Saturday, February 1, 2020

Books: On The Great Sport Of Boxing

Boxing at Madison Square Garden. Photo by Jason Schott.

One of the best sports to produce amazing literature is the sweet science of boxing, and there are three books that will enlighten your thinking on the sport: Off the Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story, by Candace Toft; Jacobs Beach: The Mob, The Garden & The Golden Age of Boxing, by Kevin Mitchell, and Dark Trade: Lost In Boxing, by Donald McRae.

Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story
By Candace Toft; Foreword by Al Bernstein
Hamilcar Publications; hardcover, $27.95; paperback, $17.95

This highly-anticipated new edition of legendary seventies heavyweight Ron Lyle's biography is now available for the first time in the United States. Written by the late Candace Toft, there is a foreword by Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein, who is also a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

This explores not only the greatest era of heavyweights, but the equally compelling personal tale of Ron Lyle, who grew up in the Denver projects, one of nineteen children in a tight-knit religious family. At twenty years old, he was convicted for a disputed gang killing and served seven and a half years in prison, where at one point he was nearly shanked to death. It was also where he learned to box before he was paroled in 1969.

Lyle began his amateur boxing career at the age of 29, and he turned pro in 1971, the start of a seven-year stretch in which he established an outstanding professional record. Fans knew him as the man who had Muhammad Ali beat on the scorecards for ten rounds in a fight for the heavyweight title that was eventually called for Ali; as the man who fought George Foreman in a battle with four knockdowns that nearly saw Foreman knocked cold; and as the fighter who earned a brutal knockout win over one of the era's most feared fighters, Earnie Shavers.

Toft writes of what the Ali fight meant to Lyle, "Ron finally had the chance he dreamed about since that day in the prison hospital, and it had come not because of all the hard-fought wins, but because of a single loss. Ron didn't care how it happened; he was determined to make the best of what might turn out to be his only chance at the heavyweight championship of the world...

"Ron began hard training, first in Denver with Bobby Lewis, then in New York with Chuckie Ferrara. Ferrara had studied Ali's moves for years; now he watched and re-watched the Ali-Foreman tape frame by frame. They all knew what it would take to defeat the champion, and they all knew it wasn't going to be easy.

"Ali was thirty-three, Ron thirty-four. Ali had reached the pinnacle twice, and had nothing left to prove; Ron was still a relative newcomer and had everything to prove. Ali lost three years when his license was suspended for draft evasion; Ron lost seven and a half years in prison. Ali's record was 46-2; Ron's was 30-2-1. The two fighters were close in height and only five pounds difference in weight (Ali weighed 224, Ron 219). They were identical in the sizes of biceps, forearms, and waists, but Ali had a four-inch reach advantage."

Lyle's run came to an end in 1978 when he was indicted for murder a second time, and even though he was acquitted, his career was effectively over. The years that followed were filled with struggle, a captivating love story, and eventual redemption.

Jacobs Beach: The Mob, The Garden & The Golden Age of Boxing 
By Kevin Mitchell
Hamilcar Publications; paperback, $17.95

Gangsters have always infected the fight game. From the end of the first World War, through Prohibition, and into the 1930s, the Mob emerged as a poisonous force, threatening to ravage the sport. 

Cutthroat Madison Square Garden promoter Mike Jacobs, chieftain of a notorious patch of Manhattan pavement called "Jacobs Beach," and when he stepped aside, the real devil appeared, former Murder, Inc. killer and underworld power broker Frankie Carbo, a man known to many simply as "Mr. Gray."

Carbo was not alone, as a crooked cast of characters that included a rich playboy and an urbane lawyer controlled boxing through much of the 1950s, with the help of a diabolical deputy, Francis "Blinky" Palermo, who did much of Mr. Gray's dirty work, repeatedly drugging fighters and robbing them blind.

Kevin Mitchell writes of the focus of Jacobs Beach, "Some periods and places live in the imagination more vividly than others. The fifties were such a time, New York such a place. While no age exists in isolation, there is a backstory to the fifties that makes those years unique in boxing. In that decade, in that city, in a venue that has been the spiritual home of the business for more than a century, a coterie of chancers came close to doing the impossible: they nearly killed the fight game.

"A lot of people were responsible for what happened in and around Madison Square Garden in those ten years: gangsters, promoters, managers, TV moguls - and some of the fighters.

"Jake LaMotta, for instance. Jake was the less-than-beautiful bull born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a crude, tough kid who raged through his era with manic energy, hounded by the Mob and, very occasionally, his conscience. He was a wife-beater, a thief, a mugger and liar who went on to become a raconteur skilled in reheating his past. He was an extraordinary man, a fighter who struggled to ever say sorry, who expected no apologies in return, and, crucially for the making of his legend, clung to the notion that he wouldn't go down. The words he was famously supposed to have uttered through purpled lips in Chicago on St. Valentine's Day, 1951, while enduring a barely legal beating at the expert hands of Sugar Ray Robinson were, according to Martin Scorcese's evocative take on his life, Raging Bull, 'You never got me down, Ray.' Those words stand as a boxer's battle cry of futile pride, even though, as his biographer Chris Anderson revealed years later, Jake never said them."

It all came crashing down soon after the 1950s ended, in 1961, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy shipped Carbo and Palermo to jail for twenty-five years. 

If it all sounds like the makings of a classic Noir movie, you're not mistaken, as this gripping look at boxing and organized crime in postwar New York City reveals the fading glamour of both institutions.

Dark Trade: Lost In Boxing
By Donald McRae
Hamilcar Publications; hardcover, $32.00

Donald McRae, a native of South Africa who writes for The Guardian and has won many awards for his journalism, including a William Hill Sports Book of the Year award for this book, and is a three-time Sports Interviewer of the Year winner and has twice won UK Sports Feature Writer of the Year.

This new edition, released in the United States for the first time, includes a new chapter, and it is clear why this is one of the finest boxing books ever written.

Over twenty years ago, McRae set out across the United States and his adopted home, Britain, to find deeper meaning in the brutal trade that had transfixed him since he was a young man. 

The result is a  stunning chronicle that captures the author's compelling personal journey through the world of professional boxing, but also the stories of some of its biggest names, including James Toney, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, Naseem Hamed.

In addition to uncovering the emotional forces that drive men to get into the ring, McRae brilliantly exposes the hopes and fears and obsessions of these legendary fighters, while revealing some of his own along the way. 

What McRae shares with them most, he comes to realize, is that he is hopelessly, and willingly, "lost in boxing."

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