Dominic Calder-Smith writes about boxing for newspapers and magazines and is the author of Tarnished Armour: Hopes and Fears in Heavyweight Boxing. His latest book, The Long Round, tells the story of the generation of fighters who tried to beat Mike Tyson.
“I have to concede first that there are a number of boxing books I have not as yet read, which I’m reliably informed are superb. These include Dancing Shoes is Dead by Gavin Evans (described to me by a highly respected US fight writer as simply the best boxing book he had ever read); The Fight by Norman Mailer and The Black Lights by Thomas Hauser.”
1. Dark Trade by Donald McRae
The first half of the 1990s will probably not go down as boxing’s most exhilarating era, yet this book had a huge impact on me, inspiring me to stop dreaming about writing about the sport and actually get out there and do it. McRae’s writing is both incisive and utterly compassionate, and his meetings with and subsequent portraits of men like Chris Eubank, Michael Watson, Roy Jones and most of all James ‘Lights Out’ Toney are unforgettable.
2. King of the World by David Remnick
Beautifully written account of Muhammad Ali’s first ascent to the heavyweight throne, concentrating largely on Ali’s bouts with Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, but also Liston and Patterson’s own brief encounters (all three principals met each other twice). This is a detailed study, unearthing many new anecdotes about rivalries that have already been well-documented, and whilst it is a book about Ali, Patterson and Liston are also given a deserved and generous share of the stage.
3. Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram
This book polarised many sections of the boxing community with its tigerish stand in Joe Frazier’s corner and scoffing at Muhammad Ali’s purported wisdom and wit, and it’s fair to say some of the salvos launched at Ali are somewhat off the mark. But the lyrical prose is stunning and, besides, Ali had more than his fair share of propaganda volumes, so why begrudge Frazier at least one? Kram died shortly after this was published.
4. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
Much of this huge volume consists of direct quotes from Hauser’s interviewees, so that it reads almost like a play, with Hauser providing the scene-setting. But the scene-setting is wonderful and Hauser’s research clearly exhaustive; former wives, opponents, sparring partners, managers, promoters, trainers, businessmen, the Nation of Islam, and of course Ali himself, contributed their views and memories to help form what is surely the definitive Ali book.
5. In Black and White by Donald McRae
This one’s not just about boxing, for it focuses its attentions not only on former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, but also the legendary athlete Jesse Owens. It’s also not just about boxing because it’s really about the previously underreported friendship and bond between Louis and Owens and their dignified struggles against racial bigotry. All in all, an epic tale. And enough absorbing and often tragic material on Louis’s fighting days to keep the hardcore boxing nut fascinated throughout.
6. Night Train by Nick Tosches
Tosches writes with plenty of attitude, doesn’t waste his time with any bullshit and couldn’t give a fuck what you think of his language, so he was perfectly equipped to tell Liston’s dark story. There’s no mind-bending discovery to shed light on the mystery surrounding Liston’s untimely death as a lot of people were expecting before this came out, but Tosches peeled – no, hammered – his way through many tired layers of Liston’s past to come out with a fast-moving, painstakingly researched classic.
7. Don King: Only in America by Jack Newfield
Even for those of us who are quick to damn King for a catalogue of deceit and betrayal towards his former fighters, the most successful promoter of modern times possesses a magnetic presence. And I have a hunch that when King eventually retires from the blood business, boxing will be a little poorer for it. Newfield did not incorporate the cooperation of King for this fine book, but he provides the reader with a concise account of King’s life and times, including homicides (King has been found guilty of murder on two separate occasions), larceny and a monopolisation of the heavyweight division.
8. The Greatest by Richard Durham
This title was slammed by Kram in Ghosts of Manila as shallow propaganda, and it’s true that Durham was approved and commissioned by the Nation of Islam, of which he was a member. Released shortly after Ali’s third rumble with Joe Frazier in 1975, it does, however, give a fascinating insight into the mentality and psyche of a champion. And it’s not guilty of deification either, as Ali candidly speaks not only about his well-disguised fear of and respect for arch-rivals like Joe Frazier and George Foreman, but also his shame with regard to his litany of extramarital dalliances.
9. War, Baby by Kevin Mitchell
Nine years ago Nigel Benn met vicious-hitting American Gerald McClellan in defence of his WBC super-middleweight title. Together the pair produced one of the most savage encounters ever seen in a British ring. Benn was never the same again and McClellan was left in a coma, battling for his life. This is about much more than the fight. It is about damaged souls, bodies and minds, and while I don’t believe Mitchell was advocating a ban on boxing, he does a tremendous job of asking those of us who follow the sport to consider a more grown-up, realistic case for its defence in the 21st century.
10. This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own by Jonathan Rendall
A former adviser to Colin McMillan – a brief owner of the WBO featherweight title in the early 1990s – Rendall’s book is a wonderfully-written account of his time in boxing. Most memorable are his moments spent with McMillan and a pair of much older featherweights, former rivals Jack Berg and Kid Chocolate. Powerfully descriptive, moving and, at times, very funny.