A Ringside Affair: Book Review by Thomas Hauser

James Lawton calls boxing “the world’s oldest and most embattled sport.” A Ringside Affair (Bloomsbury Publishing) recounts his sojourn through the sweet science as lead sportswriter for The Independent and Daily Express in London.

Lawton’s remembrance begins with what he calls “the first significant fight’ he covered, the 1977 match-up between a fading Muhammad Ali and Earnie Shavers.

Ali, Lawton writes, “was so much more than a fabled sportsman. He was a touchstone for the possibilities of life, for the rewards of courage. He had no rival in his genius for touching people.”

After Ali-Shavers, Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner said sadly, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when Muhammad Ali’s greatest asset was his ability to take a punch.”

Three years later, Lawton was at ringside to witness Ali’s destruction by Larry Holmes. “It wasn’t that Ali didn’t fight,” he writes. “The problem was much more fundamental. He couldn’t fight. He had become disabled.”

Recollections of Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, and Lennox Lewis follow.

One of the most poignant passages in A Ringside Affair concerns Eddie Futch recalling how he decided to train Bowe, the fighter who ultimately broke his heart.

“I loved what I had seen of his talent,” Futch observed. “For a big man, he moved beautifully. He had the balance and the grace of a real fighter, and that was exciting. You can go a long time in boxing without seeing such qualities leaping out at you. But it doesn’t mean anything if the guy deep down doesn’t really want to fight.”

Lawton also recreates the glorious round-robin combat amongst Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran.

“Any lover of the fights,” he writes, “the real ones that forced men into every resource at their disposal and reminded all who watched them why this was the most ancient and durable of sports, would surely say, ‘You gave us your best.’”

Of Leonard-Hearns, Lawton notes, “Leonard was accused of impertinence when he took the appellation ‘Sugar’. It was, some said, an affront to the achievements of a man still regarded by many as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time. But not any more.”

Outraged by the judges’ decision in Hagler-Leonard, Lawton declares, “Some fights are never over, whatever the ringside adjudication. They go on down through the years, harboring old regrets, spawning fresh anger.”

But Lawton concedes that a poor fight plan that saw Hagler switch from southpaw to an orthodox stance in the early rounds contributed to The Marvelous One’s loss (“He resembled someone running through his keyring, confused that a familiar lock refused to open”). And he acknowledges that, from Leonard’s point of view, “A knockout was not the point of the exercise. He had gone to beat Hagler within the rules of boxing. He had seen and exploited the way to reduce him with his speed and flair and ineffable self-belief. He hadn’t gone to floor Hagler but to scale him down, to say that his own talent was of a different and superior kind.”

Hagler-Hearns is deftly described with an observation from Budd Schulberg: “I never thought I’d see anything so intense outside of war.”

Of Roberto Duran, Lawton says simply, “He might have come not from the raw and volatile streets of Panama City but from a separate planet devoted exclusively to waging war.”

There’s very little in A Ringside Affair that knowledgeable readers don’t already know. But the familiar is well-told. The big fights are nicely recounted. And there’s a thoughtful digression in the form of a chapter about Pat Putnam, the award-winning writer for Sports Illustrated, who wove a false narrative about years spent as a prisoner of war in Korea when, in fact, he hadn’t served in the military at all.

A Ringside Affair is a good read.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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