‘Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype’ by Todd Snyder (2020)

My favourite book of the year. I’ve struggled to finish this review because I’m trying to capture the book and not just gush with praise. Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them away, and it deserves to be considered among the very best biographies.

Muhammad Ali is possibly the most written-about sports figure of all time. I’ve already written a post on the best books I’ve read on Ali. Throughout every book, film, documentary on Ali, Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown hovers in the background as a mysterious, often thinly drawn, character whose importance is undeniable but whose contribution, and very essence, appears unknowable. I’ve always been fascinated by Bundini yet unable to picture who he was and sort between differing depictions of a quasi-mystical sage and a drug addled thief.

Bundini is best know for penning the immortal line ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee’. He was a corner man, a hype man, a philosopher, a friend, a confidant, a spiritual guide and a hundred other things for two of the greatest boxers of all time – Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. But none of that captures the unique contribution Bundini made to their careers and indeed the lives of those around him.

Trailer for the book

I’ve written this paragraph 5 times trying to capture my own take on Bundini but I think it’s best to leave it to George Foreman who the book quotes as saying ‘Bundini was the source of Muhammad Ali’s spirit’. Bundini was no saint and had plenty of flaws but he was a man full of love. He was one of those rare people who have an energy about them, who have charisma and colour and vibrancy. I am very much not that type of person myself but I am very drawn to those who bring a passion, a love and an uncontrollable energy to the world and those around them. That these gifts are often accompanied by demons, addictions and personal flaws makes them all the more compelling.

Snyder has done an incredible job in capturing Bundini. Both his magic and his flaws. The heart of the book is Bundini’s son, Drew ‘Timothy’ Brown, a man whose own life story merits a biography. As Synder sets out in the introduction, this book is a much the story of a father through his son’s eyes as it is an objective biography.

Patrick Green produced an excellent documentary based on the book available above on YouTube

Great biographies need both a compelling subject and the right biographer. Robert Caro’s masterful series of books on Lyndon Johnson would not have reached the same heights if not written by a writer with as a keen a fascination of the workings of power. The years Caro spent writing The Power Broker shaped his future work on LBJ.

Similarly, Snyder is the perfect person to capture Bundini’s life. An incredibly talented writer, the son of a boxing trainer, and a professor of rhetoric and hip-hop, it’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit.

As an aside, the book also made me realise that Muhammad Ali’s old training camp has been opened to the public and is less than an hour drive from my in-laws in Pennsylvania. I absolutely cannot wait to visit!

‘Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard’ edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas (2020)

‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.

Losers is a fascinating collection of stories written from the perspective of losers – a very broadly defined term given that the essays cover some very successful athletes! The stories all share a common theme of reflecting on defeat in sport, its impact and the challenges of bouncing back. Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.

The stories each offer different perspectives and range from sombre to hilarious. The subjects covered range from obscure to famous. Each story is insightful and works well as a standalone piece. Like all good collections, however, the sum of the whole adds up to more than its individual parts. Together the collection represents a brilliant reflection on human nature. Stories of how we respond to failure, and bounce back (or at least try to) capture something far more universal than the more written about moments of unbelievable glory.

The quality of the collection is reflected by how difficult I’m finding to pick a favourite. I’ll go for Jeremy Taiwo’s (as told to Stefaine Loh) reflection on being the 2nd best decathlete in the USA and Brian Platzer’s take on two young table tennis players chasing Olympic glory. Each story is a treat though and the collection one to saviour.

Losers is published August 18 2020

‘Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing’ by Carlos Acevedo (2020)

Sporting Blood is a collection of twenty-one essays by Carlos Acevedo looking, as the title suggests, at tales from the darker side of boxing.  The collection covers a range of fighters offering fresh perspectives on some well known names as well telling the stories of much less well remembered pugilists.

The hardest part of reviewing this book is trying not to copy the words of the great Thomas Hauser in his excellent forward to the book which sums up the power of Acevedo’s writing better than I ever could.

Acevdo is a sensationally good writer with some brilliantly memorable turns of phrase. Each essay packs a mighty punch and resonated with me long after I read it. It is a great collection to dip in and out of, to take your time over, to re-read and savour the writing and the imagery.   As Hauser says “each essay goes beyond the name of the fighter attached  to it to underscore a fundamental truth about, and capture the essence of, boxing.”  It’s hard to get a better endorsement.

As a whole, the collection paints a grim, sad portrait of a fighters life.  While the level of success reached might vary, the stories seem to very often end in tragically similar fashions with dementia, poverty, drug abuse and often murder playing an inevitable part in many of the fighters later years.

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A series of articles by Acevedo are available at https://hannibalboxing.com/author/cacevedo/  and are also well worth checking out.

‘Berserk: The Shocking Life and Death of Edwin Valero’ by Don Stradley (2019)

Valero was a Venezuelan boxer with a growing profile on a seemingly inevitable track to fight Manny Pacquiao and to potentially become a superstar.  He was a knockout king and won all of his first 18 fights with a first round knockdown.  He had a career record of 27-0 (all by knockout) and was a 2-weight world champion when he died in 2010.

Tragically however, Valero could never escape his demons.  He turned to cocaine and booze.  His paranoia took over and he murdered his young wife in cold blood.  Not long after being arrested, he took his own life while in prison.

In Berserk, Don Stradley recounts the story of Valero’s rise, the bumps along the way and his ultimate descent.  Different versions of Valero are presented with conflicts  emerging between accounts of how he treated his wife in particular. Stradley does well to separate fact from fiction and to dismiss conspiracy theories while recognising the limits of what we can really know about Valero and his relationships.

It is a short sharp captivating read and one any boxing fan will find interesting.   The punchy style of the book neatly matches Valero’s own relentless fighting style.  I found watching the many YouTube clips of Valero’s fights a great accompaniment to the book.

The book is published by relatively new boxing publisher Hamilcar books as part of it’s true crime imprint.  I’ve been really impressed by their work – both reprinting US editions of boxing classics like Dark Trade and these new short books.  I’m really looking forward to their publication in 2020 of a book by Tris Dixon on brain damage and boxing.

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‘The Ghost of Johnny Tapia’ by Paul Zanon (2019)

Johnny Tapia was a force of nature.  A five time, three weight, world champion, Hall of Fame, boxer.  A drug addict who served time in prison. A much-loved husband and father.  A man whose charisma and talent earned him countless friends and fans.    Tapia lived ten lifetimes in his one and survived multiple near death experiences before his body finally gave up aged just 47.

The Ghost of Johnny Tapia is a short, sharp and entertaining read. At just 96 pages it naturally gives a pretty high level overview of Tapia’s life and career but there is more than enough there to capture the craziness, the charisma and the talent of a very unique man.  In particular it gives a fascinating insight into the tragedies of his young life which gave rise to the demons he could never fully overcome.

Johnny Tapia

While tragic, some of the stories in the book are mind-blowing.  Tapia had the kind of charisma that draws people to him coupled with the talent to reach the very top of boxing.  Sadly, he had demons, borne from a childhood of intense tragedy, and he simply couldn’t shake his addictions.  There is something incredibly compelling about that kind of character, that intriguing mix of charisma and vulnerability that draws people in.

The book’s key strength is the co-operation of Johnny’s wife Teresa who gives a remarkably candid insight into their life together.  Teresa is clearly a remarkable woman who put up with incredibly difficult behaviour from the man who she married aged 20 after knowing for just 2 weeks.   .

I’d definitely love to read a fuller length biography of Tapia’s remarkable life.  As an intro to his story, and a great excuse for a YouTube binge of his best moments, I’d definitely recommend The Ghost of Johnny Tapia.

Brilliant HBO documentary on Tapia’s life and career

‘Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King’ by Jack Newfield (1995)

Watching boxing as a kid, I was always fascinated by Don King and his larger than life manner. I mainly started watching boxing during Tyson’s post-prison fights – a time that would be the beginning of the end of Don King’s long reign atop the boxing world.

King is undoubtedly a fascinating character. Only in America presents an aggressively reported look at the dark side of King’s empire.  For Newfield, this book is personal and it’s clear he feels compelled to draw attention to the hurt and harm King has caused to boxers and the sport of boxing.

Newfield paints King as an intensely smart and charismatic man, one whose talents could have led him to more legitimate success.  Instead, King could never leave the underhand corrupt world he grew up in and never missed an opportunity to enrich himself under the table.

Prior to entering boxing, King had been a major player in illegal gambling and been sentenced to prison for beating to death a gambler who owed him money.  Newfield strongly suggests that the judge was paid off to reduce his conviction to manslaughter from murder in the second-degree.

King

Emerging from prison, King sought fame and fortune through boxing promotion.  His friendship with the famous singer Lloyd Price seemed to play a significant role in opening doors.  Ultimately, his break into the big time came with the Forman v. Frazier fight in Kingston, Jamaica where he where he famously arrived in Frazier’s corner but left with the victorious Foreman.   Subsequently, he would go on to have a hand in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle and most of the big heavyweight fights for 20 more years.

King used his charisma, his race and underhand contractual arrangements to tie up most of the up and coming black boxers to long term contracts.  These usually included excessive compensation to King’s son for acting as the fighter’s manager and clauses giving King rights to promote all of the fighter’s future fights.

Newfield sets out in details the significant damage King did to a whole generation of heavyweights.  He clearly stole millions from his fighters through billing excess expenses and excess fees. Among the lives he severely impacted is Buster Douglas – the journeyman boxer who beat an ill-prepared Tyson to become heavyweight champion.  King spent months trying to get the result overturned and subsequently scammed Douglas out of the majority of his purses each time he defended his title.

Overall, King is presented as a villain who uses his cunning to take advantage of multiple boxers before discarding each one as soon as they lose their value to him.  It’s remarkable that even in the world of boxing, such a character was able to service and thrive for so long.

Only in America is a damning indictment of King.  As Newfield says, the book is part biography, part investigative reporting, part memoir and part essay.  Newfield’s priority was to tell the story of those boxers King exploited and to shine a light on King’s misdeeds.  The book achieves this and more.  It’s a gripping and shocking read.

I don’t know a huge amount about how King ultimately lost his grip on boxing but, within 3 years of this book being published, King’s last great fighter, Mike Tyson, sued him for $100 million for cheating him out of money over a decade. The lawsuit was later settled out of court with Tyson receiving $14 million.

PBS Documentary Film – Don King Exposed is well worth a watch

‘In Sunshine or in Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles’ by Donald McRae (2019)

A new book from Donald McRae is always something to celebrate.   If that new book is about boxing, then all the better.  Locate that book in Ireland and it jumps straight to the top of my want-to-read list.

McRae is one of the truly great interviewers working in sports media.  He has published over 1,000 interviews with the great and not-so-great of the sporting world for the Guardian and I’m yet to find one I didn’t enjoy.  His books have spanned a wide range of topics from sex work, to the trials of Clarence Darrow, to the South Africa he grew up in.  But he is never better than when writing about boxing with his book Dark Trade among the seminal works on the sport.

In Sunshine or in Shadow examines boxing during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that deeply sad period when violence was a regular occurrence on the streets and over 2,000 lives were lost.  The book chronicles the lives of four boxers from different communities and, in particular., boxing coach Gerry Storey.

Storey is a remarkable man.  An incredibly successful boxing coach, his real greatness lies in his ability to operate across community lines during the Troubles.  He coached and developed young men regardless of their background and steered many away from getting involved in political violence.  He gained such respect from all sides that he had virtual immunity to cross community lines and put on boxing shows.  No story better illustrates this than the period he spent coaching both nationalist and loyalist prisoners in the same prison.

Storey’s reflections on coaching during the Troubles

Storey rivals any coach of young men you can think of, both in terms of his sporting success and the uniqueness of his accomplishments given the environment in which he operated.  When asked why he turned down the chances of fame and fortune abroad, Storey asks what would have happened if all of the good men left the North.  Storey however is not merely a good man, but rather a great one who made a significant and lasting difference in the lives of many people.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on former world champion Barry McGuigan.  While McGuigan’s story will be better known than most of the others covered in the book, it remains remarkable.  Born in the Republic, McGuigan fought predominantly in Northern Ireland and represented the North in the Commonwealth games and the all-Ireland team at other international events.  This led to an unprecedented cross-border and cross-community appeal that stood as a beacon of hope for a brighter, less violent, future for the island.

Sunshine

The book also serves as a broad history of the key incidents during the troubles.  Ever person in the book had their lives significantly impacted by violence in some way, usually through the death of a friend or family member.  It serves as a stark reminder of the horrific role played by the British state and security services during this bleak time.  As Brexit rushes closer and the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland looms large, the story feels even more poignant.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough.

McRae in conversation with Carl Frampton about boxing in Northern Ireland during the Troubles

‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’ by Wright Thompson (2019)

Wright Thompson is a long time senior writer for ESPN covering multiple sports.  His profile is relatively low in Europe given ESPN’s American focus but his excellent 2016 article on Tiger Woods was shared widely in Ireland at least.  It gave the best insight into how Woods’ life and career unravelled until the excellent  ‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian was published last year.

The Cost of These Dreams collects many of Thompson’s best articles but with a central theme running through them – the price and struggles that come with seeking and achieving success.  The stories collected here are mostly about the off pitch lives of those involved in sports.  It includes some of the greatest figures in their sports (including Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bear Bryant) and some relatively unknown characters most notably Tony Harris, a college basketball star who had a mental breakdown that led him to an untimely demise in the jungles of Brazil.  The highlight for me is a moving piece about the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football program during the ugly time of de-segregation in US education.

Unlike many anthologies, the preface for this book goes beyond the usual platitudes about how lucky he has been to write for X or Y over the years.  Instead it is a very reflective and emotional piece about the costs to Thompson’s own personal life of his method of reporting, his constant travel and the resultant time missed with family.

The articles collected here are superbly well written. The book reveals two of Thompson’s great strengths – as a determined researcher/investigator and as a remarkable interviewer. Thompson’s commitment to research is shown most clearly by his dogged pursuit of on of Muhammad Ali’s early opponents who has gone off the grid.  He becomes obsessed with finding him and the resulting article is beautifully written.  As an interviewer, he achieves remarkable insight into the inner worlds of his subjects who often just happen to be among the greatest sports stars in history.   

Many of Thompson’s best articles are also available online and well worth checking out.  I’ve linked below to a few, most of which aren’t included in this excellent book:

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‘Jacobs Beach: The Mob, the Garden and the Golden Age of Boxing’ by Kevin Mitchell (2010, republished in 2019)

This is a review of the new US edition of Jacobs Beach published by Hamilcar.  The original book was published in 2010.  Some online reviews of earlier versions refer to factual errors but it appears to me that any of these have been resolved in this new US edition.    

For me, King of the World by David Remnick first illuminated the shady world of gangsters and crime that lay under the surface of professional boxing.  Since reading Remnick’s masterpiece and Nick Tosches Night Train, I’ve always been fascinated by the underbelly of professional boxing’s past and felt that a true history of the fight game can only be one which considers this underbelly in depth.

Jacob’s Beach sets out to tell the story of the behind-the-scenes powers in boxing in the USA (and effectively the world) from the 1930’s onwards.  It covers boxing’s golden era when top fighters were global figures and title fights commanded universal public attention.

The book centres around Madison Square Garden and the powers that controlled that fabled arena. Jacob’s Beach refers to a famous strip of pavement across the road from Madison Square Garden, the home of a legendary ticket tout named Mike Jacobs.  However, the real villain of the piece is Frankie Carbo, a mobster who dominated professional boxing for years.  The level of corruption is still shocking to see in black-and-white, from fixed fights to blacklisted managers and the right connections being far more important than right hooks.

If Carbo is the main villain, the book’s hero is the unlikely figure of US Senator and failed Presidential candidate Estes Kefauver.  The Senator’s attempts to shine a light on corruption through public hearings was the first serious dent on the mobs ability to operate in the shadows.  Ultimately, mob influence would fade as the spotlight on their activities grew brighter.

Mitchell holds no punches throughout the book with scathing comments on a whole range of characters. He is particularly scornful of the boxing writers who were on the take and wrote stories to suit their mob paymasters.   Mitchell also seek to skewer a few myths, in particular the Hollywood narrative of James ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock.

Mitchell, perhaps unconsciously, appears to mimic the stylised writing of the legendary golden era boxing writers (of whom the book is sometimes scathing).  At times it reads like sections of the book were written in a previous era, with a punchy and colorful style, but they are written well and always an interesting read. The book zooms in and out on various characters and I found I naturally consumed it in bitesize chunks.

Jacobs

 

‘Fighter’ by Andy Lee with Niall Kelly (2018)

There are some books I know that I will love before even opening the first page.   It’s a combination of the subject, the writer (or ghost-writer), the look of the book, and sometimes the marketing.  Fighter was one of those books and it more than lived up to my lofty expectations.

Former World Champion boxer Andy Lee is the same age as me and spent his teenage years living in my home town, Limerick.  I’ve followed his career pretty closely since the Athens Olympics and stayed up late to stream many of his fights in the US.  At times, Lee’s career went under the radar for the average Irish sports fan as he fought in the US more often than not.  However, in recent years, his incredible knock out against Julian Jackson went viral and his World title win against Korborov was widely celebrated in Ireland.   Lee has also become an incredibly well-liked pundit and commentator on Irish radio, TV and podcasts.

Lee’s story is fascinating.  A gypsy kid who fought in the Olympics before linking up with one of the greatest boxing trainers of all time.  A white Irish kid who became a key figure at the Kronk gym in Detroit.  A boxer who came back from two heartbreaking defeats to finally claim a world title.

andy lee box

Lee’s relationships with his gypsy heritage, with his boxing ambitions, with Emmanuel Stewart, and with his wife Maud, shape his story.   His relationship with the legendary Stewart in particular is fascinating as I had no idea just how close they were.

As Lee acknowledges himself, in boxing defeats are often much more interesting than victories.  Unsurprisingly, the story of his first two defeats and the shattering impact they have on his career progression are fascinating.  The book brilliantly captures the life of a prize fighter, the ups and downs, and the insecurities where every decision in a fight could lead either to victory and riches or to defeat and disaster. Lee’s story however is ultimately a triumphant one as he is able to retire still young and healthy having achieved his greatest career ambition.

Fighter is a beautiful book.  Firstly to look at – the incredible black-and-white cover picture evokes all of the emotions of a prize fight.  It’s equally beautifully written with chapters drifting seamlessly between Lee’s story and his innermost thoughts on boxing and life.  Niall Kelly has done an incredible job in shaping Lee’s story and capturing his voice.

I absolutely adored this book.  I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.

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