Frank Deford Didn’t Like Boxing, But He Wrote the Greatest Boxing Story

Frank Deford, America’s most celebrated sportswriter, died on Memorial Day, May 29, at age seventy-eight. Deford, whose best work was published by Sports Illustrated, had no peer within the sportswriting fraternity as a long-form storyteller. His profiles of sports personalities consumed thousands of words but never ran too long because they were beautifully paced and as poignant as the finest fiction.

Deford was versatile. He covered all manner of sports. But he wrote very little about boxing because he did not like it. “I despise boxing and have never altogether understood what attracts other writers to its brutality,” he wrote in a letter to his colleague John Schulian. Years later, in one of his weekly commentaries for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” Deford rued that the overriding story line of the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight was money, money, money. “This particular match,” he wrote, “has become the tackiest sports event this side of hot dog eating.”

Occasionally, but not often, Deford could be snide. Regarding the waning popularity of boxing, he wrote, “Now, in the United States, boxing struggles to get good athletes because the big, desperately poor people are recruited for football, so they can get their concussions that way.”

Sports Illustrated has been around since 1954. Over the years, the magazine has employed some splendid boxing writers — William Nack, Mark Kram, Ralph Wiley, Pat Putnam, Richard Hoffer, and others – but ironically, the man who didn’t like boxing, Frank Deford, authored what is considered the best boxing story to ever appear in that august publication.

“The Boxer and the Blonde,” which ran on June 17, 1985, is centered on former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn, then in his late sixties, but focuses less on Conn’s boxing career than on his family and his ties to the city of Pittsburgh. When Deford re-visits the last few rounds of Conn’s first fight with Joe Louis – on a warm night at the Polo Grounds just before America entered the war “and the world went to hell” – one can almost feel the goosebumps as Conn brews an improbable upset that is ultimately short-circuited.

Deford appreciated good writing in others. He thought the best piece ever written under the pressure of a tight deadline was Mark Kram’s story of the “Thrilla’ in Manila.” Titled “Lawdy, Lawdy He’s Great,” it was the Oct. 13, 1975 Sports Illustrated cover story.

A Princeton man from Baltimore, Deford joined Sports Illustrated in 1962 just as Muhammad Ali was coming into prominence. But while Deford was in Ali’s company on many occasions, he never covered one of his fights. Moreover, although he liked Ali, he wasn’t mesmerized by him like so many young sportswriters. Ali, wrote Deford, was forgiven much too easily for his faults and accorded too much credit for his wit, intelligence, and character. “To read some writers,” he said, “you would have thought Ali’s doggerel made him some sort of homespun poet laureate.”

That was Deford, who found the best qualities in the people he interviewed, but never bowed down to them. Aggrandizement wasn’t in his DNA. To no surprise, the two best Ali-related pieces that he wrote were not about Ali, but about two people influential in Ali’s life: the bombastic sportscaster Howard Cosell and Ali’s closest friend, photographer Howard Bingham.

The Bingham piece was typical of Deford who wrote long, insightful pieces about high profile athletes – Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, etc. – but was arguably at his best when profiling an “everyman,” someone that toiled in the shadows.

In 1983, while on a plane, Deford overheard two people talking about an obscure junior college football coach in the fly-speck town of Scooba, Mississippi, a coach so tough he had two nicknames, Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan. This serendipitous moment in the sky gave rise to one of his best S.I. stories, “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was” (April 30, 1984).

This reporter met Frank Deford once, a very brief encounter near the tennis court at Caesars Palace on the day before the Hagler-Hearns fight. Deford was standing around shooting the breeze with several people (if memory serves, Dick Schaap was there) when I approached him to tell him how much I had been moved by the Coach Sullivan story.

It was an awkward moment. Deford seemed embarrassed. “Thank you,” he stammered, and that was that. But “thank you” was sufficient. I was in the presence of a giant.

In 2012, Frank Deford was presented with the National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first sportswriter accorded this honor. In his later years, when he wasn’t hunched over his keyboard, he worked tirelessly as the chairman and spokesperson for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The disease had claimed his daughter Alexandra, who died in 1980 at the age of eight.

Frank Deford 1938-2017. R.I.P.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.

Frank Deford

The Boxer and the Blonde

 

COMMENTS

-Kid Blast :

Outstanding tribute Arne


-dino da vinci :

Great work Arn. Back in the 70s I subscribed to Sports Illustrated and enjoyed reading Mr Deford's work. Certainly top tier. But I do not agree with his accessment about Ali. "A Princeton man from Baltimore, Deford joined Sports Illustrated in 1962 just as Muhammad Ali was coming into prominence. But while Deford was in Ali’s company on many occasions, he never covered one of his fights. Moreover, although he liked Ali, he wasn’t mesmerized by him like so many young sportswriters. Ali, wrote Deford, was forgiven much too easily for his faults and accorded too much credit for his wit, intelligence, and character. “To read some writers,” he said, “you would have thought Ali’s doggerel made him some sort of homespun poet laureate.”" Was Ali perfect? No. Did Ali have a dark side to his personality? Of course! Certainly it's possible to overrate his wit, intelligence, and character, right? Absolutely not. When it was brought to Ali's attention that the acceptance grade for eligibility into the military was lowered and he now qualified, he blurted, "they should test me again, I might of got(ten) dumber!" To address intelligence and character I'd be clacking on this keyboard all afternoon. Frank Deford and many others should be forced to play the hand Ali did. Not one of them would have ascended to the heights that he did, Heavyweight Champion, most recognized individual in the world, pre-internet. i'm guessing when I say it couldn't be easy being a young black child growing up in Louisville in the early 40s. I'm still guessing that it can't be easy today. I have been accused of being a very good guesser, however.


-oubobcat :

Great writing here by Arne on Frank Deford. Though I have read some of his Sports Illustrated material, I'll most remember Deford for his work on Real Sports. I always thought he personified on that series everything a reporter should be...and that is extremely respectful of whoever he covered. He treated each story like it was the most important in the world and gave attention to those he covered and not himself. I loved when his stories aired and could watch over and over again. My wife, not a huge sports fan (well becoming a big boxing fan) love his work and watched the show many times for his reports. Arne, I was not aware of the Sullivan story but am going to try to Google it now. It sounds like a must read.


-brownsugar :

Great work Arn. Back in the 70s I subscribed to Sports Illustrated and enjoyed reading Mr Deford's work. Certainly top tier. But I do not agree with his accessment about Ali. "A Princeton man from Baltimore, Deford joined Sports Illustrated in 1962 just as Muhammad Ali was coming into prominence. But while Deford was in Ali?s company on many occasions, he never covered one of his fights. Moreover, although he liked Ali, he wasn?t mesmerized by him like so many young sportswriters. Ali, wrote Deford, was forgiven much too easily for his faults and accorded too much credit for his wit, intelligence, and character. ?To read some writers,? he said, ?you would have thought Ali?s doggerel made him some sort of homespun poet laureate.?" Was Ali perfect? No. Did Ali have a dark side to his personality? Of course! Certainly it's possible to overrate his wit, intelligence, and character, right? Absolutely not. When it was brought to Ali's attention that the acceptance grade for eligibility into the military was lowered and he now qualified, he blurted, "they should test me again, I might of got(ten) dumber!" To address intelligence and character I'd be clacking on this keyboard all afternoon. Frank Deford and many others should be forced to play the hand Ali did. Not one of them would have ascended to the heights that he did, Heavyweight Champion, most recognized individual in the world, pre-internet. i'm guessing when I say it couldn't be easy being a young black child growing up in Louisville in the early 40s. I'm still guessing that it can't be easy today. I have been accused of being a very good guesser, however.
Well said Dino.... the fact that there are exponentially more non-black folks and youth who share your keen sociological awareness and open mindedness in the world today than there were in the 40's and 60's despite the legions of fear mongers and race baiters on web... is a clear indication that the quality of life and the variety of opportunities is improving for everyone who wants to take it. As for Deford, I may have read many of his articles without knowing it while standing at newstands and bookstores during the countless hours i spent there reading boxing mags.... Sports Illustrated had the most riveting and indepth boxing articles of them all. A couple of standout articles were about Roy Jones life living on an isolated acre of land with his semi-abusive father before he became star. A mini bio of Holyfield is another. But the most gripping was a preview of Michael Spinks before he fought Tyson. From Spinks' perspective. The story described the Spinks brothers rigorous years of living in a Houston slum and How Michael had to be the big brother, and surrogate father in a neighborhood where it took courage, valor and sheer grit just to go to the local grocery and buy a box of cornbread ( from Michael's recollection ) when the story concluded, the author returned to the topic of Michael's current challenge..... His upcoming fight with Mike Tyson. The author ended the excellent story with one simple quote. " well Michael, ....its time to get that cornbread " There were many outstanding articles written about boxing in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. A sport that's now been nearly abandoned by the once Iconic magazine. Before the internet grew up. I dont have the time to look those all up or dig into the archives to identify the authors but the mag was once a dependable source of this boxing fans reading pleasure for nearly a decade.


-Kid Blast :

Pat Putnam added to Sports Illustrated's magnetism. I recall one he wrote on Kirino Garcia that was as good as it possibly could get. Deford, Putnam, and Murray bring back great memories.


-Brad :

Pat Putnam added to Sports Illustrated's magnetism. I recall one he wrote on Kirino Garcia that was as good as it possibly could get. Deford, Putnam, and Murray bring back great memories.
I use to love reading the writers from SI that covered boxing back in the 70's and early 80's. Mark Kram, William Nack, and of course Pat Putnam. I recall Putnam writing this after the third Leonard-Duran fight in which the fans booed Leonard for not engaging Duran "most fight fans would not spend a dime to watch Van Gogh paint Sunflowers, but they would fill Yankee Stadium to see him cut off his ear."


-Brad :

Pat Putnam added to Sports Illustrated's magnetism. I recall one he wrote on Kirino Garcia that was as good as it possibly could get. Deford, Putnam, and Murray bring back great memories.
I use to love reading the writers from SI that covered boxing back in the 70's and early 80's. Mark Kram, William Nack, and of course Pat Putnam. I recall Putnam writing this after the third Leonard-Duran fight in which the fans booed Leonard for not engaging Duran "most fight fans would not spend a dime to watch Van Gogh paint Sunflowers, but they would fill Yankee Stadium to see him cut off his ear."


-ArneK. :

Frank Deford once declined my invitation to serve as a judge for the BWAA writing contest because, as he re-affirmed to me, he did not like boxing. Fair enough. That explains why I have written exactly one soccer story in my 48 years in sports journalism, and that single entry was not by my choice. We are all human and as such we have our preferences and dislikes, to which we are entitled, I would think. That said, Mr. Deford was a master craftsman of the English language who made his sports profiles compelling and absorbing. He will be missed by those who appreciate what he did bring to the table, not what he didn't. -- Bernard Fernandez