By Thomas Hauser
Each year during the holiday season, I publish a list of what I consider to be the best books on the sweet science. That list, updated with recently published titles, follows. Some of these books are now out of print. But with the proliferation of online services like Abebooks.com, Alibris.com, and Amazon.com, all of them can be found.
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 in his declining years. He also paints a revealing portrait of Howard Cosell, turning the broadcast commentator from caricature and bluster into flesh and blood.
Beyond Glory by David Margolick (Alfred A. Knopf) -- This book focusses on the two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. In the process, it also 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.
Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaap (Houghton Mifflin Company) -- Schaap does a fine job chronicling the rise of James Braddock to the heavyweight championship of the world at the height of The Great Depression. He also succeeds particularly well in painting a wonderful portrait of Max Baer and explaining just how important the heavyweight title was seventy years ago.
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 Papa Jack. This book gives both men their due and, in so doing, restores Jeffries' life and lustre. The photographs are extraordinary and arranged perfectly with the text.
Heroes Without A Country by Donald McRae (Ecco Press) -- This is a beautifully written book about Joe Louis and Jesse Owens; two icons who changed America. McRae makes old stories seem fresh and new, and his exhaustive research brings new material to light. He is also the author of Dark Trade, a look at the modern boxing scene.
The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling (Penguin) -- Eighteen articles from the 1950s and early '60s by the legendary dean of boxing writers. Leibling set the standard to which others aspire. A collection of his later articles has been published under the title A Neutral Corner.
The Hardest Game: McIlvanney On Boxing by Hugh McIlvanney (Contemporary Books) -- McIlvanney is the British equivalent of Leibling. He's not just a boxing writer. He's a writer who writes very well, among other things, about boxing.
Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage and Sparring With Hemingway by Budd Schulberg (Ivan R. Dee, Inc.) -- If Budd Schulberg had never written another sentence, he'd have a place in boxing history for the words, "I could of been a contender." These collections of his articles cover seventy years of boxing lore. You might also take a look at Schulberg's insightful novel The Harder They Fall.
Rocky Marciano by Russell Sullivan (University of Illinois Press) -- An honest penetrating look at Marciano in the context of his times, as a person and as a fighter. What's particularly interesting is how often the unbeaten Marciano verged on defeat and his questionable ring tactics.
Shadow Boxers by Jim Lommasson, Katherine Dunn, and others (Stone Creek Publications) -- On occasion, an unseen corner of the boxing world is illuminated for the unknowing. This marvelously-produced coffee-table book does just that. Shadow Boxers takes readers into the gyms where young fighters learn their trade. Jim Lommasson's photographs are accompanied a series of essays, the best of which are superbly written by Katherine Dunn.
The Killings of Stanley Ketchel by James Carlos Blake (William Morrow & Company) -- The life of Stanley Ketchel written as pulp fiction. Blake plays fast and loose with the truth and mixes fact with fantasy in this historical novel. But he writes well and weaves a good tale about boxing and the underside of America at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring by Teddy Atlas (Ecco): Teddy Atlas has become a well-known figure on the boxing scene; first as a trainer and now as an expert analyst for ESPN. This is a comprehensive portrait of the people and events that shaped him and of a life that sometimes seems to fit within a master plan and sometimes spirals dangerously out of control.
The Fireside Book of Boxing , edited by W. C. Heinz (Simon & Schuster) -- One of the grandest collections of boxing writing between the covers of a single book. This has been 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.
The Great Prize Fight by Alan Lloyd (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan) -- A dramatic recreation of the historic 1860 fight between the English champion, Tom Sayers, and his American challenger, John C. Heenan.
The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America by Elliot Gorn (Cornell University Press) -- The title says it all. Gorn puts boxing's early days in their proper social and political context.
John L. Sullivan and His America by Michael Isenberg (University of Illinois Press) -- A thoroughly researched and intelligently written biography of the man who many consider "the George Washington of boxing."
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.
Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes by Randy Roberts (Free Press) -- Another fine biography of the most controversial champion in boxing history. "Jack Johnson was more significant than Ali or Joe Louis," Arthur Ashe once said, "because he was the first." Roberts is also the author of Jack Dempsey, which is the best work on its subject.
Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero In White America by Chris Mead (Charles Scribner's Sons) -- At the time it was written, this was the most thorough of the Joe Louis biographies. Mead's work serves as a reminder of why The Brown Bomber was so important.
Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties by Mike Marqusee (Verso Books) -- Muhammad Ali as seen through a decidedly left-wing political lens. Marqusee writes intelligently and understands the larger implications of the Ali phenomenon.
Muhammad Ali: The Birth of a Legend by Flip Schulke (St. Martin's Press) -- Superb photographs of Cassius Clay circa 1961-1964 with text by Matt Schudel.
Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey by Howard L. Bingham (Simon & Schuster) -- Bingham has been Ali's closest friend and personal photographer for four decades. This book includes some of his best work.
Black Is Best: The Riddle of Cassius Clay by Jack Olsen (G. P. Putnam's Sons) -- This is an old one; vintage 1967. But it's a great look at the young Muhammad Ali.
Writers' Fighters by John Schulian (Andrews McMeel Publishing) -- Before Schulian turned to script-writing, he was a first-rate boxing writer. This is a collection of some of his best work.
Fear & Fire: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson by Jose Torres (Warner Books) -- In 1989, when Tyson was at his peak and beginning to publicly unravel, there was a spate of books on the young champion. This was the best of them.
Golden Boy: The Fame, Money, and Mystery of Oscar De La Hoya by Tim Kawakami (Andrews McMeel Publishing) -- An inside look at De La Hoya and his career through the second Chavez fight. Some of the personal revelations raise issues of propriety; most notably, the reprinting of a letter from Oscar to a former girlfriend. But it's an interesting read.
Only In America: The Life and Crimes of Don King by Jack Newfield (William Morrow & Company) -- Give the devil his due. Don King is one of the smartest, most charismatic, hardest-working men on the planet. Jack Newfield lays out the good and the bad, mostly the bad, in exhaustive detail.
In This Corner by Peter Heller (Da Capo Press) -- One of boxing's first oral histories, chronicling the lives of forty-two world champions.
Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing In American Society by Jeffrey T. Sammons (University of Illinois Press) -- Extensively researched and well-written; a valuable historical document.
Harry Haft (Syracuse University Press) -- A son's recounting of the triumphs and horrors experienced by his father, who was a club fighter in the late 1940s. Haft was a Holocaust survivor. "After all I've been through," he said when he began fighting professionally, "what harm can a man with gloves on his hands do to me?"
Rope Burns by F. X. Toole (Ecco Press) -- Six short stories, the first five of which are very good. The author is at his best when he describes the behind the-scenes maneuvering that infests boxing. The book has been re-released under the title Million Dollar Baby to take advantage of the movie publicity.
The Fight of the Century by Thomas Hietala (M. E. Sharpe) -- A work of scholarship that examines the careers of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis and demonstrates how the prize ring became a crucial battleground in the struggle for racial equality.
Bare Fists by Bob Mee (Overlook Press) -- A well-researched history of bare-knuckle prize-fighting, which reigned supreme in the sports world from the mid-1700s through the late nineteenth century. There's an unnecessary chapter on "ultimate fighting" at the end. Rip it out, and you have a very good book.
The Journeyman by Michael Murray (Mainstream Publishing) -- There's a serious problem with this book. The author's recitation of certain events (most notably, several of his own fights) appears to be at odds with the truth. That's a shame, because the book is nicely written with some very good insights.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram (Harper Collins) -- Whether or not you agree with Kram's thesis, which seeks to elevate Joe Frazier and diminish Muhammad Ali, this work is an interesting read.
The Big Fight by Dave Hannigan (Yellow Jersey Press) -- This is a wellresearched, well-written account of Ali's 1972 fight against Al "Blue" Lewis in Dublin, Ireland, that describes the action in and out of the ring in a way that does its author proud.
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.
Cut Time by Carlo Rotella (Houghton Mifflin) -- Some interesting insights from the perspective of a college professor and fan who has covered the fights as a writer for out-of-the-mainstream publications.
Boxing by Bertram Job (Feierabend) -- A nicely-packaged coffee-table photo book with a serious text. Job surveys the history of boxing with emphasis on the modern era to fashion an impressive portrait of the boxing scene.
Every Time I Talk To Liston by Brian DeVido (Bloomsbury) -- A novel about the fight game, told from the point of view of a journeyman heavyweight. The first half features good realistic writing. Then the plot unravels a bit, but it's still an entertaining read.
Muhammad Ali: the Glory Years by Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo (Miramax Books) -- This a repackaged version of a 1975 paperback by Dennis and Atyeo entitled The Holy Warrior: Muhammad Ali. Too often, the text is taken from other sources without proper attribution. But in its new incarnation as a coffee-table book, the work is visually stunning.
Fight Town by Tim Dahlberg (Stephens Press) -- Another coffee-table book; this one, a tribute to Las Vegas. It's well-designed with excellent photographs and offers an informative history of boxing in the city that has become the fight capitol of the world.
Boxiana by Pierce Egan (Nicol Island Publishing) -- This one is for purists and scholars. The most significant writing on boxing in the first half of the ninteenth century was written by Egan and collected in five volumes entitled Boxiana. Nicol Island (a small Canadian publisher) is in the process of republishing these volumes in complete and unrevised editions.
A note on another matter --
At its 2006 convention in Croatia, the World Boxing Council announced its intention to implement "open scoring". Under the plan, the judges' scores will be announced to the crowd after the fourth and eighth rounds. The rule was approved by the sanctioning body's board of governors on the condition that any athletic commission can choose not to use it. It was employed for the first time on November 13th during two WBC title fights in Tokyo (Hozumi Hasegawa vs. Genaro Garcia and Eagle Kyowa vs. Lorenzo Trejo).
In extolling the new rule, WBC president Jose Sulaiman declared, "I believe that this is gigantic in sports and will make the judges more conscientious of their responsibility. It will ensure the judges concentrate one hundred percent, and it will give them a sense of pride because they have confidence in their scoring and themselves."
There are several problems with "open scoring." First, a fighter who knows he's comfortably ahead late in a fight will be even more tempted to hold and run than is currently the case. Second, open scoring will eliminate the drama inherent in the time-honored tradition of announcing the result at the end of a fight. Third, as a fight progresses, a judge whose scoring is at odds with those of his bethren might try to bring his card closer to those of his fellow judges rather than score on the basis of what he sees in the ring. And last, under open scoring, judges will be even more susceptible to crowd intimidation than they are now.
The bottom line is simple. Forget about open scoring. Boxing needs honest scoring by competent judges.
Editor's Note: Thomas Hauser has authored fourteen books about boxing that are excellent reading during the holiday season and every other time of year:
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times
Mark Twain Remembers
The Black Lights
Muhammad Ali: Memories
Muhammad Ali: In Perspective
A Beautiful Sickness
A Year At The Fights
The View From Ringside
Muhammad Ali & Company
Chaos, Corruption, Courage, Glory
I Don't Believe It But I Know It's True
The Lost Legacy of Muhammad Ali
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com.