‘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

 

‘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.

3 kings

 

‘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

And here’s 12 I prepared earlier

Before starting this blog, I very occasionally reviewed books on Goodreads.  This post captures 12 long ago, and in many cases forgotten, musings on a wide selection of sports books.  Some of these are in the re-read pile and will get a fuller, updated review when I get to enjoy them again.  These 12 cover a range of topics including: Boxing’s 4 Kings, Brazilian and German football, Irish cycling and drugs in sport.

Ringside.jpg    Drama     fifa.jpg  brazil

1) ‘A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age’ by James Lawton

A Ringside Affair is a love letter to boxing from one of the UK’s great sportswriters. Each chapter covers one of the great fights or fighters that Lawton had the immense pleasure of witnessing throughout his career. It’s clear that the era of the Four Kings
(Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran) stands out as the golden age of the title, but it’s the career of Iron Mike Tyson which clearly shines through in the book. Lawton’s admiration for young Tyson’s talent is only topped by his disappointment at the Tyson’s eventual troubles and crimes.

Lawton’s accounts really bring the fights to life as well as placing them clearly in their time and place. His passion and love for the sport shines through. Its a work of remembrance and of celebration as Lawton reflects on his career.

For all fight fans the book is a fantastic summary of 30 years of top level boxing. It’s excellently written and will make you want to pull out the you tube videos and track down the great boxing books.  I highly recommend it.

2) ‘Drama in the Bahamas’ by Dave Hannigan

An entertaining and in-depth look at Ali’s last fight and the sad spectacle it was. The book is best enjoyed by someone well versed in Ali’s life story – it paints some characters a bit too thinly for anyone coming to Ali;s story without a reasonable knowledge of the cast of characters that surrounded the Champ.

Hannigan paints a picture of an Ali who is his own worst enemy.  It is apparent that there is no is villain guiding Ali to fight one last time. It really appears to be Ali himself and his own desire for attention and love that motivates him to take one more totally unnecessary and disproportionate risk.

Like all Hannigan’s work, it’s an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to the library of Ali books.

3) ‘The Fall of the House of Fifa: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer’ by David Conn

I greatly enjoyed this book on FIFA’s troubled history. Its extensively researched and well written. As a follower of David’s writing in the Guardian the book lives up to expectations.

Its a sad reminder of the scale of corruption and the breath of individuals involved. Blatter emerges as not quite the villain but rather the enabler and master politician. There is plenty of new material even for those following FIFA closely, especially a fascinating interview with a post retirement Blatter.

The only criticism is that it is a bit too detailed at times. Sometimes the narrative could be shortened and there is a bit of repetition at times.

All in all its a highly recommend for anyone interest in football politics or just good journalism.

4) ‘Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup’ by Fernando Duarte

Very enjoyable history of Brazilian football. Examining the most successful team in history by focusing on their lowest moments, Durate paints a convincing narrative of the impact each of these games had on shaping the team.

One of many books to come out in the lead up to the Brazil World Cup, Durate captured a lessor seen angle of the 5 times champions.   Considering that the worst defeat of all was yet to come – who will ever forget that 7 – 1 – its a timely book and one that will remain relevant as Brazil try to rise again in Russia.

The writer is also a very entertaining journalist and great as a guest on football podcasts.

Das reboot   Match  vol  nowehere

5) ‘Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World’ by Raphael Honigstein

A really enjoyable read with great insight into the rise and rise of German football.  At times the narrative jumps between time periods and between the national team and domestic games in a confusing manner.   A good companion piece to ‘Tor! The Story of German Football’ by Ulrich Hesse to complete the picture of how the world champions became the world champions.

6)’Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga’ by Ronald Reng

Ronald Reng is the author of the heart-breaking, beautiful book ‘A Life Too Short’ about the late Robert Enke.

His second book to be translated to English, Matchdays, is a biography of Heinz Hoher – a real journeyman of German football – a bit of a Wes Hoolihan as a player (talented but often stuck as a flair player in second division) and a bit of an Alan Pardew as a manager (decent at bottom half/middle table teams) but a complete ****.  Hoher is quite the character – quitting jobs on a whim, drinking to the point of collapsing on first day of a new job, just missing out on Dortmund job to Hitzfeld.

Reng uses Hoher’s story to tell the story of the Bundesliga from its inception in the 60’s to current day – how it has changed and how the German public’s attitude towards it evolved.

All round an enjoyable, if slightly overlong, read.  The style takes a bit of getting use to – although I’m not sure if it that is the author’s style or a result of the translation.

7) ‘Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager’ by Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin is modern footballer’s great chronicler.  He examines the less beautiful side of English football shining a light on the real life experiences of those who live and breath the game.  Living on the Volcano focuses on the stresses of football management – showing the cost, the emotion and the real lived experience of managers at almost every level of the game.  It is an interesting and enjoyable read that offers a unique perspective of the job we all love to try on a computer game.

The book does suffer from Calvin at times being a bit too close to some of the subjects.  Its hard not to get the sense that he lets the fact he grows to like many of his interviewees/subjects as people get in the way of his objectivity as a football journalist.

8) ‘The Nowhere Men’ by Michael Calvin

Before data, analytics and youtube, talent needed to be scouted. Calvin’s book offers a fascinating insight into the enclosed world of football scouts in the UK

It chronicles a profession teetering on the edge – slowly being replaced by technology (and those who use it) yet a profession that continues to prove that data alone can’t tell you everything.

Above all, the love of football some of the scouts who work for mileage only is amazing, inspiring and heart-breaking all at the same time.

roche   Race   Running with Fire   Nike

9) ‘Born to Ride’ by Stephen Roche

Very interesting and enjoyable book. A chronicle of a time when Irish cyclists ruled the world.  Roche really was some rider had an incredible career and I wish I had been older in 1987 to have been swept up in the Roche/Kelly era.  Roche’s book is well worth a read for any cycling fan.

As with all cycling books, the issue of drugs hangs over every story like a bad smell.  Roche does at least address the drugs controversy which emerged after he retired.  His position is not entirely convincing and it is very hard not to believe his accusers.  Roche may have been part of the problem, and is definitely not willing to be part of the solution, but his achievements should not be underesimated.  If he was clean, its doubtful there has ever been a greater Irish sportsman.

Hunger by Sean Kelly is a very good companion book to give Kelly’s perspective of days that Irish cycling will never see again.

10) ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’ by Richard Moore

Moore is better known as a cycling journalist and writer.  Here, he moves away from cycling to the other sport dominated by drugs.  He crafts the story of the 1988 Olympic 100m final where Ben Johnson smashed the world record then dramatically failed a drug test.  Will there ever be another Olympic final where so many competitors had their legacies tarnished as the testers caught up with the cheats?

The book provides an in-depth look at Johnson’s rivalry with Carl Lewis and both of their journey’s to Seoul.  Johnson’s assertion that, while he was on lots of drugs, he never actually took the drug that the test found creates a bizarre and intriguing story.

It is well written, well researched and entertaining.  It provides an interesting look at drugs in sport in general – although Moore’s eagerness to believe in Team Sky over the years totally unfairly taints his comments on drugs in sport in my eyes.   Highly recommend.

11) ‘Running with Fire: The True Story of Harold Abrahams’ by Manterrk Ryan 

Very enjoyable biography of the 100m Olympic gold medalist and legend of athletics officialdom. Charts the prejudice he faced for being Jewish, his fantastic athletic career and even more successful (and interesting) administration career after he retired.

A must read for any fans of Chariots of Fire.

12) ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight.

Every long lasting company needs its origin myth.  What is unusual is the founder telling his story so long after the fact. Shoe Dog is both a sports book and a business book.  It is much better than I would have expected.

Knight tells the story of the founding of Nike and its early years before it broke into the big time.  It ticks the usual boxes of near disaster, dramatic recovery and eventually incredible growth.

What becomes clear is that for Knight, the early years are where is heart remains. It is a loving reflection on the days before he became a bazillionaire and a love letter to Steve Prefontaine.

I would have liked it to go a little further and look at the signing of Jordan and the groundbreaking nature of that change for Nike and for sport.

Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore is a great companion piece to round out the story of the technical genius that combined with Knight’s business brain to change the sporting world.

 

 

He shook up the world – the greatest books about The Greatest

My cousin boxed for Ireland as a youngster and just missed out on the Atlanta Olympics.  My uncle, is father, was my intro to boxing and to boxing books.  I was first exposed to Muhammad Ali as a young kid watching some old tapes in my uncles house.

I remember thinking that how can he be the greatest when he lost so many times.  Surely “undefeated champion” beats “multiple times champion” every day of the week.  I remember watching Ali light the Olympic flame in Atlanta as a 12 year old and wondering why this guy was the hero, why was he loved so much by so many.  Then I read King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero (1998) by David Remnick.

Ali

Its been over 15 years since I read this book, not long after it was first published. As anyone who has read any Remnick will know, its written with the style and with the imagination that has characterised all of his work. It is a wonderful book.

It was one of the first books I read that put any sportsman in the cultural context in which they operated.  The majority of the book deals with the time-frame between Ali’s (then Cassius Clay) first heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston, and the rematch between Liston & Ali.

I remember the vivid descriptions of Floyd Patterson – an incredibly sympathetic figure for a world heavyweight champion.  Sonny Liston too looms large in the book.  Most of all what struck me was that Remnick showed that great sportsmen are a lot more like you and me than we often think.   Remnick captured some of Ali’s lightening in a bottle and the reasons he became such a dominant cultural figure.   It showed me why, and how, a black man who converted to Islam and refused to fight became a cultural hero in a US where racism, love of military and fear of Islam have always been, and remain, at the very heart of the nation’s psyche. On a personal level, he showed me that sports books can tell you as much about a time and a place as any of the greatest literature.  A re-read is long overdue (along with a more detailed review).

Since then, Ali has loomed large in other boxing books I’ve read and loved – as the young brash Olympian in Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World (2008) by David Maraniss.  It captures the attractiveness of young Cassisus Clay and hints at the man he would become.  In Night Train (2000), Nick Tosches dark and wonderful book about Sonny Liston, life and the American Dream, Ali serves a counterpoint to the often overlooked and unloved Liston.  In Dave Hanningan’s excellent Drama in the Bahama’s (2016) he is the pitiful exploited figure unable and unwilling to listen to reason and call time on his wonderful career. Hannigan previously chronicled Ali’s fight in Dublin in the excellent The Big Fight (2002).

Shortly after Ali’s death, I saw repeated reference’s to Thomas Hauser’s iconic Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1991) as the definitive book on Ali.  Regularly cited as the greatest book about the Greatest, I read it almost immediately.  It deserves every word of praise it receives.

Ali Hauser

Hauser’s genius is to present the reader with a unique compilation of different peoples’ accounts of Ali throughout his career and life.   The book presents Ali as who he was to those who experienced him – as well as adding many of Ali’s own words.  Hauser knows when to step away and let the protagonists tell their own tale.  He presents the good, the bad, and the ugly.  His wonderful skill, his bravery, his commitment, his beauty, his pacifism and his words.  And also his mistreatment of women, his misguided behaviour while in the Nation of Islam and his need to keep fighting when it was clearly the wrong thing to do.

By the end of the book, a hero emerges. His kindness, his grace, his love shines through.

More recently, I read Ali: A Life (2017) by Joathan Eig.  Its an extremely enjoyable and detailed book that deserves to be mentioned alongside the work of Remnick and Hauser but doesn’t quite reach their heights.  

ALi Eig

I was a bit sceptical as to the need for a new bio of one of the worlds most written about men. The wonderful cover of the book made me curious however and I wasn’t disappointed. However, Eig had superb access to the remaining members of the Ali entourage as well as access to huge volumes of new material, including FBI materials and analysis of the punches taken by Ali.  This new insight makes the book a welcome addition to the chronicles of Ali.

The book is an honest account of Ali, his contradictions and his genius. It captures what he meant to his time and place and why his legacy is so enduring.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable read and given its scope – being the first major biography published after Ali’s death, I highly recommend it as a one stop source in Ali’s incredible life. It is a book best read while pausing at the retelling each fight to watch the action on YouTube then savouring the description on the page. (Disclaimer – I received this book free of charge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review).

By his later years, Ali became a figure upon whom millions projected the characteristics they wanted their hero’s to have.   What is clear is only a very special person could have chosen the path Ali did.  Only a very special person could have touched so many people – only a very special person could declare himself the Greatest, then make it clear that that was an understatement.

Ali’s story is also the story of his time and place.  He held up a mirror to the America he found – and dragged many people with him towards developing a more tolerant more loving worldview.  For a man who punched people for a living and once preached radical racial separation, its quite the achievement.