Friday, 16 October 2015

Boxiana book club: A Man's World

A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith by Donald McRae (Simon and Schuster, September 2015)

Boxiana rating: 5 stars

Close followers of sports-related writing will already be familiar with the trajectory of Donald McRae's career. Since the South African writer's book Dark Trade was published in 1996 to universal acclaim, he has twice been the winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize, and has also carved a reputation as a highly perceptive interviewer for both The Guardian and Boxing News.

McRae is also versatile. Among his other books are studies of the world's first heart transplant, a biography of iconic American lawyer Clarence Darrow and a study of prostitution in London. Indeed, despite his deep association with the sport of boxing, McRae's latest book - A Man's World - is actually only his third 'boxing themed' book, after the aforementioned Dark Trade and In Black and White (which was arguably only 'half' a boxing book, seeing as it was as much about athlete Jesse Owens as boxer Joe Louis).

The near 20-year gap since the publication of Dark Trade means that expectations for McRae’s return to long-form boxing writing in A Man’s World are high - and McRae does not disappoint.

The back story of Emile Griffith's ultimately tragic trilogy of contests with Benny Paret between in the early 1960s is well known to most serious boxing fans, as is Griffiths’ sometimes troubled personal life and his complex attitudes to, and struggles with, his sexuality. For example, an excellent documentary was made about Griffiths entitled Ring of Fire, while the Paret contests and his ‘double life’ also feature at length in Ron Ross’ Nine… Ten .. and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith.

However, no other writer has examined Griffiths’ complex sexuality and private life with as much insight and artistry as McRae. A major feature of the book is McRae’s fastidious research as well as his uncommon and enviable ability to treat the people he writes about with compassion and dignity but also honesty. McRae has the sure stylistic touch and flourishes of a novelist, as well as the factual rigour of a top journalist.

The book that emerges from this formidable skills set is, by turns, fascinating, deeply moving, compelling and, ultimately, inspirational. Like all the best sports books A Man’s World is about so much more than ‘just sport’. It is about prejudice, passion and desire, as well as regret, despair and forgiveness.
It is particularly good to see that McRae devotes a considerable portion of the book to the South African boxer Willie Toweel, whose own encounter with ring tragedy is every bit as moving and interesting as the sections of the book dealing with Griffiths.

In summation, A Man’s World is a must-read. It is a book which touches the heart and focuses the mind. By closing with an examination of the first ‘openly gay’ boxer Orlando Cruz, the book also, despite the many tragedies it deals with, leaves the reader feeling uplifted and thankful for the many ways in which the world has changed for the better since the 1960s.

Luke G. Williams


  1. OT: See Manny Pacquiao doing his intensive training and other interesting Pacquiao videos at the official Manny Pacquiao Youtube channel. It's super cool!