Ted Sares is back this afternoon to review the acclaimed book from Mike Silver, The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science.
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I didn't write this book to fuel the debate; I wrote it to end the debate.
At first, I was reluctant to review this book because there were so many other reviews out there (see below), but then I realized the real reason was that I was just plain jealous that I hadn't gotten there first with what Mike had to say.
There is a short but incisive foreword by the esteemed Budd Schulberg that supports Mike's subsequent contention, made clear in his title, that boxing is a lost art. Mike then goes about making his case by using the contributions and opinions of 5 prominent teacher-trainers as well as 17 fighters, fans and historians.
More specifically, Silver uses world-renowned historians and scholars, some of the sport's premier trainers, and former amateur and professional world champions to argue that socioeconomic and demographic changes have impacted the quality, prominence and even popularity of the sport over the past century to the point where many Old School aficionados can no longer relate. Unlike other sports, Mike contends that boxing has regressed. Indeed, he (and some of his contributors) are pretty merciless with their criticism. Also pointed out is the fact that the technical skills on display today are at an all time low and that should be manifest to any serious fan who has the slightest concept of what proper technique is all about.
Silver does not mince his words when he pays homage to the Golden Age and lambasts that which followed. In short, he sets forth his argument, backs it up, and then pretty much dares the reader to refute it. I'd love to engage him in a debate, but I' don't think I'd win.
The author deftly put into words a lot of the things we boxing fans have been thinking or debating about for a long time; namely, that boxing isn't like what it was in its golden years. For mike, the Golden Age of Boxing is 1920's through the 1950's, and while I would take issue with this (and argue that the 1960's warrant inclusion), his reasons are sound in that there were far more boxing gyms, fight clubs, and registered pro boxers than today and significantly more than the decades that followed the 1950's. He backs this thesis with considerable evidence including interviews with Teddy Atlas, Freddie Roach, Emmanuel Steward, even the celebrated ballet dancer and former amateur boxing champion Edwin Vallela, and a host of back-up statistics. The late Hank Kaplan, Chuck Hasson, Sal Rappa, Kevin Smith and Dan Cuoco also made fine contributions. Carlos Ortiz and my great friend Wilbert "Skeeter" McClure are often quoted as well.
Two chapters in particular are must reads.
Titled "The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall" argues that yesterday's smaller heavyweights would indeed be a match for today's monsters, though I for one remain unconvinced. Indeed, as a stone cold "Old Schooler," I have struggled to rid myself of any related bias, but this book makes that task even more daunting.
This chapter, titled "Boxing's Death By Alphabet," goes after the phony and despicable sanctioning bodies as well it should and Mike makes a compelling case, but then we already knew they are rotten to the core and that sanctioning fees are also rotten to the core. Curiously, for example, in the 1950's there were approximately 5,000 fighters worldwide, and generally eight weight divisions, with one champion in each. That's one champion per every 625 boxers. Today, and with just the major sanctioning bodies, you have about one ‘world champion' for every 70 pros.
However, despite the glowing aura that comes from the book, there is definitely an Old School bias and mindset that suggests just a tad of close-mindedness on the part of a few of the contributors. While most of what's in the book is intellectually palatable, comments like the one on page 142 to wit: "Hopkins is an ordinary talent......Maybe he would have been a main event club fighter in the small clubs," do not serve any useful or credible purpose. I also have great difficulty seeing Rocky Graziano beating Marvin Hagler (page 140).
At the very end, the author states that "...if professional boxing is to continue in its present state it should be abolished." He then refers to Pete Hamill's famous quote, "You cannot love anything that lives in a sewer. And the world of boxing is more fetid and repugnant now than at any other time in its squalid history." That's pretty harsh criticism.
This book belongs on the shelf of any serious fan of boxing if for no other reason than this is the first time I have seen (or at least have read) a book about the "Old School" vs. "New School" debate. While it may be overly subjective at times, boxing by definition is a pretty subjective business.
I highly recommend it even at the hefty price tag. Using Mike‘s own technique, here are some excerpts from other reviewers:
Clay Moyle: I loved everything about this book. In my opinion it should be required reading for anyone who is inclined to post on any of the various on-line boxing forums to debate the merits of boxers from different eras.
Paul Salgado, Ring Magazine: It would be easy to dismiss Silver as losing himself in nostalgia, but to his credit the author comes up with some compelling arguments. And he doesn't stop there. Utilizing short first-person narratives, he enlists a number of old school voices including Teddy Atlas, Bill Goodman, Mike Capriano Jr., and former lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz, all of whom dissect the sport and its participants, and critique the many changes that have led, they believe, to boxing's to boxing's currently diminished state. The book may be a lament, but the author clearly loves boxing. True aficionados, whether they ultimately agree with Silver or not, are sure to enjoy his book for its unmistakable knowledge and passion.
Stan Hochman: Silver explored the magic, studied the history, and wrote articles about it. And now the book, which Bernard Hopkins will hate."Take every great middleweight from 1900 to the '60s," Silver argued. "Mickey Walker, Stanley Ketchel, Marcel Cerdan, Jake La Motta, all great fighters, some of them with the speed of lightweights and the punch to knock out a heavyweight." And there's no way they could have dominated a division and defended a title 20 times. Hopkins did, but that does not make him better than Walker, Ketchel, Cerdan, La Motta and Harry Greb. Don't forget Harry Greb. The guys Hopkins fought are on a primitive level.
Harry Schaffer: Mike Silver has assembled the views of true Men of the Ring and interwoven their vision of the events and event makers of the sport with his own astute observations to produce arguably the most thoughtful, fact based comparative analysis of the state of boxing and boxers ever written.
Philip Sharkey for The British Boxing Board of Control Yearbook, 2010: Although the book talks almost exclusively about fighters from the United States one can't help thinking of modern day British champions facing 'Golden Era' fighters: Jack Kid Berg vs. Ricky Hatton, Randolph Turpin vs. Joe Calzaghe or Naseem Hamed vs. Ned Tarleton, would I'm sure, provide British boxing fans with the same level of debate. It is a thought provoking book. Other sports can be measured in heights jumped or distances ran or swam, but boxing is a far subtler science, the sweet science in fact!
Robert Mladinich: Silver is not a curmudgeon or a knee-jerk believer in the myth that what's old is always better than what's new. He, as well as his panel of experts, persuasively states his cases while speaking with great authority and insight. After reading this entertaining treasure trove of boxing "insider" knowledge I felt like I had taken a graduate course in the finer points of the "sweet science." The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened to boxing.
Note: Mike Silver is a former boxing promoter and inspector with the New York State Athletic Commission whose many articles on boxing have appeared in the New York Times, Ring magazine, Boxing Monthly and ESPN and Seconds Out websites.
Full Disclosure: This book was not given to the author as a review copy, nor was the author commissioned for a review. Mr. Sares paid in full for the reviewed book.