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Long gone greatness
on 9 January 2016
At its beautiful best, boxing can be a noble battle of the mind, a struggle for dominance using skill and wit, and a gargantuan test of human fitness, heart and endurance. At its worst, it's full of braggarts, money spinners, bullies and hate. In the post Ali late 70s, boxing was tending towards ugliness. During the 80s, these four riveting fighters (Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns), brought back some of the vanishing beauty. And drama, pathos, poetry, and romance.
The four boxers couldn't be any more different: Sugar Ray smooth, graceful, all jazz and soul, Duran tough, dirty, raw and playful, Marvellous Marvin a shaven headed macho bullet, and Hearns the talented classy Detroit gentleman.
This is a great, thrilling ride through the years when these four were kings of the ring. Kimball writes with the easy flow of a fine sports journalist, with an eye for noirish detail and a sly humour ("a Panamanian street dog had stopped Ken Buchanan with a punch to the family jewels"). There's a hint of Hemingway in the clipped punchy sentences. An atmosphere thick with cigar smoke and the dull thud of gloved fist thumping hard flesh. He records the poetry of boxing; describing rounds as "stanzas" and gifted dancing moves as "pirouettes". The first Leonard/Hearns fight is said to be "a symphony in five distinct movements".
Kimball himself could have stepped right out of Damon Runyon - ex hippy poet turned shabby sportswriter, losing an eye in a bar room brawl (may not be true), Lucky Strike chain smoker permanently hustling a deadline.
It's a ringside seat that pulls no punches, and takes us to the gyms, promoter's offices, restaurants and lounge bars where deals are made, and to over heated TV broadcasts in saturated blood heavy 80s colour. (And thanks to the ubiquity of YouTube, all these fights are quickly located - the commentary on the first round takedown of Leonard vs Andy Price is timeless).
This is Dashiell Hammett for the baby boomers. Writers who can capture this pace and excitement seem long gone, and the boxing ring now seems a detached, hostile place, lacking glamour or style. A much missed era.