A guest like Mark Jacobson is brought on to “Talkbox” not to merely compare and contrast and critique, to share with us glory stories of the good old days, in order for us to feel worse about where we are today.
No, a Jacobson is invited because he has a trove of anecdotes, from writing about fights and fighters but more so the human condition through the filter of the fight game, which both distorts and synthesizes with clarity everything it touches.
He wrote for the Village Voice, late and now lamented, from 1973 until the early 80s, and then for some heavyweight publishers, including Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, and he was the ethicist guy at Esquire. On Tuesday, his newest book hit the stands and the Amazon warehouses — it’s called Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America, and the Brooklyn resident, age 70, was kind enough to spend part of his day visiting us at Everlast.
I wanted him to pan for memory gold and share some stories and also observations, to get a sense of where he thinks boxing is now. Jacobson told us the first boxing story he published had to do with a New Jersey pug, Mike Rossman.
At the Village Voice, he was in the office with Robert Christgau, Nat Hentoff, Jack Newfield, Pete Hamill, Alex Coburn, “also dead,” and he said it was his professional heyday. The Voice covered the parts of NYC that the New York Times, with all those Princeton grads, were too fancy to bother with.
“We were the Vietcong,” Jacobson said, while chuckling, and they all took pride in beating the Times.
“The Jewish Bomber” Rossman, the writer recalled, then apologizing for saying “shit” on the air, got Jacobson deeper into the sport, because it helped him understand that in perhaps no other vocation would a journalist find such a heady mix of sacred and profane. The quality of the characters in the 1970s, when Jacobson met Paddy Flood and Al Braverman, were of a different fiber than today. He admitted that guys like Danny Garcia and Shawn Porter, bless their souls, are not entertainers when speaking to journos, so that sort of coverage isn’t enthralling to him.
Contrasting again, he said that cleanliness can detract from the vibe, so he’s not as keen to do coverage from a place like Barclays Center.
“My experience with the Mike Rossman story made me a real boxing fan,” he said. He’d written a few sports stories, and then he met Mike’s dad Jimmy, “a real boxing guy.” This was back before people so much knew what they were supposed to say, and there weren’t so many cliche machines.
“I respect the people who are putting on the (Shawn Porter-Danny Garcia) fight,” he said, and he thinks that tango could be entertaining. The lead-up, the worth of doing interviews with these guys, not as much.
No one involved will be of the caliber of Flood and Braverman, who ran an antiques shop near the Bronx.
“You start meeting people like Budd Schulberg, who’s at every fight,” Jacobson said. “If it’s OK for him, it’s OK for me.”
Rossman was set to fight in Scranton, and the promotion had some hotel rooms. Could heavyweight Joey Hathaway bunk with Jacobson, separate bed, the writer was asked, and he complied.
As night crept toward sunrise, a persistent noise woke up Jacobson. It was Hathaway, a 230-pounder shuffling back and forth.
“Hey man, I heard this guy I’m supposed to fight is supposed to be really good,” he admitted. “I’m a little nervous about the fight.”
As well he should have been, being that he was fighting then 9-0 Larry Holmes. Holmes beat Hathaway, TKO-1, and Hathaway never boxed again.
But Jacobson was hooked; so he stayed toes dipped in the fight game pond, happily peeling off the muck that would attach itself to him while he gathered anecdotal gold.
He recalled Don King doing a promotion at the penitentiary where he did time for manslaughter. King, he said, was helped in this sphere by his incredible memory. It served him well while he ran a numbers racket, and when he went straight in the boxing sphere.
A guy like King, Jacobson told us, should be prized, rather than being relentlessly dissected and dissed. Guys like Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel and Ed Schuyler were at all the big bouts, because they too know where the stories unfolded. Those cats had to chuckle when Jacobson told them of a junket he attended, when the promotion paid for his hotel room. A promotion aide gave him a key, room 214. Jacobson checked in, opened the door, and was met with a man in his underwear. Why, that looks like Joe Louis!
“Wrong room,” Jacobson stammered and Louis took it well as the writer retreated to the hallway.
In recent years, Jacobson has taken the time to search the scene for the Next Big Thing. He hung with Adrien Broner for a spell, leading up to his loss to Marcos Maidana, and then Keith Thurman, who impressed the journo with his original thinking.
“I like a fighter with hype,” he said, acknowledging that he’d rather someone be interesting than full of cliches. Floyd Mayweather, he digs his fighting style, but he called him a “third rate talker. ... He doesn’t have anything to say, so he should just shut up!” Deontay Wilder, Jacobson called him a “pretty sharp guy” who has some verbal charisma.
We also wondered why Don King has never written a book.
“I would like to see ‘My Story: Don King,’ from his point of view. He can lie all he wants,” Jacobson said, recalling that he found Frank Lucas, an OG, and they made a movie off that story. That was more likely to be done before the age of “gotcha journalism.”
“King is someone who should be celebrated,” because he put on mostly good fights, his fighters made good money, and he gave writers great copy, the Brooklyner said.
“Boxing is a kind of sport in which the talking and the ambience is really for the writer, really the main thing. And the fights, if they’re good, that’s fantastic!”
So, Jacobson never did retreat from the boxing pool. He said he’s been pleased to work at so many superb publications, but he has seen the swirling down the drain in mass media, with the inability to make revenues keep up with costs causing shutdowns of newspapers and magazines, seems like one a week.
“I actually feel optimistic about the long range future of journalism,” he said. “I don’t think young people are going to stand for this, the cult of MSNBC, the cult of Fox News. How much of this can you take?”
An excessive focus on revenue society sicker, and will mean more institutions like the Village Voice will be pulled off life support.
I could have talked more about how boxing is enjoying some golden age traction, what with ESPN, DAZN, and FOX all ponying up to get rights to show fights, so there’s more grounds for optimism.
But of course, we chatted about Pale Horse Rider, and how and why the story of William Cooper, who was killed in 2001, and guy who came before Alex Jones and others who have ridden the conspiracy theory wave to fame and fortune. And Jacobson shared what he thinks are the similarities but more so differences between Don King and Donald Trump; I think the pod is a good listen, and a solid hour well spent.