By Thomas Hauser
The most prolific publisher of boxing books in the world is Robson Books. Jeremy Robson, who founded the company with his wife Carole, was born in North Wales and raised in London. At the start of his career, he worked as a magazine sub-editor, edited several anthologies of contemporary poetry, and served as poetry critic for a weekly newspaper called Tribune. In addition, he wrote his own poetry, later published in two volumes by Allison & Busby and Sidjwick & Jackson (which also published Rupert Brooke).
"Then, one day, "Robson recalls," I got a telephone call from the literary editor at Tribune, who said that Aldus Books was looking for an editor. Aldus published lavish illustrated books. I got the job, and became the editor of The World of Marc Chagall. After that, I edited a book with David Ben Gurion, The Jews in Their Land. In fact, Carole and I spent our honeymoon in Israel with Ben Gurion."
Robson was at Aldus for seven years, organizing poetry readings and jazz concerts on the side. Then he moved to Vallentine Mitchell, which merged with an academic publisher that wanted to develop a general trade list. "I brought them a book called The Goon Show that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and went to number one on the bestseller list," Robson remembers. "Then, one night at a dinner party, an old school friend who had become a real estate tycoon asked me, 'Why are you doing this for other people? How much money would it take for me to set you up in your own business?'"
Robson Books is now 30 years old. The company was acquired recently by Chrysalis (a British media conglomerate), but Jeremy still oversees its day-to-day operations.
Regarding his tilt toward the sweet science, Robson explains, "My father was always interested in boxing. He was a doctor and on occasion worked at amateur ring contests. Also, having been brought up in an era of anti-semitism, he was keen on my learning how to box. I was never a boxer, really. But I boxed in school and, at age 14, was school champion in my weight class."
The first boxing book Robson published was In This Corner "Ted 'Kid' Lewis called to complain afterward," Robson remembers. "He was very angry that he'd been described in the book as a dirty fighter. So we talked for a while and wound up publishing his autobiography."
Three dozen more boxing titles followed, among them the autobiographies of Sugar Ray Robinson, Jimmy Wilde, Jack "Kid" Berg, Terry Downes, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes. Other Robson tomes on the sweet science include The Manly Art, John L. Sullivan and His Times, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Champion Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Primo Carnera, Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali: A Thirty Year Journey, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, Tyson, Wicked, Ring Masters, Sparring With Hemingway, They Could've Been Contenders, The Lonsdale Boxing Manual, Lonsdale's Belt, The A-Z of World Boxing, A Century of Boxing Greats, Champions of the Ring, Boxing's Greatest Upsets, The Twelve Greatest Rounds of Boxing, The Boxing Register, Boxing's Strangest Fights, Dynamite Gloves, Boxing Babylon, and Lightning Strikes: Boxing's Lightweight Heroes.
"The prevailing wisdom is that boxing books don't sell," Robson acknowledges. "And to a degree, that's true. But we've had two boxing books on the bestseller list and hope springs eternal for more in the future."
At this point, I should note that several of my own books -- The Black Lights and Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times -- have been published by Robson. Also, later this spring, Robson will publish a novel I've written entitled Mark Twain Remembers. The Ali book is Robson's biggest boxing bestseller to date. But it's just as memorable for the bizarre promotional tour that accompanied its launch in England.
In September 1991, Howard Bingham (Muhammad's longtime friend) and I journeyed to London. Ali was supposed to meet us there. The problem was, he didn't. A week earlier, Herbert Muhammad (Ali's former manager) had taken him to Abu Dhabi in an effort to raise funds for a proposed Chicago mosque that was to be built with Herbert's involvement. Herbert had promised to have Ali in London for the start of our publicity tour. But Herbert didn't like the way I'd portrayed him in the book. And once he had Ali in Abu Dhabi, things changed. The result was a two-week publicity campaign replete with elaborate dinners, book-signings, and interviews that devolved into chaos.
The London media had a grand time with it. "Ali Held In Abu Dhabi," screamed one headline above the subtitle, "Advisors Have Poisoned His Mind." The Express ran a page-one photo of Ali sitting with four men in Abu Dhabi above the legend, "Revealed: The Mystery Men Behind Absent Ali." Nor was the story confined to London. "Ali Mystery As Wife Pleads For Safe Return," cried the Manchester Post. The Times of London, Guardian, Independent, Observer, Evening Standard, and News of the World, all weighed in. The British Press Association issued repeated bulletins on the matter including quotes from someone named Rashaad Mousoui, who described himself as a spokesperson for Ali and declared, "Muhammad Ali will not come to London. He does not support the book anymore."
Of greater concern was the fact that Ali had gone to Abu Dhabi with a limited supply of the medication he takes to control the symptoms of Parkinson's Syndrome. Howard Bingham had brought more of the medication to London, but there was no way to get it to Ali. He was cut off from the rest of the world in Abu Dhabi. His own wife Lonnie was unable to speak with him by telephone.
The following spring, I returned to England. This time, Ali was with us and the promotional tour went as planned. There were book-signings in London, Leeds, Nottingham, and Oxford. Interviews and dinners that had been rescheduled went off without a hitch. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times reappeared on the bestseller list, where it had resided briefly the previous autumn. But one moment in particular stands out in my mind.
A book-signing had been scheduled for Harrods, and we were told that Mohamed al-Fayed would be at the main entrance to greet us. This was no small occurrence. The owner of Harrods rarely welcomed visitors in person.
In the car on the way to Harrods, Lonnie Ali and I engaged in a bit of fantasy. At most previous book signings, Muhammad and I had been given gifts. Pens were the most frequent offering.
"Wouldn't it be nice," Lonnie said, "if Mr. al-Fayed brought me upstairs to woman's fashions and suggested that I pick out a silk dress." Never having owned a Rolex watch, I thought that one would look nice around my wrist. And, if I recall the conversation correctly, Muhammad was too busy eating brownies to take part.
When our car arrived at Harrods, Mohamed al-Fayed was at the door to greet us. A half-dozen bagpipers led us in procession to the room where the book signing was to take place. During the course of the afternoon, twelve hundred people lined up to meet Muhammad. He kissed, hugged, shook hands, posed for photos, and did just about everything else that anyone requested. I should add that Harrod's made a handsome profit on the sale of twelve hundred books.
When the signing was over, the Harrods representative supervising the event brought us into a back room where some sandwiches and bottles of mineral water were set out on a table. "Is there anything else I can do for you?" she queried.
"Yes," I said. "The other day, I was in your food hall, and you had the best lemon bars I've ever tasted."
"Would you like some to take back to the hotel?"
"That would be great."
An aide was dispatched with appropriate instructions. Ten minutes later, the Harrods representative placed a nicely wrapped box of lemon bars on the table in front of me.
"That will be nine pounds twenty pence," she said.
They didn't give us pens either.
Comments are welcome. To contact the author of this article, please email thauserthauserrcn.com