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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

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

Phil Woolever

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

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

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& Littlefield, stands up quite well on its own, and as a piece of boxing literature it stands out, through previously unpublished situational information on Frazier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review

Ed Odeven’s New Book Pays Homage to Sports Journalist Jerry Izenberg

Rick Assad

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It’s one thing to get to the top, but it’s something else entirely to remain there for more than half a century. Jerry Izenberg, longtime sports columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, now semi-retired and living in Henderson, Nevada, has done just that.

Izenberg is the subject of Ed Odeven’s book, “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg,” which was released New Year’s Eve and is available at amazon.com.

“By all accounts, he should be recognized as one of the greatest American sports columnists,” said Odeven, a 1999 graduate of Arizona State University who has lived in Japan since July 2006 and is the sports editor for the website Japan Forward. “A versatile professional, he was equally skilled at writing books and magazine articles and producing sports documentaries and crafting essays for the groundbreaking ‘Sports Extra’ television program on Channel 5 in New York in the 1970s.”

Odeven went on: “Jerry has seen everything and been seemingly everywhere. He brought gravitas to the newspaper sports section with decades of sustained excellence.”

During a seven-decade career in sports journalism, the 90-year-old Izenberg, found time to write 15 non-fiction books and one novel. His affinity for the manly sport is reflected in his 2017 book, “Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing.”

“From the 1950s to the present day [including recent years’ coverage of Tyson Fury and Manny Pacquiao, for instance, Izenberg has shined in his boxing coverage,” Odeven said. “You can’t ignore his remembrance pieces on fighters and boxing personalities across the decades [such as a terrific column on the late Leon Spinks in which he weaved a tapestry of the fighter’s life and his family’s struggles into a powerful piece], either.”

One of Izenberg’s favorite topics is Muhammad Ali.

“Izenberg first observed the great fighter’s infectious personality, popularity and boxing talent on display at the 1960 Rome Olympics,” Odeven said. “Cassius Clay was unlike any other famous pugilist in those days and for the rest of his life.”

Odeven spoke about the support Ali received from Izenberg: “When very few were publicly taking a stand to support Ali, Izenberg wrote columns that defended his right to fight. He took the boxing establishment to task for stripping Ali of his titles even while Ali’s case was making its way through the courts – and ultimately the United States Supreme Court.”

Izenberg, a graduate of Rutgers University who covered the first 53 Super Bowls, and Ali were close. “As friends, they were around each other in all corners of the earth,” Odeven said. “They shared highs and lows during periods of personal and professional success and disappointment.”

Here’s Jerry Izenberg talking about Ali’s humanity: “I was a single father and when my children came to live with me, they were very nervous. I took them to Deer Lake [Pennsylvania] for a television show I was filming as an advance to the Foreman-Ali fight. After the filming, knowing my situation, (Ali) took my son aside and put his arm around him and said, “Robert, you have come to live with a great man. Listen to him and you will grow to be a great man just like him.

“On the way up my daughter, who was seven, had said, ‘I hope Foreman beats him up because he brags too much and you always told me to not brag.’ “I told her, ‘you are seven and you have nothing to brag about. Both of these men are my friends. When you get there, keep your mouth shut.’ When we were packing up the equipment, he saw her in the back of the room and hollered, ‘come up here little girl. You with the braids.’ She was convinced I had ratted her out about what she said and tried her best to melt into the wall because she was frightened. As she walked toward him, she lost the power of speech and mumbled. He was 6-3 and she was 4-5. He grabbed her and held her over his head. ‘Is that man your daddy?’ All she could do was nod. ‘Don’t you lie to me little girl, look at him,’ and he pointed at me. ‘That man is ugly…ugly. You are beautiful, now gimme a kiss.’ On the way home she said, ‘I hope Muhammad can win,’ and I said, ‘you are just like the rest of them. The only difference is your age.’ He was one of my five best friends. When he died, I cried.”

Odeven offered his slant on why Izenberg was at home at major boxing events: “It was clear that Jerry was in a comfort zone on the week of a big fight, writing the stories that set the stage for the mano a mano encounter and the follow-up commentary that defined what happened and what it meant.”

Izenberg, noted Odeven, had worked under the legendary Stanley Woodward, as had Red Smith and Roger Kahn, among others, the latter most well-known for having penned the baseball classic, “The Boys Of Summer.” Many insist that Woodward, who read the classics, was the greatest sports editor.

Woodward, Odenven believes, helped shape Izenberg’s world outlook. “Izenberg became keenly aware of this human drama at its rawest form that existed in boxing,” he said, noting that in decades past the public was captivated by the big fights. “Examples, of course, include the first and third Ali-Frazier bouts and The Rumble In The Jungle [against Foreman]. Let’s not forget they were cultural touchstones.”

Referencing the third installment of Ali-Frazier in Manila, Izenberg said, “I’ve probably seen thousands of fights, but I never saw one when both fighters were exhausted and just wouldn’t quit…My scorecard had Ali ahead by one which meant if Joe knocked him down in the 15th, he would have won on my card. But there was no 15th because Joe’s trainer, Eddie Futch, ordered the gloves cut off after the 14th.

“At the finish, Ali collapsed. Later as Ali walked slowly up the aisle supported by his seconds, he leaned over toward the New York Times’ Dave Anderson and me and said through puffy lips, ‘Fellas. That’s the closest you will ever see to death.’”

Izenberg remembered his lead: “Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did not fight for the WBC heavyweight title last night,” he wrote. “They did not fight for the heavyweight championship of the planet. They could have fought in a telephone booth on a melting ice flow. They were fighting for the championship of each other and for me that still isn’t settled.”

What makes Izenberg relevant even today? “His canvas was the global sports landscape and he explored the human condition in each of his columns in some way,” Odeven stated. “He recognized what made a good story and sought out individuals and topics that fit that description – and he still does.

“You could read a random stack of columns about any number of topics from the 1960s or ’90s and be enlightened and entertained at the same time…He has always had a razor- sharp eye for details that illuminate a column and a source’s words to give it added verve.” Moreover, added Odeven, Izenberg had a never-wavering commitment to championing a just cause: “Speaking out against racism and religious bigotry, he gave a voice to the voiceless or those often ignored.”

Note: Jerry Izenberg was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category in 2015.

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Book Review

A Boxing Match is at the Heart of David Albertyn’s Widely Praised Debut Novel

Rick Assad

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David Albertyn’s debut novel, “Undercard,” has earned lavish reviews. Released in Canada in 2019 and in the United States last year, the book has already been translated into French and German for HarperCollins, one of the world’s leading publishing houses, and the film rights have been sold to Shaftesbury – heady stuff for a first-time author.

“Undercard” is a fast-paced crime thriller with more twists and turns than the Grand Prix of Monaco. There are four central characters, childhood friends unexpectedly united in Las Vegas. The plot, which unfolds over a 24-hour span, revolves around a bout on the undercard of a casino mega-fight.

“It’s been hugely rewarding having ‘Undercard’ out there in the world, and especially with the reception it’s been given,” said Albertyn, a native of South Africa and a resident of Toronto. “It was a dream come true to finally publish a novel, and it’s obviously given me a lot more confidence in my writing, but also confidence in myself…But probably the best part of all is when readers tell me that the book was meaningful to them.”

A high-level tennis player and a coach of the sport, Albertyn has always enjoyed sports, including boxing. Why did he choose the sweet science as the backdrop for his novel?

“I knew I wanted to feature sports in “Undercard,” as I have an extensive background in sports as an athlete, fan, and coach, and incorporating fields that one is familiar with brings an element of authenticity and uniqueness to one’s writing,” he pointed out. “I wanted each of my four main characters to be an athlete in a different sport (one of whom, Antoine, is a boxer) and once I chose Las Vegas, home to so many major fights, as the setting, I knew that boxing would be the featured sport.”

Albertyn continued: “Having been a fan of boxing since I was a child, and having trained in it at various points in my life, I had familiarity with it to begin with, but I did as much research as I could. I attended amateur and professional fights; I watched a ton of fights on television and online, both contemporary and classic bouts, trying to pick up as many details as I could. I watched documentaries, shows and narrative films about boxing; and I read a number of non-fiction books and articles about the sport and its competitors. I will say that I also drew on my own experiences of competing, even though they came in other sports, as I feel that some aspects of competition are universal to all sports.”

Of the three male characters in the book, is there one Albertyn identifies with?

“If I had to choose one, I’d pick Antoine, who is my favorite character in the novel, and the one I wanted to build the story around. I wanted to explore an utterly goal-oriented character, whose entire life is constructed around a single purpose, who can achieve their objectives no matter how much the circumstances are stacked against them,” he stated.

In truth, Albertyn had two other novels that were not published, and while this was disappointing, important lessons were garnered.

“I learned an incredible amount from my first two attempts at publishing a novel. Probably the greatest lesson I learned was to write something that was meaningful to me and that would appeal to the publishing industry,” he said. “My previous work tended to focus on one or the other. This time I very much tried to do justice to both. So ‘Undercard’’ engages with various topics that I find interesting and important, and at the same time it’s set in Las Vegas, this sexy, exciting setting that is immediately eye-catching for publishers and readers. I also realized that I needed to enlist outside help, as I knew I had been close with my first two tries. So, I took a creative writing correspondence course [with Humber College in Toronto], where an advisor helped me revise my manuscript.”

How did Albertyn, who said if he wasn’t a writer and tennis player/instructor, he would have chosen to be an actor, come up with the idea for the story?

“The storyline came about gradually. It was really an amalgamation of a lot of ideas that I was ecstatic to find all fit together in one narrative – for instance having the story take place over 24 hours, something I’d always wanted to do; having revenge a key theme, being a fan of revenge stories; having an action scene in the background of a major sports event, an idea that had been with me for years,” he pointed out.

While doing background work, what did Albertyn learn?

“My research taught me about the Iraq War, boxing obviously, the WNBA, the history of Las Vegas, the casino industry and casino moguls, how private and state security forces are used in urban spaces, the Black Lives Matter movement (my research largely taking place from 2016 to 2018, so before last summer’s protests) and I’m sure other areas that I cannot recall now,” he said.

“There were fascinating things I learned on all these subjects, but I’ll mention the role of these casino hotel resorts in world politics and business was very interesting. A lot of meetings and deals of all kinds between powerful groups and people take place in these casino resorts, making them play a significant role in world events.”

Albertyn wants to continue writing novels, but is certainly open to other genres.

“I might try to write for magazines one day, but I would definitely like to write for film and television,” he said. “I majored in Film Studies in university and always hoped that I would do screenwriting. I have several ideas already, but I plan to stick with books for a little bit until I’m more established as an author before I make that push.”

“Undercard” isn’t as boxing-centric as other novels such as Leonard Gardner’s celebrated “Fat City,” but boxing fans in particular are bound to find it an enjoyable read.

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