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24 APRIL 2014

 

“Four Kings”: George Kimball Chronicles Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran




By Matthew Hurley: This past Sunday at Nuff Ced McGreevy’s Third Base Saloon on Boylston Street in Boston, USA legendary writer George Kimball signed copies of his superb new boxing book Four Kings. Kimball has written for the Village Voice, the Phoenix, Rolling Stone and the Boston Herald from which he retired in 2005 after twenty-five years. He currently writes for the Irish Times and contributes Sunday boxing columns to the Herald and intermittent stories for ESPN.

During the mid to late 1970s and the 1980s he followed the career trajectories of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran which eventually led them into a nine fight series and Kimball covered them all.

Amidst impressive Boston sports memorabilia at the back of McGreevy’s and a backdrop band insignia painting of the rock group the Dropkick Murphys (band leader Ken Casey owns the bar) Kimball chatted with fans, friends, fellow sports writers and bar patrons about his book and a time in the sport he has dubbed the “last great era of boxing.”

Four Kings brings fascinating anecdotes about the fighters, trainers and hangers on to life and includes remembrances by such notables as writers Michael Katz and Leigh Montville, trainers Emanuel Steward and Goody Petronelli (who attended the book signing) and the fighters themselves providing the reader with a you-were-there feel. Kimball’s genuine affection for the boxers and his good humor will remind his longtime readers of the high standard he has set, not simply in sports journalism but in his wonderful economy with words in all of his writing endeavors. He makes these characters live and breath with each turn of the page.

It’s many of the behind the scene stories which Kimball witnessed firsthand that are truly revealing. Some of the more well known are fleshed out giving the scenarios a sense of immediacy. In 1980 in London when Hagler took on Alan Minter for the WBA and WBC middleweight crown Kimball and his writing compatriot Leigh Montville watched in astonishment as the rowdy crowd were buying not simply bottles of beer from the vendors but entire cases.

“I remember standing there in the lobby of the arena watching all these skinheads buying cases of beer, hoisting them onto their shoulders, and trudging up the stairs to the balconies,” recalled Montville.

Promoter Bob Arum likened the scene to a “huge drunken orgy.”

When Hagler stopped Minter in the third round the crowd, livid at what they thought was a premature stoppage, began hurling full bottles into the ring at the new champion and his entourage. Sitting ringside, Kimball and Montville were grabbed forcibly by former middleweight champion Vito Antoufermo who led them to safety. However, not before one of the bottle heaving hooligans whacked Vito over the head with a full bottle of beer. The two writers watched at first in horror and then with a sense of awe as Vito turned around and knocked the guy unconscious with one shot.

Other stories are certainly less horrific but no less revealing including the hilarious bit of insanity Hagler and his 1985 challenger Thomas Hearns put promoter Bob Arum through. During a twenty-two-city press junket designed to hype the bout the two fighters would travel in separate corporate jets. One, owned by Caesars Palace, was a Gulfstream G-11 with a Pac Man video game. Arum then leased a second jet, a Falcon, which didn’t have the amenities of the Gulfstream. Hagler would use the G-11 as they traveled west and then once they reached Las Vegas the fighters would switch planes. But Hagler refused to switch, threatening to go home if he didn’t get to stay on the Gulfstream. When Hearns found out about Hagler’s intentions he went ballistic and threatened to go home himself. With little recourse Arum turned in the Falcon and leased another G-11 to appease the ‘Hit Man’.

The fight game has also seen its share of ridiculous moments and one came to pass during the Duran – Leonard rematch at the Louisiana Superdome in 1980. As Kimball describes, midway through the second round the middle of the ring collapsed. Somehow what was slowly turning into a sinkhole went unnoticed by most of the crowd and the ringside press. Between rounds Don King’s matchmaker Bobby Goodman raced from his seat and gathered together a group of college football players who had been recruited as security guards. The young men climbed beneath the ring where they would stay for the remainder of the bout, propping up the center support structure on their shoulders!

“There must have been ten or twelve of them standing underneath the ring holding it up,” recalled Goodman. “They did a great job.”

Along with exciting reports on each of the nine bouts the four fighters engaged in Kimball also describes sparring sessions and the many undercard bouts, some memorable some not so memorable. The most notorious of these was the Luis Resto – Billy Collins Jr. bout on the undercard of the Roberto Duran – Davey Moore junior middleweight title fight. Resto’s trainer Panama Lewis, lacking any humanity or moral integrity, removed the horsehair from Resto’s gloves. The subsequent beating Collins absorbed ended his career. He would die a short time later in an auto accident that his father described as a suicide. Resto and Lewis were banned from boxing for life.

Kimball’s epilogue to Four Kings is a short, moving tribute to the four men who gave so much to the sport that defined them and they in turn came to define. “Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings,” he opines. So linked are the Four Kings, as Kimball refers to them in tandem, that those words sum up their experiences perfectly. Kimball’s epilogue becomes a perfect epitaph for an era many lament, and to four fighters now so revered.

Four Kings should be required reading for not only boxing fans but also sports fans in general. Kimball’s deft prose can hit home like a Julio Caesar Chavez left hook to the liver or float mellifluously like Willie Pep on the run. Four Kings joins a personal best list for boxing tomes that includes Roger Kahn’s A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ‘20s, Donald McRae’s Dark Trade: Lost In Boxing, Hugh McIlvaney’s The Hardest Game and Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times.

Four Kings – Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing is published by McBooks Press, Inc. and is now available in bookstores.


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