George Kimball – An Appreciation

By Matthew Hurley: When my obsession with the sport of boxing fully blossomed in the early 1980s, writer George Kimball was my go-to-guy. His columns in the Boston Herald, along with my monthly purchases of The Ring and KO Magazine, became as important to me as any school textbook. Well, to be honest, much more important.

By having Kimball’s insight on a weekly basis I always felt as though I was in the mix. His close association with Marvin Hagler and, subsequently, his fiercest rivals, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard, made me feel like a part of each training camp. Being from Boston, so far removed from Las Vegas where most of the big fights took place, Kimball’s words about Sin City gave me the flavor of what a carnival like atmosphere a true superfight can produce.

Of course that was back when a fight like Hagler – Hearns not only dominated the sports pages but its end result wound up on the front page. It was a great time to be a boxing fan and there was a plethora of great journalism to be had. Kimball was at the forefront of all that and the fact that he wrote for my local newspaper made him a touchstone for me when I started to try my hand at writing about the sweet science.

George Kimball’s death last week from esophageal cancer didn’t come as a surprise. He had been diagnosed years ago, but his lust for life kept him remarkably productive. The Boxing Writers Association Of America recently gave him the Courage In Overcoming Adversity award, but in keeping with his renegade persona he waved his “bravery” off with a shrug. Till the end his sense of humor and dignity never wavered.

But the realization that no further articles will be published under his name makes it feel as though he has been wrenched out of the picture very suddenly. I guess I just assumed his work would be there for me to read every week because it always has been, and it had become part of my weekly ritual.

I would see George every so often at local boxing shows here in Massachusetts. He was always a slightly intimidating figure to me – decked out in a long black leather coat, neatly trimmed beard and wearing cigarette smoke like cologne. I was always hesitant to approach him for fear that he might have read some of my boxing articles and found my talent lacking. So I kept my distance.

A few years on, after the publication of his superb book Four Kings, his chronicle of the interlocking careers of Hagler, Duran, Hearns and Leonard, I finally met the man at a bar in Boston where he was doing a book signing. I hadn’t read the book yet, but I was preparing to write a review of it for Secondsout.

I approached George a bit hesitantly and introduced myself. Much to my relief, and astonishment, he did know who I was which seemed to justify my whole career in my eyes. With an almost paternal pat on the back he told me to keep at it.

“Just write,” he said with a smile and a firm grip on my arm.

It was a nice evening. Goody Petronelli, Marvin Hagler’s trainer and one of the kindest men in boxing was on hand along with several local sports writers Kimball had been in the trenches with.

At evening’s end George took my copy of Four Kings and, in elegant cursive script, wrote, “To Matt Hurley. All my best. And keep writing! GK, 2008.”

I suppose for George his approbation may have been no big deal. It was his night and he was in a festive mood. But that brief moment when he took me aside meant everything to me. When I had finally decided on trying to become a writer, I had always envisioned sitting in smoky bars with other writers, all of us desperately trying to make our deadlines, trading anecdotes and drinking too much. George Kimball lived that type of life, wrote about it, suffered through it and survived it. That’s old school, newspaper journalism with a bit of Gonzo self-destructive behavior thrown in for good measure. It made his prose sing.

Kimball’s work enthralled me for so many years. Even after he “retired” he continued to write and his Sunday column in the Boston Herald, filled with local updates alongside international results, was required reading. In fact, I always glanced to the last line first to see which boxing figure was celebrating a birthday, as that was always George’s sign off for those columns. It was always fun to see a “Happy Birthday” thrown out to long forgotten fighters like ‘Rockin’ Robin Blake, James ‘Hard Rock’ Green or Frank ‘The Animal’ Fletcher.

And that’s what I will miss – the work. I didn’t know George Kimball, met and talked with him just that once, but through his writing I always felt a kinship with him. His work always made me feel that if I were in a bar, reading his column, looked up from the paper and saw him on the next stool I could buy him a beer and shoot the shit with him all night long. Well, maybe a club soda as Kimball’s hell raising days were long since passed, but that everyman quality goes just as well with Canada Dry as it does with Miller High Life.

Kimball’s death casts another shadow over the boxing landscape in terms of print journalism. There aren’t many regular boxing columns in newspapers anymore. And for me, who first started reading Kimball columns all those years ago, his absence is huge. Just the realization that his last Sunday piece was his very last leaves me wanting more. That, in my estimation, is the mark of a terrific writer. That was George Kimball.

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July 11, 2011
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