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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

British Boxing Writer Tris Dixon Has Authored a Long-Overdue Book

Arne K. Lang

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British Boxing Writer Tris Dixon Has Authored a Long-Overdue Book

“Terrific beatings taken on the head reduced some of the old boxers to a state of utter simplicity in so far as their mental processes are concerned.” – Nat Fleischer “As We See It,” The Ring, October, 1924.

Nearly 100 years have elapsed since Nat Fleischer wrote those words in the influential monthly magazine that he co-founded two years earlier, the self-styled Bible of Boxing. Four more years would elapse before the term “punch drunk” entered the lexicon of medical terms. And in the ensuing years, there would be scattered reports in medical journals and to a lesser extent in boxing magazines suggesting that the condition that Fleischer described was far from rare; indeed, that some degree of neurological impairment is almost inevitable for boxers who answer the bell for many rounds (unless, of course, they happen to die young, predeceasing the decomposition).

It’s boxing’s dirty little secret and, up until now, no one has bothered to gather up the scattered medical reports and then place them along a continuum to show how our understanding of this affliction has evolved. Enter prominent British boxing writer and former amateur boxer Tris Dixon who performed this exercise for his newest book, “Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing,” the newest release from Hamilcar.

Don’t be misled. This is no dry medical treatise overburdened with polysyllabic medical jargon. True, Dixon interviewed many neuroscientists in the course of his research, but he leavened these interviews with historical tidbits and with insights culled from conversations with boxing people, fleshing out the story in imagery that will leave a lasting impression on general readers. Several of Dixon’s fellow boxing journalists turn up in the pages of this book, as do a number of retired boxers speaking candidly about a subject too often swept under the rug – Herol “Bomber” Graham, Bobby Quarry, Chuck Wepner, Matthew Macklin, Gerry Cooney, and Freddie Roach, to name just a few.

Dixon even had the foresight to interview the wives of several ring-damaged boxers: Frankie Pryor, widow of Aaron; Rose Norton, widow of Ken; and the newly-widowed Brenda Spinks, wife of Leon. These ladies, who formed a support group, provide insights from the caregivers’ perspective.

Nat Fleischer framed his quick 1924 observation in words that were insensitive and yielded a portrait of a damaged fighter that was too broad in its outline. A more exacting portrait emerged in “Punch Drunk,” a seminal 1928 paper by the noted American pathologist Dr. Harrison Martland.

Martland’s paper, notes author Dixon, established the term “punch drunk syndrome” in the medical literature, a syndrome characterized by slurred speech and Parkinson’s-like symptoms such as clumsiness in walking, memory loss, and tremors.

“Punch-drunk” was a poor choice of words; unintentionally derisive. Over time, it evolved into the somewhat less condescending pugilistic dementia and then to CTE, the acronym for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The early literature on punch-drunkenness assumed that second-rate boxers were most at risk, especially crowd-pleasers. That opinion would be debunked. CTE doesn’t discriminate: “Slick movers, punchers, warriors” are all susceptible.

As for ways to make the sport safer, Dixon lets his interview subjects speak for him. Neurologist Dr. Charles Bernick, who works with retired athletes at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, and Tom Moyer Jr, producer of the heartbreaking documentary, “After the Last Round,” build a compelling case that boys and girls should not be pushed into boxing while their brains are still developing. In a related vein, says Dixon, there’s been talk of decorated amateurs already showing signs of slipping even before they turn pro because “all those rounds add up.”

(As an aside, this reporter was reminded of something he read while researching the career of Tacoma’s Davey Lee Armstrong, the two-time U.S. Olympian who died earlier this year from complications of dementia at age 64. In a story that appeared in the Detroit Free Press, Armstrong’s professional trainer/manager Emanuel Steward said that Armstrong, although only 26 years old and a pro for less than three full years, was already a shot fighter. “He’s been fighting since he was 9 years old. Because he was the best, he was consistently fighting the best. When you do that, the wear and tear on your body is going to be heavy…It’s just not there for him anymore. I’ve got to tell him. I can’t let anything happen to that boy. I just couldn’t deal with it if something bad happened to him,” Steward told sports columnist George Puscas. Armstrong would have three more fights before heeding Steward’s advice, leaving the professional ranks with a record of 24-3.)

Another recurrent suggestion is that boxers should do less sparring between fights. Headgear is useful for reducing the incidence of cuts, but does not diminish the long-term effects of blows to the head. Chris Nowinski, the founder of Boston’s Concussion Legacy Foundation, told Dixon that he believes that 90 percent of the damage that a boxer accrues over the course of his career comes from sparring.

Every young boxer believes that he is bulletproof, complicating reform efforts. And, it is true that CTE isn’t inevitable. Archie Moore, who had 220 documented pro fights and fought some of boxing’s hardest hitters, lived to be 81 and was sharp as a tack deep into his eighth decade. Most of the top campaigners during the Golden Era of Heavyweights struggled with neurological issues in retirement, but not George Foreman (now 72) or Earnie Shavers (77) – or at least not yet; CTE can regress from almost imperceptible to full-blown very quickly.

Then there is the hodgepodge of state regulatory bodies and the lack of uniformity between them. Moreover, it should be noted that health privacy laws prohibit individuals such as Dr. Bernick from sharing their findings with others without the consent of the boxer.

I wouldn’t lump Tris Dixon with the muckrakers of the Progressive Era. That would only be true if his intent in writing the book was to provide ammunition for the abolitionists, and it most certainly was not. As Thomas Gerbasi was quick to note in his review of “Damage,” Dixon actually loves boxing. “What (Dixon) created,” says Matt Christie, Dixon’s successor as editor of Boxing News, “is not a book that should see the sport outlawed but a survival guide for all within it.”

It would have been nice to learn more about how the great trainer Freddie Roach copes with his ring damage; the cocktail of pills he must take each day to keep his condition from worsening to where he can no longer be an effective coach. The inspirational Roach has lived with Parkinson’s-like symptoms for more than half of his adult life and yet he hasn’t let it hold him back. Also, since this is a book that I will be using as a reference source again and again, it’s frustrating that there is no index.

But what is a book review without quibbles? Kudos to Tris Dixon for writing a book that should be on the shelf of every library in every corner of the English-speaking world.

(Editor’s note: Dixon’s book provided the inspiration for Ted Sares’ latest TSS survey, arriving shortly. Also forthcoming is an interview of the author by TSS correspondent Rick Assad.)

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Book Review

“The SuperFight” Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Sugar Ray Leonard

Thomas Hauser

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BOOK REVIEW by Thomas Hauser — Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler were two of the greatest fighters of all time. On April 6, 1987, they met in the ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in one of the most anticipated fights ever. The SuperFight by Brian Doogan (published by Brian Doogan Media) revisits that historic encounter and puts it in context.

“Leonard,” Doogan writes, “was Ali’s successor, the most charismatic, bankable, and virtuoso exponent of his trade. The standard-bearer for his sport. Apolitical with multicultural appeal, courted by corporate America, championed by the TV networks, paraded and fawned over on the chat show circuit. The cool acceptable face of a dark, squalid, ultimately indefensible profession.”

Or phrased differently, as Mike Tyson put it, “Ray Leonard was a pitbull with a pretty face” who became the highest paid athlete of his time.

Hagler loved the craft and hated the business of boxing. His early years were spent in riot-torn Newark, New Jersey. His mother moved the family to Brockton, Massachusetts, where Marvin dropped out of high school after fathering a son. Trained and managed by Goody and Pat Petronelli, he earned his championship by cutting a wide swath through the middleweight division.

“Hagler has done everything you could ask of a champion,” Hall of Fame great Archie Moore said after Marvin (or, as he was legally known by then, “Marvelous Marvin”) destroyed Thomas Hearns over three of the most enthralling rounds in boxing history. “He’s fought one top contender after another and beaten them all. I rate him right up there with Sugar Ray Robinson. He’s a hard hitter with both hands. And he’s cruel in the ring, like a great fighter must be.”

Hagler was hard-working, disciplined, and honest. Pure fighter, if there is such a thing. “His aura,” Doogan observes, “spoke for him.”

“I’ve gotten meaner since I became champion,” Hagler noted. “They’re all trying to take something from me that I’ve worked long and hard for years for. And I like the feeling of being champ.”

For most of their respective ring careers, Leonard and Hagler plied their trade in parallel universes, dominating the welterweight and middleweight divisions. The thirteen-pound weight differential between them was considered too wide to bridge. From time to time, Ray dangled the possibility of a super-fight in front of Marvin in the manner of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip of that era. But he was toying with Hagler. And over time, Marvin’s resentment grew, fueled by the disparity in purses between them.

Mike Trainer was a constant throughout Leonard’s ring career. Ray trusted the attorney to look after his business interests, and Trainer did so brilliantly.

Hagler’s purse for his first pro fight was forty dollars. Leonard, the darling of the United States boxing team at the 1976 Olympics, made $50,000 for his pro debut. Leonard earned $1,000,000 for his first title opportunity against Wilfred Benitez. Hagler’s first title challenge was against Vito Antuofermo on the undercard that night. Marvin was paid $40,000. And he got screwed by the judges, who ruled the bout a draw.

Four fights later, Hagler earned a second title shot, this time against Alan Minter who he stopped in three rounds. Marvin’s purse that night was $150,000. Meanwhile, Leonard was paid $17 million for two fights against Roberto Duran (a loss avenged in an immediate rematch) and $12 million (equal to more than $35 million today) for knocking out Thomas Hearns.

“No one,” Doogan writes, “wanted to take a look beneath the mask that was Sugar Ray, the ATM machine for family and friends, the all-American and international star, [But] to Hagler, he was always ‘pretty boy’ – a description the middleweight king spat out with contempt. The antithesis in almost every respect of the spartan blue-collar outsider who, by overwhelming force of will, climbed the ranks to establish himself as the feared ruler of the sport’s red-light district.”

Five months after beating Hearns, Leonard disposed of Bruce Finch in three rounds. Then he suffered a detached retina and left boxing, only to return in 1984 to fight Kevin Howard. Howard knocked Ray down – the first time in Leonard’s career that he’d been on the canvas. Ray prevailed on a ninth-round stoppage that brought his record to 33-1. But he’d looked mediocre, and the assumption was that his days as an elite fighter were over.

Meanwhile, Hagler was becoming increasingly marketable with victories over Duran and Hearns elevating him to superstar status. On March 3, 1986, he added to his laurels by stopping John Mugabi in eleven rounds.

But against Mugabi, Hagler seemed to be slipping a bit. And outside the ring, for the first time, he was growing ambivalent about fighting.

At the same time, Leonard was getting an itch that he had to scratch. Commenting during the telecast of Hagler-Hearns, Ray acknowledged, “I would be lying if I told you I didn’t envy those two men up there right now. There is a lot you don’t miss in boxing. You don’t miss the roadwork while the rest of the world is sleeping. You don’t miss all the hype, all the promotion. But you do miss moments like these. You miss the feeling that, for a little time, the whole world is looking at you and the guy you are fighting. You miss the fact that, for a few days of your life, you’re at the dead center of the world.”

Offers for Hagler vs. Leonard were forthcoming. Despite Hagler’s ebbing desire, it was a fight that Marvin had to take. Bob Arum, who would promote the bout, said as much when he declared, “If Leonard decides not to accept the offer, I think Marvin would be delighted. He really and truly doesn’t want to fight Leonard. He’s doing it to protect his reputation.”

Eventually, a deal was reached. For only the third time in his ring career, Leonard would be on the short end of a purse split. Leonard-Benitez and Duran-Leonard II had been the first two instances. This time, after all the revenue streams were added up, Team Hagler would take home roughly $20 million while Leonard’s end would be $12 million.

But in exchange, Leonard received several significant concessions. The fight would be twelve rounds, not fifteen. It would be contested in a 20-foot ring. The fighters would wear ten-ounce gloves instead of eight. And because Ray had previously suffered a detached retina, the fighters would wear thumbless gloves.

“I’m not coming back to have a career,” Leonard said. “I’ve had a career. I want Marvin.”

Hagler was a 7-to-2 betting favorite.

In the preceding five years, Leonard had fought once – his unimpressive outing at 149 pounds against Howard. Now he’d be fighting the dominant middleweight of his time and one of the greatest fighters ever.

Previously, Emanuel Steward (who trained Thomas Hearns) had opined, “A Hagler-Leonard fight would be a fraud on the public. It would be another Larry Holmes – Muhammad Ali show. A hoax.”

The sporting press was in accord:

*         Hugh McIlvanney (The Observer): “I think it’s ludicrous that Sugar Ray should be able to come back after one fight in more than five years – nine very unimpressive rounds – and step into a world championship fight. We all love Sugar Ray. He possessed everything essential to the great man’s fighting armoury. Superb technique, speed, fluency, imagination, punching power, and a strong chin. And behind his dazzling good looks and the readily summoned charm, there was the remorselessness of a street fighter. But what is being said about him now by his admirers relates mainly to what he was. I think he is more memory than substance.”

*         Jim Murray (The Los Angeles Times): “You look at Sugar Ray Leonard and you want to take him to lost-and-found and buy him an ice cream cone until you can find his mother and father. You look at Marvelous Marvin Hagler and you wonder where the police are when you need them. If this is a contest, so is a train wreck.”

*         Tom Boswell (The Washington Post): Hagler is the embodiment of the fighter we don’t want Leonard to fight. Hagler hurts you. He changes you. Permanently.”

“If he’s foolish enough to step in the ring with me, I’m foolish enough to rip his eye out,” Hagler said ominously. “Nobody is going to want Leonard when I get through with him. I’m gonna rip his brains out. Ray says he’ll use strategy. But I’ll be using something called punching. This guy is just a pretty boy.”

Sixty of 67 writers polled on site predicted that Hagler would win, 52 of them by knockout.

“It was almost like we were going to a hanging,” HBO commentator Barry Tompkins later reminisced “That was the mood in the air that week in Las Vegas. People thought there’s no way Ray Leonard can win this fight and, essentially, we’re about to watch an execution.”

“Maybe I don’t hit as hard as Marvin, but I hit consistently, “Leonard offered in response. “If I’d always heeded everybody’s advice, I would have stayed in school and never boxed.”

Hagler was 32 years old. Leonard was 30. In 1987, that was getting on in age for a fighter.

Earlier in his career, Leonard had battled an addiction to cocaine. Now that was behind him. Hagler, by contrast, had dabbled with cocaine after beating Hearns. Except with cocaine, it’s hard to just dabble.

More to the point; prior to fighting Leonard, Hagler had said, “For me, the fight with Tommy was World War I. This fight is World War II.” But when the bell for round one against Leonard rang, Marvin didn’t fight like it.

Richard Steele (who refereed Hagler-Leonard) later recalled, “I saw something different about Hagler. He wasn’t himself. As the fight unfolded, I began to realize he was trying to be a boxer instead of the fighter he really was. His ‘destruct and destroy’ mindset was what got him to be the great fighter, the great champion he was. But Leonard had won the mental battle. He got Hagler to change his style.”

Most notably, Hagler gave away the first three rounds by fighting from an orthodox stance instead of his usual southpaw stance. That would cost him dearly.

Equally important, Barry Tompkins later revealed that, before the fight, Leonard had confided in him, “I’m going to tell you how you beat Marvin Hagler. You’ve got to fight three times a round for fifteen seconds. At the beginning of the round, in the middle of the round, and you have to do it again at the end of the round. And you’ll steal the fight.”

When it was over, Dave Moretti scored the bout 115-113 for Leonard. Lou Filippo favored Hagler by a 115-113 margin. The deciding vote was cast by Jo-Jo Guerra whose scorecard was an inexplicable 118-110 in favor of Leonard. Guerra’s scorecard cast a stench over the proceedings. Had he scored the bout 115-113 for Leonard, the verdict would have been less controversial.

For the record; I scored Hagler-Leonard twice – once in a theater watching on closed-circuit TV and later viewing a replay on television. Each time, I scored the bout a draw.

“The truth is really simple,” Hagler said bitterly afterward. “And everybody knows it. Leonard didn’t come to fight. He came to run all night. With the politics, I knew if Leonard stayed on his feet, I was probably gonna lose. And he ran and survived.”

But Leonard wasn’t trying to win a war. He was trying to outpoint an opponent and win a prizefight. As Doogan states, “Whatever the vagaries of the scoring, the reality is Hagler was unable to make good on his vow while Leonard, against all odds, continued to execute his battle plan.”

Hagler never fought again. He retired and stayed retired, moving to Italy and landing roles in four action films.

“You always need to have another road ahead of you,” Marvin said of his new life. “If you ever feel it’s done, then it is done and you’re done too. You’ve always got to keep reaching and striving.”

Leonard, it turned out, was more of a junkie for boxing that Hagler was. Having engineered one of the greatest comebacks in boxing history, Ray would fight five more times over the next ten years, ending his illustrious career on losses to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho, both of whom did to him what people had thought Hagler would do.

The SuperFight is a good book. Brian Doogan did his homework conscientiously. He writes smoothly and fashions compelling portraits of Leonard and Hagler, bringing both men to life. He recounts the key fights in each man’s career leading up to their April 6, 1987, encounter and also their lives outside the ring, including Leonard being sexually abused multiple times as an adolescent, Ray’s troubled first marriage, and the descent into cocaine that almost destroyed his life.

Hagler’s life is similarly explored. One of many whimsical details Doogan recounts that caught my eye is the recollection of Robbie Sims (Marvin’s half-brother) who says of their childhood years, “Every day, he made sure I made my bed, cleaned my side of the room, put my shoes away and the dirty clothes in the dirty-clothes bag.”

Hagler succumbed to an apparent heart attack at age 66 on March 13 of this year. It’s a tragedy that he died as young as he did,

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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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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