'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Sport

The Bittersweet Science

“Why did I fix fights?” the boxing manager Charles Farrell asks, as he lands the first glove in his essay in The Bittersweet Science. “Because it was the smart thing to do.” This rhetoric is the crooked arrow shooting right to the heart of darkness that is boxing, as fifteen very different writers, from differing perspectives, measure the sport’s pulse in this up-and-down collection. “Sport” is a strange label for boxing to begin with, as you don’t “play” when it comes to this discipline; it’s called “The Hurt Business” for legitimate reasons. And anyone that follows or is involved in boxing knows that something somwehere is being fixed, in all likelihood; and even if we don’t know, the suspicion lurks in the back of our minds, usually encapsulated in the image of some cartoonish Machiavellian manager or cartel.

It is nigh on impossible to raise the subject of boxing writers without one person chiming in with the familiarity of a ringside bell – A. J. Liebling, whose final fight piece for the New Yorker appeared more than fifty years ago, is still considered the doyen of pugilistic prose. Liebling’s The Sweet Science (1949) remains the bible for anyone with an interest in boxing.

This new collection gives a literal and spiritual twist to Liebling’s title (coined by the English journalist Pierce Egan), and while it never reaches the levels of élan laid out by Liebling, the book has plenty of moments that sing: from Rafael Garcia offering a different slant debunking certain language and ideas attached to boxing – Ernest Hemingway’s ‘moral’ and Norman Mailer’s ‘religion’ – which have long fed into the romanticism of the sport; to Sarah Deming writing about the female boxer Claressa Shields’s path from poverty in Flint, Michigan, to successive Olympic gold medals in London and Rio, while at the same time taking a swipe at Joyce Carol Oates’s book of mediations, On Boxing (1987) (”Oates uses fighters for her own peculiar project: in her case, one of establishing a position for herself alongside such serious, masculine names as Mailer and Hemingway.”).

Carlo Rotella, on the American boxer Bernard Hopkins, meanwhile, writes the stand-out piece in the book on how the former inmate of Graterford Prison managed to beat the system of the fight game by coming out the other side with his health and wealth intact; ”your intelligence come up” is George Foreman’s likeable phrase for how veteran fighters can evolve. Elsewhere, Robert Anasi’s essay is a close second as he looks back on his debut bout with its heady mixture of fear and fulfilment.As the editors Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra say in the introduction, we may come to understand the workings behind the violent whirlwind of boxing, but we will never truly get to the bottom of it. There lies the fathomless, irreducible appeal of the fight business.

  • Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement 

Muhammad Ali’s idea of heaven

Reviews: Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974; Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 and Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall



Muhammad Ali captured at his training camp by Peter Angelo Simon.

Since Muhammad Ali’s passing in June, the image that springs to my mind when thinking about him is no longer the iconic Neil Leifer shot from 1965 of Ali towering over a vanquished Sonny Liston on the canvas, admonishing the recumbent fighter “Git up sucka; git up and fight!” Nor is it the photo generally considered the greatest in sports photography, again taken by Leifer, a year later. The picture is from above the ring, and shows Cleveland Williams (who was still carrying a bullet in his body going into the fight after a police shooting the year before) floored in the third, flat on his back on the square canvas. Ali is walking back to his corner, his arms raised in a victory many aficionados say was perfection personified (he sent Williams to the canvas four times). The perfect shot for the perfect fight. But it’s not that one, nor is it Flip Schulke’s famous underwater photograph of Ali eternally poised with his dukes ready for launch.

Instead, my mind’s eye conjures an image taken by Peter Angelo Simon in 1974. It shows Ali from behind, in black and white, doing his early-morning roadwork; pounding the Pennsylvania gravel in a grey tracksuit and heavy black boots. We see his breath cutting through the stillness of the new morning air, while a shaft of sunlight cuts across the middle of the frame. It’s a photograph that will never run out of road for me anyhow.

Now Ali is no longer of this earth, I can only think of this picture in a cosmological context, where he is being called back to where he started from; a cosmic ray bouncing back to that great ball of energy at the centre of our universe. Indulging the celestial metaphor once more, I always feel that if you had labelled Ali a meteorite, he would have slapped you down saying a meteorite was too small-time – he was the asteroid! Either way, aren’t we fortunate he shot through our universe?

But Ali was just a man (even if the distinction of super- is unconditionally prefixed to him). Just like the rest of us, he would bleed, hurt, cry, laugh and eventually die. We get a welcome new glimpse of his human side in Muhammad Ali Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press), the cover of which is Simon’s astral image. The book is the fruits of two days shooting for Simon at Ali’s remote training camp, as the artist formerly known as Cassius Clay prepared to take on George Foreman in Zaire in a month’s time. Simon recalls that he and Ali had an unspoken agreement: “he’d do his thing and I’d do mine”.

What’s striking in most photographs of Muhammad Ali where he is surrounded by all sorts of people is that they are always smiling, even if he is not. It’s as if Ali swallowed life whole and transmitted only its joy through himself to anyone within his orbit.

“If there’s a secret to my fights,” Ali once said, “it’s how I prepare.” This collection of photographs gives us a privileged window into both the brutality and humanity that this preparation entailed.


Jim Marshall’s portrait of Miles Davis and Steve McQueen at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

If boxing is taking something of a standing count from mainstream consciousness nowadays, then jazz has showered and shaved, checked out of the hotel, and slunk off into defeated obscurity. It might be hard to fathom, but there was a time when jazz was the absolute symbol of hep, as we can see in Jazz Festival, which is based on Jim Marshall’s photography at Monterey and Newport in the 1960s. The greats are here: Coltrane, Miles, Satch, Nina and some unexpected figures too: Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Joan Baez. This large book is an eye-catching testament to an age of effortless cool – sharp suits, smoked edges, sounds rising to the stratosphere – and features a foreword from famous sax player (and sometime president of the United States) Bill Clinton. The historian Nat Hentoff places jazz of that era in its proper cultural context – an integrated scene that maintained its dignity in the maelstrom of the civil rights struggle.

Hentoff references Cambridge University’s Tim Blanning who laid out in his book The Triumph of Music the idea that black musicians readied America for the civil rights movement. He’s right: straight-no-chaser. Just like Muhammad Ali, jazz changed white American attitudes and America changed for the better, eventually.

Someone we think of as the embodiment of American values is Bruce Springsteen and – unlike jazz and boxing – it feels like he has never had anything but praise and approbation during his career. However, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band 1975 (also by Reel Art Press) documents a time when “The Boss” was struggling to break into the mainstream of American culture; at one point back then it seemed touch and go. Following two critically acclaimed albums, a lo-fi Boss is captured in these gritty portraits trying to piece together what would become his breakout album Born To Run.


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band photographed by Barbara Pyle in 1975.

With his trusted band in tow, we see a stripped-back Bruce: unadorned, living out of a bag, and from meal to meal probably. It’s also touching to see “The Big Man”, the late Clarence Clemons so full of life in these early photos, as well as a very lithe Steven Van Zandt, who is as well known for his role in The Sopranos these days as for cutting licks with Springsteen. The book is a snapshot in time of Bruce and his band living the life that he so painstakingly crafted into his music, and we are lucky to have this perspective. One suspects that “The Boss” has carried these pictures around in his head in the 40 years since they were taken; it’s probably why he’s “Mr Integrity” for so many of us.

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times


Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press, £29.95)

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 (Reel Art Press, £40)

Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall (Reel Art Press, £45)

Boxing’s conflicted beauty (An elegy for Jerry Quarry)

Sugar Ray Leonard facing Roberto Duran; two of the greatest boxers to pull on a pair of gloves

The beauty in man is that under the press of circumstances he develops what he must possess – Norman Mailer

in the run-up to the Floyd Mayweather Jr v Manny Pacquiao fight, and for a short while afterwards, a few people asked me what it is that I find so fascinating about the sport of boxing.

Some of these questions came with a $500million frame; the estimated pot for a night’s work in Las Vegas for the two men. The money tarnished the views of many who watched the fight, but then what contest was ever going to live up to such an eye-popping figure? The ‘Thrilla in Manila’, maybe…

For the record, I enjoyed the fight, and with happy satisfaction scored it correctly among some friends before either fighter had thrown a fist in anger. Viewers disappointed by the spectacle (or lack thereof) have obviously not watched Mayweather Jr fight in the last five years – or perhaps never at all.

The thing that no one can get around, or come close to undoing, is that Mayweather dominates every fight he walks into. Why? Because he’s so good. He’s got the technique, the tactics, the speed, the brains, and the toughness to take anything that’s thrown at him. In a way, Mayweather is almost anti-boxing. It’s as if he’s found a major flaw in the sport that no one else has been able to tap into.

Putting that thread aside, my intention here is not to spill any more ink on Mayweather Jr, I wish to write a little about my love of something known as ‘The Hurt Business’.

Down the years many more talented and knowledgeable scribes of The Sweet Science – Egan, Liebling, WC Heinz, Hazlitt (even if the latter wrote about a single fight) – have described with mastery and flair the various reasons why boxing has such a knuckled grip on our imagination.

I have thought deeply about this too. Of course, there is no absolute moral justification for boxing. It just happens to be one of life’s beautiful contradictions; both cruel and yet noble, it comprises brutality and grace in equal measure.

Being for or against boxing is an argument that will never be settled, and I’m not going to try. But for better elucidation on the sport’s inherent conflict and melodramatic magnetism, we should turn to a fighter such as Jerry Quarry.

Quarry fought in the golden era of heavyweights in the 1960s and ‘70s, which meant he faced a who’s who of fighters: Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Patterson, Shavers, Norton et al. Jerry’s career ultimately reflected the shattered beauty of what I call boxing’s looking glass. We see a broken man at the end, from the ferocity of pugilism, and yet in some way this image touches us deeply; it reaches in to our deepest psychic well, pulleying all our humanity back to the surface.

He was tagged as the great white hope, went under the banner of ‘Irish Jerry Quarry’, and fought honestly, wholeheartedly and inflicted his own share of pain on others with a sweet left hook. But for every shot Jerry landed, he probably took three in return. And sadly for his sake he was the kind of fighter that didn’t know when to go down, when others with a little more nous would have realised that the game was up.

It’s a well worn truism that there are too many sad stories in the world of boxing, but after reading up on Quarry I still wasn’t sure what way the coin had landed for him. Then I watched a clip on YouTube, which I’ve inserted below (it happily includes music from one of my favourite bands, Explosions In The Sky).

Jerry Quarry

Watching it makes me choke with emotion – I’m sure you will too, even if you despise boxing and all its ways. I will say this in its mitigation: if not for boxing, would I, or anyone, be writing about or remembering the Jerry Quarrys of this world? Would this clip have been created, or watched more than sixty thousand times, if it were just about a regular, tough guy from Bakersfield, California? I’ll let you decide.

But because of boxing, this tough, big-hearted, but limited slugger Jerry Quarry will be remembered down the ages. Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry was loved by anyone who watched a prize-fight (you can see that from the fight fans in this clip). Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry got to live his dreams and live out many of the dreams we hold dear inside; Jerry Quarry had the chance to stand alongside greatness, stepping into a ring with Muhammad Ali, not once, but twice.

His time on this planet was a relatively fleeting fifty-three years, but he experienced most of these years at the height of human emotion, at the very edge of existence; his ardor for boxing also encapsulated his ardor for living. The likes of Jerry Quarry gave their life over to boxing (in his case both physically and mentally). But without boxing, what would life have meant to the likes of Jerry Quarry?

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