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Book Report: Jim Tully’s ‘The Bruiser,’ an American Classic

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Summertime is reading season. In olden days when the leading Sunday papers had a separate book review section and vacationers carried books in their carry-ons, the advent of summer unleashed a flurry of enthusiastic book reviews. In this spirit, let us submit Jim Tullys’ novel “The Bruiser” for your consideration. It’s an old book, first published in 1936, but as a panorama of the prize ring — warts and all – it stands up well if you like your fiction with a lot of pulp.

The protagonist is Shane “Wildcat” Rory who claws his way out of hobo jungles to become the heavyweight champion of the world. True, that sounds like a hackneyed Hollywood “B” movie and the comparison is fair, but the book is also chock-full of insights that could have only come from the pen of a man that had been immersed in the prizefighting subculture.

About The Author

The son of a ditchdigger who came from Ireland at the age of 10, Jim Tully was born in 1886 in St. Marys, a former Indian trading post in Western Ohio. Jim’s mother died when he was five and he was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Cincinnati. He left there at the age of 11 to work on a farm and then, while still in his mid-teens, he took to wandering about the country, picking up odd jobs here and there. When he hopped a freight, whatever money he had was sewed into different parts of his clothing. In the hobo jungles, his pals called him Cincinnati Red.

Tully’s formal education stopped when he left the orphanage, but he was an inveterate reader who spent many hours in public libraries. He was never comfortable with the term “hobo” — folks used it interchangeably with the word “bum” – and in his reminiscences of those days insisted on identifying himself as a “road-kid,” his term for an adventurous vagabond.

In Kent, Ohio, where Tully set down roots for a while, he found employment working over a blast furnace in a factory that made chains of the sort that one might find attached to the anchor of a boat. Kent is near Akron where Tully had his first documented prizefight. Lore has it that he heeded the call for a volunteer when one of the boxers on the card was a no-show. Many professional boxing careers actually started this way.

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer said Tully had 30 pro fights. Boxrec has been able to document only three, the first in 1909 on a card that featured future Hall of Famer Johnny Kilbane, and the last in 1914. The true count is probably somewhere in the middle. In those days, outside the biggest cities, many papers didn’t publish on Sundays and, if they did, the paper was put to bed early. A Saturday night boxing show went off too late to make the cut and by Monday, unless one or more of the combatants had a big local following, it had lost its news-worthiness. Fights in the hinterland that made the national news wire rarely included anything about the undercard.

The hero of “The Bruiser” matures into a heavyweight, but Jim Tully, five-foot-three and stocky, was likely in the junior lightweight class. With a mound of red hair straggled in all directions, he looked like many fighters of the period when the great majority of white boxers were Irish. Photographs of Tully as a young man call to mind Mickey Walker, the original Toy Bulldog.

tully

Tully

The Book

“The Bruiser” opens on a miserably wet night in a railroad yard. Rory, then eighteen years old, crosses paths with a black boy of about the same age who has just competed in a battle royal. They repair to a saloon before going their separate ways. The boy has adopted the ring name Torpedo Jones and he turns up again later in the book as an opponent that Rory must defeat to earn a shot at the champion.

Shane Rory’s manager, Silent Tim Haney, is a stock character in boxing fiction, a wizened ex-pugilist who knows all the tricks of the trade. Silent Tim’s great ambition is to take a raw fighter and build him into a heavyweight champion. He had been close on two previous occasions, near-misses that taught him that maneuvering a fighter into a world title is a process “more delicate than assembling a watch.”

In an earlier day, Silent Tim had managed Jerry Wayne. In his prime, Wayne had been a great ring artist: “He’d move in the ring like he had wings on his shoulders and ball bearings on his feet.” But he had taken too many punches and gone “slug-nutty.” (The Jerry Wayne character is plainly based on former lightweight champion Ad Wolgast with whom author Tully purportedly sparred. Wolgast was in and out of sanitariums before he had his final fight and spent the last twenty-eight years of his life locked up in a California insane asylum where he spent his waking hours plotting his comeback.)

When Rory visits Jerry Wayne in the institution where he has been locked away, it preys on his mind and it impacts his performance in his next fight, a loss that sends him back to the drawing board. The fear of winding up like Wayne or like Gunner Maley, another character in the book – “walking on his heels up and down North Clark Street, punchin’ shadows” – impels Rory to eventually walk away from boxing in the fashion of Gene Tunney, at the pinnacle of his hard trade with a wholesome girl by his side and with all of his faculties intact. (Tully reportedly wanted a grittier, less formulaic ending but was overruled by his publisher.)

“The Bruiser,” Tully’s eleventh book, was dedicated to “my fellow road-kid Jack Dempsey.” Tully, who wrote dozens of profiles of famous people for serious publications and for cheap Hollywood fan magazines, had written a profile of Dempsey for a 1933 issue of American Mercury and would include a profile of the Manassa Mauler in his final book, “A Dozen of One,” portraits of 13 well-known people including the boxer Henry Armstrong and the fabulous raconteur Wilson Mizner who once owned a piece of Stanley Ketchel, the fabled Michigan Assassin.

Tully wrote for the masses but his admirers included many writers whose bent was more highbrow, notably H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, but also Langston Hughes who introduced Tully to “Hammerin’” Henry Armstrong, and Gerald Early whose 1994 book, “The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture,” received a National Book Award.

Early wrote the foreword to the 2010 reissue of “The Bruiser” from Kent University Press. He had this to say regarding Jim Tully: “Few novelists captured the contradictions of his country so simply or so honestly in the metaphor of the pure, fatalistic, and merciless community of bruising. His work deserves to be rediscovered.”

The reissue was the handiwork of Mark Dawidziak, a TV critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Paul J. Bauer, a Kent, Ohio, book dealer who were busy co-authoring a biography of Tully. The book, titled “Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, and Hollywood Brawler,” also published by Kent University Press and with a foreword by Ken Burns, was released in 2011.

Jim Tully had developed Parkinson’s disease when he died in 1947 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles at age sixty-one.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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-aThumbs-Down

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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