By Thomas Hauser
Each year during the holiday season, I publish a “top forty” list of what I consider to be the best books on boxing. That list, updated to accommodate recently published titles, follows. Some of these books are now out of print. But with the proliferation of online services like Abebooks.com and Amazon.com, all of them can be found.
Beyond Glory by David Margolick (Alfred A. Knopf) -- This book focuses on the two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. In the process, it 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.
John L. Sullivan and His America by Michael Isenberg (University of Illinois Press) Isenberg mined the mother lode of Sullivan material and crafted a work that’s superb in explaining the fighter as a social phenomenon and placing him in the context of his times.
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.
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. Liebling 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 Liebling. He’s not just a boxing writer. He’s a writer who writes very well, among other things, about boxing.
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.
Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaap (Houghton Mifflin Company) -- Schaap does a fine job chronicling the rise of James Braddock to the heavyweight championship 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.
Sweet William by Andrew O’Toole (University of Illinois Press) -- A solid biography of light-heavyweight great Billy Conn. The two Louis-Conn fights are the highlight of O’Toole’s work, but he also does a nice job of recounting the endless dysfunctional family struggles that plagued Conn throughout his life and the boxer’s sad decline into pugilistic dementia.
In the Ring with Bob Fitzsimmons by Adam Pollack (Win by KO Publications) – Pollack has also authored biographies of John L. Sullivan, James Corbett, and James Jeffries. The books are heavily researched and rely almost exclusively on primary sources. Serious students of boxing will enjoy them.
The Last Great Fight by Joe Layden (St. Martin’s Press) – This book is primarily about James “Buster” Douglas’s historic upset of Mike Tyson. The saga of Iron Mike has gotten old, but Layden brings new material and fresh insights into the relationships among Douglas, his father (Billy Douglas), manager John Johnson, and co-trainers J. D. McCauley and John Russell. He also gives a particularly good account of the fight itself and how Douglas overcame the fear that paralyzed many of Tyson’s opponents.
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.
Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage and Sparring With Hemingway by Budd Schulberg (Ivan R. Dee, Inc.) -- If 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 novel The Harder They Fall.
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.
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 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.
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.
Jack Dempsey by Randy Roberts (Grove Press) – Three decades after it was first published, this work remains the most reliable source of information about the Manassa Mauler. Roberts is also the author of Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, another fine biography of the most controversial champion in boxing history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In This Corner by Peter Heller (Da Capo Press) -- One of boxing’s first oral histories, chronicling the lives of forty-two world champions.
Two Ton by Joseph Monninger (Steerforth Press) -- A short evocatively written book keyed to the 1939 heavyweight championship bout between Joe Louis and Tony Galento. On the plus side; there’s some very good writing and an excellent recreation of the fight itself. Two Ton captures the spirit of Tony Galento well. On the negative side of the ledger, there are times when Monninger opts for poetic license and hyperbole over accuracy.
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 recorded the good and the bad, mostly the bad, in exhaustive detail.
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 about the young champion. This was the best of them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 nineteenth 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.
Four Kings by George Kimball (McBooks Press) – Kimball recounts the epic nine battles contested among Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran between 1980 and 1989. It was a special time for boxing fans and more special for those who, like Kimball, experienced the drama firsthand from the inside.
The Lion and the Eagle by Iain Manson (SportsBooks Ltd) -- A dramatic recreation of the historic 1860 fight between the English champion, Tom Sayers, and his American challenger, John C. Heenan. Manson sets the scene on both sides of the Atlantic. In reconstructing the life of each fighter, he gives readers a full sense of time and place. For more on the same encounter, The Great Prize Fight by Alan Lloyd (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan) is an excellent read.
Muhammad Ali: The Making of An Icon by Michael Ezra (Temple University Press) – Ezra explores the changing perception of Ali as a moral force with primary emphasis on the commercial interests that have swirled around him over the past fifty years. The end result is a work of scholarship that breaks new ground; particularly with regard to the years 1960 through 1966, when Ali was guided by a group of wealthy white Kentuckians known as the Louisville Sponsoring Group.
Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood (Alfred A. Knopf) – This is the first biography to fully explain Robinson’s legacy in the ring and his importance out of it. Haygood researches thoroughly and writes well, placing Sugar Ray in the context of Harlem and America in the 1940s and ‘50s. The six wars between Robinson and Jake LaMotta are particularly well told.
Editor’s Note: Thomas Hauser has authored seventeen 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
The Greatest Sport of All
The Boxing Scene
An Unforgiving Sport
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.