‘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.

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‘Done Deal: An Insider’s Guide to Football Contracts, Multi-Million Pound Transfers and Premier League Big Business’ by Daniel Geey (2019)

Done Deal is an interesting, comprehensive and well written overview of the business and legal side of the beautiful game.  Its author Daniel Geey is a lawyer and a regular online commentator on the legal side of the football business.  It covers contract deals, television rights negotiations, club takeovers, and all the legal and commercial sides of football.

It’s clear that Geey is very knowledgeable and experienced in his field.  The book also shows he is an excellent communicator as he presents what can be dry or technical information in a very clear and engaging manner.

For the nerdier among us who regularly read about the business side of sport or who regularly read blogs like the excellent Swiss Ramble, a lot of the material in the book will be quite familiar.

Overall, Geey does a very good job of communicating a lot of information.  However, it’s easy to imagine that a lot of readers will ultimately find the in-depth nature of some of the subject matter boring or uninteresting.   It’s not a book to read through in a few sittings but rather one worth dipping into chapter by chapter.   What is clear is you won’t find a better book on the finer details of the commercial and legal aspects of professional football.  An interesting and informative book.

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‘Building the Yellow Wall: The Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund’ by Uli Hesse (2018)

Uli Hesse is the great English language chronicler of German football history.  His book Tor!: The Story of German Football, a detailed and engrossing history of the game in Germany, is a regular on any list of the best European football books. His more recent books take a deep dive into particular clubs with Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub) examining the Bavarian super-power and now Building the Yellow Wall which tells the story of every football hipster’s favourite Bundesliga team, Borussia Dortmund.

In recent years, Dortmund have taken on a cult appeal with fans around the world – to such an extent that Ryanair put on match-day special flights from London to cater for the demand.  Hesse traces the history of the club from its humble origins in a Dortmund beerhall, through to it’s 1997 Champions League win and its more recent period of glory under the charismatic Jurgen Klopp.

The club’s origin story is quite interesting with the founding father’s risking their social standing by rejecting the Church’s insistence that football should not be played on Sundays. Throughout the book, Hesse tracks the key figures from each generation.  One remarkable feature is how often prominent fans ultimately end up being employed by the club, showing the close connection between the team and its’ city.

Hesse details the lowest moments of the club both its relegation to Bundesliga 2 and its near financial collapse in the 2000’s. As with many sports books, these moments of crisis and peril are often more interesting than the success.  Hesse brilliantly captures the tension felt by fans as they waited to hear whether creditors had approved a deal that would allow the club to survive.

The book is packed full of nuggets of history and trivia that you are unlikely to find anywhere.  Hesse grew up in Dortmund but also interviews a wide range of players, club officials and ordinary fans.

Hesse is an engaging writer who manages to find the right level of detail to tell the story while keeping readers engaged.   This book has less match report style recounts of long forgotten matches than his earlier book on Bayern and instead wisely focuses more on the cultural impact of Borussia for its fans, its city and football in general.

Overall, Building the Yellow Wall is a really enjoyable read for any football fan.

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‘The Away Game: The Epic Search for Football’s Next Superstars’ by Sebastian Abbot (2018)

I’m not sure spoilers are a thing for non-fiction books, but this review feels a bit spoilerish to me.  Ultimately, it’s impossible to talk about the book without reflecting on what happened the young players in broad terms.  If you want to read the book with absolutely no knowledge of what happens, just know it’s well-written and tells an important story.  Well worth picking up.

The Away Game tells the story of an attempt by Qatar to undercover the next Leo Messi by searching for hidden gems of potential in Africa.   In 2007, Josep Colomer, a former youth coach at Barcelona, was hired to organise trials for 13 year old boys across Africa in what the book describes as the largest sports talent search in history.  Those successful at trials would be brought to Qatar to train in the Aspire Academy with the ultimate aim of becoming a professional footballer.

Abbot zooms in on a few select players with seemingly endless potential and details their journey from local trial, to the Aspire Academy and beyond. At first glance, it appears to be a story of hope and opportunity.  Abbot lure the reader in with this hope, and almost expectation, given how talented the players appear.  Unfortunately, it soon emerges that this isn’t a story with happy endings.  Initially, I felt annoyed that the book had led me on, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice to mirror the journey the players and coaches travelled of unrealistic hope ultimately being crushed by the realities of life and modern football.

So why did it not work out?  Most obviously, the players simply were much older than they claimed and therefore not phenom 13 year olds but decent 17 or 18 year olds.  Secondly, the inability for the Qatari’s to use the players in their national team following FIFA rule changes, clearly dampened some enthusiasm for the project.  The ends arguably no longer justified the means for the Qatar backers if it couldn’t ultimately bring glory to the state.

I really enjoyed the book and it tells an important story about exploitation in youth sports on a global level.  Abbot presents these young men as individuals with their own personalities and dreams whose  own happiness matters, not just pawns in the global business of football.  Ultimately, they all take different paths with various degrees of heartbreak along the way.

The coaches and others who run the Football Dreams aren’t painted as villains however.  They seem to believe in their mission and are passionate about developing players. I felt Abbot may have been a bit gentle on the ultimate backers of the programme (the Qatari state) but that may been journalistic reserve to not infer negative motivations that aren’t provable.

The Away Game is  well written and highly readable.  There is probably a bit too much repetition of the players backstory each time they are reintroduced which is unnecessary if you read the book in a reasonably short period of time.  Notwithstanding this, it grips you from beginning to end as you root desperately for the players despite knowing ultimately the Dream is unlikely to come true.

The Away Game

‘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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‘The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports’ by Joshua Robinson & Jonathan Clegg (2019)

The English Premier League (or EPL) has for 20 plus years been the highest profile football league in the world.  Serie A may have been better in the 90’s, La Liga may have the world’s greatest players in the 2010’s but for sheer visibility, interest and commercial success the EPL has reigned supreme for over 20 years.

The Club tells the business side of the Premier League’s rise and continued success.   It’s a tale of TV broadcast deals, merchandising strategies and corporate takeovers.  It chronicles the various decisive moments that turned the EPL into the marketing, financial, cultural and entertainment behemoth it is today.

This book tells the story chronologically from how Sky won the pivotal TV rights contracts, through the rise of Man Utd and Arsenal, the era of the oligarchs and finally its look forward to the future (spoiler alert, the EPL is likely to still dominate unless we end up with a European Super League).

The book zooms in on a variety of different clubs at different times since 1992.  Many of the stories will be familiar to long-time football fans.  These vignettes are at their most interesting when they detail failures like Randy Lerner’s ill-fated spell in charge of Aston Villa, and Hicks & Gillett’s best forgotten time in charge of Liverpool.

Its main characters are Richard Scudamore, the long serving chairman of the Premier League, and Manchester United, the team who have long led the way commercially.  As the fates of others rise and fall, Scudamore and Utd remain ever present at the top controlling things.  As Scudamore steps aside (and the EPL fail to find a replacement), and Utd continue to fall from grace, it starts to look like this may truly be a new era for the EPL off the pitch!

The book is extremely well-researched.  Robinson and Clegg, both Wall Street Journal reporters, have clearly conducted a significant amount of interviews with anyone and everyone in the world of football. With the benefit of hindsight, it is fascinating to look back at those pivotal moments and decisions when the world’s most popular football league was unalterably changed.

Overall, The Club is extremely readable.  It’s got enough new information for long time  fans of English football while remaining accessible enough for more casual soccer fans.  There are some stories I would have liked it to examine in more detail, but narrowing the business story of the last 25+ years of top-flight English football down to a single book was always going to require some editorial judgement!

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‘Astroball: The New Way to Win It All’ by Ben Reiter (2018)

A 2014 Sports Illustrated cover which declared that the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, would win the World Series in 2017 has gone down in legend.  It would almost have been more believable to pick Leicester City to win the Premier League the year earlier.   Improbably, Ben Reiter’s prediction came through as the ambitious blueprint for rebuilding a baseball club set out in his SI article came to fruition on schedule.

Reiter therefore is the ideal writer to chronicle just how the Astro’s rose to success.  Astroball is the story of how a farsighted owners and executives learned from Moneyball and went on to find a new path to success.

The stars of the book are Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his top analyst, Sig Mejdal. Both came to the Astro’s in 2011 having had some success in Arizona.  Both were determined to figure out how to combine stats with instinct and get the best results.

Reiter highlights three main improvements – better draft picks through understanding stats in a new way, coaching improvements for individual players by focusing on their form and tendencies and a recognition of the intangible role that veteran players have in bringing the team together at crucial moments.  There were some bumps along the road – such as failure to sign an injury prone first draft pick – but the faith in ‘the Process’ proved justified.

Reiter clearly had exceptional access and the trust of those he spoke with.  It’s a very well written book which captures the balance of appealing to baseball fanatics and non-fanatics alike.   It’s a fascinating account of team building in the post-Moneyball era.   A really enjoyable read.

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