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The 25 Days of Boxing Books

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Boxing reaches further into history than most any sport and as such, deserves the rich legacy of literature it has inherited over the course of time. Abraham Lincoln said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.” I want to be your friend...but not in a stalker kind of way. To that end, I give you 25 boxing books every boxing fan should ensure is part of his or her pugilistic library. The choices are by no means all-encompassing and admittedly colored by my biases. I prefer reference works that touch on a hundred champions to a singular biography on a boxing legend and the prose of British observers like Hugh McIlvanney and Reg Gutteridge to that of American favorites A.J. Liebling or Budd Schulberg. Still, you could do a lot worse than the 25 works I have selected as a starter kit of sorts.
 
It can take a while for a book to grow on me, so newly released tomes like Mark Kriegel’s The Good Son or Howard Schatz’s fantastic At the Fights coffee table book may creep into the rankings in a year or so. In addition, I take what Mark Twain says about of seminal works seriously” “A ‘classic’ book is a book which people praise but don’t read.” No, these books are both essential and eminently readable. Fair warning: I will not read emails about a book on my list that you think should not be there; tell me about a book you believe should be. We boxing fans are notoriously hard to please and as such, must rely on ourselves to find the perfect gift for “our kind.

1. Boxing Heroes & Champions by Bob Mee – Why is this book superior to others? It is one of the few I have found that strived to give as much biographical detail to Asian and lower weight category boxers as heavyweight champions. Good luck finding more information than “won the world flyweight title in 1952 from Dado Marino” on Japan’s Yoshio Shirai in other boxing book. Mee covers Shirai, Duilio Loi, Koichi Wajima, Dave McAuley, Samart Payakarun, Gilberto Roman and the criminally underrated Hilario Zapata with the same detail as legendary Joe Louis. It also features vignettes on 45 of the most important fights in boxing history. This is a great looking coffee table book with well-chosen pictures. As indispensable for the new fan starting to learn about the greats as the boxing historian. (ISBN-13: 978-0785807780)
 
2. The Hardest Game by Hugh McIlvanney - My favorite writer on boxing; his prose is vivid and insightful. The Hardest Game is masterful for a muscular, descriptive style that you can return to often without it feeling repetitive or aging badly in any way. When I seek an inspirational injection to get the creative juices working from an unquestioned master of the craft, all I need is to read a few paragraphs of McIlvanney’s work. Here is a quick peek at McIlvanney’s take on Carlos Monzon, “There is a frightening strength in the elasticity of those long muscles. Monzon’s method is related to profound confidence, the conviction that he has the animal authority to dominate almost any man they put in front of him.” The Scotsman is a simply masterful writer. (ISBN-13: 978-0658021541)
 
3. Boxing: the 20th Century (presented by The Ring magazine) – A year-by-year account of the most important events in boxing from 1900 to 1992. Yes, it could do with an update but otherwise, it is hard to find fault with its selection of bouts or the editing of those pieces down without losing the plot of a fight. Does an excellent job of highlighting the landmark bouts in boxing history; no other book features as in-depth or as wide an array of fights as this historical feast. Only the most cynical boxing fanatic could argue that a bout of importance was left out and each presented is given the appropriate treatment. (ISBN-13: 978-0792458500)
 
4. The Best of The Ring - A great companion to Boxing: The 20th Century and also put out by The Ring magazine before Oscar De la Hoya bought the publication. Few other boxing books can touch this masterpiece for diversity of prose. Nearly every significant boxing writer is featured within these pages and you can chart the evolution of boxing’s written word through this one-volume encyclopedia of style. A wide array of boxers and subjects are broached with each given a life of its own by the well-chosen writers. The only negative is that the stories of 1990s-era boxers seemed a bit less compelling; an updated edition is welcomed here as well. (ISBN-13: 978-1566250566)
 
5. In This Corner…! (42 World Champions Tell Their Stories) by Peter Heller – It is what it the title suggests, an oral history of 42 champions as told to an author who clearly loves the subject and the boxers featured. Exhaustive in its attention to historical detail, this book features boxers as far back as 1912 and up through the 1970s. Heller did a great job of letting the boxers tell their tale, not interjecting his own biases or historical judgments. As with the previous two books, an updated edition covering the last four decades would be a real joy. (ISBN-13: 978-0306806032)
 
6. Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man by Teddy Atlas - The mental aspect of boxing is often given short shrift, except when it comes to Teddy Atlas. Atlas often states boxing is 75% mental at the highest level and fights are often won or lost before a man enters the ring. Not a pure boxing book, officially Atlas’ autobiography, but lessons to be learned within the pages are centered on boxing themes. It gives a lot of insight on the people that have surrounded Atlas, and thus on boxing since Atlas has been an integral part of boxing for nearly three decades. The book, like Atlas, is passionate and, above all, honest. (ISBN-13: 978-0060542412)
 
7. The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book (Fifth Edition) This is the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s publication of record and is duly impressive and noteworthy without relying on that status alone. Features every boxer inducted into the hall from 1719 to 2011 with meticulously researched ring records and important career mile markers. Sets itself apart from other books with biographies on men on the periphery of boxing like promoters, managers, ring announcers and boxing writers. Another must have for those studying the sport or just getting into the beauty of boxing. (ISBN-13: 978-1590134993)
 
8. Corner Men: The Great Boxing Trainers by Ronald Fried – No boxer becomes a champion by himself and this book shows the importance of trainers and the guidance they impart upon students. From Ray Arcel to Eddie Futch, it doles out more than a century’s worth of boxing knowledge. A must-have for anyone who has ever thought of throwing a towel over their shoulder and calling himself a trainer or molder of men. Chock-full of historical anecdotes and observations on legendary boxing figures you will not find anywhere else. (ISBN-13: 978-0941423489)
 
9. In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art by Dave Anderson– A second book on the underreported art of training and motivating boxers, though honestly, not quite up to the high standards (or as in-depth) set by Corner Men. Certainly not lacking in merit however, this book has a wider range of subjects and includes trainers of more recent vintage like Emanuel Steward and Kevin Rooney. You can’t go wrong with either…but hey, I prefer the classics. (ISBN-13: 978-0688094461)
 
10. A Century of Boxing Greats: Inside the Ring with the Hundred Best Boxers by Patrick Myler – Few boxing writers have the keen eye and storytelling ability of this expert of pugilism but then the Irish have been known for their way with words for centuries. Myler gives his list of the 100 greatest boxers to ever enter the squared circle and he justifies the choices well without sounding preachy. Sets himself apart by not only giving a well-balanced biography on each boxer but also explaining what made each boxer effective. A good mix of European, American and Hispanic boxers are featured as well. Only negative I found was the lack of Asian entrants. Still, a great read from a European perspective. (ISBN-13: 978-1861051349)
 
11. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser – I am not a big fan of Hauser, who writes primarily for Maxboxing’s sister site, SecondsOut, but do give credit where it is due. This remains the definitive biography on the boxer that defines boxing for the majority of sports fans. I get more questions about Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson than any other boxer. I direct Tyson fans to the James Toback documentary and Ali fans here. Enough said. (ISBN-10: 0671779710)
 
12. Max Schmeling: An Autobiography by Schmeling (and George Lippe) – What Thomas Hauser did for Ali, Max Schmeling did for himself recounting of the events and times that shaped his life. The German legend recalls nine decades in the limelight in great detail. Of course, all autobiographies are somewhat self-serving but Schmeling addresses many of the controversy surrounding him without ego and finds fault with some of his decisions. Read this book and discover that Schmeling met President Franklin Roosevelt (sharing an obsession for stamp collecting) more times than Adolf Hitler or that he hid a Jewish friend’s children at great risk to himself during the height of Nazi anti-Semitism. (ISBN-13: 978-1566251082)
 
13. Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope by Richard Bak – If I had my way, this book would be sold with every edition of Max Schmeling’s autobiography and vice versa. All those holier-than-thou baseball fans need to read this to come to the correct understanding that Joe Louis, not Jackie Robinson, is the most important historical African-American sports figure before or since Ali. Without Louis, there is no Robinson…period. More than a book about an African-American, it needs to be read by people of all races. (ISBN-13: 978-0306808791)
 
14. Inside the Ropes by Arthur Mercante - The man who has refereed more championship fights than anyone else shares much beyond his accounts of legendary events. Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Now, the late Mercante can echo that famous phrase, giving boxing historians a treasure trove of firsthand insight to some of the greatest fights ever staged. Simply put, Arthur Mercante had the best view of any man related to the sport of boxing. This memoir is a must-have for fans of heavyweight boxing alone as Mercante recalls his role in bouts between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson vs. Ingemar Johansson and George Foreman vs. Frazier. Thankfully, the book has more to offer than just heavyweights. It is packed with insight down to the flyweight division. (ISBN-13: 978-1590131404)
 
15. Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing by Donald McRae – This look at the shadowy side of boxing won the prestigious William Hill Sports “Book of the Year” award - and deservedly so. A powerful, behind-the-scenes look at boxing and the life-altering damage boxers endure - in and out of the ring - that we all take for granted as fans. It will not persuade boxing fans to leave the sport, nor does it want us to, but it will make fans ask some hard questions the next time we view a classic struggle between two men in the ring. Like boxing itself, the book is simultaneously brutal and beautiful. (ISBN-13: 978-1840189568)
 
16. The Total Sports Illustrated Book of Boxing by W.C. Heinz and Nathan Ward – Finely selected works of fiction, reportage, essay, profiles and even poetry about boxing. A good anthology of boxing shorts that shows how boxing inspires the mind of writers to put forth words worthy of the subjects they cover. The stories contained can be categorized as pure literature, fiction, history or sports journalism - or just great storytelling. (ISBN-13: 978-1892129130)
 
17. Ring of Hate: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling: The Fight of the Century by Patrick Myler - No sporting event has ever contained such international impact in athletic, social and political realms. You can argue the 1936 Olympics but it was spread out over a month and was not nearly as popular as boxing in those days. I found this book preferable to David Margolick’s Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink since Myler has a better grasp of boxing as a whole and gives us a European view that Americans tend to overlook. Margolick went further into the social issues on the American front of this bout but also relied on historical accounts by writers who were sometimes on the payrolls of Louis’ promoters. Combined, Myler and Margolick write the perfect book on this epic moment in time. (ISBN-10: 1559708220)
 
18. Bare Fists: The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting by Bob Mee – Casual sports fan fail to recognize that boxing is a refined art form that has evolved over a hundred years. Those who doubt that have not read this chronicle of the savage roots of pugilism. Over 180 years of pre-boxing history, largely ignored before the 1900s when the sport received worldwide acclaim, is covered in rich and bloody detail. In a way, this is a back-to-the-future book, revealing bare-knuckle boxing as a forerunner to today’s MMA. (ISBN-13: 978-1585671410)
 
19. Raging Bull: My Story by Jake LaMotta (with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage) – The movie that was based upon this book is considered one of the best films of all time and it pales in comparison to the book. LaMotta writes as he boxed, brutally honest and forthright. No one is spared, least of all himself, in this intense retelling of his life story. (ISBN-13: 978-0306808081)
 
20. When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport by Allen Bodner – No other sport is as ethnically charged as boxing has been over the decades. This book bears witness to some of that tribal mentality and does a great job of showing how men will be joined by a common bond. The definitive work on people of Jewish ancestry in boxing and one that will hopefully be used as a blueprint for authors who want to feature boxers of their heritage or nationality. (ISBN-13: 978-0275953539)
 
21. The Sundowners: The History of the Black Prizefighter by Kevin Smith- What Bodner does for Jewish boxers, Kevin Smith (not to be confused with the filmmaker and podcaster) expands upon for African-American fighters between 1870 and 1930. I selected this over the equally important “Black Dynamite” (by The Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer) since it is more circumspect and inclusive and rejects accepted biases of Fleischer’s generation. Not that Fleischer was in any way racist, far from it, but his book is from an era that was socially restricting of what he could write in the 1930s. Sundowners is meticulously researched and an obvious labor of love that will be appreciated and referenced by future sport historians. Please visit http://www.lulu.com/content/294222 to order. (ASIN: B008I79M2Y)
 
22. Boxing’s Greatest Fighters by Bert Randolph Sugar - The dean of boxing writers from 1990 to 2012, Sugar compiled a fantastic list of boxers he brings to life. Who better to give the 100 greatest fighters the prose and praise that they deserve given that Sugar saw the majority of these men in action? Sugar finds unique angles to attach to fighters and events, making the most dissected boxing events seem fresh in one way or another. Particularly interesting and what makes this book somewhat unique are the sidebars for each boxer, offering statistical analysis of the man’s ring résumé. Again, Asian boxers are overlooked but that seems the norm for Western authors which even the great Sugar could not shake. (ISBN-13: 978-1592286324)
 
23. My View from the Corner: A Life in Boxing by Angelo Dundee (with Bert Randolph Sugar) - The man who guided and observed two of the most iconic boxers, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, reflects on seven decades lived in the corner. Anyone who has met Dundee talk knows of how he brought stories to life and told them expertly. Now imagine the freedom of that in book form where he can go into emotional details glossed over in casual conversation. This is not a timeline book and delves into the mental and political side of boxing as well. It’s all here and earlier champions like Carmen Basilio, Ralph Dupas, Willie Pastrano or Sugar Ramos are not pushed into the background. (ISBN-13: 978-0071628471)
 
24. The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists by Bert Sugar and Teddy Atlas – Honestly, this is a book I hesitated to include. In the end, I chose it for the ability to stir debate more than its value as a historical reference work. The two authors even argue amongst themselves in defending choices and it is impossible to ignore their choices given these two’s boxing pedigrees. The categories are as compelling as the answers given by Sugar and Atlas are flawed in my opinion with readers as likely to throw their hands up in frustration as using them to applaud choices. On second thought, that is also the reason to include this book since it would be a very boring world if everyone agreed! (ISBN-13: 978-0762440139)
 
25. Boxing Babylon by Nigel Collins - Some people are suckers for happy endings; I am not, so find this collective of sad tales from Kid McCoy to Tony Ayala compelling. A book for those who see beauty in the fatalism many boxers seem destined to play out. Collins does not bring many new details, break news or offer compelling insight on the subjects but as a horror compendium of sorts, this can’t be beat. There is no sugarcoating of these flawed men or the sport that, if not making them more flawed, certainly hastened their inevitable downfall. (ISBN-13: 978-0806511832)
 
You can contact Marty at mmulcahey@elpasotel.net, visit him at www.facebook.com/fivedogs or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MartinMulcahey.
 
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