‘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.

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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.

eamonn

‘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.

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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!)

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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

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.