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Literary Notes: “George Dixon” by Jason Winders

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BOOK REVIEW by THOMAS HAUSER — George Dixon was boxing’s first Black world champion.

“For a decade leading into the twentieth century,” Jason Winders writes, “few Black men were as wealthy and none were more famous. To a Black culture cementing its first national heroes, Dixon was the single-most significant athlete of nineteenth-century America. He fought constantly as a professional – maybe against a thousand opponents in his lifetime. While most were exhibitions against rather faceless foes, a hundred or so of those bouts were chronicled by both Black and white presses. A half dozen came to define an era.”

In George Dixon: The Short Life of Boxing’s First Black World Champion, 1870-1908 (University of Arkansas Press), Winders gives readers a well-researched, well-written, entertaining account of this remarkable man.

Dixon was born on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on July 29, 1870. Quite possibly, one of his grandfathers was white. Sometime in the 1880s, the Dixon family moved to Boston.

Dixon fought his first fight at age sixteen. Writing about him one year later, Winder notes, “He was just a kid. Thin lead weights slid into his shoes between his bare feet and leather soles so he could climb above one hundred pounds and legally be allowed to compete. He had the body of a boy – thin, gangly, with arms slightly longer than his diminutive frame should have allowed. At first, he fought at 108 pounds. As the years went by, he developed into a genuine bantamweight and fought at 112 pounds. Then he went up to 116 pounds, then to 118, and then to 122, all apparently without suffering any loss of skill.”

There are few visual images of Dixon in combat. Contemporaneous written accounts suggest that, at his peak, he had remarkable defensive skills, excellent timing, superb footwork, an uncommon ability to judge distance, and an educated left hand. He was blessed with courage, patience, the ability to endure punishment, and an iron will. His training regimen was sophisticated for its time.

A handful of fights were of particular importance in Dixon’s storied ring career. On June 27, 1890, having journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean, he knocked out British bantamweight and featherweight champion Nunc Wallace in Soho, England. That raised his profile exponentially. Nine months later in upstate New York, Dixon knocked out Cal McCarthy in a rematch of an 1890 draw to claim to the American portion of the featherweight crown. Then, on July 28, 1891, in San Francisco, he knocked out Australian bantamweight champion Abe Willis.

“His bout against Willis,” Winders writes, “would solidify Dixon as the greatest fighter – not just Black fighter – of his division in the world. With this victory over Willis, George Dixon became the undisputed world bantamweight champion, the first Black man to earn a world boxing title. And it all happened before his twenty-first birthday.”

Then, for good measure, Dixon knocked out the newly-crowned British featherweight champion Fred Johnson in Brooklyn on June 27, 1892. That further solidified his kingdom.

These triumphs came at a time when boxing was becoming ingrained in America’s national consciousness. The Police Gazette, with a weekly circulation that ran as high as 400,000 copies, was America’s most popular tabloid magazine. Editor Richard K. Fox relied heavily on the sweet science to sell the publication. In 1889, roughly sixty percent of its headlines dealt with boxing. Now, with Dixon at his fighting peak, the Police Gazette called him “the greatest fighter – big or little – the prize ring has ever known.”

Winders puts the importance of those words in context: “Perhaps today we read over words like ‘slave’ and ‘master’ too easily. But the mindset that fueled centuries of this thinking did not die with the stroke of the Great Emancipator’s pen. It was deeply embedded in American culture. Just a generation before the Dixons arrived in the United States, the Black body was nothing more than a tool of labor, an expensive shovel or plow horse used and abused by a white master. Now a Black man was asserting his manhood by way of sport, beating white men with his near-bare hands, rising to heights higher than any man his size no matter what color. Dixon stood as champion, inspiration, among the wealthiest and best-known men in the country. More than a fighter, Dixon came to represent hope.”

That said; in truth, Dixon regarded his celebrity standing as belonging more to himself than to Black America. “In the ring,” Winders writes, “he was a hero to the Black man. But he lived in a white world rather contentedly.” Dixon’s manager, Tom O’Rourke (who took half of Dixon’s earnings) was white. Dixon was married to O’Rourke’s sister. Dixon was widely admired for his ring skills. But equally important to the narrative, he was not regarded as a threat. “Much of his widespread acceptance,” Winders notes, “hinged on his smaller-than-normal stature.” And despite being married to a white woman, he had always “known his place” in society. Tom O’Rourke, Winder recounts, was often “quick to make mention of that in the press.”

In all his research, Winders was able to find only one instance in which Dixon was reported as speaking publicly about his meaning to Black America.

On May 22, 1891, Dixon was honored at the Full Moon Club in Boston’s West End, the center of the city’s Black community. Speaking to an audience of mostly young Black men, he declared, “I have always tried to do my duty. I have never yet entered the ring but that I was conscious that I was not only fighting the battle for myself alone, but also for the race. I felt that, if I won, not only credit would be given to me, but that my race would also rise in the estimation of the public.”

“This moment,” Winders observes, “among the thousands of mentions of Dixon in the press of the day, is an outlier. Never again in the reporting did he speak about a ‘duty’ to his race. Certainly, his actions in the years that followed were not in line with what Black America expected – or needed – from him. Never political or bombastic, rarely confrontational or rebel-rousing, Dixon never embraced his race duty more publicly than this moment.”

In September 1892, Dixon further solidified his importance when he participated in a historic three-day fight festival called The Carnival of Champions at The Olympic Club in New Orleans.

On September 5, Jack McAuliffe knocked out Billy Myer to retain the world lightweight crown. More famously, on September 7, James J. Corbett dethroned John L. Sullivan to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. In between these two fights – On September 6 – Dixon defended his world featherweight crown against Jack Skelly.

Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had been the slave trading capital of the United States. Now, a Black man and a white man were exchanging blows there. And the battle was waged before spectators of both colors.

“Among the earliest arrivals for the Skelly-Dixon bout,” Winders writes, “were Black spectators for whom a large section on one of the upper general admissions stands had been set apart. It was a first for the club – an amazing sight in the heart of the former Confederacy. Among the crowd of two hundred Black men were prominent politicians and regular men lucky enough to snag a ticket. Five thousand people had filled the arena. City councilman Charles Dickson, a prominent member of the Olympic Club, welcomed Dixon into the ring and then warned the crowd that the upcoming contest was between a Black man and a white man in which fair play would govern and the best man win.”

Dixon knocked out Skelly in eight rounds. His fame and the adulation for him would never peak that high again.

The Carnival of Champions showcased Dixon in a way that he hadn’t been showcased before. “Until that moment in New Orleans in September 1892,” Winders observes, “Dixon was an insulated fighter. Then he landed in the middle of forces already in motion, forces still lingering from the after-effects of slavery and the Civil War. All of those forces would gain strength that summer and continue through Dixon’s lifetime as societal forces shifted to a more aggressive approach toward limiting Black opportunity. Shielded from those forces for years, Dixon would soon experience them head-on without the protection of the white world in which he inhabited. The Carnival of Champions was not a moment when George Dixon changed the world. It was the moment when Dixon left his sheltered existence and became part of it.”

“Immediately after the Dixon-Skelly bout,” Winders reports, “Olympic Club members regretted pairing the two.” Olympic Club president Charles Noel publicly stated, “The fight has shown one thing, however, that events in which colored men figure are distasteful to the membership of the club. After the fight, so many of the members took a stand against the admission of colored men into the ring as contestants against white pugilists that we have pretty well arrived at the conclusion not to give any more such battles. No, there will be no more colored men fighting before our club. That is a settled fact.”

In the same vein, following Dixon-Skelly, the New Orleans States editorialized that there was “inherent sinfulness” to interracial fights and complained that “thousands of vicious and ignorant negroes regard the victory of Dixon over Skelly as ample proof that the negro is equal and superior to the white man.”

Meanwhile, as the forces of repression were pushing back against gains made by Black Americans during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, Dixon’s ring skills were eroding. In addition to competing in official bouts, he was fighting in hundreds upon hundreds of exhibitions as part of traveling vaudeville shows.

“In advance of the troupe arriving in town,” Winders recounts, “a notice was posted that fifty dollars would be given to any person who could stand up before Dixon for four rounds. During these engagements, Dixon met all comers and often fought fifteen men irrespective of size in the same night – an immeasurable toll on his small frame.” A newspaper in West Virginia noted, “Dixon is meeting too many lads in his variety show act. His hands cannot certainly be kept in good condition with such work. He has used them so much in these four-round bouts that they are no longer the weapons they were.”

As for official fights, Winders reports, “Noticeable cracks in Dixon’s once spotless technique were developing. Dixon’s speed was waning. His punches were no longer beating his opponent’s attempts to block. His grunts were louder and more emphatic as blows that would once find empty space were now landing squarely on his face.”

Lifestyle issues were also becoming a problem. Again, Winders sets the scene:

“When it came to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, Manhattan’s Black Bohemia embodied the newer and more daring phases of Negro life. On these streets, visitors found a lively mix of vice and vitality with clubs packed nightly with free-spending sporting and theatrical people, as well as those hoping to catch a glimpse of those famous patrons. The area had become a national symbol of urban depravity, noted mainly for its gambling houses, saloons, brothels, shady hotels, and dance halls that stayed open all night. And while few boxers of this period were residents of New York City, they all found their way to Black Bohemia. Dixon began to frequent Black Bohemia and, by the time he became a regular, he was bleeding money into the district’s many establishments. The ponies got some; George couldn’t resist craps; and then there was booze to be bought at high prices for everybody. And he drank. Dixon would tear off $5,000 as his share of a win and it would disappear, one way or another, in a few days.”

“Dixon got rid of his money faster than any fighter I ever knew, except myself,” John L. Sullivan noted.

Dixon lost his featherweight title to Solly Smith in 1897 but regained it the following year. Then, on January 9, 1900, he fought Terry McGovern at the Broadway Athletic Club in New York. McGovern administered a brutal beating. The fight was stopped by Dixon’s corner in the eighth round.

“I was outfought by McGovern from the end of the third round,” Dixon acknowledged afterward. “The blows to my stomach and over my kidneys were harder than any I ever received. I entered the ring as confident as ever, but after going a short distance, I discovered that I was not the Dixon of old. My blows, although landing flush on my opponent, had no effect.”

After Dixon-McGovern, The Plaindealer (a Black newspaper in Topeka, Kansas) editorialized, ” The race has no gladiator now to represent it. We are in darkness, for Dixon’s light has been put out.”

On March 30, 1900, less than three months after losing to McGovern, Dixon opened a saloon called the White Elephant in the heart of the Tenderloin District. He was a poor business manager and his own best customer. Prior to fighting McGovern, he’d said that the McGovern fight would be his last. It wasn’t.

The White Elephant failed and Dixon kept fighting. Over the next six years, he engaged in 77 official bouts, the last of them on December 10, 1906. According to BoxRec.com, he won only thirteen of these encounters. Overall, BoxRec.com credits him with having participated in 155 recognized boxing matches with a final ring record of 68 wins, 30 losses, and 57 draws. In Dixon’s era, when a fight went the distance, there was often no declaration of a winner.

Meanwhile, Dixon began drinking more heavily. As Winders writes, “He increasingly celebrated his victories with or drowned his troubles in alcohol. That led to numerous confrontations with police. His personal demons were clashing with public sentiment toward Blacks in the wider society. His celebrity no longer shielded him. In public, he was prone to violent outbursts and fits of rage. In private, he was beholden to his own dark vices. Few Black men were as pitied, and none named more frequently from public square and pulpit as a cautionary tale of modern excesses.”

In due course, Joe Gans succeeded Dixon as the most famous and successful Black boxer in the world. After defeating Battling Nelson on September 3, 1906, Gans made a show of publicly offering Dixon a job as head bartender at a hotel that he owned in Baltimore. But the job never materialized.

“I never heard anything from Joe about going to Baltimore,” Dixon said later. “I guess he was advertising his show when he said that. But his hotel would sure look good to me right now”

“It isn’t what you used to be,” Dixon told an interviewer. “It’s what you are today. The men who followed me in the days of prosperity can’t see me when I am close enough to speak to them.”

On January 4, 1908, Dixon was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York.

“He was wasted and worn,” Winders writes. “To the doctors, he famously said he had ‘fought his last fight with John Barleycorn and had been beaten.’ His condition became worse and continued sinking. He died at 2 p.m. on January 6, 1908. He was thirty-seven years old. His funeral service in Boston was the largest funeral gathering for a Black man in the history of the city.”

Winders has done an admirable job of recounting George Dixon’s life. He places people and events within the context of their times and brings names in dusty old record books to life. He writes well, which is a prerequisite for any good book; does his best to separate fact from fiction; and is sensitive to the nuances of his subject. He also avoids the pitfall of describing fight after fight after fight, focusing instead on the ones that mattered most. Readers are transported back in time to the Olympic Club in New Orleans for the three-day Carnival of Champions in 1992. Dixon’s sad beating at the hands of Terry McGovern in New York in 1900 is particularly well told.

Winders also performs a service by stripping away the myth of Nat Fleischer as a reliable boxing historian.

“Much of Dixon’s story,” Winders writes, “has been left in the hands of Fleischer. Although he is an icon to many, not all are enamored by Fleischer’s ability to recount the past. His research and record keeping leave much to be desired. His biographies and record books are rife with errors.”

Winders then approvingly quotes historian Kevin R. Smith, who labeled Fleischer’s best-known writing about Black boxers (the five-volume Black Dynamite series) as “heavily flawed,” called some of his other offerings “downright ludicrous,” and declared that Fleischer was “unabashed in his use of poetic license, making up sources and fictionalizing events when unable to unearth the true facts.”

Less than a year after Dixon died, Jack Johnson journeyed to Australia and dethroned Tommy Burns to become the first Black man universally recognized as heavyweight champion of the world. “Historians want to start with Johnson,” Winders writes, looking back on that moment. “But why not Dixon? By ignoring him, we have lost the point where the story of the modern Black athlete in America begins.”

One reason many chroniclers start with Johnson is that so little about Dixon is known. “Historians,” Winders acknowledges, “have placed Dixon at the forefront of boxing pioneers, but they often don’t seem to know why beyond a few lines related to his ring resume. Outside of some isolated examples, sport history – indeed, Black history – rarely celebrates his accomplishments. There is an odd silence in his isolation. Dixon sits tantalizingly, even frustratingly, close to us – just over a century ago. Surely, his life should be too recent to be lost to time.”

Winders has done his part – and then some – to save us from that loss. George Dixon: The Short Life of Boxing’s First Black World Champion, 1870-1908 is as good a biography of Dixon and portrait of boxing in that era as one is likely to find.

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

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Thomas Hauser is the author of 52 books. In 2005, he was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America, which bestowed the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism upon him. He was the first Internet writer ever to receive that award. In 2019, Hauser was chosen for boxing's highest honor: induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Lennox Lewis has observed, “A hundred years from now, if people want to learn about boxing in this era, they’ll read Thomas Hauser.”

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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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Book Review

Literary Notes from Thomas Hauser (Book Reviews)

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Literary Notes from Thomas Hauser (Book Reviews)

Tyrone Everett was a stylish southpaw who preferred boxing to slugging which made him the antithesis of the typical Philadelphia fighter. Russell Peltz (who promoted Everett for much of the fighter’s ring career, observed, “He wouldn’t lose a round. But it got monotonous because he wouldn’t take chances.” Philadelphia boxing writer Tom Cushman noted that Everett fought “with uninterrupted caution.”

That ring style made Everett a hard sell. But he was always in shape. He could crack when he set down on his punches. And he was good enough to have a future in boxing when he was shot to death at age twenty-four.

Murder on Federal Street by Sean Nam (Rushcutters Bay Books) recounts Everett’s life and death.

Everett turned pro in 1971 and had a 34-0 ring record with 18 knockouts when he challenged Alfredo Escalera for the World Boxing Council 130-pound title on November 30, 1976. The 16,019 fans in attendance at The Spectrum that night set a record that still stands for the largest indoor attendance ever for a fight in Philadelphia.

The consensus among knowledgeable ringside observers was that Everett won at least eleven of the fifteen rounds, probably more. But Ismael Wiso Fernandez (who, like Escalera, was from Puerto Rico) scored the bout 146-143 for his countryman. And in a shocker, Philadelphia judge Lou Tress turned in a 145-143 scorecard in Escalera’s favor.

As recounted by Nam, the scoring reeked of mob influence. When Harold Lederman compiled a list of the twelve worst decisions in boxing history, Escalera-Everett headed the list. “This was just highway robbery,” Lederman declared. “By far the worst decision I ever saw.”

Everett fought twice more after the loss to Escalera, knocking out two sub-.500 opponents. The second of those contests (against Delfino Rodriguez) was on the undercard of Muhammad Ali vs. Alfredo Evangelista in Landover, Maryland. He was shot and killed ten days later, on May 26, 1977.

As for the specifics of the crime; Everett was killed by a single bullet that entered his head through a nostril. The shot supposedly was fired by a woman named Carolyn McKendrick, who claimed that Everett had physically abused her in the past and was threatening to beat her again when she pulled the trigger. The murder occurred in McKendrick’s apartment but the murder weapon was never found. McKendrick was tried for the crime, found guilty of third-degree murder (intent to inflict bodily injury without intent to cause death), and sentenced to five years in prison. The fact that she was the estranged wife of druglord Ricardo McKendrick and that 39 packets of heroin were found in the apartment where Everett was killed lent credence to the theory that more than self-defense might have been involved and that Carolyn McKendrick might not even have been the killer.

And oh yes! A transvestite named Tyrone Price (who admitted to dealing drugs that he said he got from Everett and McKendrick) testified at trial that he’d been in the apartment at the time of the shooting. That provided more tabloid fodder.

Nam writes smoothly. Structurally, the book would have been better served and Everett’s life would have been seen in context more clearly if material about the “Black Mafia” in Philadelphia had been integrated throughout the story rather than tacked on in fifty pages at the end of the narrative. But Murder on Federal Street is a good slice-of-life story about Tyrone Everett and boxing in the 1970s in Philadelphia.

*          *          *

Eight years ago, William Detloff authored Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life. His latest book – Matthew Saad Muhammad: Boxing’s Miracle Man (McFarland & Company) – spotlights another champion.

Detloff has thoroughly researched his subject. And there are places where he writes evocatively about the sweet science. “Money makes the world go ’round,” he notes. “But there’s not enough of it in the world to pull a man off the canvas when he’s fallen face first or to make him keep punching through a waterfall of blood and bone-deep exhaustion. That comes from somewhere else, some place deep and feral where money has no meaning.”

But Matthew Saad Muhammad: Boxing’s Miracle Man has more fight reports than needed. There are places where it’s not as nuanced as Detloff’s knowledge of boxing might have enabled it to be. And Detloff had a mountain in front of him that was hard to climb.

Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life was the first credible biography of Charles. As such, it constituted a significant contribution to boxing history. But last year, Tris Dixon authored Warrior: Matthew Saad Muhammad (Pitch Publishing). Certain fighters are worthy of more than one biography, and Saad Muhammad is one of them. That said; Dixon’s book is simply better.

But let’s give the last word to Detloff, who writes of Saad Muhammad, “It must be remembered that, for a time, Matt lived a princely life, traveling the world, bedding beautiful women, making millions, hearing crowds chant his name. The graveyards are full of men who would have given anything to live for one day the way he did from, say, 1978 to early ’81. There are few if any times in the life of an average man when he is able to incite the passions of thousands by virtue of his will. One does not let such moments pass unacknowledged.”

*          *          *

No one has written about boxing’s early gloved champions in greater detail than Adam Pollack. The Iowa attorney has authored in-depth biographies of John L. Sullivan, James Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, James Jeffries, Marvin Hart, Tommy Burns, Jack Johnson, and Jack Dempsey. Only Jess Willard is missing from the list. And Pollack covered Willard at length in his biographies of Johnson and Dempsey.

Pollack’s latest offering is the second of what will be three volumes devoted to Dempsey. This one covers the years 1919 through 1923. Like Pollack’s earlier works, it’s meticulously researched, a bit on the heavy side, and an invaluable resource for boxing historians.

Pollack has lived with boxing’s early gloved champions in his head for decades. Which of the fights that he has written about to date would he most like to have been at?

“That’s a tough one,” Pollack answers. “I’d want a fight that was awesome at ringside and one that I’ve never seen footage of. We have some film of Johnson-Jeffries. The same for Dempsey-Willard. If you put a gun to my head, I’d say Sullivan against Jake Kilrain. It wasn’t boxing as we know it today. But there’s no film footage of Sullivan fighting. And to be in that moment in Richburg, Mississippi, seventy-five rounds, more than two hours. Yeah; that would have been special.”

And which gloved champion that Pollack has written about so far would he most like to go back in time to interview?

“For an extended interview, I’d say Jack Johnson,” Pollack answers. “For one question, I’d say Dempsey. Did he throw the Jim Flynn fight [KO by in the first minute of round one]? There’s no film of that fight. But the more I read, the more I lean toward the conclusion that Dempsey threw the fight. He was dirt poor and I don’t think ethics were his number-one concern at the time.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – 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, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Book Review

Reviews of Two Atypical Boxing Books: A ‘Thumbs Up’ and a ‘Thumbs Down’

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Reviews of Two Atypical Boxing Books: A ‘Thumbs Up’ and a ‘Thumbs Down’

Jack Johnson sheared the world heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in 1908 and lost it to Jess Willard in 1915. Between these two poles he had nine ring engagements, none of which commanded much attention with one glaring exception. His 1910 fight in Reno with former title-holder James J. Jeffries stands as arguably the most sociologically significant sporting event in U.S. history.

Toby Smith, who wrote extensively about Johnny Tapia while working as a sports reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, exhumes one of these forgotten fights in his meticulously researched 2020 book “Crazy Fourth” (University of New Mexico Press), sub-titled “How Jack Johnson Kept His Heavyweight Title and Put Las Vegas, New Mexico on the Map.” With 30 chapters spread across 172 pages of text and 10 pages of illustrations, it’s an enjoyable read.

The July 4, 1912 fight wherein Jack Johnson defended his heavyweight title against Fireman Jim Flynn, was dreadful. For the nine rounds that it lasted, writes Smith, Johnson and Flynn resembled prize buffoons rather than prizefighters.

Johnson, who out-weighed Flynn by 20 pounds, toyed with the Fireman whenever the two weren’t locked in a clinch. The foul-filled fight ended when a police captain decided that he had seen enough and bounded into the ring followed by a phalanx of his lieutenants. “Las Vegas ‘Battle’ Worst in History of American Ring” read the headline in the next day’s Chicago Inter Ocean, an important newspaper.

The fight itself is of less interest to author Smith than the context. How odd that a world heavyweight title fight would be anchored in Las Vegas, New Mexico (roughly 700 miles from the other Las Vegas), a railroad town that in 1912 was home to about nine thousand people. The titles of two of the chapters, “Birth of a Debacle” (chapter 1) and “A Misbegotten Mess” (chapter 27) capture the gist.

Designed to boost the economy and give the city lasting prestige, the promotion was a colossal dud. Fewer than four thousand people attended the fight in an 18,000-seat makeshift wooden arena erected in the north end of town. The would-be grand spectacle was doomed when the Governor sought to have the fight banned by the legislature, giving the impression the fight would never come off, and it didn’t help that Johnson and Flynn had fought once before, clashing five years earlier in San Francisco. Johnson dominated that encounter before knocking Flynn out in the eleventh round.

“Crazy Fourth” reminded this reporter of two other books.

“White Hopes and Other Tigers,” by the great John Lardner, originally published by Lippincott in 1950, includes Lardner’s wonderfully droll New Yorker essay on the 1923 fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana, an ill-conceived promotion that virtually bankrupted the entire community. In the same vein, although more straightforward, is Bruce J. Evensen’s “When Dempsey Fought Tunney: Hokum, Heroes, and Storytelling in the Jazz Age.”

Johnson-Flynn II was suffused with hokum. Energetic press agent H.W. Lanigan cranked out dozens of puff pieces under multiple bylines for out-of-town papers in a futile attempt to build the event into a must-see attraction. His chief assistant Tommy Cannon, the ring announcer, had an interesting, if dubious, distinction. Cannon claimed to have copyrighted the term “squared circle.”

I found one little error in the book. The Ed Smith that refereed the Johnson-Flynn rematch and the Ed Smith that refereed the famously brutal 1910 fight between Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast, were two different guys.  (It pains me to note this, as I know another author who made the same mistake and I see him every morning when I look in the bathroom mirror.) But this is nitpicking. One doesn’t have to be a serious student of boxing history to enjoy “Crazy Fourth.”

Knock Out! The True Story of Emile Griffith by Reinhard Kleist

knockout

Let me digress before I even get started. Whenever I am in a library in the city where I reside, I wander over to the “GV” aisle and take a gander at the boxing offerings. If, perchance, there is a book there that I haven’t yet read, I reflexively snatch it up and take it home.

When I got home and riffed through the pages of this particular book, I was surprised to find that it was a comic book of sorts, one that I would classify as a graphic non-fiction novel.

Emile Griffith, as is now common knowledge, was gay, or at least bisexual. Reinhard Kleist, a longtime resident of Berlin, Germany, was drawn to him because of this facet of his being. Kleist makes this plain in the introduction: “Despite [Berlin] being one of the most tolerant cities in the world, I have suffered homophobic insults and threats while walking hand in hand down the street with my boyfriend.”

Born in the Virgin Islands, Emile Griffith came to New York City at age 17 and found work in the garment district as a shipping clerk for a company that manufactured women’s hats. The factory’s owner, Howard Albert, a former amateur boxer, saw something in Griffith that suggested to him that he had the makings of a top-notch boxer and he became his co-manager along with trainer Gil Glancy. Kleist informs us that in addition to being “one of the greatest boxers ever seen in the ring,” Griffith was an incredible hat-designer.

Griffith, who died at age 75 in 2013, is best remembered for his rubber match with Benny Paret, a fight at Madison Square Garden that was nationally televised on ABC. Paret left the ring in a coma and died 10 days later without regaining consciousness. At the weigh-in, Paret, a Cuban, had insulted Griffith with the Spanish slur comparable to “faggot.”

The fight – including its prelude and aftermath (Griffith suffered nightmares about it for the rest of his life) – is the focal point of several previous works about Emile Griffith; biographies, a prize-winning documentary, and even an opera that was recently performed at The Met, the crème de la crème of America’s grand opera houses. The fatal fight factors large here too.

During a 17-year career that began in 1958, Emile Griffith went to post 112 times, answering the bell for 1122 rounds, and won titles in three weight classes: 147, 154, and 160. At one point, he had a 17-2 record in world title fights (at a time when there were only two relevant sanctioning bodies) before losing his last five to finish 17-7. No boxer in history boxed more rounds in true title fights.

Griffith, who finished his career with a record of 85-24-2 with 23 KOs and 1 no-contest, entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1990. There is absolutely no question that he belongs there, but to rank him among the greatest of all time is perhaps a bit of a stretch. Regardless, I take umbrage with the sub-title. The “true story” of Emile Griffith cannot be capsulated in a book with such a narrow scope. Moreover, it is misclassified; it ought not have been shelved with other boxing books but in some other section of the library as this is less a story about a prizefighter than about a man who is forced to wear a mask, so to speak, as he navigates his way through a thorny, heteronormative society.

Graphic novels are a growing segment of the publishing industry. The genre is not my cup of tea, but to each his own.

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