‘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.

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 ensuring 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.

Johnny Tapia

‘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.

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.

King

 

 

 

‘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 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.

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.

Sunshine

 

‘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:

cost

‘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.

andylee

‘The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee’ by Paul D. Gibson (2018)

The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee is a remarkable, gripping and brilliant book.  Magee is a well known figure in Irish boxing but has a relatively low profile outside of the boxing world (outside of Northern Ireland at least). My own clearest memories of Magee stem from his fight with Ricky Hatton who was then very much on the rise.  Magee gave Hatton a scare and made him work exceptionally hard for this win.  But I had no idea about Magee’s life or why his story might be more interesting that the traditional tale of a boxer who briefly held a minor world title but ultimately never quite fulfilled his vast potential.

Magee’s sporting life alone would make an interesting book.  Preciously talented, he was denied a place in the Olympics due to internal politics and his refusal to participate in an unjust runoff fight.  His professional career was hampered by his extra-curricular activities but he still managed to win a World title.

However it is Magee’s personal life which make this story special. Magee was a child of the Troubles – the dark period in Northern Ireland’s history when sectarian violence was a regular feature of everyday life.  Magee grew up witnessing his father being interned without trial, constant violence and the British Army patrolling the streets. As the book over says he’s been shot, stabbed, exiled and jailed but he’s all been a world champion. His personality and circumstances drew him towards danger but boxing offered him an alternative path.

Magee’s life is the kind of story that would be unbelievable as a fictional tale.  It is a compelling story filled with violence, tragedy and addiction but also love, victories and a lot of laughter.    Gibson has done a great job shaping countless anecdotes and stories into a compelling narrative.

Magee is a difficult figure to empathise with.  But you cannot read the book and not feel some sympathy for him.  In many ways, the book is an attempt to explain who Magee is, why he is the person he is, and why he never quite fulfilled his potential.  The book is brutally honest and does not shy away from the dark side of Magee’s character and deeds.

MageeHatton

Reading the book I found myself wondering to what extent sporting talent makes us overlook a person’s flaws?  Or at very least, make us look more closely at their background and try to understand their behaviour?   Is it right to forgive a man’s sins simply because he has talent, charisma and a hard luck tale?  Had he not been a world class boxer, Magee would likely have been dismissed by society as a violent troublemaker, a drunk, a gambler, an addict, and a womaniser unworthy of sympathy.  His talents, however, make us consider him more deeply  and this consideration leads inevitably to empathy.

Gibson spent a lot of time with Magee and seems to really care for him.  Finishing the book, I can’t quite figure out how I feel. I cannot judge his self-destructive behaviour as. we all face our different demons in our own way.  However, the charges of domestic violence go beyond self-destruction and can’t be accepted or forgiven by virtue of having a difficult past.   I do feel tremendous admiration for what he achieved in boxing.  He is a man born with extraordinary talent, who achieved remarkable success despite his demons and his difficulties.    A man who is a product of his time and place while remaining very much a unique character.

The book has received widespread praise and jointly won the William Hill Sports book of the year for 2018.  Such praise and accolades are well deserved.  It’s not an easy read, but it is gripping, engaging and emotional.

eamonn