Boxing is regarded as the cruelest sport for how often it turns a blind eye to the punishment a fighter endures inside the squared circle and how little it remunerates a fighter once he leaves the ring.
Veteran journalist based in New York City and author of two previous nonfiction books, Rich Blake, thankfully does not continue in the bloodletting tradition that the boxing game seems to prefer. Instead, he tells the tale of largely looked-over light-heavyweight, Jimmy Slattery.
In Slats: The Legend & Life of Jimmy Slattery (No Frills Buffalo, 2015), Mr. Blake chronicles the colorful life and boxing career of Jimmy Slattery, the favorite son of Buffalo’s Irish-American stronghold. Blake takes the reader along for the ride as the young, handsome, fun-loving Slattery charges through the boxing ranks, even through setbacks, only in the end to have to fight the biggest fight of his life: the one with himself.
On the opening page of the preface to his book, Mr. Blake quotes the father of modern boxing, “‘Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who described Slattery as “the most perfect fighting machine I ever saw. ’” From there on, Blake carries his narrative with lyrical storytelling, masterful pacing, and just the right balance of story and truth to prove Corbett wasn’t punchy.
Yet perhaps a truer account of the Buffalo lad came from Sammy “Newsboy” Brindis, who produced a slim biography of Slattery in his time. Brindis said Slattery was “the greatest fighter who ever lived, and the greatest liver who ever fought.” Blake’s bio bears this out. Slattery never quite rose to the heights achieved by fellow Irish-American and heavy-weight champ of the world, Jack Dempsey, who, not coincidentally, was a teetotaler.
And so Blake does not so much tell the sad story of how drink and profligate living took everything from Slats (it did), but the even sadder and maybe more poignant story of how a certain character flaw never really allowed Mr. Slattery to have something to lose.
From club fights to Yankee Stadium, from tap houses to training grounds, Blake has the reader enjoy all the glory of perhaps the most direct embodiment of the American dream: the young boxer on the rise. To his credit, the author lets our hope grow fat despite his knowing that all does not end well for the “Will-o’-the-Wisp,” a sobriquet given for Slats’s lightning fast ring movement.
Despite his epic battles of the 1920s and ’30 against Maxie Rosenbloom, Jim Braddock, Tom Loughran, and Paul Berlenbach, Slattery found himself in that precarious situation of a fighter past his ripeness and yet one ceaselessly drawn to the shores of further fighting. His destruction—inevitable.
As Blake puts it:
“His boxing career had flamed out. His marriage had dissolved. His dream home had been taken. His once golden reputation had been severely tarnished. He’d had everything he could ever ask for in the palm of his hand and he had, as they would say in South Buffalo, fucked it up.”
And so he did.
Yet in an interview Slattery did with the Buffalo Evening News when he was in the throes of alcoholism, he summons the Irish charm he had left to assess how things went for him. He said, “‘What is it they say? When you dance, you have to pay the fiddler…that old fiddler always had his hand out. And I guess I did plenty of dancing.’”
And thanks to Rich Blake’s new book, we now know no one danced like Slats.