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Award-Winning Writer John Schulian Reflects on His Days on the Boxing Beat

Rick Assad

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A TSS CLASSIC: Bill Shoemaker was born to ride thoroughbred race horses. Pablo Picasso to paint. Tony Bennett to sing. Marlon Brando to act. John Schulian to write.

Schulian has written for six newspapers including the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News, and has contributed to such weighty periodicals as Sports Illustrated, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Inside Sports and Playboy.

In time, Schulian would turn his attention to the bright lights of Hollywood where he was a staff writer for “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” “The Slap Maxwell Story,” and “Midnight Caller.”

Schulian also co-created the worldwide hit television show “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

And if that wasn’t enough, Schulian edited or co-edited four sports anthologies and had three collections of his sports writing published: “Writers’ Fighters And Other Sweet Scientists,” “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.”

After our initial meeting over a three-hour lunch and through continued correspondence via email, the Los Angeles native who holds journalism degrees from the University of Utah (BA) and Northwestern University (MS) agreed to answer a handful of questions for “The Sweet Science.”

Like so many people, Muhammad Ali’s passing at age 74 in Arizona hit home for Schulian.

“My first thought is that I’m hardly alone in having memories of Ali,” he said. “He belonged to the public in a way that no other athlete – no other public figure, really – has belonged to the public. Some people still remember how he shed the name Cassius Clay and stood over the supine Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, daring the big ugly bear he had just knocked down – or had he? – to get up.

“Others remember Ali’s trembling hand when he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. And then there are those who lucked into more personal moments: a kid who met Ali by chance in an airport or a woman who saw him give her husband the once-over at a banquet and then tell her, “You can do better.”

“Sometimes it seemed as if Ali was put on earth to brighten peoples’ lives that way. I know he certainly brightened mine the night I was sitting next to him on the dais at a banquet in New York. He drew the globe complete with continents on a paper placemat, then he nudged me and pointed at it. “I used to be champion of all that,” he said in a raspy voice. He was through with fighting by then, and yet his words still gave me a chill. For some of us, he would always be a champion even if he wore no crown.”

Schulian, who was offered Red Smith’s column at The New York Times, which he turned down, covered boxing in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the many fights he watched, which stand out?

“I wish I could put an Ali fight on this list, but all the fights I covered showcasing him never should have happened,” he said. “He left the last vestiges of his greatness in Manila, just as Joe Frazier did, and it was only after he was back home that I began writing about him.

“The one really good fight Ali had in that era was with Earnie Shavers in Madison Square Garden, but Ali still took some ferocious shots, and I’m sure he paid for them later.

“Now, to get back to your question: [Ray] Leonard-[Thomas] Hearns was a great fight. Hearns had him beat twice, but Leonard had too much heart and brainpower to be stopped.

“The first [Aaron] Pryor-[Alexis] Arguello fight, in Miami, was a study in courage and the thrilling nobility that such a brutal sport can summon from combatants. Of course, a lot of people scarcely remember that because of Duk Koo Kim’s fatal injuries in the ring the next evening.

“[Roberto] Duran-Leonard I was fascinating because of the education Leonard took away from it. In their second fight, he let Duran know that school was out. The best fight I covered – the most electric fight and the most dramatic – was [Marvin] Hagler-Hearns. I never saw anything like it. They charged out of their corners at the start of the first round, and everybody at press row and in the crowd came out of their seats like they’d just taken 1,000 volts in the ass.

“Nobody sat down until Hagler had landed so many punches that all of Hearns’ synapses were misfiring. Of such violence are legends made.”

There are enough great boxers to fill a good-size garage. Who stands above the rest?

“I didn’t start writing about boxing extensively until after the Thrilla in Manila, which means I covered Ali at a time he shouldn’t have been fighting at all,” said Schulian, who had his first novel, “A Better Goodbye,” published in 2015. “So I can’t call him the best. The Hagler-Hearns fight was the best I covered and the most electric event I’ve seen in any sport, but that doesn’t put Marvelous Marvin atop my list.

“The same goes for Roberto Duran, who was a brilliant defensive fighter as well as a terrifying puncher, and Larry Holmes, a great heavyweight with a wrecking-ball jab and the bad luck to succeed Ali as champion.

“The best fighter in my time, however, was Sugar Ray Leonard. He proved how big his heart and talent were when he beat Hearns, but that was just part of what made him so great. He also had a rapacious intellect when it came to boxing. He watched film of every great old fighter  and he went to school on all of them. And his education in the ring was enhanced exponentially by the way his trainer Angelo Dundee brought him along, pitting him against every possible type of opponent, sluggers and cutie pies, southpaws and stylists, and defensive specialists and guys who, given the chance, would try to gouge out his eyes.

“Leonard beat them all, and did it with the same flair and personality that the public fell in love with at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Once his name was included among boxing’s all-time greats, however, something in him changed. He began retiring and un-retiring and he slowly got rid of all the people who had helped him get to the top, Dundee and lifetime friends like Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton, and the lawyer who made sure he would always be financially secure, Mike Trainer.

“It happens in every profession, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Leonard beat Hagler, either. But he was still the best fighter I covered in what was boxing’s last golden era.”

What separates covering boxing from other sports? “I hope you don’t mind if I quote myself,” he said. “This is from my introduction to “At The Fights,” which George Kimball (RIP) and I edited for the Library of America.

“[Boxing] is the best friend a writer ever had. It doesn’t matter whether the writer is a newspaper wage-slave feverishly trying to make his deadline after a title fight or a big-name author who has parachuted in to survey toe-to-toe gladiators and the exotica surrounding them.

“There is an undeniable jolt to watching violence in the ring, an almost electrical charge composed of equal parts beauty and savagery, and it can stir the poet in a writer who doesn’t realize he has poetry in him.

“I’m sure our very best boxing writers, from A.J. Liebling to Mark Kram to Richard Hoffer, would have wonderful things to add to that, but if you read their work, you’ll see the points I made driven home in high style.”

Was it more fun covering boxing during your era versus the present day? “I’m not out in the gyms and ballparks anymore so it’s hard for me to give you a definitive answer,” Schulian pointed out. “But judging by what I hear from old sports writing friends, read in papers and magazines, and see on TV, the job looks a hell of a lot harder than it used to be.

“The best sport of all for guys who would bend your ear was boxing. If you walked into a gym or arena with a notebook in your hand, you were instantly surrounded by people with stories to tell. All anyone cared about was that you spelled his name right, and that included Don King, who just laughed every time he got caught short-changing another fighter.

When Angelo Dundee was in his final years, I needed to talk to him for a piece I was writing about Ali. It had been years since we’d last spoken, so I felt compelled to introduce myself. “Why you doin’ that?” Angelo said. “I oughta punch you in the nose. We’re friends, for crying out loud.”

For the late Sports Illustrated scribe Pat Putnam, he used Liebling’s words to help elevate his prose. What took Schulian to the next level?

“Maybe I would have written better if I’d read Liebling too, but, no, I never did anything like Pat did,” he noted.” The fighters were always my inspiration. If they weren’t up to the challenge, then I’d fall back on the world I was in at every fight, with a cast of characters that seemed to have stepped out of a noir novel. I didn’t always write an “A” story, but the material for one was almost always at my disposal.”

Schulian received the prestigious PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing this year.

“It was the biggest and best surprise of my career,” he said. “You have to realize that I left daily newspapering for Hollywood thirty years ago. It was a move that I always assumed rendered me a non-candidate for any journalism awards even if I kept my hand in sports writing by doing occasional pieces for GQ, Sports Illustrated, the L.A. Times, Deadspin, and Alex Belth’s Bronx Banter Blog.

“What can I tell you? I’m a compulsive writer. And there were things I wanted to say and subjects that editors wanted me to write about. The great discovery of this second phase of my sports writing career was that l felt like I’d somehow become better at putting words on paper.

“Maybe I needed time away from the grind of doing four columns a week and always having a freelance magazine piece going on the side. Maybe I learned something from the incredibly smart people I worked with in TV – nothing about writing prose, mind you, but plenty about thinking and challenging the norm and being exposed to new ideas.

“Whatever the reason, I ended up doing some of the best pieces of my career, about Ali, Josh Gibson, Chuck Bednarik and the obscure legends that help make baseball such a compelling game. But once they were in print and I’d cashed the checks I got for them, I figured that was the end of the line.

“When PEN e-mailed me early this year to say I’d won the award, I was gobsmacked. I didn’t even know I was in the running, and I still don’t know who nominated me, but I hope that whoever it was realizes how grateful I am. I’m equally grateful to Dave Kindred, Sally Jenkins and Senator Bill Bradley, who comprised the panel that selected me.

“They put me in the same sentence with Roger Angell, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, Dave Anderson and Bob Ryan, the award’s previous winners. It’s hard to believe that a guy who co-created “Xena” could keep such distinguished company, but I’ve got the plaque to prove it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally ran on August 23, 2016

——

Rick Assad has covered sports in Southern California for almost three decades. You may contact him at yankeespride55@gmail.com

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Season 2 of the World Boxing Super Series Concludes on Saturday in Munich

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PRESS RELEASE: The hotly-anticipated World Boxing Super Series Season II Cruiserweight Final between Mairis Briedis and Yuniel Dorticos takes place behind-closed-doors in a film studio at Plazamedia Broadcasting Center in Munich, Germany on Saturday, 26 September. On the line: The Muhammad Ali Trophy, IBF World Title, and vacant Ring Magazine 200 lbs belt.

The final will be shown live on DAZN in the US and Sky Sports in the UK.

“A final for the Muhammad Ali Trophy has proved to be something extraordinary. We have seen that it brings out the best in boxers which reflects the DNA of our tournament as to deliver and continue to deliver boxing at its very best to fans of the sport,” said Andreas Benz, CEO of Comosa, the event organizer.

“Plazamedia is a phenomenal solution, the studios are providing a controlled environment which is of huge benefit to us and the production team to keep everyone safe while also putting on a great show.

“At the same time, we have done everything to secure fair conditions for both teams, and to ensure they remain healthy and isolated until the action starts.”

Mairis Briedis, tournament No. 1 seed, qualified for the final through wins over Noel Mikaelian (UD) and Krzysztof Glowacki (TKO3), while Dorticos, No. 2 seed conquered Mateusz Masternak (UD) and Andrew Tabiti (KO10) to enter the 200 lbs decider.

“We are very happy about the announcement of the final,” said Latvia’s Mairis Briedis. “I love the fact that it will be in Munich as it reminds me of every time I went to train with the Klitschko brothers in Germany and the flights were always via Munich. Those are some great memories of the time spent with them there.”

Said Miami-based Cuban, Yuniel ‘The KO Doctor’ Dorticos, IBF World Cruiserweight Champion: “To all my fans worldwide, In Europe and especially in Munich, Germany: I am super happy the World Boxing Super Series final will take place in Munich, Germany, and I will see you all on Saturday, September 26th. The KO Doctor is back and ready to prescribe another dose of pain and take the Muhammad Ali Trophy back to Miami.”

Kalle Sauerland, Chief Boxing Officer of the WBSS, said: “On 26 September we will not only crown the best cruiserweight on the planet but also send a sign to the world that boxing is back with the first major transatlantic championship bout between the undisputed number one and two in their division.

The final is not only about honour and glory, but cementing a legacy. The winner will become a member of an exclusive ‘Ali Trophy Winner Club’ that includes Oleksandr Usyk, Callum Smith, Naoya Inoue and Josh Taylor. It doesn’t get much bigger in boxing, and we expect Briedis and Dorticos to have an absolute barnstormer!”

The Muhammad Ali Trophy was created by the late world-renowned artist Silvio Gazzaniga who also designed the iconic FIFA World Cup Trophy.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 106: Return of LA Boxing, Josh Taylor, Charlos and More

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 106: Return of LA Boxing, Josh Taylor, Charlos and More

Let’s call this week the Big Build Up.

Back in the 1920s to the 1950s the City of Angels was known as the place where Humphrey Bogart lived and played characters out of Raymond Chandler’s novels. Books like the “Big Sleep” and “Lady in a Lake” were made into movies based in Los Angeles.

Well, here we are back where boxing thrives, people or not.

Los Angeles kicks off the big boxing week starting with a televised fight card that features home grown featherweight Vic Pasillas at the Microsoft Theater in the downtown area. Fox Sports 1 will televise the Premier Boxing Championship card on Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Pasillas (15-0,8 KOs) faces Dominican fighter Ranfis Encarnacion (17-0, 13 KOs) in the co-main event at a fan-less event that begins a crowded week of boxing as we near the end of 2020.

“Coming out on top against Encarnación is going to catapult me into some big fights at featherweight. The division is wide open and I know with hard work I can take it over,” said Pasillas who is originally from Los Angeles. “This is by far the most important fight of my career. I’m coming with everything I got, because I know this is the turning point that will lead to bigger and better fights. I am ready to bring an exciting fight to the fans and get my hand raised in victory.”

Both Pasillas and Encarnacion are undefeated and unknown to most of the boxing world. A win changes everything especially when it’s difficult to even stage a boxing card.

Promoters are anxious to get their fighters in the ring by any means necessary.

On Thursday in Biloxi, Mississippi, super lightweight Michael Williams Jr. meets Thomas Miller in the headline attraction of a boxing card that will be streamed by UFC Fight Pass.

On Friday in southern Mexico, Serhii Bohachuk (17-0, 17 KOs) meets Alejandro Davila (21-1-2, 8 KOs) in Merida, Yucatan. No word if it will be streamed. The super welterweight from Ukraine has a 17-fight knockout streak and has become a main attraction in Hollywood, California for 360 Promotions.

“Serhii has become one of the most talked about rising stars in boxing,” said Tom Loeffler, promoter of 360 Promotions. “Boxing fans are excited to see if he can continue his knockout streak against Alejandro Davila, the toughest opponent he’s faced. He’s been training very hard with Manny Robles for this fight and if victorious, we’re certain there will be bigger opportunities for him in the near future.”

These are all tasty appetizers for the big buffet coming on Saturday.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

Saturday morning, especially if you live in the California area, ESPN+ will showcase the IBF, WBA super lightweight world title fight between champion Josh Taylor (16-0, 12 KOs) and Apinun Khongsong (16-0, 13 KOs) in London. It will be streamed live on Sept. 26, Saturday morning, starting at 11 a.m PST.

This is an important match for Taylor (pictured on the left) who needs a win to nail down a unification clash with Jose Carlos Ramirez the WBC and WBO titlist. If Scotland’s Taylor emerges victorious the super lightweight clash will be one of the top fights of the year.

And if that fight happens to take place, then that winner more than likely meets WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford.

But first things first. Taylor needs to defeat Thailand’s Khongsong on Saturday.

“I didn’t want a warm-up fight, so getting straight back in there against my mandatory challenger is great, as it’s kept me fully focused. I want big fights in my career, so this is an important fight with my belts on the line,” said Taylor.

Charlos Pay-per-view

The Charlos brothers asked for it and they got it.

Long have the brothers from Houston, Texas asked for a pay-per-view fight card and it never seemed possible until now. The Charlos will headline a pay-per-view double-header on Saturday via Showtime.

Beginning at 4 p.m PT/ 7 p.m. ET the Showtime pay-per-view card begins with three top notch bouts:

WBO bantamweight titlist John Riel Casimero (29-4) vs Ghana’s Duke Micah (24-0, 19 KOs).

WBA super bantamweight titlist Brandon Figueroa (20-0-1, 15 KOs) vs Damien Vazquez (15-1-1, 8 KOs).

WBC middleweight titlist Jermall Charlo (30-0, 22 KOs) v Sergiy Derevyanchenko (13-2, 10 KOs).

Charlo was not impressed with Derevyanchenko’s performances against Daniel Jacobs and Gennady Golovkin because both were losses. He expects to dominate.

Derevyanchenko says he’s ready for Charlo.

“Golovkin is a very different fighter than Charlo, but Jacobs is similar stylistically, so that’s something I’ll be used to,” said Derevyanchenko. “This training camp has been very similar to camps for my previous fights though. We just brought in different sparring partners for this one. We’re using fighters who can show us what Charlo will bring to the ring.”

After a 30-minute intermission the second half of the boxing card begins.

Former bantamweight world champion Luis Nery (30-0, 24 KOs) moves up in weight to face Aaron Alameda (25-0, 13 KOs) for the vacant WBC super bantamweight world title. Both fighters are from Mexico.

Former super bantamweight titlists Danny Roman (27-3-1) and Juan Carlos Payano (21-3) meet in a 12-round bout.

In the grand finale WBC super welterweight titlist Jermell Charlo (33-1, 17 KOs) challenges IBF and WBA super welterweight titlist Jeison Rosario (20-1-1, 14 KOs) in a fight for all three belts.

“We lions,” said Charlo.

It’s a very big week for boxing that begins on Wednesday and ends Saturday.

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The Return of Wednesday Boxing Evokes Memories of a Golden Era

Arne K. Lang

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There’s a Wednesday card on the boxing docket this week. The card, which features several undefeated up-and-comers of the sort usually found on Showtime’s developmental series, “ShoBox: The New Generation,” will play out at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles and air on Fox Sports 1.

Not to be out-done, “ShoBox” is returning. The long-running series, which suspended operations in March in obeisance to COVID-19 restrictions, returns on Oct. 7 with a show emanating from Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino. The contestants in the main go of the four-fight card, Charles Conwell and Wendy Toussaint, have identical 12-0 records.

It just so happens that Oct. 7 is also a Wednesday. And these upcoming Wednesday shows transported this reporter back to his boyhood when boxing was a fixture on radio and television on Wednesday nights. The Wednesday series sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer ran from 1950 to 1960, airing the first five years on CBS and then on ABC.

Fights were all over the TV dial during the 1950s, not that there was much competition. The Big Three — NBC, CBS, and ABC — ruled the airwaves with DuMont a very distant fourth and cable television well off into the future. (For a time, the short-lived DuMont network aired boxing shows on Mondays.)

When televisions first came out, they were a big-ticket item. In 1948, RCA’s cheapest model sold for $395. That’s the equivalent of $10,400 today. By 1954, the cost of the least expensive model had declined to $189 and it came in a bigger box, with a 17-inch screen compared with the 13-inch screen that was standard six years earlier.

With the cost of the coveted contraption beyond the means of many wage earners, saloonkeepers cashed in. Boxing fans flocked to the neighborhood tavern to get their boxing fix. The saloonkeeper could write off his television sets on his taxes as a business expense.

Those were the days, and I date myself, when every town had a TV repair shop and the repairman, like the family doctor, made house calls.

The Wednesday Night Fights were a spin-off of the Friday Night Fights on NBC. The matchmaker for both series (through 1958) was the International Boxing Club which was headquartered at Madison Square Garden. The president of the IBC was James D. Norris (who would come to be seen as a puppet for mobster Frankie Carbo, but that’s a story for another day).

James D. Norris inherited a vast fortune from his father, Canadian businessman James E. Norris. The elder Norris was a big wheel in the sport of hockey and had a financial interest in the arenas that housed NHL teams in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. He made these arenas available to his son and the Wednesday fight cards moved around, unlike the Friday fights which were pinned to Madison Square Garden.

Both series would eventually venture out at times into virgin territory, but the Wednesday series was the trailblazer. The first nationally televised boxing show from the West Coast was a Wednesday affair. Jimmy Carter defended his world lightweight title against LA fan favorite Art Aragon, the original Golden Boy, at the Olympic Auditorium on Nov. 14, 1951. Aragon had upset Carter in a non-title fight 11 weeks earlier, but Carter took him to school in the rematch, winning a lopsided decision.

The Friday boxing series, which took the name “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,” would come to be more fondly remembered, but once the TV became a living room staple, which happened fast, the Wednesday series drew higher ratings. This was predictable as more folks stayed home on Wednesday nights than on Friday nights. And although the Friday series had a larger budget, some of the most important fights of the era were staged on Wednesdays.

One of the highlights of the 1951 season was Ezzard Charles’ world heavyweight title defense against Jersey Joe Walcott at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. It was Walcott’s fifth crack at the title and he was considered ancient at age 37, but he avenged his two previous losses to Charles with a thunderous one-punch knockout.

Carmen Basilio appeared in The Ring magazine Fight of the Year in five consecutive years (1955-1959). The first two — his second meeting with Tony DeMarco and his second meeting with Johnny Saxton – were televised on a Wednesday.

Although he would be quickly forgotten, the Wednesday series brought Bob Satterfield a cult following because of his unpredictability. He certainly left an impression on octogenarian boxing writer Ted Sares who recently named Satterfield his all-time favorite fighter.

To conjure up a portrait of Satterfield, think Deontay Wilder and then fix Wilder with a glass jaw. Satterfield, whose best weight was about 182 pounds, was a murderous puncher, but during his career he was stopped 13 times.

LA’s Clarence Henry and Pittsburgh’s Bob Baker were ranked #3 in the heavyweight division when they ventured to Chicago to tangle with Satterfield, Henry in 1952 and Baker the following year. Henry knocked out Satterfield in the opening round. Satterfield hit the canvas so hard, said a ringside reporter, the resin dust flew up.

The Satterfield-Baker fight would also end in the opening round. Baker out-weighed Satterfield by 34 pounds, but Satterfield flattened him. Later on, in a non-Wednesday fight, Satterfield knocked out Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in the third round. Williams, 33-1 heading in, was the larger man by 25 pounds.

One bet on or against Bob Satterfield at one’s own peril.

The Wednesday Night Fights had a nice run before the series was cancelled and supplanted in its time slot by “The Naked City,” a critically acclaimed police drama series. Perhaps the return of boxing on Wednesdays augurs well for another mid-week boxing series, but we won’t hold our breath.

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