The Fireside Book of Boxing is a wonderful step back into the past of what is arguably the purest of sports, with the most remarkable and colorful history (which is not to say it can’t also be one of the most objectionable of sports in certain respects). Published in 1961, it contains 87 selections ranging from far back into the bareknuckle days through the era of Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson.
I was a huge boxing fan from when I was 11 or 12 until I was maybe 30, but have largely lost interest in it since and really don’t follow it at all to speak of today. (The corrupt governing bodies and their ridiculous proliferation of artificial championships was the biggest factor that drove me away.) My time, though, was mostly the ’70s and ’80s, the era of fighters like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Aaron Pryor. So in that sense this book doesn’t take me back to my past.
But in another sense it does. For I was a fan not just of contemporary boxing, but of its rich history. The Fireside Book of Boxing reconnects me with that early love.
The selections vary greatly, from short stories and excerpts of works of fiction, to journalistic accounts of fights, to instructional pamphlets and rulebooks from centuries ago, to biographical profiles of fighters, to poems, to cartoons, and more.
The extent to which the pieces held my interest also varied greatly. I virtually never get anything out of poetry, and that was true of most or all of the poems in this book. The really old pieces were of some intellectual interest to me, but with their archaic language and such many of them were a bit of a slog to get through.
Perhaps the stories—both fiction and especially non-fiction—that touch me the deepest, because they get to the essence of what boxing is to me, are about the fighters who show the most guts, who continue to struggle on beyond any realistic expectation of human endurance, sometimes prevailing and sometimes falling short, but honoring themselves and their sport in the process.
Take Billy Miske, for instance, a heavyweight contender of a century ago. While still only in his 20s, he deteriorated dramatically physically due to the onset of Bright’s disease (an archaic term for certain forms of kidney disease). It forced him to retire, yet he came back to the ring multiple times due to financial problems. His last fight, when he was literally on the verge of death, was against a highly rated contender. He’d had to beg his manager to get him the fight (he needed the money to give his family one last big Christmas), and beg journalists not to reveal just how sick he really was and risk having the fight called off. People went along very reluctantly, knowing there was a good chance he’d die in the ring.
But somehow on the downside of his career he used his guts and strategy to almost always win, or at least survive to the end for a draw. (This was during a time when most fights did not have decisions. If there was no knockout, no one won or lost, though there were often unofficial “newspaper decisions” awarded based on the consensus of the reporters in attendance. He won plenty of those and lost plenty of those, but as far as official losses he had only three his entire career.) This last fight was no exception. On a night he had no business being anywhere but a hospital bed, he went out and beat a high level opponent, and his family had the Christmas he’d hoped for.
The day after Christmas he could bear the pain no longer and was taken to the hospital, where he died several days later.
As sportswriter (and boxer and referee) George A. Barton puts it at the close of his piece on Miske, “Maybe someone can name a gamer boxer than Billy Miske. I can’t.”
One of the more effective works of fiction is A Boxer: Old by Harry Sylvester from 1934, the story of a man who fights until his every reserve is exhausted, told from the perspective of the aging boxer himself from within the ring during his fights.
There are plenty of offerings by big names such as Ernest Hemingway, Damon Runyan, and George Bernard Shaw.
There are multiple pieces on such larger than life figures as John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis. What a privilege it is to be taken back to one of the most important and intense moments in boxing history, by journalist and author Bob Considine:
Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling.
It was a shocking thing, that knockout—short, sharp, merciless, complete. Louis was like this:
He was a big lean copper spring, tightened and retightened through weeks of training until he was one pregnant package of coiled venom.
Schmeling hit that spring.
I could go on and on about my favorites from this collection, including a journalist tracking down the great Sam Langford late in his life in seemingly the most joyless and undignified of circumstances, and finding that the two things he has in abundance are joy and dignity. (“You tell all my friends I’m the happiest man in New York City. I got a geetar and a bottle of gin and money in my pocket to buy Christmas dinner. No millionaire in the world got more than that, or anyhow they can’t use any more. Tell my friends all about it and tell ’em I said God bless ’em.”) Or the short story Stop the Fight! by Norman Katkov, about a retired fighter dealing with the mixed emotions of seeing his son follow in his footsteps.
The title is well chosen. (It was part of a series of a dozen or so The Fireside Book of… books from the ’50s and ’60s.) It really does put me in mind of a book you read while relaxing by a fireplace, a delightfully old and beloved book you pull down off the shelf when you just want to lose yourself in the pure enjoyment of reading.