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

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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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Book Review

Literary Notes from Thomas Hauser

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Literary Notes from Thomas Hauser

Bernard Fernandez has written thousands of articles during his 55-year career as a sports journalist. Championship Rounds: Round 5 is the fifth (and Bernard says, the last) collection of his articles to be published in book form.

Fernandez has a way with words. He also has an ear for quotes as evidenced by the following thoughts from Championship Rounds: Round 5:

Alex Rodriguez (speaking about his brother, Francisco, who died after being knocked out by Teon Kennedy at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia): “My brother had a perfect heart, perfect lungs, perfect kidneys, perfect pancreas. Because of him, other people will have a chance for better health, more birthdays, the fulfillment of their own dreams. Paco is going to continue walking through this world through them.”

Johnny Tapia (after Don King completely dominated the final prefight press conference for his fight against Nana Yaw Konadu in Atlantic City): “I don’t understand this. I mean, I’m the one who’s fighting, right?”

Archie Moore: “A legend is something between fact and fable. Some people might say that that is an accurate description of me.”

George Foreman (on Roy Jones): “The better he is at his craft, the less people understand it.”

Mike Tyson (on Sonny Liston’s gift for weakening opponents through intimidation): “He was a menacing force. Sonny could pull it off. I could pull it off. Not a lot of people could pull it off.”

Bert Sugar (reflecting on some of the unsavory characters who have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame): “You can always make a case for someone’s exclusion. It depends on how moralistic you want to be. But remember, this is boxing we’re talking about.”

Ferdie Pacheco (after watching 47-year-old Roberto Duran get knocked out by William Joppy in three rounds): “What happened tonight happens too often in boxing. How often do we need to see Joe Louis knocked out by Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali beaten to a pulp by Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Robinson losing to everybody? How much longer do we need to see these legends take beatings like this? This wasn’t a boxing match. It was a licensed execution. I hope it’s the end of the line for Roberto. It should have been the end of the line ten years ago.”

Seth Abraham (reflecting on having signed Roy Jones to a multi-bout contract with insufficient quality control regarding opponents): “In retrospect, I wish I had taken a  harder line with him. He wanted to make the most money. That’s fine. He wanted to take the fewest risks. That’s not fine if you want the most money.”

Matthew Saad Muhammad (on his hyper-aggressive ring style and growing older): “You can’t fight the way I did unless you got something to back it up. I couldn’t back it up anymore.”

Archie Moore. “Boxing is magnificent. It’s beautiful to know. But you’ve got to marry it. And so I did. Boxing was my lover. It was my lady.”

Earnie Shavers (on knocking Larry Holmes down and near-senseless with an overhand right. Miraculously, Holmes rose from the canvas and, four rounds later, knocked Shavers out): “I was the heavyweight champion of the world. All my troubles were finally over. It was the greatest feeling I’d ever had. And it lasted for five whole seconds.”

Dan Goossen (on Michael Nunn leaving him for a new manager): “Am I hurt that he decided to leave me? Of course. It’s kind of like being married to a beautiful woman. Guys are going to whistle at her, try to pick her up. It’s up to her to do the right thing and come home. Same thing with Michael. People are going to constantly hit on him. This time, he didn’t come home.”

*        *        *

Women’s boxing peaked with Katie Taylor vs. Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden on April 30, 2022. It was a superb fight between two skilled fighters in an atmosphere that was electric. In Malissa Smith’s words, that night “set the stage for a new era of elite female boxing” and “legitimized” women’s boxing.

Six months later, Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall squared off at the O2 Arena in London with Mikaela Mayer vs. Alycia Baumgardner on the undercard. Like Taylor-Serrano, the fights in London were a platform for women’s boxing to build on.

 Smith’s new book – The Promise of Women’s Boxing (Rowman & Littlefield) – focuses on women’s boxing from the 2012 Olympics to date and is a sequel to her first book – A History of Women’s Boxing (published a decade ago).

Smith has put a huge amount of research into her work. But she recites the details of fight after fight after fight. After a while, the fights tend to blur together and reading about them feels like reading a 224-page encyclopedia article.

Also, when Smith’s writing isn’t too dry, it tends toward hyperbole. Words like “great” and “spectacular” are overused . . . Amanda Serrano is a very good boxer. She is not “one of the hardest-hitting fighters in boxing, male or female.” (Amanda’s last seven opponents have gone the distance against her) . . . And as good a fight as Taylor-Serrano was, it was not “one of the greatest boxing matches in the history of the sport.”

Here, the thoughts of promoter Lou DiBella are instructive. As recounted by Smith, DiBella cautions that fans should “stop comparing women’s boxing contests to men’s and start appreciating them on their own terms.”

*        *        *

Every fighter has a story. And every fighter’s story is interesting. But some fighters’ stories are more interesting and more artfully told than others.

Land of Hope and Glory by Maurice Hope with Ron Shillingford (Pitch Publishing) has some worthwhile moments but falls short of the mark.

Hope (30-4-1, 24 KOs, 2 KOs by) fought professionally from 1973 through 1982. The high point of his career came in 1979 when he stopped Italian-born Rocky Mattioli in San Remo to claim the WBC 154-pound title. Two years later, he lost his belt to Wilfred Benitez.

The loss to Benitez ended with a frightening highlight-reel knockout that left Hope unconscious on the canvas for an extended period of time. In an ugly coda, when Wilfred was told that Maurice had lost two teeth in the battle, Wilfred responded, “He can put the teeth under his pillow.”

There are some entertaining passages in Land of Hope and Glory. Recounting the prelude to his championship-winning fight against Mattioli, Hope recalls, “Walking to the ring was frightening. Shady figures in the crowd in dark suits and sunglasses were walking around with hands on their breast pockets. Whether there was just a handkerchief there or a loaded gun, the impact had the desired effect – intimidation. I pretended not to see them but it was hard to stay focused and calm. Gangsters with bandages around their hands seemed to be everywhere. It seemed like the Mafia had taken over the whole venue.”

There are also poignant recountings of the death of Hope’s son in a car accident and Maurice visiting a horribly disabled Wilfred Benitez in Puerto Rico long after Wilfred had descended into a hellish dementia.

But sixty pages pass before Land of Hope and Glory gets to a boxing gym. Hope doesn’t turn pro until page 93. And overall, the treatment of boxing is superficial. The book doesn’t explain with nuance or in depth what’s involved in being a fighter or what the business of boxing is about.

There are too many factual errors. For example, Las Vegas is described as being “in the middle of the Arizona desert.” And there’s some fuzzy math. Hope complains about an 80-79 decision that he lost to Mickey Flynn, writing, “The 80-79 decision meant Flynn won two rounds and the other six were draws.” That leads to two thoughts; (1) It’s more likely that Flynn won one round with seven rounds being called even; and (2) Since Maurice was the A-side fighter in that bout and Flynn had thirteen losses on his record, one might speculate that referee Benny Caplan (who was the sole judge) leaned over backward in Maurice’s favor and marked his scorecard “10-10” for rounds that Flynn should have won.

To his credit, Hope got out of boxing at the right time. After losing to Benitez and in his next fight to Luigi Minchillo, he retired from the ring at age thirty. He understood the risks of the trade he had chosen and now writes, “In my mind, boxing is the hardest sport out there. Once you get in the ring, you know your head’s going to hurt.”

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

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

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Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Carly was on the Lady Potters roster.

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

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

His pay?

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

“But I like Milk Duds,” Kindred notes.

Then tragedy struck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheryl died on June 24, 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review

Holiday Reading 2023: Best Books About Boxing

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Holiday Reading 2023: Best Books About Boxing

By Thomas Hauser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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