Boxing and History

12 Book Recommendations as Gifts for the Boxing Reader and 3 I’ve Yet to Read and Wouldn’t Mind Getting as Gifts.

With the holidays a few weeks away, here’s an alphabetized list of 12 boxing books—along with a brief description and maybe a quote that stayed with me—that’d be great gifts for boxing fans. Most books on the list are either relatively new or older but hardly, if ever, mentioned along with must-read boxing books. With that in mind, this list leaves out the usual names; Thomas Hauser, W.C. Heinz, Joyce Carol Oates, A.J. Liebling, Norm Mailer, etc. If you have read none of their work, by all means, go back and read them, some hold up better than others.

Disagree? Questions? Suggestions? Anything else: @R_AndradeFranco


Boxing: A Cultural History

by Kasia Boddy

Boddy writes of boxing’s history from the days of Classical Greece—when according to Philostratus, the Spartans invented boxing—to the mid-2000s. In between, the book looks at all things related to boxing, including film, literature, paintings, poetry, sculptors, and songwriters and how boxing inspired them. Included are thoughts and analysis on the various art boxing has inspired. On Rocky, Boddy writes,

“Apollo Creed’s great crime, the film suggest, is assuming that he represents America—he enters the title fight dressed as Uncle Sam and on his float, adopts the garb and pose of George Washington crossing the Delaware. But he is an illegitimate Uncle Sam, not only because he is black, but because, without any suggestion of a political or religious affiliation, he is made to represent both greedy capitalism and the savy and articulate…Rocky—an inarticulate boy “from the neighborhood”—is really what the “land of opportunity” wants to be all about. He is both white ethnic—the Italian Stallion—and American…”

A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from

Castro’s Traitor to American Champion

by Brin-Jonathan Butler

In the long, illustrious history of Cuban boxing, Guillermo Rigondeaux, a 2-time Olympic gold medalist, may well be their best boxer. But when Rigondeaux tried to defect from Cuba, Fidel Castro called him a traitor and a Judas. Butler—who also wrote Domino Diaries, a memoir on his time in Cuba—writes of meeting Rigondeaux while on the island and recounts the early part of his career when the boxer finally leaves Cuba. The most memorable passage is Butler first meeting Rigondeaux, who at that time, had been banned from boxing:

“Rigondeaux’s sadness distinguished him from his countrymen nearly as much as his boxing pedigree. I reached out a hand and introduced myself and he did what he could, under the strained circumstances at the gym, to muster a smile. Up close I noticed his right eye showed damage, slumping slightly from his left. Rigondeaux’s attempt at a polite smile betrayed the gold grill over his front teeth for a brief moment as he took another drag of his Popular cigarette.

‘So where did you get that gold on your teeth?’ I asked him.

Rigondeaux snickered, dropped his head and smirked, taking a last long drag on his cigarette before flicking it on the ground and stamping it out with his sneaker. ‘Oh you know, I melted down both my gold medals into my mouth. I used to fight in this place …’”

The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America

by Elliott J. Gorn

As the title states, the book focuses on boxing’s bare-knuckle era beginning with Tom Molineaux fighting in England. Molineaux was an American slave that may have fought for his freedom—Gorn says there no evidence this happened and masters freeing their slaves after they’d won them money through fighting, was a common motif in the south. The book ends with the last bareknuckle championship fight in 1889 when John L. Sullivan fought Jake Kilrain a 75- round bout. Gorn—who also wrote the equally entertaining academic article, “’Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” states:

“Boxing is not about instinct or innate aggressiveness; it is about values, social relationships, and culture. To understand bare knuckle prize fighting…is necessarily to understand something about nineteenth-century America. Ideology, ethnicity, social class formation, violence, urbanization, gender roles, religious world views, productive relationships, all are part of sports history in general and boxing history in particular.”

The Fireside Book of Boxing

by W.C. Heinz (Editor)

Even though I mentioned writers like Heinz wouldn’t be included, this book makes the list as he only edited this collection of boxing. The book includes over 85 boxing articles and short stories from writers like Jimmy Cannon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Victor Hugo. There’s also accounts from boxers themselves, like James J. Corbett, Rocky Graziano, and Rocky Marciano. The Fireside Book of Boxing includes a pull-out poster of the first 21 heavyweight champions—ending with Floyd Patterson—and a panoramic picture of boxing’s first million-dollar gate in 1921 when Jack Dempsey beat Georges Carpentier.

Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality

by Thomas R. Hietala

Fight of the Century looks at the first 2 African American heavyweight champions; comparing and juxtaposing the boxers and what each meant to black identity. On their collective impact, Hietala writes:

“Jack Johnson and Joe Louis epitomized group striving and achievement in their time. Whether in boxing or business, in baseball or the ballot box, the concert halls or the halls of Congress, African Americans wanted no more and no less than full equality and justice. They relished those rare moments when one of their own shattered white pretensions to superiority; they took to the streets to demonstrate their solidarity and sense of vindication when their black hope smashed a white rival to the canvas.”

Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out

by Jack Johnson

Other suggestions for books on Johnson include Finis Farr’s Black Champion: The Life and Times of Jack Johnson and the more recent, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line by Theresa Runstedler. Of all the books on Johnson, I chose this one because it’s an autobiography and you get lesser-known stories, like Johnson during the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. According to Johnson:

“Avaricious men appeared on the tragic scenes with boats and wagons charging a fee of several dollars to convey these unfortunates to safety. When I encountered them, I either compelled them to go to the rescue of the victims, or brought my boxing proclivities into play and took possession of their rescue conveyances myself and piloted the threatened to safety.”

Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

by Mark Kram 

Kram was a Sports Illustrated writer that covered many of Muhammad Ali’s fights. This book focuses on the third and most brutal fight between Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines. There can be a 50-book list just on Ali but, unlike many of those, Ghosts of Manila is not hagiographic—though, at times, one wonders if Kram is being overly critical of Ali or, in comparison of all else written about him, it only appears that way. Kram focuses on Ali, apart from the myth, often critical for how he portrayed Joe Frazier and yet, always focused on the damage that both men incurred in their 1975 fight. The book begins with Kram talking to Ali, years after the “Thrilla in Manila,”

“’We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men.’ Muhammad Ali once told me. He was standing outside a South Carolina hospital, well into his forties by this point and years removed from that unspeakably hot tropical morning in Manila in 1975. Narrowly, he had beaten Joe Frazier that day in their final act of their heroic trilogy, and yet Ali would look back on it in years to come with a certain uneasiness, only too aware that it signaled what should have been the end of his career. The choice that stood before him at that juncture was a clear one: get out in one piece, or go on in a sport that is unforgiving to old men, especially those with too much pride, heart, and unexamined confidence for their own well-being.”

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

by George Kimball and John Schulian (Editors)

The book is a collection of boxing articles from some of the sport’s great writers—beginning with Jack London’s 1910 account of Jack Johnson versus Jim Jeffries and ending with Carlo Rotella writing on a 52-year-old Larry Holmes fighting and easily defeating Butterbean. Especially haunting is Floyd Patterson’s moment of self-refection:

“Walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, ‘You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don’t know…but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figures out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because…is because…I am a coward.”

Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing

by Donald McRae

McRae follows the lives of boxers—including Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Naseem Hamed, Roy Jones Jr., and Chris Eubank—over 5 years. Through it all, you sense McRae’s conflict that many boxing fans feel with being a fan of a corrupt sport that’s damaging to its participant’s health. You’ll read and think Eubank is the most self-aware boxer who’s ever fought. You’ll also feel sorry for De La Hoya, who seems like he’d rather be doing anything else but box. Here’s an exchange between McRae and De La Hoya:

“’But what if, Oscar’, I speculated, trying to keep a jovial dad at bay, ‘your father hadn’t turned you into a boxer?’

‘I would have given everything to study,’ [De La Hoya responds] ‘I’d be an architect now…that’s what my mother would’ve wanted…”

Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King

by Jack Newfield

Don King’s grown into a caricature of his persona and nowhere near as powerful as he used to be. Still, King symbolizes much that’s wrong with boxing. And though he is far from the only corrupt promoter in the sport, he’s the most recognizable and even, charismatic. King ruled through intimidation and connections that led Thomas Hauser, when asked if King had ties to organized crime, to answer, “You don’t understand…Don King is organized crime.” Newfield also describes boxing as, “the only jungle where the lions are afraid of the rats.”

Julio César Chávez: Adios a la Gloria

by Francisco Ponce

This book is in Spanish and, so far as I know, not available in English. But if you read Spanish, the book is on the final years of Julio César Chávez’s career. Ponce writes on a Chávez’s that’s past his prime and facing personal struggles outside of the ring and in it. Chávez, who claimed he would retire after the first De La Hoya fight, can’t stay away from the sport even with his wife asking him to stop boxing. Likely the greatest Mexican boxer, Chávez became a symbol and ideal of the country, which added to the difficulty of walking away before, according to Ponce, he tarnished his legacy. On Chávez’s decline, Ponce writes,

“They say the truth, during our youth, becomes falsehoods during our later years. This is the prize we all pay for being alive. We accept the benign deterioration of the flesh and beauty, but it is very difficult to accept the decadence of ideas.”

Serenity: A Boxing Memoir

by Ralph Wiley

The late, great sportswriter Ralph Wiley writes a book that’s ostensibly about boxing but more about a search for serenity. The book begins in Wiley’s childhood—when his uncle Charlie was a prizefighter and the first person he ever knew who had serenity—and progresses through his professional career. Chapter 8 includes Wiley’s letter to his son, through boxing and specifically focused on the troubled Mike Tyson. Wiley tells his son,

“You are the greatest champion, even greater than Ali. Trust your ability. You have it. It’s up to you to find it, develop it. Happiness, son, is not built for the long haul, for the full fifteen rounds. It comes and it goes. Better to have serenity, the inner peace which comes from doing something well enough to understand it.”


— 3 Books I’ve Yet to Read But Will —


Ali: A Life

by Jonathan Eig

Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times is the standard of Ali biographies. I’ve read nothing from Eig but after reading a few reviews and listening to his podcast on the making of the book, I’m excited to read.

A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith

by Donald McRae

As mentioned, McRae’s Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is a fantastic read. With Griffith—who killed Benny Paret in the ring and was haunted by it—as the subject, A Man’s World looks just as promising.

I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915

by Louis Moore

I’ll read this book because Moore writes the following,

“The great black prizefighter Archie Moore—the lightweight heavyweight of the 1950s grew up in poverty in St. Louis—once reflected, ‘During the years of slavery and the years of economic exploitation that followed and still exist in some part, the Negro developed an escapist outlook. If nothing could be done about the situation, then why not go along with the way the wind blew?’ These men, according to the champion Moore, were weak. Survivalist. But the fighter, Moore suggested, was different. Boxers believed in their manhood…To believe in one’s manhood was to be fully free.”