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“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

Goodbye To All Of That: A Review of Mike Silver’s ‘The Night the Referee Hit Back’

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Goodbye To All Of That: A Review of Mike Silver’s ‘The Night the Referee Hit Back’

Mike Silver has been writing about boxing since the 1970s, which would make him, in the parlance of the youth of today, an “old head,” an appellation that carries wildly contradictory meanings depending on its usage. His 2008 book, The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science, was a caustic close reading of how boxing, once a mainstream sport that spoke to the masses, became a small, hemmed-in, navel-gazing affair guided by small men and their equally small thinking.

In this provocative book, Silver excoriated some of the most indubitable pillars in the sport, those whose talents and achievements most fans regard as transcendental, beyond reproach. The reader was hit with one long either/or proposition. Either Silver was “clickbaiting,” engaging in the worst instincts of hot take culture or he was providing a long-overdue corrective, and depending on your frame of mind or allegiances, the answer was stark clear. Here are a couple of snippets from that book:

“Floyd [Mayweather Jr.] continues to win fights without strategizing because his mostly third-rate opponents haven’t a clue as to how to counter his whippet speed. The faux experts praise his ‘technical skill’ because they cannot differentiate between extreme speed and sophisticated boxing technique.”

Of Bernard Hopkins, he writes, “Reviewing tapes of his fights reveals to the knowing eye that Hopkins is an intelligent yet unremarkable boxer possessing decent defensive skills, a professional attitude and a solid punch. While these qualities are more than enough to make him a dominant world champion today, fifty years ago such skills would have been considered commonplace.”

There are those, no doubt, who feel that any criticism leveled at Mayweather or Hopkins, as well as Pernell Whitaker or Roy Jones Jr., are grounds for immediate excommunication. But discount Silver at your own peril. You may not agree with everything that he says, but his observations are a net win for a boxing culture that seems to run more and more on a perpetual feed-back loop of self-regarding hype.

In his new collection of essays, The Night the Referee Hit Back, culled from 40 years of material, Silver has somewhat tempered his venom, eschewing the combative stance of Arc for a more celebratory one. But his opinions have not changed. “My observations are based on my particular frame of reference and perspective,” Silver writes. “To me, the glory and romance of boxing resides in its past history and I’m content to leave it at that.” As Joe Pesci said in The Irishman, “It’s what it is.”

The Night opens up, appropriately, to a bygone vision of New York City when booze still flowed liberally through Toots Shor’s, Jack Dempsey held court at his eponymous watering hole, and boxing “was still an important part of American popular culture.” The nerve center of the city’s prizefighting ecosystem was on 8th Avenue, not at Madison Square Garden, but at nearby Stillman’s Gym, the sweat-caked fighting coop that A.J. Liebling affectionately immortalized as the University on 8th Avenue. The gym, seemingly one of the last connections to Damon Runyon’s New York, shuttered in the early 1960s and has left behind virtually zero trace; no distinguishing vestige, no commemorative plaque. In its place today, within the hellscape of an increasingly corporatized Manhattan, stands a sad pocket of residential real estate surrounded by fast-food chains and a TD Bank.

A young, 14-year-old Silver had the good fortune of being introduced to this private world before it was all razed down two years later. Back then, Silver reminds the reader, “Even an ordinary preliminary boxer could make more money in one four-round bout than a sweatshop laborer made for an entire week.” His reminiscences are offered with a light touch, without falling into a maudlin trap. As Silver describes what it was like walking up the wooden staircase and passing through the turnstile and chatting it up with Kid Norfolk, the reader can almost smell the thick waft of cigar smoke that hung over the gym in those days.

“Dick Tiger, Gaspar Ortega, Emile Griffith, Jorge Fernandez, Joey Archer, Rory Calhoun, Alex Miteff, Ike Chestnut, and others,” Silver recalled, rattling off the fighters he brushed shoulders with on a daily basis. “Is there any other professional sport where a fan can get so close to its star? This was the magic and allure of Stillman’s, and I thank my lucky stars I was able to experience it.”

But the nostalgic anecdotes are kept to a minimum. Most of The Night features pieces that reflect Silver’ analytical nature. “Don’t Blame Ruby,” one of his most insightful pieces, hones in on the infamous 1962 Benny Paret-Emile Griffith welterweight bout in which Griffith ended up sending a comatose Paret to the hospital – and 10 days later, to the grave. Here Silver takes issue with the long-parroted line of thinking that blames the referee of that bout, Ruby Goldstein, for taking too long to wave off the bout. Actually, Silver argues, the truth was much more complicated. Citing Paret’s hellacious fighting schedule – which included an engagement with the deadly Gene Fullmer before his star-crossed meeting with Griffith — Silver points the finger at Paret’s handlers and the bureaucrats who were presumably in charge of overseeing the fighter’s safety. If any blame can be ascribed to an individual or entity, it is them.

In another piece, Silver deconstructs, step-by-step, round-by-round, the mythology behind the snazzily dubbed “The Thrilla in Manila,” the third and final fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier that is often cited as one of the greatest fights in boxing history. Balderdash, says Silver. Anyone who has seen the fight can attest to Silver’s common sense, but that has not stopped the bout from being breathlessly heralded routinely by magazines like The Ring and cable networks like ESPN, which proves the point about boxing being one vast echo chamber. These two pieces alone should quiet those who think Silver has an agenda against contemporary boxing. It turns out his only bias is against uncritical thinking.

But on the topic of modern-day boxing, he has much to say. In “A World of Professional Amateurs,” Silver takes his scalpel to what he views as a growing pattern of prizefighters who find no reason to break out of their juvenile shells. In one passage he praises the skill-set of Dmitry Bivol, the current WBA titleholder who amassed more than 300 bouts in the amateur ranks, but laments his professional instincts.

“Forty years ago, Dmitry Bivol would have been labeled a hot prospect and maybe in line for a semifinal in Madison Square Garden,” Silver writes. “But as good as he is, Dmitry would not be ready to challenge a prime Victor Galindez, the reigning world light heavyweight champion.”

He notes later, in a sharp observation, that “Dmitry won’t be required to improve much beyond his current skill level because the line that once separated top amateur boxers from top professional boxers has become blurred.”

He also takes to task Sergey Kovalev, regarded as the top light heavyweight of the 2010s but who, in his more recent bouts, has revealed the cavernous limitations in his craft. His rematch against Andre Ward, in which he was stopped controversially by a low blow, and his title defense against Eleider Alvarez, in which he was knocked out, were the major tells.

“A seasoned pro who is knocked down or hurt would have known how to tie up his opponent in a clinch or bob and weave his way out of trouble, or at least make the attempt,” writes Silver. “Kovalev, used to knocking out inferior opposition, didn’t know what to do when the situation was reversed and it was he who was in trouble.”

And then there are the interviews. Archie Moore, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, Ted Lowry, and Curtis Cokes round out a section of illuminating conversations toward the end of the book. They are like the equivalent of Paris Review interviews, primary documents that preserve the wit and inflection of voices too seldom heard. For example, in his talk with heavyweight Lowry, Silver asks him to describe the punching power of Rocky Marciano, whom he came close to defeating, were it not for the judges’ decision. Lowry responds with an illuminating metaphor.

“He hit hard but a smart fighter had no business getting hit by Rocky because he would send you a letter when he’s gonna punch,” Lowry said.

Speaking of letters, The Night the Referee Hit Back is an eminently fine one.

The Night the Referee Hit Back

by Mike Silver

Rowman & Littlefield, 249 pp., $34.00

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Book Review

Did The Hoodlum Element Rule Boxing in the 1950s? A Dissenting Opinion

Arne K. Lang

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The decade of the 1950s has held a particular fascination for boxing historians. This was the decade in which the sport’s dominant player was the International Boxing Club, an organization reportedly in the grip of mobsters who dictated who would get to fight who and who sometimes predetermined the outcomes. The baddest of the bad guys, by acclamation, was Frankie Carbo. A New York mobster with a long rap sheet, Carbo (pictured) reputedly ruled the sport with an iron fist.

The seminal book on the IOC and its dirty laundry is Barney Nagler’s “James Norris and the Decline of Boxing,” published in 1964. Recent books that explore the same turf are Jeffrey Sussman’s “Boxing and the Mob: The Notorious History of the Sweet Science” (Rowman & Littlefield) and Kevin Mitchell’s “The Mob, The Garden, and the Golden Age of Boxing” (Hamilcar). Both were published in 2019. The Hamilcar book, authored by a veteran British sports journalist, is a revision of the book published in 2010 under a slightly different title.

I recently stumbled upon a book that contradicts the conventional wisdom that the mob had a stranglehold on boxing in the 1950s. “(Frankie) Carbo was no more than a pimple on a gnat’s ass when it came to boxing,” says the author, the late Truman K. Gibson.

A little background: The International Boxing Club was born from the ashes of Mike Jacobs’ empire. Jacobs, who made the bulk of his fortune as a Broadway ticket scalper, was the most powerful promoter during the era of Joe Louis. He suffered a stroke in 1946 and that set the wheels in motion for a takeover by the International Boxing Club. Formed in 1949, the IOC assumed Jacobs’ arrangement with Madison Square Garden where the firm was headquartered.

The major stockholders in the IBC were James D. Norris and Arthur Wirtz. Norris, who took on the title of IOC President, was the son of James E. Norris. A fabulously wealthy Canadian-American businessman with interests in grain mills, cattle ranching, shipping, and real estate, the elder Norris would become best known for popularizing the sport of professional hockey. Arthur Wirtz was a business partner of both Norris’s, father and son. The Norris-Wirtz combine established a controlling interest in Madison Square Garden and in the largest indoor sports stadiums in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis.

It didn’t take long for the IBC to arouse the ire of reformers. When hotel executive Robert Christenberry was named chairman of the New York Athletic Commission in September of 1951, his mandate from Governor Thomas E. Dewey was to purge the hoodlum element from boxing. An expose that ran under Christenberry’s byline in the May 26, 1952 issue of Life, America’s top-selling weekly magazine, included mug shots of five alleged mobsters who had their hooks into the upper reaches of the sport. The quintet included Frankie Carbo and Philadelphia numbers baron Frank “Blinky” Palermo, said to be Carbo’s chief lieutenant.

Several fearless newspapermen fueled the effort to clean up boxing. Chicago Daily News columnist Jack Mabley was the first to finger Carbo as the “czar” of boxing. Mabley’s counterpart in the East was Dan Parker of the New York Daily Mirror.

A year after Christenberry’s story appeared, the feds got involved. The IBC was charged with operating a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Five years later, after numerous appeals, the charge was upheld and the IBC was dissolved. In the interim and for a time thereafter, it was business as usual.

Flash forward to 1961. Five men are found guilty in a federal court of muscling in on the contract of newly-crowned welterweight champion Don Jordan. The miscreants are Carbo, Palermo, Joe Sica, Louis Dragna, and Truman K. Gibson.

Gibson was something more than an alleged IBC influencer; he was a key component of the organization, there from the very beginning, first as the IBC legal counsel with the title of Executive Secretary and then Executive Vice President when Norris resigned in 1957 following a heart attack. And after the IBC was dissolved, Gibson kept the wheels turning by folding the IBC into a new company, National Boxing Enterprises.

Truman K. Gibson

I knew nothing about Truman Gibson outside the context of boxing until I stumbled upon his memoir. Written in collaboration with Chicago Sun Times columnist Steve Huntley, the book, published by Northwestern University Press, was released in 2005 several months before Gibson died at age 93.

Born in Atlanta, Gibson grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Columbus, Ohio, where his father founded a life insurance company that would merge with two other firms to become one of America’s largest black-owned businesses. Gibson was light-skinned and could have easily passed for white, but he stayed true to his heritage – his paternal grandfather was born into slavery – and embraced the role of a so-called “race man,” working to uplift his fellow African-Americans until the boxing business took over, consuming most of his waking moments.

Truman Gibson

Truman Gibson

After earning a law degree from the University of Chicago, Gibson helped organize Chicago’s American Negro Exposition of 1940, timed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Emancipation. His work caught the eye of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to whom he became a consultant as a member of Roosevelt’s so-called Black Cabinet.

Foremost on Gibson’s to-do list was the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces. He had a role in the making of “The Negro Soldier,” the great World War II propaganda film directed by the brilliant Frank Capra and continued in his role as an advisor to the man in the oval office when Harry Truman succeeded Roosevelt as Commander-in-Chief. It would be Truman who signed the executive order ending the practice of racial segregation in the military.

Truman Gibson stumbled into boxing. His law firm did some work for rising heavyweight contender Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber was 12 fights into his pro career when Gibson first met him. Later on, Gibson formed a corporation that distributed highlight reels of Joe’s two fights with Jersey Joe Walcott.

When Norris and Wirtz formed the International Boxing Club, they thought it important that Joe Louis be involved. It was no coincidence that the IOC was formed on the very day that Louis announced his (short-lived) retirement. The Brown Bomber was named Director of Boxing, a hollow title, and Truman Gibson hopped on board with him.

In a previous article, this reporter called Robert K. DeArment’s “Gunfighter in Gotham,” one of the best books ever written on prizefighting in New York at the turn of the 20th Century. This book fell through the cracks – who would have ever suspected that a book about Bat Masterson would be so rich in boxing information? – and Truman Gibson’s memoir, titled “Knocking Down Barriers, My Fight for Black America,” is likewise a hidden gem.

It’s not a book that a boxing history buff would find in the usual places (a librarian would be more likely to shelve it with books on Military History) and, as one can surmise from the title, boxing gets short shrift. But this is a meaty book, 344 pages in hardback, and there’s plenty for a boxing historian to dig his teeth into. Whether writing about the genesis of Joe Louis’s impossibly convoluted tax problems, or on the uneasy marriage between boxing and television, Gibson has something fresh to say.

There’s some juicy stuff in here too. In Gibson’s view (a view advanced by others), no man profited more handsomely from Prohibition than Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of America’s most prominent political family. Kennedy’s relationship with Samuel Bronfman, the owner of Canadian powerhouse Seagram’s, insured that he would be first in line when the good stuff was smuggled in bulk across the lake. Compared with Kennedy, bootleggers of the Al Capone stripe were minnows.

Jim Norris was quite a character. Like his father, Norris was involved in sports. When he wasn’t tending to IBC business, he was out golfing or racing his string of thoroughbreds and quarter horses. Norris and Wirtz, according to Gibson, were partners in a lucrative gambling casino in the Bahamas and the hidden owners of America’s largest layoff bookmaking operation, the nerve center of which was in a vessel anchored near their Bahamian casino. A big bettor who bet tens of thousands of dollars on sports every day, Norris was his bookmaking firm’s best customer.

Jim Norris was a rapscallion who was attracted to the same sort of nocturnal people that fascinated Damon Runyon. Did he occasionally break bread with Frankie Carbo and men of Carbo’s ilk? Absolutely. However, it’s one thing to say that Norris consorted with such people and quite another to say that he was coerced into doing their bidding. Remember, Norris, born into wealth, had more money than all of them combined.

“The IBC earned millions from fixed fights,” writes author Jeffrey Sussman.

If Truman Gibson were alive today, his response would be “bull****”.

If we had run fixed fights, Gibson would say, the networks would have kicked us out the door in a heartbeat. As for Frankie Carbo, says Gibson, “he was no more than a messenger boy who operated on the fringes,” a man who stuck to boxing like velcro because he was an ugly pimple too stupid to keep a low profile.

The feds disagreed. When Frankie Carbo and his confederates came up for sentencing, Carbo drew the harshest penalty: 25 years in a federal correctional institution. By comparison, Truman Gibson got a slap on the wrist: a five-year suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine. The judge was lenient because Gibson didn’t bring mobsters into boxing, but inherited them. They were there before the torch was passed from Mike Jacobs to the IOC.

Gibson had more legal problems when he returned to his law practice in Chicago. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, he got caught up in a bank fraud and a vacation timeshare swindle and eventually had his law license suspended for two years. These incidents did not find their way into his memoir.

So, who are we to believe, Truman Gibson or the hordes of writers who have described boxing in the 1950s as a cesspool of mob activity?

I will let the readers decide, but as I was reading this book, I was reminded of an old saying, something to the effect that if a man lies down with dogs, he will get fleas. Truman Gibson had a rich life and accomplished many good things, but during his tenure with the International Boxing Club he associated with some very mangy dogs.

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Book Review

Book Review: Bernard Fernandez’s “Championship Rounds”

Arne K. Lang

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When a man retires after a lengthy career in an interesting occupation, he feels a tug to write his memoir. If he happened to be a journalist, the memoir can take the form of an anthology. Bernard Fernandez’s “Championship Rounds,” released this month, is an anthology – a compendium of previously published material – but it also veers off at times into a memoir, which is a very good thing. It could not be otherwise as Fernandez had a front row seat at the circus and the permit to poke around behind the scenes.

For the uninitiated, Bernard Fernandez spent 43 years as a sportswriter, the last 28 with the Philadelphia Daily News before retiring in 2012. Although he was occasionally assigned to other beats, he was foremost the paper’s boxing guy. When he started with the Daily News, many established papers had a full-time boxing writer. Today they are as scarce as professional typewriter repairmen.

Various honors came Fernandez’s way during his newspaper career, the most recent of which, for a boxing writer, is the ultimate, enshrinement in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Fernandez was voted into the Hall in the Observer category last year.

There are 35 stories in “Championship Rounds” sorted into six sections. Eighteen of these stories appeared at The Sweet Science. Among the boxers profiled are Ali and Frazier, Jake LaMotta (who Fernandez interviewed for the second time when Jake was 94 years old), Archie Moore, Tex Cobb, Arturo Gatti (“the boxing franchise in Atlantic City”), and the Spinks brothers – Michael, who “wrung every ounce from his considerable boxing gifts,” and Leon, his mirror opposite, “perpetually distracted.”

Many of the giants of the modern era turn up in “Championship Rounds,” but also some cult figures and even Jack Obermayer, somewhat less than a cult figure save among his peers who were awed by his stamina and cherished his friendship. A familiar face at diners up and down the east coast, Obermayer likely attended more boxing shows than any man ever born, 3,514 in total scattered across 400-plus cities in 49 states, all but Alaska. He devoted himself, says Fernandez, “to the proposition that every fight card, no matter how unimportant or seemingly insignificant, required his presence at ringside to be fully validated.”

The best boxing writers understand that boxing is an ecosystem and that some of the best stories are found outside the ropes.

Fernandez was writing about women’s boxing before it was fashionable to write about women’s boxing. It’s doubtful the name Jackie Tonawanda rings a bell, but she was a trailblazer in women’s boxing and Fernandez brings her to life in a story that appeared in these pages back in 2009. I had no clue that the fight between Laila Ali and Jackie Frazier-Lyde created such a stir until I read “Ali-Frazier IV.” Held at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, a little town in upstate New York, the event attracted a media throng of 300-plus from around the world.

Bernard Fernandez is a big movie buff. “I’ve frequently imagined that, were I not covering boxing matches and football and basketball games for my weekly recompense, I’d be a movie reviewer,” he writes.

The big screen and the lowbrow amusement of celebrity boxing intersect in “I Tanya…,” a 2019 story inspired by the Tonya Harding biopic starring Margot Robbie and Alison Janney. The movie transported Fernandez back to Portland, Oregon, and the maddeningly unfruitful scrums that bespattered “the worst week of my newspaper career.”

Being a newspaper reporter who racks up frequent flyer miles isn’t all that glamorous as Fernandez showed in that story, but even the most unpleasant episodes can be fun in the re-telling. And sometimes the hassle of getting somewhere is redeemed by a surprising turn of events at the destination. Fernandez’s trip to Tokyo in 1990 was grueling at both ends of the continuum — from the Eastern seaboard, one crosses 14 time zones – but he would be one of the few American scribes to witness live and in color, as they say, the most famous upset in the annals of boxing.

rounds

Mike Tyson’s 2002 match with Lennox Lewis wasn’t nearly as momentous – at least not after the bell rang – but Fernandez’s excursion to Memphis, the host city, yielded a story too good to be left on the cutting room floor. The highlight for me was his interview with a tourist from Switzerland as they watched the city’s oddest must-see attraction, the march of the ducks in the ornate lobby of the Peabody Hotel.

Of the 35 entries in the book, my personal favorites are the two that are the most poignant. Bernard Hopkins’ truth-is-stranger-than-fiction life story has been well-documented, but one acquires a greater appreciation of B-Hop while reading about the special bond that he forged with a terminally ill teenage fan. In the book’s final entry, Fernandez pays homage to his late father who instilled within him his love of boxing. Bernard Fernandez Sr., who had a brief pro career under the name Jack Fernandez, was a much-decorated New Orleans police captain who passed away in 1994 at age 75. “It is said that an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind,” writes Fernandez, “and my father never spent a conflicted night.”

Bernard Fernandez is a friend of mine, something I probably should have acknowledged earlier. Moreover, for the past several years, I have been his editor here at The Sweet Science.

Editors, many of whom exemplify the Peter Principle, are faultfinders by temperament and tutelage, and I would be remiss if I didn’t find something to quibble about.

When writing a feature story about a boxer or boxing personality, Fernandez will sometimes open with a parallelism. For example, a certain boxer may summon up the name of a historical figure with whom he shares characteristics in common. The parallel in a piece about Wladimir Klitschko is Al Davis, the former owner of the Oakland Raiders whose mantra, “Just win, baby,” became the enduring catchphrase of Raider Nation.

I thought the comparison was labored and that Fernandez exhausted too many words about Davis and his team before getting to the gist of his story.

With that nitpicking yammer, I likely just got on the wrong side of George Foreman which is never a smart thing to do. “Writers come and go,” says Foreman in the foreword to the book, “but the special ones (like Bernard Fernandez) stand the test of time.”

On this matter, Big George and me are in perfect accord.

Bravo, Bernard, it was a most enjoyable read and if there is a sequel in the hopper, please don’t let it languish.

For more information about “Championship Rounds” including where to purchase the book CLICK HERE.

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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