There are certain sports that just inspire great literature. Baseball is at the heart of many wonderful American novels, from Don Delillo’s breath-taking Underworld and Michael Chabon’s Summerland to Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. Despite decades of low-quality, glossy biographies and sensationalist rubbish, in recent years football writing has been perfected into an art. Even for those to whom the workings of the Tour de France is a mystery, there are dozens of astounding cycling books currently in print. For some sports, it just doesn’t work like that. It’s hard to imagine a 300-page thriller with a cricket match as the central plot point. We still await the great modern tennis novel (though if anyone has examples of these, I am happy to be proven wrong).
The one constant in sports-writing has always been boxing. Since 1821, when William Hazlitt penned “The Fight” his brilliant account of locally organised bare-knuckle prize-fight, to the modern journalists who have charted the sport’s fall from grace, there is something about boxing writing that compels even those who think of the sport as pure barbarism. It’s not really a mystery when you think about it. Boxing has it all; rags-to-riches stories, confrontation, hubris, exploitation, danger, violence, and everything hinges on what can happen in a split moment. In a way, a good fight is the perfect story all in itself.
Below we’ve listed 5 of the greatest boxing titles ever to be published. This list is by no means exhaustive. Only one of Donald McRae’s wonderful books appears on this list, and every word he has written on boxing throughout his career is worth reading. There are literally dozens of fantastic boxing titles out there, and despite the decline of men’s boxing, great books continue to be published. Maybe, as the women’s game continues to develop and outshine the men’s division, both in class and quality, journalism will shift, and soon we’ll have a whole new wonderful branch of sports writing.
1. The Hurt Business - Edited by George Kimball & John Schulian
This is the holy grail of boxing writing, chronicling the entire history of professional pugilism from Jack Johnson’s becoming the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, right up to Iron Mike Tyson’s spectacular (and sad) final fights. This makes the perfect gift for boxing fans, as there are over 45 contributors of varying styles. This book is full to the brim of highlights, but a few articles in particular stand out.
The first is Gene Tunney’s description of how he defeated Jack Dempsey, not once but twice. For both fights, in 1926 and 1927 respectively, Tunney was heavily favoured to lose, and his account of the fights is a classic tale of brains winning out over brawn, as well as his explanation of the infamous 1927 “Long Count Fight“.
Another outstanding passage is Pat Putnam’s account of the fight between Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler for the Middleweight title in 1985, widely regarded as the most savage and entertaining three rounds of boxing in the history of the sport. Equally brilliant is David Remnick’s incisive and brutal assessment of Mike Tyson’s ruined career as he looked back on the devastation he had wrought throughout the 1990s. This is quite simply the book to get for any self-respecting boxing fan.
2. The Fight – Norman Mailer
In 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of the Congo) the greatest sporting event of the 20th century took place. On its own merits, “The Rumble in the Jungle” is probably the greatest boxing match of all time. But the background and build-up to the fight is perhaps the most compelling story in modern sport, and it is told by Mailer with a skill and fluency that means people usually start and finish this wonderful book in a single sitting.
By 1974, Muhammad Ali’s pace had slowed considerably, he was no longer punching nearly as hard with his left, and his hopes for winning this fight seemed to rest entirely on his loud, brash and boastful persona. Ali continued to do what he always did. He joked. Cajoled. Threatened. Ali recited poetry, told stories and cast a spell on every person within ten miles of his presence. George Foreman, his opponent, could not have been more different. Foreman’s genius employed silence, serenity and cunning. He had never been defeated. His hands were his instrument, and ‘he kept them in his pockets the way a hunter lays his rifle back into its velvet case’. The legendary battle between these two men became a kind of sporting legend, and Mailer’s The Fight tells the tale better than anything else.
3. Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise & Falll of Jack Johnson - Geoffrey C. Ward
Ward’s wonderful biography of Jack Johnson won the William Hill Sports book award a year after its publication in 2015. It offers a full account of the life of the first black heavyweight champion, told with a lyricism and grace that is unusual in a boxing title. From his happy and mostly prejudice-free upbringing in Galveston, Texas, to becoming the living embodiment of everything white Americans feared and loathed, this book covers every aspect of Johnson’s life.
Unforgiveable Blackness is not just a story about a contradictory and controversial sporting figure, it is a wonderful, sprawling snapshot of the emergence of modern America. When Johnson’s career began, the “gloved era” of boxing had only just begun, and the world heavyweight championship was closed to non-white boxers. When Johnson defeated former champion Jim Jeffries, the “Great white hope” in Reno in 1910, there were race riots across the United States for a week. Somehow, despite all the tumult of his public life, Johnson remained oddly aloof from the subject of race throughout his life.
This is just one of the many surprising aspects to Johnson’s character that Ward deals with so well in Unforgiveable Blackness. The descriptions of the fight themselves are wonderful, but it is Ward’s brilliant work on bringing such a complex and fearsome boxer to life for a modern audience that make this book so brilliant.
4. The Sweet Science - A.J. Liebling
Liebling’s collection of boxing reportage gives the reader the distinct impression of actually being there, in the stands, watching a prize-fight. You can virtually smell the cigar smoke and sweat from the crowd, can hear the dull thud of each body shot as if you were ringside. Liebling was writing during America’s “Golden Age” of boxing, the era of Sugar Ray Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott and Rocky Marciano. The writing here covers a broad range of fighters and events, and Liebling, though he knew more about boxing than any of his contemporaries, has a wry outsiders’s approach to boxing. He seems always to be slightly amazed at the determined, single-minded figures that captured the imagination of 40s and 50s America so readily.
Liebling is ringside for Robinson’s fabled, dramatic comeback fight, for Marciano’s slingshot rise to the top, and also for Joe Louis’ sad, pathetic and unnecessary last fight against Marciano, an occasion that proves how cruel and callous a sport this is, even to it’s former princes. This is really essential reading for boxing fans, or anyone who wants an insight into the sporting and celebrity culture of 1950s America.
5. In Sunshine or In Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in The Troubles - Donald McRae
It was virtually impossible to pick just one of McRae’s books to feature in this list. His 1996 book Dark Trade offered probably more insight into the inner workings of a boxer’s mind than anything published before it. Also very worth reading is A Man’s World, his sad and detailed biography of Emile Griffith, the bisexual welterweight champion who killed an opponent in the ring after a homophobic slur had enraged him. However, we opted for In Sunshine or in Shadow, as the story of boxing during this dark period in Irish history would almost certainly never have been told without McRae.
At the height of the Troubles, Gerry Storey ran the Holy Family gym from the IRA’s heartland territory of New Lodge in Belfast. Despite coming from a family steeped in the Republican movement, he insisted that it would be open to all. He ensured that his boxers were given a free pass by paramilitary forces on both Republican and Loyalist sides, so they could find a way out of the province’s desperate situation. In the immediate aftermath of the 1981 Hunger Strikes, Storey would also visit the Maze prison twice a week to train the inmates from each community, separately.
In itself, this would be a heroic story, but Storey went further than that: he became the trainer for world champion Barry McGuigan and Olympian Hugh Russell, who became one of the most famous photographers to document the Troubles. Even with all his success and the support of both sides, Storey still found himself subjected to three bomb attacks from those who were implacably hostile to any form of reconciliation. He also worked with the Protestant boxer Davy Larmour, who fought two bloody battles in the ring against Russell, his Catholic friend.
It might seem contradictory that such a violent sport has the capacity to heal division, particularly in a society so fundamentally divided. McRae’s wonderfully written book shows that it can do exactly that.
So that’s our list. There are several books that it pains us to leave out here. George Kimball’s Four Kings and Richard Hoffer’s Bouts of Mania are two that come immediately to mind. But the very nature of lists like these will cause controversy and debate. If you agree or disagree with our list, or think we’ve missed out on any great titles, do please let us know in the comments.