‘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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, Foreman and an America on the Ropes’ by Richard Hoffer (2014)

“The luck of having these three fighters in one place at one time is undeserved, of course.  Any one of them – Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier or George Foreman – should have been bonanza enough.  But all three? Together? Just then? Well, now we have the makings of a book”.

Bouts of Mania by Richard Hoffer examines the Golden Age of heavyweight boxing – the period from 1970 to 1975. Ali was on the comeback trail and Joe Frazier and George Foreman were ready to stake their claim for the title.  Hoffer places these 3 boxers, and their 5 great fights, at the centre of American life during an incredibly turbulent period.

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Ali overshadows everything else in the book – which is only fitting as Ali overshadowed everything he ever came into contact with. As the public mood turned against Vietnam, Ali, previously public enemy no. 1, became a hero for large swaths of the American public.  Always a star, he became a cultural icon of his generation.   While becoming major celebrities in their own right, Foreman and Frazier’s boxing careers would (at least until Foreman’s comeback in his 40’s) be largely defined by their fights with Ali.

The book’s cover compares Hoffer’s work to King of the World by David Remnick – a bold claim, but one that isn’t too far wide of the mark.  Bouts of Mania benefits from its narrow focus. It touches on the need for entertainment at a time of national decline (in the US) but doesn’t overly dwell on, or try to force, linkages between the fighters and their time.  Knowledge of Ali’s backstory is largely assumed, with the backstories of Frazier and Foreman expertly weaved through the narratives of the 5 fights.

A clear difficulty for Hoffer, writing around 40 years after the main events in the book took place, was that so many of the protaganists are no longer with us.  This meant his interview list was much shorter than would have been the case for books written in the 90’s and 2000’s on these fighters.  I suspect this limitation contributed to a greater emphasis on Foreman, who he could interview, and this is a real strength of the book.  The image of the menacing young Foreman racked with self-doubt is fascinating as is the contrast between Foreman then and the more lovable Foreman of later years.  There were some avoidable minor factual errors (like claiming Ali fought a hometown favourite when in Dublin) but these are few and far between.

Frazier_vs_Foreman

Hoffer is more critical of Ali than many writers – with a lot of focus on how he mistreated Fraizer.  This is no bad thing as it is easy to overlook the troubling side of Ali’s behaviour.  Hoffer’s description of how America felt about Ali at the time of the Atlanta Olympics is very interesting – it’s the first moment I remember being exposed to Ali aged 12 and being bemused by the exceptional level of sentiment.  Hoffer captures perfectly the sense of people in some ways rediscovering their affection for (as opposed to fascination with) Ali at a time when he had become as much legend as a real person.

Bout of Mania is written in a fast paced, engaging and entertaining style.  It captures the tension and excitement of the fights and the strange atmospheres as the Ali carnival hit countries of all types.  Hoffer paints a vivid and memorable picture of the fighters as well as the context in which they fought.

Overall this is a very enjoyable read and a welcome addition to the ever growing library of books that centre around The Greatest.  It seeks to give some much deserved attention to the legacies of Foreman and Frazier, without whom Ali’s greatest days could never have happened.

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‘The Big Fight: Muhammad Ali v Al “Blue” Lewis’ by Dave Hannigan (2002)

“When you call somebody up to talk about their experience with Ali, whether fleeting or long-standing, you are asking them to revisit one of the genuinely epic moments from their own life” 

For nearly 20 years, Dave Hannigan has been Ireland’s sportswriter in residence in the United States.  First with the Sunday Tribune through to his ongoing America at Large column in the Irish Times, Hannigan’s articles are a must read for Irish sports fans (unless you’re a UFC or Conor McGregor fan in which case you probably won’t like him!)

big fight

Written in 2002, The Big Fight, chronicles a week that Muhammad Ali spent in Dublin and his fight with fight Al “Blue” Lewis in Croke Park in July 1972.  Hannigan tells the story of Ali in Ireland through the experiences of those who saw, met and interacted with him in Dublin.

At the time, Ali was on the comeback trail following his first fight, and loss, to Joe Frazier.  Given his long lay off while he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, it was unclear whether Ali would ever be the same fighter he once was.  He was still just 30 years of age however and it would turn out that his biggest days remained ahead of him.  He was, and would remain for a long time, the single biggest and best known figure in world sport.

The Big Fight captures the magic and charisma of Ali while also capturing some of the magic and uniqueness of Ireland. It is hard to imagine any figure capturing quite the same attention and affection that Ali did – perhaps only the reception achieved by another famous African-American with distant Irish heritage, Barack Obama, compares.

Some of the anecdotes are quintessentially Irish – thousands jumping the wall at the stadium to get into the fight free, old ladies inviting Ali in for cups of tea and the sheer excitement of any global celebrity being in little ole Dublin.  Ali took great delight in being invited to meet the Taoiseach, noting that Western countries usually didn’t invite him to meet the Prime Minister.

Ali Garda

This book is a joyous, uplifting and entertaining read.  It is full of fun and brilliant anecdotes that capture the people, the time and the place.  It’s surreal to imagine the most famous black man in the world walking through Dublin at a time when any scale of immigration was in the very distant future.  Hannigan captures a clear sense of a particular time in Dublin with the Troubles never far from anyone’s mind.

Those who spoke to Hannigan clearly cherished the memories of their interactions with Ali.  In particular, the book will make you want to seek out Paddy Monaghan’s own book – a London-born Irishman adopted into Ali’s entourage like so many other strays.  Hannigan also tells the fascinating stories of the promoters, Harold Conrod and Butty Sugrue, and Ali’s opponent in the fight, the reformed Al “Blue” Lewis whose own life story is fascinating.

There are some interesting thoughts on what impact Ireland may have had on Ali – did the love of an almost entirely white country help Ali to see that not all whites were “devils”?  Ali was clearly interested in the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the idea of the Irish as an oppressed people.  It couldn’t have hurt at least!

Hannigan recounts an interview Ali did on RTE One which captures Ali’s worldview at his time.  The entire interview is well worth checking out and can be viewed in full at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QWvBBMtRak

Over a decade later, Hannigan would revisit another Ali fight – his final fight – in Drama in the Bahamas (2016).  This later book is a grimmer, less joyful, tale that captures a fighter unable to say goodbye to the fame and adulation – that fame and adulation that is captured so well in The Big Fight which makes them an interesting pair of excellent books to read together.

Ali RTE ONE