Taking nothing away from baseball, football, basketball, or hockey, it seems no sport lends itself to gifted wordsmiths like boxing does.
The list of notable writers who have spent time ringside in front of a typewriter, word processor or laptop include such giants as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, W.C. Heinz, A.J. Liebling, Mark Kram, William Nack, John Schulian, George Kimball, Larry Merchant, Thomas Hauser, Vic Ziegel, Phil Berger, Pat Putnam, Richard Hoffer, and Jerry Izenberg, to name but a handful.
Include Ira Berkow, a longtime feature writer and columnist at the New York Times, and before that the Newspaper Enterprise Association and the Minneapolis Tribune, to that list.
Berkow’s book “Counter Punch: Ali, Tyson, The Brown Bomber, And Other Stories Of The Boxing Ring,” was published in 2014 and contains 84 columns by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author at his finest and includes pieces on Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson, Jack Dempsey, along with other ring immortals Sugar Ray Robinson, Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ezzard Charles, Lennox Lewis, and lesser known boxers such as Sim Kessel, an Auschwitz survivor.
Berkow, a New York City resident and Chicago native, answered a few questions about the manly art including what makes pugilists historically such good copy. “Boxers are generally very open because they can’t hide behind anyone since what they do is so individualistic,” he said in an e-mail. “Somehow, it seems that a punch in the nose clears the mind for forthrightness.”
Berkow, whose work has been included in the “Best American Sports Writing” series, and has authored more than 20 books including biographies on Hank Greenberg and Red Smith, pointed out the allure that boxing has.
“For me, it’s the most dramatic of all sports,” he said. “By that I mean, the greatest writing – novels, plays, etc – deal with life and death. And so does boxing. Consciously or subconsciously, the idea that one of these boxers stepping into the ring might have to be carried out on a stretcher. It’s brutal, and maybe should be banned – that’s been tried and it has failed – but it speaks to somewhere in our primeval being, and is very human.”
Spanning a career that began in 1965 and ended in 2007, Berkow, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Miami (Ohio) University, and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, was asked to name some of the more memorable sports celebrities he’s encountered.
“Ali, Jackie Robinson, Jim Bouton, Fran Tarkenton, Jake LaMotta [middleweight champion], and many others,” he said. Two he mentioned were boxers, and neither needs an introduction.
Berkow, who worked at the New York Times for 26 years, has an entire section dedicated to Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion, and still the most famous man on the planet.
Ali, bigger than life and one of the greatest boxers ever, “The Louisville Lip,” as he was called when he fought as Cassius Clay, was part of some of the most celebrated fights in ring history.
They include the 1964 meeting in Miami Beach with Sonny Liston in which he won the heavyweight title, the trilogy with Joe Frazier, and the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 against George Foreman, whom he stopped in the eighth round.
Berkow’s April 20, 1985 column, “The LaMotta Nuptials,” was included in the hefty book “The Greatest American Sports Writing of the Century.”
Here is Berkow’s lead: “Neither of the Las Vegas dailies, nor, for that matter, The New York Times, reported in their society news sections the wedding of Jacob “Jake” LaMotta, 63 years old, erstwhile pugilist, and Theresa Miller, younger than the bridegroom and decidedly prettier.”
Here is the second paragraph: “Perhaps it was determined in some editorial conclave that to cover one of Jake’s nuptials is to cover them all, for this was the sixth time he’s tied the knot. But to Jake, each, of course is unique. His first wife divorced him, he says, “because I clashed with the drapes.” Another one, Vicki, complained about not having enough clothes. I didn’t believe her LaMotta says, “until I saw her pose nude for Playboy magazine.”
When Berkow, who covered Ali-Frazier I, “The Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden in 1971, was queried about the best bout he’s covered, Marvin Hagler versus Thomas Hearns at Caesars Palace came to mind.
Though it lasted only slightly more than eight minutes, it was nonetheless memorable, and is still regarded as one of the most exciting matches ever.
“Never in the history of man have so many punches been thrown so frequently and with such devastating effect,” he noted.
Here is Berkow’s lead in the New York Times, dated April 16, 1985: “Until Thomas Hearns fell, with the assistance of a smashing right to the face by Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and was ruled the loser at 2:01 of the third round, hardly a second passed that one of the fighters wasn’t throwing and landing a stunning blow.”
Here is the second graph: “But the last punch was the one that allowed Hagler to retain the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. And the last punch ended, at least temporarily, a dream for Hearns, who wants to become the first man in history to win four world championships. He was hoping to add the middleweight championship to his junior-middleweight and welterweight titles and then go on to the light-heavyweight class.”
Though Berkow hasn’t been ringside to cover a fight in some time, he surely knows what it’s like to be a witness to history. And we’re lucky for that.