All of this got me idly reflecting and making notes about my favourite boxing books. The following selection of pugilism-related tomes are the fruits of this labour. Truth be told, it's not a selection I thought too long and hard about, and there are plenty of boxing books which I really love which I haven't included on this list (chief among them, for sentimental reasons, Gerald Suster's Champions of the Ring). Still, if you were to ask me right now what my five favourite boxing books are, these five (or, rather, six) are what I'd pick. I haven't ranked them in any particular order, by the way, and tomorrow this list would probably be different. Click on the titles to access Amazon links to each book.
1. Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2006) by Geoffrey C. Ward / The Original Johnson: Volumes 1 (2010) and 2 (2011) by Trevor Von Eeden (with George Freeman, Don Hillsman II & Glen Hauman):
Straight away I'm cheating here by including two books under one heading (three if you count the fact that The Original Johnson has first published in two parts), but there is a rationale at work, for these meisterwerks are ideal reading companions. Ward's almost perfect biography of Jack Johnson is a rollicking read, smoothly weaving together the threads of Johnson's personal and professional lives, with expertly selected and pertinent source material throughout. If there's one criticism I'd level at the book, it's that I'd prefer the social and historical context surrounding Johnson to be more heavily fleshed out, examined and analysed. But that's only a minor quibble.
Once you've finished Ward's book, it's to Von Eeden you need to turn to bring Johnson to life in all his colourful charismatic glory. The Guyana-born artist's two-volume graphic novel representation of the boxer's life captures Johnson's achievements and interior life superbly. As befits the comic-book medium, it's written and drawn in a polemical, creative and highly dramatic style. I loved it from the first time I picked it up, and I'm excited as hell that Von Eeden (a great talent who the comic-book world has shamefully under-utilised) is providing some wonderful illustrations for Boxiana: Volume 1. (One of these illustrations also provides the background imagery to this blog).
Well, I had to include the original Boxiana, didn't I? Quite simply, Egan's importance to boxing and sports journalism cannot be over-stated; the canon of English Literature as a whole also owes him a huge debt, in particular Charles Dickens. Egan's colourful prose style is peppered with wonderful idioms and turns of phrase as he describes a series of glorious, bloody and thrilling tales from the Georgian bareknuckle prizefighting era. Egan's writing is so vivid and infectious that it instantly transports you back in time 200 years. Not only does he combine extravagant similes, metaphors and classical allusions to beguiling effect, but his eye for detail and drama have never been surpassed, and his use of italics is a sheer joy. Collections of Egan's work (which is now in the public domain) were fiendishly hard to find 20 years ago, but most of his canon is now freely available via Google books and other online archives. Highly recommended.
UPDATE: 15.15pm, 24 June 2014: @GaryMerseybox tweets to make a very valid point, namely that there are many historical and factual inaccuracies in Egan's work. It's a fair point, and I'd like to clarify that it's Egan's style I admire, not his factual accuracy. It's also worth pointing out that journalistic standards at the time were a little more lax than today, and Egan was, in my view, trying to tell a story and weave a mythical history around prizefighting, rather than opt for total factual correctness.
3. Black Ajax (1997) By George MacDonald Fraser:
The only novel on this list, and what a novel! MacDonald Fraser wonderfully recreates the spirit of Egan and the Regency, as he dramatises the sensational Cribb-Molineaux rivalry and the two contests between the men. Although there are arguably a few too many historical errors, liberties and fictional flourishes (and the linking of the book to his own Flashman series is a needless over-contrivance), this is still one of my favourite novels, and one which stands up to repeated readings. The Georgian glossary at the back is also a joy.
This account of the meteoric rise of Prince Naseem Hamed and his ultimately doomed relationship with his trainer Brendan Ingle benefits from the extensive access Pitt had to those involved in the story. It's a tale of potential, ego, hype and, ultimately, how fame changes everyone and everything. At once exhilarating, inspiring and also incredibly sad and tragic, the book itself even played a part in Hamed and Ingle's bitter 'divorce'. As far as I can tell, it's the only book Pitt has ever written, and it also appears to be out of print these days which is a crying shame - for not only is it a superb book, but we're also long overdue a sequel.
5. The Fight (1975) by Norman Mailer:
I had to include one book on Ali - and the question was: which book? In the end it was an easy choice; no one in the history of boxing has inspired more books and articles than 'The Greatest' but, let's be frank, the vast majority are tripe and add nothing new to our understanding of the man and his legend. Mailer's effort is, far and away, the best of them all, although Mark Kram's Ghosts of Manila is a close second, mainly because it dares not to be a hagiography. Mailer's muscular prose can occasionally stray into pretentiousness, but for the most part this is powerful, lyrical and insightful non-fiction writing at its absolute best.
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N.B. For the purposes of consistency, Boxiana uses the fight records found on BoxRec. I'm aware that, particularly in the era of newspaper decisions, no contests etc there are possible different interpretations / statistics quoted in different sources. Any queries, check BoxRec and then contact me if you have a further query.
Luke G. Williams