?”

“Looks like a penis,” Jenny answered. “Only smaller.”

Ted Williams – arguably the greatest hitter of all time – had a Mexican-American mother. But he rarely talked about that part of his heritage. After retiring from baseball, Williams said of growing up in San Diego, “If I had my mother’s name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, the prejudices people had in Southern California.”

As Williams’s mythic career was winding down, a 17-year-old named Ritchie Valens from California’s San Fernando Valley recorded a love song called Donna – one of the most popular love songs of its time. One year later, his life was cut short when he died in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson. Valens’s real name was Richard Valenzuela. But he’d been told to anglicize it so his records would be more saleable to mainstream America.

This is the world that Robert Seltzer was thrown into at age ten when he moved with his parents from El Paso to Bakersfield, California. His mother was a Mexican woman from Chihuahua. His father was a “gringo,” originally from Cleveland, who preferred Mexican culture to his own and took the pen name “Amado Muro” for much of his writing.

Amado Muro and Me recounts Seltzer’s first year in Bakersfield when he experienced racism for the first time and was mercilessly picked on as the only Mexican-American in his fifth-grade class. Through the prism of that year, he explores his relationship with his father, wrestles with his own self-identity, and recreates the multi-cultural world that he came from.

Seltzer is known to boxing fans as a past recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Career Excellence in Boxing Journalism. There’s not much boxing in this book. But it’s a wonderful read with a particularly reprehensible bully. And it reinforces the view that families are families regardless of race, religion, or national origin.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – MY MOTHER and me – is an intensely personal memoir available at Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/My-Mother-Me-Thomas-Hauser/dp/1955836191/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5C0TEN4M9ZAH&keywords=thomas+hauser&qid=1707662513&sprefix=thomas+hauser%2Caps%2C80&sr=8-1

In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Book Review

Holiday Reading 2023: Best Books About Boxing

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Holiday Reading 2023: Best Books About Boxing

By Thomas Hauser

Each year during the holiday season, I publish a list of what I consider to be the best books about boxing. That list, updated to accommodate recently published titles, follows. Taken together, the books offer a compelling look at the sweet science from bare-knuckle days to the present. Some of these books are now out of print. But with the proliferation of online services like Abebooks.com and Amazon.com, all of them can be found. I’ve listed the US publisher for each book, but many of them have been published in the UK as well.

Beyond Glory by David Margolick (Alfred A. Knopf) – This book focuses on the two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It recreates the racial climate of the 1930s, puts the fighters in historical perspective, and conveys the incredible importance of their ring encounters. Margolick shows in dramatic fashion how Louis stirred passions and revived interest in boxing long before he beat James Braddock to become heavyweight champion. He captures the demeaning racial stereotyping of The Brown Bomber by the establishment press (including those who were seeking to be kind). And he documents in painstaking fashion, contrary to future revisionism, the degree to which Schmeling took part in various Nazi propaganda activities and supported Hitler after defeating Louis in 1936.

Blood Brothers by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith (Basic Books) – This is the most thorough and compelling book yet on the relationship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X. In the authors’ words, it’s “the story of how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and the central role Malcolm X played in his life. It is a tale of friendship and brotherhood, love and deep affection, deceit, betrayal, and violence during a troubled time.” The events culminating in Malcolm’s assassination crackle with tension and are told in particularly dramatic fashion.

John L. Sullivan and His America by Michael Isenberg (University of Illinois Press) – Isenberg mined the mother lode of Sullivan material and crafted a work that’s superb in explaining the fighter as a social phenomenon and placing him in the context of his times. More recently, Christopher Klein put together an engaging read in Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan (Lyons Press).

A Man’s World by Donald McRae (Simon & Schuster) – The paradox of Emile Griffith’s life was crystallized in words that the fighter himself spoke: “I kill a man, and most people forgive me. I love a man, and many say this makes me an evil person.” McRae explores Griffith’s life in and out of the ring with sensitivity and insight. He’s also the author of Heroes Without A Country, a beautifully written book about Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, two icons who changed America; Dark Trade, a look at the modern boxing scene; and In Sunshine or in Shadow, an excellent book that views the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the years 1972-1985 through the prism of boxing.

Sound and Fury by Dave Kindred (Free Press) – The lives of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell intertwined. Kindred explores the ugly underside of Ali’s early adherence to Nation of Islam doctrine and provides an intimate look at The Greatest as his declining years began. He also paints a revealing portrait of Howard Cosell, turning the broadcast commentator from caricature and bluster into flesh and blood.

Damage by Tris Dixon (Hamilcar Publications) lays bare the link between boxing and brain damage in fighters in a way that demands attention from anyone who cares about the welfare of fighters. Dixon has also written three other notable books. The Road to Nowhere (Pitch Publishing) recounts how he came to the United States from England as an aspiring amateur boxer in 2001, changed course, and left America as a writer. Money: The Life and Fast Times of Floyd Mayweather is the best biography of its subject to date. And Warrior explores the remarkable life of Matthew Saad Muhammad.

America on the Ropes by Wayne Rozen (Casey Press) – This might be the best coffee-table photo book ever devoted to a single fight. Jack Johnson is still a vibrant figure in American history, but James Jeffries has been largely forgotten except as an appendage to Johnson. This book gives both men their due and, in so doing, restores Jeffries’ life and luster. The photographs are remarkable and arranged perfectly with the text.

The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling (Penguin) – Eighteen articles from the 1950s and early ’60s by the legendary dean of boxing writers. A collection of Liebling’s later articles has been published under the title A Neutral Corner.

The Hardest Game by Hugh McIlvanney (Contemporary Books) – McIlvanney is the British equivalent of Liebling. He wasn’t just a boxing writer. He was a writer who wrote very well about, among other subjects, boxing.

Rocky Marciano by Russell Sullivan (University of Illinois Press) – For sixteen years, Sullivan’s biography of Rocky Marciano stood alone atop the list of books about the Brockton heavyweight. Now Sullivan has been joined by Unbeaten (Henry Holt and Company), Mike Stanton’s equally honest, penetrating look at Marciano as a person and as a fighter in the context of his times. Both books are outstanding.

Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaap (Houghton Mifflin Company) – Schaap does a fine job chronicling the rise of James Braddock to the heavyweight championship at the height of The Great Depression. He also paints a wonderful portrait of Max Baer and explains just how important the heavyweight title was during the golden age of boxing.

 George Dixon by Jason Winders (University of Arkansas Press) – One reason that many chroniclers of Black champions start with Joe Gans and Jack Johnson is that little is known about George Dixon. This is a well-researched, well-written, entertaining account of boxing’s first black world champion and the world he lived in.

 In the Ring with Bob Fitzsimmons by Adam Pollack (Win by KO Publications) – Pollack also authored biographies of John L. Sullivan, James Corbett, James Jeffries, Marvin Hart, Tommy Burns, and Jack Johnson. He then bypassed Jess Willard and recently completed the first two-thirds of a three-volume biography of Jack Dempsey. The books are heavily researched and rely almost exclusively on primary sources. Serious students of boxing will enjoy them.

Sweet William by Andrew O’Toole (University of Illinois Press) – A solid biography of light-heavyweight great Billy Conn. The two Louis-Conn fights are the highlight of O’Toole’s work, but he also does a nice job of recounting the endless dysfunctional family struggles that plagued Conn throughout his life and the boxer’s sad decline into pugilistic dementia.

The Last Great Fight by Joe Layden (St. Martin’s Press) – This book is primarily about James “Buster” Douglas’s historic upset of Mike Tyson. The saga of Iron Mike has gotten old, but Layden brings new material and fresh insights into the relationships among Douglas, his father (Billy Douglas), manager John Johnson, and co-trainers J. D. McCauley and John Russell. He also gives a particularly good account of the fight itself and how Douglas overcame the fear that had paralyzed many of Tyson’s opponents.

Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage and Sparring With Hemingway, both by Budd Schulberg (Ivan R. Dee, Inc.) – If Schulberg had never written another sentence, he’d have a place in boxing history for the words, “I coulda been a contender” (spoken by Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront). These two collections of articles by Schulberg cover seventy years of boxing lore. You might also take a look at his novel The Harder They Fall.

The Fireside Book of Boxing, edited by W. C. Heinz (Simon & Schuster) – This collection of boxing writing was reissued in an updated form by Sport Classic Books. But the original 1961 hardcover has a special feel with unique artwork. Heinz also wrote a very good novel entitled The Professional. Some of his better essays about sports have been published under the title At the Top of His Game.

One Punch from the Promised Land by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro (Lyons Press) – The authors do a good job of recounting the saga of Leon and Michael Spinks. The world of abject poverty that they came from is recreated in detail and with feeling. The writing flows nicely, Leon’s erratic personality is explored, and the big fights are well-told.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward (Alfred A. Knopf) – This is the companion volume to the PBS documentary by Ken Burns. It’s well-written, meticulously researched, and the standard against which future Johnson biographies will be judged. Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner by Theresa Runstedtler (University of California Press), which focuses on the international reaction to Johnson, is a nice supplement.

Jack Dempsey by Randy Roberts (Grove Press) – More than four decades after it was first published, this work remains the most reliable source of information about the Manassa Mauler. Roberts is also the author of Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (Free Press) – a good biography of the most controversial champion in boxing history – and Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (Yale University Press), a valuable addition to the literature on Louis.

Punching from the Shadows by Glen Sharp (McFarland and Company) – Sharp, by his own admission, was a failure as a professional fighter. But this is a first-rate recounting of his journey through the sweet science.

At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing compiled by George Kimball and John Schulian (Library of America) – This collection has fifty pieces representing what its overseers call “the very best writing about the fights.” More selections from the first half of the twentieth century would have been welcome. Be that as it may; At The Fights belongs in the honors class of boxing anthologies. Schulian is also the author of Writers’ Fighters, an anthology of his own best work.

 The Big Fight by Sugar Ray Leonard with Michael Arkush (Viking) – There’s a growing belief among those who seriously study boxing that Sugar Ray Leonard was the best fighter of the past fifty years. Two themes run through The Big Fight. The first centers on Leonard’s illustrious ring exploits. The second details a life spiraling out of control in a haze of fame, alcohol, and drugs. The book is an interesting passageway into the mind of a great fighter.

Only In America: The Life and Crimes of Don King by Jack Newfield (William Morrow & Company) – Give the devil his due. For decades, Don King was one of the smartest, most charismatic, hardest-working men on the planet. Jack Newfield recorded the good and the bad, mostly the bad, in exhaustive detail.

Iron Ambition by Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman (Blue Rider Press) – A compelling biography of Cus D’Amato as viewed through the prism of his relationship with Iron Mike. Previously, Tyson and Sloman collaborated on an interesting Tyson autobiography entitled Undisputed Truth.

Smokin’ Joe by Mark Kram Jr (HarperCollins) does justice to its subject and is the best biography of Frazier to date. Years ago, Kram’s father authored Ghosts of Manila (Harper Collins), an interesting read that sought to elevate Frazier and diminish Muhammad Ali. Bouts of Mania by Richard Hoffer (Da Capo Press) adds George Foreman to the mix and places the remarkable fights between these three men in historical context.

The Prizefighter and the Playwright by Jay Tunney (Firefly Books) is a son’s tribute to his father. Jay Tunney writes nicely and understands boxing. This book details the former heavyweight champion’s ring career, marriage, and relationship with Nobel-prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Richmond Unchained by Luke G. Williams (Amberley Publishing) – It’s a difficult task to accurately portray a man who’s enshrouded in myth and lived two centuries ago and then place that man in the historical context of his times. But Williams does just that in recounting the life of Bill Richmond, who rose to prominence as a fighter in Georgian England and then as the trainer of Tom Molineaux.

The Bittersweet Science edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra (University of Chicago Press) – In any anthology, some entries are better than others. Ten of the fifteen essays in The Bittersweet Science merit particular praise. They cover a wide range of territory from contemporary issues to dramatic accounts of ring action to an exploration of long-ago boxing history.

Sporting Blood by Carlos Acevedo (Hamilcar Publications) – Acevedo understands boxing history. He has an intuitive feel for the sport and business of boxing. And he’s a provocative thinker who puts thoughts together clearly and logically. This collection of his essays is powerful writing. More recently, Acevedo authored The Duke:The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison.

 Fighting for Survival by Christy Martin with Ron Borges (Rowman & Littlefield) – More than any other fighter, Christy Martin was responsible for legitimizing women’s boxing in the public eye. She was also a closeted gay woman married to a man who abused her for years before stabbing her multiple times, shooting her in the chest, and leaving her for dead on their bedroom floor. Fighting for Survival is a brutally honest look at Christy’s life, in and out of the ring.

The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told edited by Jeff Silverman (Lyons Press) – This is a pretty good mix of fact and fiction from Jack London and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Jimmy Cannon and Frank Deford. Classic Boxing Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar (Skyhorse Publishing) is an expanded version of a similar book published previously by Chicago Review Press and is also a good read.

Four Kings by George Kimball (McBooks Press) – Kimball recounts the epic nine battles contested among Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran between 1980 and 1989. It was a special time for boxing fans and more special for those who, like Kimball, experienced the drama firsthand from the inside. The SuperFight by Brian Doogan (Brian Doogan Media) focuses on Hagler-Leonard and is a compelling read.

The Lion and the Eagle by Ian Manson (SportsBooks Ltd) – A dramatic recreation of the historic 1860 fight between the English champion, Tom Sayers, and his American challenger, John C. Heenan. Manson sets the scene on both sides of the Atlantic. In reconstructing the life of each fighter, he gives readers a full sense of time and place. For more on the same encounter, The Great Prize Fight by Alan Lloyd (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan) is an excellent read.

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood (Alfred A. Knopf) – This is the first biography to fully explain Robinson’s legacy in the ring and his importance out of it. Haygood researches thoroughly and writes well, placing Sugar Ray in the context of Harlem and America in the 1940s and ‘50s. The six wars between Robinson and Jake LaMotta are particularly well told.

Shelby’s Folly by Jason Kelly (University of Nebraska Press) – Jack Dempsey vs. Tommy Gibbons is the only championship bout that’s remembered more for the site than the fight itself. Shelby, Montana, was one of the most improbable and ill-considered venues ever to host a major championship fight. Kelly explains who, what, how, when, and why.

At The Fights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing by Howard Schatz (Sports Illustrated Books) – Monet captured the essence of water lilies better than a photograph. The same can be said of Schatz’s computer-styled images of boxers. Light and shadow are distorted to show movement. The images convey strength and power, motion and emotion. It’s an attractive book, printed on heavy glossy 14-by-11-inch stock with faithful photographic reproductions and splendid production values.

Liston and Ali by Bob Mee (Mainstream Publishing) – There are hundreds of books about Muhammad Ali, but very little good writing about Sonny Liston. This is very good writing about Liston, who is portrayed as a full flesh-and-blood figure rather than a cardboard cutout from the past.

The Longest Fight by William Gildea (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Joe Gans receded long ago into a corner of boxing history. This book is keyed to the historic first fight between Gans and Battling Nelson which took place in Goldfield, Nevada, in 1906. Gildea brings Gans to life, crafting a sense of time and place that will enhance any reader’s appreciation of his subject.

The Good Son: The Life of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini by Mark Kriegel (Free Press) – Kriegel is a good researcher and a good writer. The Good Son treats Ray Mancini with respect but acknowledges his flaws. It also conveys an admirable understanding of the sport and business of boxing. This isn’t just a book about Mancini. It’s a look into a fighter’s soul.

Muhammad Ali: The Tribute (Sports Illustrated Books) – Sports Illustrated was one of the first major media outlets to understand that Ali was a great fighter and also that his importance extended well beyond boxing. The SI tribute book reflects that understanding in real time. It contains the complete original text of sixteen articles that appeared in the magazine and tracks Ali’s life from his origins as Cassius Clay to the glory years as Muhammad Ali and, ultimately, through his courageous end. The articles are supplemented by excerpts from additional Ali pieces that appeared in SI and well-chosen photographs.

—-

Editor’s Note: Thomas Hauser has authored 34 books about boxing that are excellent reading during the holiday season and every other time of year. The Black Lights (Hauser’s first writing on the sweet science) has been widely hailed as a classic exploration of the sport and business of boxing. That was followed by Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (the definitive biography of the man who was once the most famous person on earth), Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to The Greatest, and three coffee-table photo books – Muhammad Ali: Memories; Muhammad Ali: In Perspective; and The Legend of Muhammad Ali.

 Turning to fiction, Hauser wrote Mark Twain Remembers and Waiting for Carver Boyd  – books that he says embody some of his best and purest boxing writing to date. Then came a memoir co-authored with Vikki LaMotta titled Knockout and another coffee-table photo book – BOX: The Face of Boxing ,

And there are Hauser’s articles highlighting the contemporary boxing scene that have been published over the years in twenty-four volumes: Muhammad Ali & Company; A Beautiful Sickness; A Year At The Fights;  Brutal Artistry; The View From Ringside; Chaos, Corruption, Courage, and Glory; I Don’t Believe It, But It’s True; The Greatest Sport of All; The Boxing Scene; An Unforgiving Sport; Boxing Is; Winks and Daggers; And the New; Straight Writes and Jabs; Thomas Hauser on Boxing; A Hurting Sport; A Hard World; There Will Always Be Boxing; Protect Yourself at All Times; A Dangerous Journey; Staredown; Broken Dreams; In the Inner Sanctum; and The Universal Sport.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored him with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Book Review

Literary Notes from Thomas Hauser (Book Reviews)

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Literary Notes from Thomas Hauser (Book Reviews)

Tyrone Everett was a stylish southpaw who preferred boxing to slugging which made him the antithesis of the typical Philadelphia fighter. Russell Peltz (who promoted Everett for much of the fighter’s ring career, observed, “He wouldn’t lose a round. But it got monotonous because he wouldn’t take chances.” Philadelphia boxing writer Tom Cushman noted that Everett fought “with uninterrupted caution.”

That ring style made Everett a hard sell. But he was always in shape. He could crack when he set down on his punches. And he was good enough to have a future in boxing when he was shot to death at age twenty-four.

Murder on Federal Street by Sean Nam (Rushcutters Bay Books) recounts Everett’s life and death.

Everett turned pro in 1971 and had a 34-0 ring record with 18 knockouts when he challenged Alfredo Escalera for the World Boxing Council 130-pound title on November 30, 1976. The 16,019 fans in attendance at The Spectrum that night set a record that still stands for the largest indoor attendance ever for a fight in Philadelphia.

The consensus among knowledgeable ringside observers was that Everett won at least eleven of the fifteen rounds, probably more. But Ismael Wiso Fernandez (who, like Escalera, was from Puerto Rico) scored the bout 146-143 for his countryman. And in a shocker, Philadelphia judge Lou Tress turned in a 145-143 scorecard in Escalera’s favor.

As recounted by Nam, the scoring reeked of mob influence. When Harold Lederman compiled a list of the twelve worst decisions in boxing history, Escalera-Everett headed the list. “This was just highway robbery,” Lederman declared. “By far the worst decision I ever saw.”

Everett fought twice more after the loss to Escalera, knocking out two sub-.500 opponents. The second of those contests (against Delfino Rodriguez) was on the undercard of Muhammad Ali vs. Alfredo Evangelista in Landover, Maryland. He was shot and killed ten days later, on May 26, 1977.

As for the specifics of the crime; Everett was killed by a single bullet that entered his head through a nostril. The shot supposedly was fired by a woman named Carolyn McKendrick, who claimed that Everett had physically abused her in the past and was threatening to beat her again when she pulled the trigger. The murder occurred in McKendrick’s apartment but the murder weapon was never found. McKendrick was tried for the crime, found guilty of third-degree murder (intent to inflict bodily injury without intent to cause death), and sentenced to five years in prison. The fact that she was the estranged wife of druglord Ricardo McKendrick and that 39 packets of heroin were found in the apartment where Everett was killed lent credence to the theory that more than self-defense might have been involved and that Carolyn McKendrick might not even have been the killer.

And oh yes! A transvestite named Tyrone Price (who admitted to dealing drugs that he said he got from Everett and McKendrick) testified at trial that he’d been in the apartment at the time of the shooting. That provided more tabloid fodder.

Nam writes smoothly. Structurally, the book would have been better served and Everett’s life would have been seen in context more clearly if material about the “Black Mafia” in Philadelphia had been integrated throughout the story rather than tacked on in fifty pages at the end of the narrative. But Murder on Federal Street is a good slice-of-life story about Tyrone Everett and boxing in the 1970s in Philadelphia.

*          *          *

Eight years ago, William Detloff authored Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life. His latest book – Matthew Saad Muhammad: Boxing’s Miracle Man (McFarland & Company) – spotlights another champion.

Detloff has thoroughly researched his subject. And there are places where he writes evocatively about the sweet science. “Money makes the world go ’round,” he notes. “But there’s not enough of it in the world to pull a man off the canvas when he’s fallen face first or to make him keep punching through a waterfall of blood and bone-deep exhaustion. That comes from somewhere else, some place deep and feral where money has no meaning.”

But Matthew Saad Muhammad: Boxing’s Miracle Man has more fight reports than needed. There are places where it’s not as nuanced as Detloff’s knowledge of boxing might have enabled it to be. And Detloff had a mountain in front of him that was hard to climb.

Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life was the first credible biography of Charles. As such, it constituted a significant contribution to boxing history. But last year, Tris Dixon authored Warrior: Matthew Saad Muhammad (Pitch Publishing). Certain fighters are worthy of more than one biography, and Saad Muhammad is one of them. That said; Dixon’s book is simply better.

But let’s give the last word to Detloff, who writes of Saad Muhammad, “It must be remembered that, for a time, Matt lived a princely life, traveling the world, bedding beautiful women, making millions, hearing crowds chant his name. The graveyards are full of men who would have given anything to live for one day the way he did from, say, 1978 to early ’81. There are few if any times in the life of an average man when he is able to incite the passions of thousands by virtue of his will. One does not let such moments pass unacknowledged.”

*          *          *

No one has written about boxing’s early gloved champions in greater detail than Adam Pollack. The Iowa attorney has authored in-depth biographies of John L. Sullivan, James Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, James Jeffries, Marvin Hart, Tommy Burns, Jack Johnson, and Jack Dempsey. Only Jess Willard is missing from the list. And Pollack covered Willard at length in his biographies of Johnson and Dempsey.

Pollack’s latest offering is the second of what will be three volumes devoted to Dempsey. This one covers the years 1919 through 1923. Like Pollack’s earlier works, it’s meticulously researched, a bit on the heavy side, and an invaluable resource for boxing historians.

Pollack has lived with boxing’s early gloved champions in his head for decades. Which of the fights that he has written about to date would he most like to have been at?

“That’s a tough one,” Pollack answers. “I’d want a fight that was awesome at ringside and one that I’ve never seen footage of. We have some film of Johnson-Jeffries. The same for Dempsey-Willard. If you put a gun to my head, I’d say Sullivan against Jake Kilrain. It wasn’t boxing as we know it today. But there’s no film footage of Sullivan fighting. And to be in that moment in Richburg, Mississippi, seventy-five rounds, more than two hours. Yeah; that would have been special.”

And which gloved champion that Pollack has written about so far would he most like to go back in time to interview?

“For an extended interview, I’d say Jack Johnson,” Pollack answers. “For one question, I’d say Dempsey. Did he throw the Jim Flynn fight [KO by in the first minute of round one]? There’s no film of that fight. But the more I read, the more I lean toward the conclusion that Dempsey threw the fight. He was dirt poor and I don’t think ethics were his number-one concern at the time.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – 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, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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