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Watson’s must-read boxing books, part two

With COVID-19 still decimating the boxing schedule, sit back, relax and dive into one of these classics.

Well, a month on since part one, and we still don’t look any closer to a boxing revival.

If you’ve already blitzed through Tiger King, Ozark and exhausted your brain for YouTube searches, get the kettle on, your trotters up, and check out this selection of must-reads from the boxing world.

There are some obvious inclusions and some others that may have slipped the net in your search for a classic!

Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing by George Kimball

This classic by George Kimball was picked up by a few of you in the comments to part one, and it’s hard to argue against this 329 page-turner’s inclusion in any list depicting boxing’s best stories.

Kimball invites us to peek behind the curtain during one of boxing’s most glorious decades as Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran went to war during the 1980s.

Each chapter is dedicated to one of the nine fights between four kings of the ring, a period in boxing history where “Sugar” Ray, “Hitman” Hearns, “Marvellous” Marvin and “Hands of Stone” all showed willing to put their records on the line against the toughest in the business.

Kimball notes the genuine rivalry between the four fighters who would go on to define one of the most competitive and absorbing periods in the sport’s history.

Packed full of nuggets not often cited while skimming over each fight on video, Kimball describes how Hearns, preparing for his title bout in 1981 against Leonard, broke Marlon Starling’s jaw in sparring just ten days out from the fight. Via an overhand right, as the pair broke after being tangled on the ropes, the future two-time welterweight champion’s career was put on hold.

”Starling was to have headlined the live card accompanying the closed-circuit telecast at the Hartford Civic Center. Instead of replacing his bout, local promotors advertised that they would show video clips of the sparring session in which Hearns injured Starling.”

One of the best lines is presented early in the book as Ray Arcel reacts to the news that Duran’s ECG pre-fight had revealed an irregularity, jeopardising his first meeting with Leonard. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart”.

It’s impossible not to pine for a repeat of this period in boxing history, as politics continue to muddy the waters of the modern fight game. Kimball’s description of the ”Last Great Era of Boxing” is hard to dismiss.

In Sunshine or in Shadow by Donald McRae

The Don of sports writing, Donald McRae, returned last summer to add to his growing list of boxing stories.

Dark Trade, A Man’s World and In Black and White have preceded over the past twenty-five years, but his latest tale of hope across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland brings a new power and importance to boxing not often explored.

Detailing the tales of four fighters, and most importantly boxing coach Gerry Storey, McRae taps into an extraordinary period in Northern Ireland’s history, as one man managed to orchestrate virtual immunity within the city, putting on boxing shows throughout the country.

During a deeply sad and violent period throughout the country’s history, Gerry Storey ran the Holy Family gym from the IRA’s heartland territory of New Lodge – infamous for the New Lodge Six shooting in 1973.

Storey would coach and develop fighters regardless of their religion or politics, irradicating the fractures of the nation as soon as they stepped into his gym. Boxers would be given a free pass by paramilitary forces regardless of the side of the Republican and Loyalist divide that they fell.

Storey would also travel to HM Prison Maze just outside Lisburn to help train and rehabilitate paramilitary prisoners from both communities.

Through intimate interviews and compelling storytelling, McRae illustrates how boxing can provide hope in the bleakest of situations, salvaging lives and re-energising communities.

Blood Season: Mike Tyson and the World of Boxing by Phil Berger

Phil Berger – former boxing correspondent for the New York Times – details the heavyweight boxing era in the 1980s and the highs and lows of “Iron Mike’s” rise to fame as the heavyweight world champion left a path of destruction in his wake.

Despite this book being written before Tyson’s rampage through the 90s, Berger’s portrayal of a young, violent Tyson in a “seasonal” format like other sports is a unique take on the early part of his career.

Berger had access to the good, the bad and the ugly who surrounded Tyson, digging their claws into every aspect of his life in order to benefit their own careers. Tales of Robin Givens, Don King and Donald Trump’s involvement are all included.

With the 80s labelled as a “lost” period of heavyweight boxing after Muhammad Ali’s retirement, Tyson was seen as an explosion of life after the public struggled to side with Larry Holmes.

”Then it changed – by God, did it change. For along came broad-beamed Tyson – Mike Tyson, a two-bit prepubescent hood who took up his reformation in the ring, and found glory, a few dollars, and that dizzying celebrity that offers up millionaire’s mansions right along with National Enquirer headlines.”

”Tyson became the lightning rod along which all the grand themes – ambition, love, greed, sex, and money – would be played out over a season that by now has become an era. This is the story of that Tyson era and those fighters, writers, sharpies, and showmen who constitute the best and worst of boxing.”

Notable others:

  • Jacobs Beach: The Mob, the Garden, and the Golden Age of Boxing by Kevin Mitchell
  • The Hurt Business: A Century of the Greatest Writing on Boxing by George Kimball and John Schulian
  • The Soul of Boxing by Phil Shirley
  • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey Ward
  • Night Train: the Sonny Liston story by Nick Tosches
  • Champ in the Corner: The Ray Arcel Story by John Jarrett

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