Sound And Fury: The Literary Tradition In Boxing

(We’ve talked at TQBR several times recently about books on boxing, so the wonderful guest post below, by Jonathan Clarke, comes at a most timely occasion. Save this list. –Tim)

the_devil_and_sonny_liston.large.jpgSince so much of what passes for boxing journalism these days is thrown together to meet deadlines, it is easy to forget that over the years the fight game has been the subject of a good deal of worthy and even exceptional writing, by writers such as George Bernard Shaw, William Hazlitt, Norman Mailer, A.J Liebling, Joyce Carol Oates and Ernest Hemingway. That a sport known for its brutality should have proved so deeply interesting to such writers is in some ways surprising. Perhaps, alone at his desk, the writer identifies with the deep solitude of the fighter. Or perhaps the affinity is more linguistic than spiritual; the fight world may be largely unlettered, but its diction is tasty, pointed, and authentic — it begs to be recorded.

In any case, here is my own eccentric and necessarily incomplete list of the best books, both fiction and nonfiction, about the fight game. As these distinguished but very different works demonstrate, the world of boxing is one that can be viewed through many windows.

(1) Norman Mailer, “The Fight” (Little, Brown 1975)

Mailer’s account of 1974’s “Rumble In The Jungle” is for long stretches principally a meditation on the idea of black Africa and its collision with the lurid pageant of American hype in the person of Don King. Like many of the books on this list, “The Fight” is not “just sportswriting.” But Mailer’s account of the training styles of the fighters, the mood of both camps, and ultimately of Ali’s epic victory are themselves thrilling. Mailer probably suffered through fewer desultory 6-rounders than any writer on this list, but he responded completely to Ali as an athlete, a human being, and a social phenomenon, and “The Fight” remains one of the definitive accounts of the most important boxer in history during his mature period.

(2) Leonard Gardner, “Fat City” (FSG 1969)

This moody, evocative novel about club-level fighters in California’s Central Valley became an excellent film, directed by John Huston and starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. The harsh, half-lit world of the gyms and small arenas where Billy Tully and Ernie Munger seek transcendence are as far from Madison Square Garden as Gardner’s pessimistic, unsentimental writing is from the clichéd narratives of hardship and triumph found in popular boxing stories. “Fat City” reminds us that, as Joyce Carol Oates has written, boxing is about failure far more than it is about success.

(3) Thomas Hauser, “The Black Lights” (McGraw-Hill 1986)

Hauser’s classic study follows the rise of junior welterweight Billy Costello from obscurity to the WBC title and a successful defense of that title against the veteran Saoul Mamby.  Hauser has much that is positive to say about boxers and very little but scorn for the self-serving managers and promoters who, in his view, exploit them. A Columbia Law School graduate and something of a gadfly, Hauser brings a keen analytical mind to bear on the structure of a business that, then as now, was controlled by a few dominant players. Since “The Black Lights” was published, Hauser has continued to afflict the powerful, calling, in columns written for a variety of publications, for greater transparency and a fairer shake for the fighter.

(4) Nick Tosches, “The Devil and Sonny Liston” (Little, Brown 2000)

Nick Tosches works the same side of the street as does Hauser, but he walks it in the opposite direction. Both men begin with the conviction that the world of boxing is base and corrupt, but while Hauser is essentially a reformer who believes that the sport has fallen into evil hands, Tosches regards the venality and cruelty of the fight game as expressions of fundamental human nature, instructive in their clarity.

In this chiarascuro annal of boxing in the era of mob domination, Tosches succeeds in making a compelling enigma of man, Sonny Liston, whom we thought we already knew. He argues convincingly that the second Liston-Ali fight — the one in which Liston was KO’d by that famous “phantom right” — was indeed fixed, and less convincingly that Liston’s death was an underworld murder staged to look like a suicide. While one may dissent from either conclusion, there is no denying that Tosches writes an entertaining, swingy prose or that “The Devil and Sonny Liston” is impressively documented.  

(5) Hugh McIlvanney, “The Hardest Game” (McGraw-Hill 2001)

Boxing began in England, and much of the best writing on the sport has come from the British Isles. IBHOF member Hugh McIlvanney, a Scot, has covered the game for several decades for a variety of prominent U.K. papers. “The Hardest Game” collects some of his best columns, beginning with a 1966 piece on Cassius Clay v. Henry Cooper and continuing through Buster Douglas’s shocking upset of Mike Tyson in 1990 in Tokyo. McIlvanney is simultaneously an elegant stylist and the ultimate punter’s writer, with a punter’s affections and enthusiasms and a willingness to endure much tedium in the hope that an evening’s fights may yield a moment of ecstasy. Among the memorable pieces in “The Hardest Game” is McIlvanney’s account of the death of Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen, “The Methyr Matchstick,” after a brutal 1980 bout with Lupe Pintor in Los Angeles. McIlvanney writes of Owen, “the extreme depth of his own courage did as much as anything to take him to the edge of death.”

(6) A.J. Liebling, “The Sweet Science” (North Point Press 2004)

Liebling, a New Yorker of gentle birth, delicate prose style, and prodigious appetites, renders the bygone world of the Eighth Avenue gyms with affection and humor. This collection of pieces written for the New Yorker in the 1950s contains some of the best writing ever done on Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and Joe Louis. With great prescience, Liebling predicts the deleterious effect that television will have on boxing, and it is perhaps because he fears for the sport’s future that he writes in a tone almost of nostalgia about fights he has only just witnessed. Liebling would later go on to write great pieces about Sonny Liston and the young Cassius Clay, but this collection is especially valuable for the light it sheds on the sport at the end of its golden era.

(7) David Remnick, “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” (Random House 1998)

Like Liebling, Remnick is known principally for his long association with the New Yorker, of which he has been managing editor since 1998. Remnick’s gloss on the life of the sport’s greatest figure is thoughtful, highly literate, and sensitive to the special place that the heavyweight championship once had in American sports. Remnick’s Ali is Ali as the cognoscenti would have him: poet of the era of publicity, figure of the antiwar movement, the athlete who transcends his sport. But Remnick refuses to give Ali a pass for some of his uglier and more risible behavior, and what he has written is not hagiography but an insightful and probably definitive account of Ali’s social and cultural impact on the country that hated, loved, and finally lionized him.

(8) Joyce Carol Oates, “On Boxing” (Doubleday 1987)

Joyce Carol Oates has written at length on the phenomenon that is Mike Tyson — she is Tyson’s exegete, as Mailer is Ali’s — and “On Boxing” is largely devoted to her consideration of his career and its rapid demise. Oates is interested in boxing as it intersects with the idea of masculinity, and also in the way that the violence of the ring is cathartic for the audience — the pyschology not of the athlete so much as of the society that surrounds him. As Oates sees it, a basic hypocrisy lies behind dismissal of the sport as brutal or debased; Why, she asks, is it the sport, and not the social conditions that drive young men into the gyms, that is the object of so much pious criticism?

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.