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Book Review

Marc Ratner Reflects on his Life in Boxing and MMA in his Newly Published Memoir

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There is a nationwide shortage of high school sports officials. It’s a problem that was brewing before the pandemic drove many longtime officials to leave the fold, perhaps out of COVID concerns, perhaps because it was harder to do what they do while wearing a surgical mask. Some believe that the root of the problem lay with the parents of high school athletes; their ranks had become saturated with too many “a-holes.” And that is why last week’s meet-up with longtime friend Marc Ratner had to be pushed back. Ratner had a more important item on his agenda, a recruiting trip to the local air force base where he hoped to boat some new high school sports officials.

Ah, but I digress.

Ratner is Southern Nevada’s longest-tenured Commissioner of Officials for high school and middle school sports, a post he has held for four decades, but when one begins to list his accomplishments, one usually doesn’t start there. Among other things, the amiable Ratner, a youthful 77, is the only person to be named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the UFC Hall of Fame. And now he has yielded to the blandishments of his family and co-workers and set down his memories in a book. It’s called “Ringside,” sub-titled “My Life Outside the Ropes and the Octagon.”

Ratner’s career as a sports official began with Pop Warner football and city league basketball, the lowest rungs of the ladder. But out of respect to his readers – those that have never met him — his book doesn’t begin at the beginning. It opens with the 2017 fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Conor McGregor, an event that Ratner returns to in the final chapter. “The fight,” writes Marc, “represented a culmination of my career up to that point, the merging of my two worlds, the marriage of my past and future. Boxing was my older child who had grown up and left home, and MMA was my new child who I was still raising.”

Several days before the event, Marc was approached by Conor McGregor’s manager who had a favor to ask: Would Marc go into Floyd Mayweather’s dressing room to observe Floyd getting his hands wrapped? There are specific rules as to how much tape and how much gauze a fighter may use, and it’s standard procedure to have an inspector on hand to make sure that the rules are followed.

Marc agreed and although he wouldn’t be there in an official capacity, for him it was deju vu.

In 1987, he was named Sugar Ray Leonard’s inspector for Sugar Ray’s “Superfight” with Marvin Hagler. He delivered the gloves to Leonard’s dressing room, watched the boxer get his hands wrapped, and then hovered over Leonard’s corner between rounds to make certain that there was no hanky-panky. To this day, Marc considers that one of his most thrilling moments in sports.

Leonard-Hagler was staged at Caesars Palace on April 6, 1987. Four months later, Ratner’s best buddy Chuck Minker was appointed executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the overseer of boxing. The two had often worked in tandem at high school and junior high athletic events. They had even coached a women’s softball team. In fact, they were seen together so often that one wag dubbed them the “Gold Dust Twins.”

One of Minker’s first decisions was to elevate Ratner to his former post, that of chief inspector. Ratner never aspired to move up any higher in the hierarchy of the NSAC but in 1991 Minker was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer and he died the next year at age 42. Ratner succeeded him after serving as the de facto director for more than a year, a period when the position was vacant because of budgetary constraints.

Thus began Ratner’s 14-year run as the executive director of what would come to be widely regarded as the best-run boxing commission in the country. Three of the 13 chapters in Marc’s memoir focus on these days with special emphasis on the two strangest episodes of his tenure, the Fan Man Fight and the Bite Fight.

The most surreal moment in any major athletic contest happened on Nov. 6, 1993 at the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace when a paraglider identified as James Miller swooped out of the sky and crash landed in the ring during the seventh round of the world heavyweight championship fight between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield, the middle match of their celebrated trilogy. From the first bell to the last, the seventh round consumed almost 24 minutes.

Marc kept his wits about him during the pandemonium, communicating with the judges and timekeeper so that the fight could be resumed as if nothing had happened. (In hindsight, he faults himself for not sending Bowe and Holyfield back to their respective dressing rooms on a night when there was a chill in the air.)

The Bite Fight on June 28, 1997 at the MGM Grand was actually the Bites Fight. Mike Tyson was a serial offender that night, returning for a second helping after taking a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Marc was in his customary seat on the ring apron when Tyson went ballistic in round three, but like everyone in the arena other than referee Mills Lane and the combatants, it wasn’t immediately clear to him why Lane had a called a “time out.” It took a while to process.

When Lane told Ratner that he was disqualifying Tyson, Ratner replied, “Are you sure?” It was Marc’s way of slowing things down. “It was just my instincts kicking in from years of being an official,” he writes. “In all sports, it’s a big decision to eject someone.”

Team Holyfield wanted the fight to continue and when ring physician Flip Homansky deemed Evander fit to go, the fight was resumed. But Mills Lane wasn’t going to tolerate another bite and the third round would be the final round of the contest.

Ratner didn’t unilaterally overrule Lane when Lane first wanted to disqualify Tyson, but it would have seemed that way if, per chance, Tyson had gone on to win the fight. Ratner would have been raked over the coals in the press and he surmises that Bob Miller, who was then Governor of Nevada, would have had little recourse but to fire him.

In March of 2006, Ratner resigned from the commission to join the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC had been around since 1993, but was hemorrhaging money when the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, second-generation Las Vegas casino operators, purchased the organization in 2001. At the time of their purchase, MMA, specifically the UFC alloy of it, was regulated in only one state; New Jersey. The late U.S. Senator and future Presidential Candidate John McCain had famously likened MMA to human cockfighting (which in its original incarnation wasn’t far from the truth).

The UFC brand of combat, although renovated by an expanded rulebook, was still verboten in most places when Marc hired on as the Vice President of Regulatory and Governmental Affairs. Through his efforts, the formerly rogue sport is now legal in all 50 states. Getting New York on board was a big get.

Ratner estimates that he made 30 trips to Albany to meet with legislators and lobbyists before New York finally acquiesced. (The roadblock there, State Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, wasn’t opposed to the sport per se but was acting on behalf of the Culinary Workers Union whose Las Vegas affiliate, the union’s largest branch, was at loggerheads with the Fertittas over union representation at their casino properties. The UFC was home free when Silver was convicted on federal corruption charges that ultimately sent him to prison where he died this past January at age 77.)

As they were locking in one state after another, the UFC simultaneously expanded its global presence with the result that Marc has become quite the world traveler. His favorite cities are Stockholm and Sydney and, as these words are being written, he’s on his way home from London where UFC Fight Night 204 at the jam-packed O2 Arena reportedly attracted an arena record gate of $4.5 million.

There were many that thought that Ratner was foolish to leave his dream job at the athletic commission to join the fledgling UFC, a potential flash-in-the-pan. Dana White, a longtime friend and business partner of the Fertitta brothers, said that he envisioned UFC becoming as big as the National Football League which struck many as the ravings of a man with delusions of grandeur.

The irascible White, who quickly became the face of the organization, had the last laugh. In 2017, the USC opened a massive, two-story state-of-the-art training center for active and retired UFC fighters and their coaches, a building that doubles as the company’s corporate headquarters.  Called the Performance Institute, it sits on a 15-acre parcel that now includes the adjacent APEX, a 130,000 square foot production facility for live MMA events and reality shows. The two buildings house approximately 200 full-time employees which is more than the combined full-time employees of the top boxing promotional entities in the world!

Born in Phoenix, Ratner grew up in Las Vegas when the city was a lot smaller (his high school was one of only six in the entire county with enough students to field a football team).  Now a grandfather, he keeps a schedule that would exhaust a younger man.

In addition to being the Commissioner of Officials, he operates the shot clock at UNLV basketball games, something he has been doing since 1983. And when Las Vegas acquired an NFL franchise last year, snatching the Raiders from Oakland, Marc added a new entry to his long resume. At Raiders home games, he is the Coach-to-Player-Cut-Off-Operator (yes, that’s the official title), controlling the microphone that allows coaches to communicate with players between plays from the time the ball is ruled dead until there are 15 seconds left on the play clock.

His hectic schedule doesn’t leave him much time to promote his memoir, a collaboration with professional ghostwriter Jon Sternfeld, but he never intended to. Indeed, anything that smacked of self-promotion would be out of character. As a sports official and administrator, Marc took pains to stay in the background, careful not to steal the spotlight from the athletes under his purview.

“I don’t know if I will make a dollar a book out of this and it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t plan on any book signings,” he says, while noting that Sternfeld wasn’t the first ghostwriter to whom he was latched. The first fellow wanted a “tell-all” book and Marc wasn’t interested in airing anyone’s dirty laundry.

It is been an amazing ride for Marc Ratner who was fresh out of college and working in his father’s beauty supply business when he answered a newspaper ad for football officials, begetting a career in sports that would take him from the sandlots of Las Vegas to the International Boxing Hall of Fame and beyond.

Clocking in at 143 pages, “Ringside” with its breezy conversational style, is a fast and fun read. It currently retails for $14.99 at Amazon.

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Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

Book Review

Book Review — “The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison”

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Tommy Morrison was born in Gravette, Arkansas, on January 2, 1969, and lived in Oklahoma for most of his life. He fought in countless toughman contests, had three organized amateur bouts, and turned pro in 1988. Over the next seven years, he compiled a 45-3-1 (39 KOs, 3 KOs by) ring record, the high point of which was a 118-109, 117-110, 117-110 decision over George Foreman in 1993 to claim the vacant WBO heavyweight throne.

In Foreman’s next fight, he knocked out Michael Moorer to annex the WBA, IBF, and lineal heavyweight titles. In Morrison’s next fight, he was knocked out by Michael Bentt in the first round.

Morrison’s other losses were brutal “KOs by” at the hands of Ray Mercer and Lennox Lewis. During the course of his career, he knocked out faded versions of James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, Joe Hipp, Carl Williams, and Razor Ruddock. As a postscript, between 1996 and 2008, he scored stoppages over three particularly inept opponents after having been diagnosed as HIV-positive. He died in 2013 at age 44.

The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison by Carlos Acevedo (Hamilcar Publications) chronicles Morrison’s life.

“Morrison,” Acevedo writes, “came from a broken home. He was a secondhand son, passed from here to there, from nowhere to nowhere bound, wherever he would stick. His father was abusive. His mother once beat a murder charge. His brother would spend fifteen years in prison for rape. And Tommy? His mother first made him use his fists when he was five years old.”

“I was the guy your parents warned you about in high school,” Morrison cautioned.

The Duke is divided into two parts. Part I deals with Morrison as a fighter. His early ring record was fashioned against a collection of hopeless opponents. Then Bill Cayton took over as lead manager and Tommy graduated to a higher grade of stiff. Cayton built Morrison brilliantly as an attraction. He propagated the deceit that Tommy was a distant relative of movie star John Wayne and was instrumental in landing Morrison the role of Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. Cayton also used his skill and economic power to ensure that Morrison was featured on high-profile boxing telecasts.

At times, Morrison struggled in the ring. “He was,” Acevedo writes, “especially susceptible to right hands. And when he opened fire, he often did so squared-up to his opponent which made him a big target and left him exposed to counterpunches.” Moreover, Morrison trained less rigorously than he should have and burned the candle at both ends. “Let’s put it this way,” Cayton said. “Tommy Morrison makes Mike Tyson look like a monk.”

But as Acevedo notes, “Morrison worked the body with zeal, often doubling up hooks with either hand after landing to the rib cage. His signature right-to-the-body-right-uppercut combination was both lethal and often unexpected. In close, Morrison could surprise an opponent from either side with damaging shots. There was also the undeniable potency of his left hook. And Morrison showed the kind of heart often lacking among his peers. Morrison was someone who had to be nailed to the canvas before he lost.”

It was inevitable that Morrison would come to be spoken of as a “Great White Hope.” To his credit, he did his best to avoid making race an issue. “It’s kind of sad,” he told the Kansas City Star. “To be honest, it’s a big advantage being white. There aren’t that many white fighters around. But I’d prefer to stay away from that because it’s racist.”

By 1991, Morrison had run his record to 28-0 with 24 knockouts. Then Cayton matched him against Ray Mercer for the WBO heavyweight title. It was a mistake. For three rounds, Morrison dominated the action, pounding the granite-chinned Mercer with sledgehammer blows. Then Tommy ran out of gas and, in round five, was knocked unconscious.

Undeterred, Cayton rebuilt Morrison’s credibility, matching him in fights that resulted in seven wins and a draw over the next seventeen months. That led to a two-million-dollar payday against George Foreman in a 1993 bout for the WBO heavyweight title that Mercer had vacated after beating Morrison. Fighting against Foreman with uncharacteristic caution and in excellent condition for one of the few times in his career, Tommy emerged victorious.

The world was now Morrison’s oyster. He had a belt and was a big name in the heavyweight division. A deal was made for a title unification bout against Lennox Lewis that would pay Tommy a minimum purse of $7.5 million. But first, Morrison wanted an interim fight against a walkover opponent in Oklahoma. The walkover opponent was Michael Bentt.

KO by 1.

“All fighters reach a peak,” Acevedo writes. “A point at which the rigors of training and the punishment received in the ring combine to break them down. For some fighters, particularly aggressive ones such as Morrison, short peaks are the rule. [After the Bentt fight], it was clear that Morrison was beyond his best days. Over the span of two years, from October 1993 to October 1995, he was knocked down ten times. And Morrison compounded these issues with a torrid nightlife, a lax attitude toward training, and a dependency on steroids that likely had an adverse physical effect on him.”

Ah, yes. Morrison’s night life.

Part II of The Duke deals with Tommy’s life outside the ring. In his later years, he would use cocaine, crystal meth, Adderall, and Special K. In the early-1990s, he was a drinker. And alcohol fueled his temper.

“Morrison,” Acevedo writes, “was the kind of drunk who would pick fights in public and reject outright the concept of a designated driver. He could also become violent when under the influence.”

A drunk Morrison slashed an exotic dancer with a broken beer bottle in Kansas City. She sued. According to John Brown (Morrison’s co-manager), the case was settled for $100,000.

Morrison pled guilty to simple assault and public intoxication in conjunction with another incident and was fined $310. He was also arrested and pled no contest to two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery stemming from an altercation at a party given by Tammy Witt (the mother of his son, Trey). In that instance, Morrison received a suspended sentence, was fined $600, and ordered to perform thirty hours of community service.

But the drinking was nothing compared to the women.

“In the wake of Rocky V,” Acevedo recounts, “Morrison had become what John Brown called a ‘Bimbo Magnet.’ At the peak of his stardom, between the premiere of Rocky V and his upset loss to Michael Bentt, he lived out an adolescent fantasy that might have been the rudimentary plot of a teen sexploitation film. His life was truly a wild one. Wherever Morrison went, he trailed yearning women behind him. They shadowed him at personal appearances, before fights, after fights, in lobbies, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Few celebrities, even minor ones, spend their nights partying in Kansas City or Jay [Oklahoma] or Iowa. But Morrison had little interest in the bright lights of New York City or Los Angeles. The local whirlwind he created in small towns was more than enough for him.”

“His attraction to women was more than anything you can imagine,” Bill Cayton told a reporter for the Vancouver Sun. “He was a womanizer beyond anything I’ve ever known.”

“It was unbelievable,” Morrison said to Sports Illustrated. “It was all right there. You could feed yourself as fast and as much as you wanted.”

Then everything changed. For the worse.

Much worse.

On February 10, 1996, Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner announced that, for medical reasons, Morrison had been scratched from a fight card scheduled for the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino that night. Ratner declined to specify what the medical issue was. Five days later, at a press conference held at the Southern Hills Marriot Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Morrison addressed the issue with candor and grace.

“First of all, I’d like to thank everybody for being here today,” Morrison said. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t be here in person on Monday when Tony [promoter Tony Holden] informed you of what the present situation was. At that time, I felt it was more important to be with my family. Since that time, I’ve taken action to have more extensive tests run. I was informed just a little while ago that those tests do in fact confirm that I have tested positive for the HIV virus. There was a certain point and time in my life that I lived a very permissive, fast, reckless lifestyle. I knew that the HIV virus is something that anyone could get, but I also believed the chances were very, very slim. I thought that the real danger of contracting this rests in the arms of those who subject themselves to certain types of lifestyles – addicts who share needles, people who practice a homosexual lifestyle. I honestly believed that I had a better chance of winning the lottery than contracting this disease. I have never been so wrong in my life. To all my young fans out there, I’d ask that you no longer see me as a role model but see me as an individual who had an opportunity to be a role model and blew it. Blew it with irresponsible, irrational, immature decisions; decisions that one day could cost me my life.”

That was laudable. But within seven months, Morrison had pivoted 180 degrees. He had come to believe that HIV was a hoax and that the drugs developed to fight it were, in fact, designed to kill patients. In Acevedo’s words, “like so many other fanatics, [Morrison] ignored facts and substituted intuition for verifiable science.”

Now Morrison had a different view of his own medical condition. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in all this medication,” he said. “I’ve chosen not to take it. See, I don’t think that HIV causes AIDS. Some of the research I’ve read and some of the doctors I’ve talked to – there are still a lot of unanswered questions. It hasn’t been proven scientifically to my satisfaction that HIV leads to AIDS. It’s the medication that’s killing people. You unravel the little piece of paper in the bottle and you read about the side effects and they match identical with the symptoms of AIDS. HIV’s never been proven to cause AIDS. HIV ain’t never killed anybody.”

Thereafter, Morrison repeatedly denied that he was HIV-positive. But as Acevedo notes, “A lawsuit [instituted after Morrison’s death] brought to light dozens of documents revealing medical records that repeat over and over the fact that Tommy Morrison had HIV. These records include prescriptions, credit card statements, test results, memos from physicians, expert testimony, even psychiatric intake notes. The evidence that Morrison had been living with HIV for years is overwhelming.”

The end game for Morrison was long and ugly, marked by alcoholism, drug abuse, and uncontrolled aggression. But as Acevedo states, “Nothing about his carnal lifestyle – reckless, aimless, remorseless, seemingly bottomless – is as shocking as the willingness of dozens of women to risk a potential death sentence by sleeping with the most famous carrier of HIV outside of Magic Johnson.”

In Acevedo’s eyes, Morrison was now a menace to society.

He was also a bigamist, having married two different women (Dawn Freeman and Dawn Gilbert) in 1996. He would marry for a third time in 2011, two years before he died.

Meanwhile, again and again, Morrison was getting arrested. Twice in 1997 on charges ranging from driving under the influence to carrying a loaded firearm while under the influence of intoxicants, On December 20, 1997, he was sentenced to six months in prison (later reduced to thirty days). The following year, he was arrested again; this time for driving under the influence, destruction of private property, running a red light, and driving with a revoked license. In 2000, he pled guilty to myriad charges and was sentenced to ten years in prison with eight years suspended. He was released after fourteen months.

Morrison also subjected himself to cosmetic surgery that amounted to self-mutilation. As recounted by Acevedo, “In June 1999, Morrison underwent a series of surgeries for chest and biceps implants in Tulsa with nightmarish results. When the last procedure was over, Morrison and Landon [a friend] checked into a motel for a brief recovery period. That was where Dawn Gilbert found Morrison, looking like the creation of a Hollywood-style mad scientist.”

Landon told Gilbert that the doctor had used implants for the biceps rebuild that appeared to be shin guards bought from a sporting goods store. “As disturbing as his new implants were,” Acevedo notes, “the most shocking part of his appearance was the multiple tubes that now protruded from his body, each attached to one of the four bags surrounding him. Tubes came from each armpit and each bicep, and the bags contained a yellowish gunk and blood.”

Yet bizarrely, Morrison continued to fight. On November 3, 1996 (less than nine month after first testing HIV-positive), he’d been allowed to enter the ring in Tokyo and scored a first-round knockout over Marcus Rhode. Then, after a decade-long absence, he returned to boxing and stopped two no-hope opponents in West Virginia (2007) and Mexico (2008).

And all the while, his mind was rotting away.

“When he was only in his mid-thirties,” Acevedo writes, “Morrison was already exhibiting classic signs of pugilistic dementia. Slurred speech, forgetfulness, scattered thoughts, a scanty attention span. He increasingly suffered from paranoia. His IQ was measured at 78, which placed Morrison on the borderline for mental disability. Anyone who had heard Morrison speak after fights or read his interviews knew that he was an eloquent young man capable of expressing himself in complex sentences. By the time he hit rock bottom, that was no longer the case.”

Morrison, Acevedo continues, “also suffered from the burnout effect of methamphetamines. And in the early 2000s, he was diagnosed with HIV-related encephalopathy. Combined with his career as a prizefighter, these afflictions left him with a tenuous grip on reality. ESPN interviewed Morrison in 2000 while he was serving out a term in a Texarkana lockup for a variety of drug-related charges. In his orange prison garb, Morrison looked like he had just returned from a week-long crank binge in Arkansas swampland. He was heavy-lidded; some of his teeth were missing; he spoke haltingly; many of his answers were rote; his hair had thinned into a wispy comb-over. And he seemed delusional.”

Fast-forward to 2011. Morrison was arrested twice more on charges that included felony possession of controlled substances and misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia for use. Acevedo recreates what followed:

“The sports world is shocked to see the latest mug shot of Tommy Morrison, an image that seems to foreshadow death. Only forty-two years old, Morrison resembles a vagrant who has just returned from a harrowing ordeal. A video of his court appearance is even more disturbing. Morrison looks like a cross between a confused little boy and a senile old man. He is haggard, ashen, bewildered.”

At that point, the criminal justice system applied what Acevedo calls “pragmatic mercy.”

“Simply put,” he writes, “Morrison is unfit for prison. He is, by then, unfit for anything. In less than two years, he will be dead.”

In evaluating The Duke, one should begin with a thought from Acevedo himself who cautions, “Any biographical narrative is bound to raise questions of veracity. The life of Tommy Morrison more so, perhaps, because of how much of it took place in half-light. Toughman contests, club fights in Wichita and Great Falls, orgies in rattletrap motels, stints in jail and prison, and night crawling with tweakers from crash pad to crash pad across the Southeast. By nature, Morrison seemed drawn to subterranean pursuits.”

That said, Acevedo writes well. His tale moves briskly through Morrison’s life from his hardscrabble origins to his self-destructive end. The recounting of Morrison’s ring career doesn’t have the depth and nuance of some of Acevedo’s earlier writing about boxing. And there are times when he gives Morrison less credit than Tommy might deserve as a fighter.

But The Duke comes to life in Part Two. The material dealing with Morrison’s spiral into oblivion outside the ring is powerfully written and informative. Acevedo shows here that he’s a very good writer.

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

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Book Review

Bernard Fernandez Hits Another Home Run with ‘Championship Rounds, Round 2’

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When Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez set about compiling his anthology (Championship Rounds, published in 2020) he had some hard decisions to make. During his career as a sportswriter, a career now in its fifth decade, he produced a massive amount of material. There was too much stuff to fit into a single volume and we’re talking about stuff too good to leave on the cutting-room floor.

The only solution was a second book, a companion piece as it were, and boxing fans who appreciate good writing will enjoy Championship Rounds, Round 2, a compendium of 46 stories published between 1985 and 2020.

Fernandez, whose first bylines appeared in his hometown New Orleans Times-Picayune where he spent a charmed summer as a copy boy between his junior and senior years of high school, spent the last 28 years of his newspaper career at the Philadelphia Daily News. There he was matched tough, so to speak. “No city has produced more meaningful boxing writers than Philadelphia,” noted Jim Lampley in his foreword to “…Round 2.”

As a boxing writer in Philadelphia, Fernandez stood on the shoulders of giants and in time came to be recognized by his peers as a giant himself.

The digital revolution was a two-edged sword for newspapermen. It killed jobs at traditional papers which had trouble keeping subscribers and advertisers, but it also provided a safety net for disenfranchised newspapermen who had a burning need to keep writing.

Working for a major metropolitan daily was prestigious. It certified that one had made it in his chosen field of journalism. An online writer, unless he works for one of the few outlets that is known to pay well, doesn’t have that feeling of satisfaction because anyone can produce content – skilled and unskilled writers alike, the internet doesn’t discriminate – and the good stuff floats around in a sea of sludge.

But newspaper reporters who transitioned to the internet were freed from the constraint imposed by spatial considerations. Editors weren’t hovering about with figurative pruning shears, poised to shave their copy to fit a box with inflexible dimensions. If they had a bent for long-form storytelling, the internet gave them the freedom to explore it.

Bernard Fernandez authored many long pieces while at the Philadelphia Daily News. This reviewer’s personal favorite is a Jan. 11, 2000 story about the movie The Hurricane, a biopic that smeared the reputation of former middleweight champion Joey Giardello. In the pivotal fight scene in the movie, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter finishes with a flourish, battering Giardello from pillar to post in the 15th and final round only to be robbed by the judges, consistent with the movie’s narrative that Carter was a victim of racial injustice.

Fernandez could have pointed out the discrepancy to his readers and left it at that, but he took it a step further, rounding up Giardello, then 69 years old, so that the two of them could sit and watch the movie together. What could have been a generic movie review became something more; a poignant portrait of one of Philadelphia’s most venerated boxers. (This story, like many in Fernandez’s anthologies, commanded an epilogue. Fernandez noted that Giardello was awarded a substantial sum from the makers of the movie.)

One could argue that while the potential was always there, Fernandez’s talent as a long-form storyteller didn’t blossom until he quit the newspaper business. His second anthology is top-heavy with stories published after 2012, his last year with the Daily News. And more than a few, we are pleased to note, had their first blush right here at The Sweet Science.

The longest of the entries from the TSS font is an in-depth story about the corruption that has persistently defiled the Olympics, particularly as it pertains to boxing. Keen observations from the late Emanuel Steward and from the unabashedly blunt Teddy Atlas, a TV boxing commentator at four Olympics, assist in painting a bleak picture of the Olympics and its overseer, the International Olympic Committee, which long ago enabled corruption and made a mockery of the amateur ideal.

Readers will enjoy Fernandez’s portraits of old-time fighters like Floyd Patterson and Emile Griffith and retired fighters of more recent vintage such as Razor Ruddock and the enigmatic Riddick Bowe, not to mention cult fighter Eric “Butterbean” Esch, the King of the 4-Rounders. But there are insightful stories about non-boxers too, e.g., the famous trainer Angelo Dundee, rest in peace, and second-generation ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr., two of boxing’s genuine nice guys, plus little-known Joe Hand Sr, a Philadelphia transit policeman who ponied up $250 to purchase a share of Cloverlay, the consortium that was the original manager of Joe Frazier, and enjoyed quite a ride as Smokin’ Joe rose to prominence, culminating in his first meeting Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century (for the record, the only Fight of the Century labeled as such before and after the fact).

Unlike many old-time boxing aficionados, Fernandez isn’t rooted in the past. One of the entries in “…Round 2” discusses Tyson Fury’s stylistic makeover under new trainer Javan “Sugar” Hill (who would legally change his name to SugarHill Steward) preceding the Gypsy King’s second match with Deontay Wilder. Fernandez may have wanted to expunge that story if the makeover had been a complete flop but, to the contrary, it was anything but. Years from now, one won’t be able to write the life story of Tyson Fury without reference to it and the guess is that Fernandez’s article will be widely footnoted.

Fernandez throws his readers a curveball in the book’s final section, a collection of six non-boxing stories from his days at the Philadelphia Daily News. Occasionally circumstances dictated that he put aside his hat as a boxing writer to focus on other sports such as basketball, hockey, or tennis. While these detours were not, as a rule, to his liking, he rose to the occasion.

One wonders if “Championship Rounds” will bubble into a trilogy and if “Round 3” will be stories from his days in “alien” press boxes? Don’t bet against it.

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Book Review

Thomas Hauser is the Pierce Egan of Our Generation

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Thomas-Hauser-is-the-Pierce-Egan-of-our-Generation

Thomas Hauser is the Pierce Egan of our generation. Two centuries ago, Egan chronicled the goings-on in the world of prizefighting in a series of articles. When he had completed a bunch of these, he knotted them together in a compendium under the title Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient Pugilism. The first volume was issued in 1813. Four more volumes would follow.

Pierce Egan was drawn to the sport of prizefighting during the so-called Regency Era in England when prizefighting, although an outlaw sport, enjoyed a great burst of popularity. Aristocrats and commoners alike, bluebloods and lowlifes, caravanned to the big fights which of necessity were held outside areas of dense population. But, as indicated by the sub-title of “Boxiana,” Egan was also interested in the history of prizefighting which pre-dated the Regency Era. He wasn’t the first historian of the Sweet Science (a term that he coined), but he was certainly the most influential. Nearly 200 years after his death, a fellow interested in learning about the roots of modern prizefighting is encouraged to start by dredging up a reprint of “Boxiana.” (Or, if one doesn’t wish to be that immersive, checking out one of several collections by the great New Yorker essayist A.J. Liebling who rucked Egan out of obscurity.)

Which brings us to Thomas Hauser.

In common with Pierce Egan, Hauser gathers previously published articles about boxing into a book. A Hauser compendium has become an annual tradition at his publishing house, the University of Arkansas Press. Hauser’s latest offering, the 15th in the series, is fresh off the press. It bears the title Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing. TSS readers will recognize some of the nuggets as they first appeared at this web site.

Two hundred years from today, if mankind still exists, folks interested in the goings-on in the world of boxing during the first decades of the 21st century, will be directed to the writings of Thomas Hauser. And I have no doubt that a complete set of his annual anthologies, although released in paperback, will be a prized collectable.

Pierce Egan did round-by-round reports of major fights, but he was more interested in things that happened outside the ring. He saw the big picture; prizefighting as an ecosystem. Hauser likewise views the sport through a wide lens. The power brokers command his attention, as do those on the periphery. Hauser once wrote a story about ring card girls that was a fun read and would have also fit neatly as an insert in a textbook on the sociology of work.

“The boxing scene,” wrote Hauser, “is about so much more than the fights.”

In his role as an investigative reporter, for which he has won several awards, Hauser has written extensively about PED abuse in boxing and about the failings of the New York State Athletic Commission.

There’s less about PEDs in his newest book than in previous editions, inevitable perhaps considering that boxing activity in 2020 was stunted by the pandemic, but the NYSAC gets its usual comeuppance. The agency “has long been a favor bank for powerful economic interests and a source of employment at various levels for the politically well connected,” says Hauser, who informs us that for several higher-up employees, and one woman in particular, the job there is basically a sinecure and a good paying one at that.

Another recurrent theme in Hauser’s writings is boxing’s waning popularity among America’s youth and what can be done about it. In a story titled “Why Doesn’t Boxing Attract More Young Fans?” Hauser lists 11 reasons why it doesn’t, each of which can be reconfigured into a prong to be used in a campaign to stanch the erosion and reverse the trend.

None of Hauser’s compendiums would be complete without book reviews. Several years ago, Hauser wrote that “the written history of Muhammad Ali is an ongoing construction” and, in 2020, new construction continued at a brisk pace; there was a spate of new Ali books.

Hauser, needless to say, is well-versed in the subject matter. He interviewed more than 150 people for his 1991 book, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” long considered the definitive Ali biography, and he takes a fine-tooth comb to any book that traverses the same territory. Factual inaccuracies gall him and he doesn’t hesitate to point them out in reviews of books concerning Ali by Todd Snyder, Stuart Cosgrove, and Rahaman Ali (Muhammad Ali’s brother) and in a book for young readers ostensibly co-authored by book-seller extraordinaire James Patterson.

“Broken Dreams” is divided into four sections, the last of which is titled “Boxing and the Coronavirus.” There are some stories in this section that I suspect wouldn’t make the cut if Hauser were assembling the book today. He writes that “the restoration of normalcy (in boxing) will be a long, slow process.” With the benefit of hindsight, the future wasn’t quite so gloomy.

Among my favorite stories in Hauser’s newest compilation, which clocks in at 308 pages, is a long piece about Gleason’s Gym which, like Madison Square Garden, is currently in its fourth location. There are 44 components in all, modules of various length, and it’s the sort of book that one can open to any page and find something interesting.

Notes

Thomas Hauser and Pierce Egan have other things in common aside from their association with prizefighting. Both wrote about other things. Egan, who died in 1849, achieved his greatest success with a work of fiction, Life in London, about the escapades of Corinthian Tom and his country cousin Jerry, excitement-seekers who flouted the norms of society as they caroused about the London metropolis. The book gave rise to a long-running play, to a popular 18th-century expression (“Tom and Jerrying” denoted a rowdy night on the town), to a once-popular Christmas cocktail, and to a cat and mouse team in a children’s animated cartoon series.

In his review of Hauser’s Ali biography, Dave Anderson of the New York Times noted that this was Hauser’s 14th book and that seven of his previous books were novels. Among the non-fiction books that Hauser authored prior to “Ali” was “The Execution of Charles Horman” about the murder of an American journalist who disappeared in Chile during a right-wing military coup. It was adapted into the Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie “Missing” starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

Lastly, a caveat: Although A.J. Liebling thought Pierce Egan was a real hoot, the average reader will likely find Boxiana hard to digest. The book is freighted with slang terms, some of Egan’s invention, that long ago disappeared from the lexicon.

Egan eventually turned away from boxing cold-turkey, purportedly disgusted by too many fixed fights. If Hauser follows his example, let’s hope that it doesn’t happen any time soon.

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