Monday, August 31, 2015

TBG Book Review: Battling Ski by Peter Benson

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review by Peter Silkov

“Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race & Murder in the 1920s”  By Peter Benson.

 “A lot of newspaper people have written that I have a jungle-style of fighting, that I am a chimpanzee, who has been taught to wear gloves. That kind of thing hurts me. I was never anywhere, but in a big city, in my life. I have never even seen a jungle.” Battling Siki

The life story of Battling Siki is one of the darkest and most dramatic of any world champion in boxing’s long history.  Dark, because of the tragedy, which his life became, and because of the thick cloak of rumour, myth, and mystery that surround both his life, death, and his boxing career.

In “Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race & Murder in the 1920s” Peter Benson explores the life and career of one of boxing’s most notorious and misunderstood champions.  Siki rose to fame and won the World light-heavyweight championship, but found only persecution and disdain as champion.   Just a little over three years after he won the world title from Georges Carpentier, Siki was found dead in a dark alley in New York’s ‘Hells Kitchen’, his turbulent life ended by two bullets in the back.

Born Amadou M’Barick Fall on September 16, 1897, (though his exact birth date has also been a subject of dispute) in Saint Louis, Senegal, he would later call himself Louis Phal, and fight under the name of Battling Siki.  From early on, Fall’s life seemed destined to be removed from the ordinary.  When he was around 10 years of age, Fall was ‘adopted’ by a wealthy woman, who may have been either Dutch or German (and either a dancer or an actress) and taken with her to France. For a while, she dressed and fed him and taught him to read, before suddenly disappearing from his life.  As with many aspects of his life, Siki’s benefactress is a mysterious figure, and there are many conflicting stories about how and why she took Siki under her wing, and also why she eventually either abandoned him, or was forced to leave him behind.  Left to fend for himself, Siki went through a range of menial jobs, before eventually coming across boxing.

Siki’s professional boxing career started when he was barely 15 years old, and despite its mediocre beginnings, his early record was just 6-7-2. With the interruption of the 1st World War in which he fought and was awarded medals for bravery, would eventually lead him to the World light-heavyweight championship in 1922.Siki was the first coloured fighter to win a world title since the fall of Jack Johnson, and he was the first African to win a world championship in the sport’s history.

When he went from a boxing unknown, to World light-heavyweight champion, after beating French idol George Carpentier in front of his own adoring French fans, Siki became an overnight sensation.  Unfortunately, almost immediately his achievement was swallowed up by a tremendous backlash of malignant publicity.  The fight itself was controversial, with rumours that Siki had agreed to ‘lay down’ for Carpentier, only to change his mind midfight.  The press generally was horrified by Siki’s victory over Carpenteir, and immediately began to attack Siki with a mixture of ridicule and condemnation, and with the strong racist overtones plain for everyone to see.

Siki, who was a come-forward, free-swinging slugger, was depicted as a savage figure straight out of the jungle.

"Even Siki’s own manager, Charlie Hellers was quick to point out the fighter’s “gorilla’s skill and manners” to reporters. “He’s a scientific ape,” Hellers said. “Just imagine an ape that has learned to box and you have Battling Siki.”
Siki was described either as a ‘savage’ or a ‘clown’ and an illiterate, who grunted and rolled his eyes in the ring, and was barely able to speak.  Siki’s cause was not helped by the fact that his character was not of the shy and retiring type, he was more Jack Johnson in personality, than Tiger Flowers. 

Confronted by a wave of negative publicity almost from the minute that he had won his world title, the new champion, rather than bow down and try to hide away, began to revel in his notoriety and fame. He indulged in long nights of drinking, partying, and walking through the streets of Paris with his pet lions and loaded guns. The press quickly jumped upon this aspect of his personality, which along with his colour, made him even more of a threat to modern civilization in their eyes.

Add to this, Siki’s cardinal sin of being married to a white woman, and soon he was being viewed as great a menace, as Jack Johnson ever was before him.  In the end, even the generally more tolerant French press and public turned on Siki, still shocked and devastated by the fall of their beloved George Carpentier to the hands of a savage.

Siki’s reign as world champion was short and turbulent, with Siki getting in more trouble and fights outside the ring, than inside it. The world championship soon proved to be a poisoned chalice for Siki, who found himself unable to get a fight of any kind, as the boxing authorities around the world turned upon him.  When he did finally secure a place to defend his world title, six months after he had won it, Siki found himself defending his world title in Ireland against an Irishman, Mike McTigue, on St Patrick’s day, in the midst of a civil war.

It almost goes without saying that after the fight had traveled the full 20 rounds, to the sound of constant gunfire outside the building, it was McTigue’s hand that was raised in victory, and Siki left Ireland shorn of his world crown. Many writers over the years have used the story of Siki's St. Patrick’s Days world title defence, in Ireland, against an Irishman, as an illustration of the Senegalese fighter’s lack of intelligence. The truth is that Siki had no other options of fighting and defending his title anywhere else.

Being an ex-world champion did not bring Siki peace from the constant barbs of the press and public in general.  If anything, it intensified the ridicule that he had to endure daily.  Struggling to find fights, he went to America, where his reputation deepened further, as did his wild and reckless nightlife.  By the time he was shot dead in Hell’s Kitchen, Siki’s boxing career was more or less finished, as he had suffered a trail of damaging defeats.  Siki’s greatest achievement in the ring had brought him only personal and professional ruin.

Peter Benson goes through Siki’s life meticulously, trying to separate fact from fiction, exposing the virulent abuse that Siki had to suffer for his achievements, and his wish not to bow down to the constraints of his time.  Siki emerges from this book as a colourful and extrovert character, who found himself, overwhelmed by the mixture of fascination and repulsion, that his exploits generated.  It’s easy to see that Siki’s non-stop carousing was at least in part an effort to block out the reality of the hostility that he had to deal with every day.  He was also stuck in a vicious circle of needing to play on his infamy, as it was the only way in which he could gain fights, and earn money.

More than anything, he was a victim of the racism of the day. He did not have the kind of character to weather the barbs of his time, unlike Tiger Flowers and Joe Louis later on.  Instead, Siki tried to snub his nose at his detractors, in a manner much like Jack Johnson, but unlike Johnson, was in the end overwhelmed by the reputation that he and his detractors had created. 

Siki comes alive in these pages, and the reader finds himself sympathizing with his plight, and admiring his courage. This is an absorbing and engaging portrait of a fighter who has, until now, been much maligned and misunderstood. It is also a searing documentary of the times, and the prejudice’s and hostility that fighters of colour had to deal with on a daily basis.  Most of them dealt with their situation with quiet stoicism. Those that dared to stand up and try to break the constraints of their time ended up like Battling Siki.

Perhaps most poignant in this biography is Siki’s plea that he is not an ignorant beast.  “A lot of newspaper people have written that I have a jungle-style of fighting, that I am a chimpanzee, who has been taught to wear gloves. That kind of thing hurts me. I was never anywhere, but in a big city, in my life. I have never even seen a jungle.” In the end, however, he seemed to give up on himself as he fell into a steady decline of drinking and getting into constant scrapes with the New York police.

“Battling Siki” is made complete by a collection of rare photographs of Siki.  This is a haunting biography that will appeal to any boxing fan wishing to explore the life of one of the ring’s most tragic and enigmatic figures. 

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and
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Sunday, August 23, 2015

TBG Book Review: Slats: The Legend & Life Of Jimmy Slattery

 The Boxing Glove Sunday Book Review by Peter Silkov
 "Slats: The Legend & Life Of Jimmy Slattery" Written by Rich Blake

Alongside the era of the 1970s and 80s, boxing’s other great golden era is widely agreed to have been the 1920s and 30s. This was a time of million dollar gates, a multitude of talented fighters in every division, and numerous boxing clubs holding sold out fight cards every day of the week. At that time, the light-heavyweight division in particular held some of the most talented fighters of any weight in boxing.  Men like Tommy Loughran, Jack Delaney, Mike Mctigue, Paul Berlenbach, and Maxie Rosenbloom, but the man whom was thought by many to be the most talented of all the fighters in the 175 division was Jimmy Slattery.  

Born in Buffalo, New York, on August 25, 1904, and of Irish descent, Slattery was a unique and mercurial talent, with exceptional speed, mobility, and defensive wizardry.  Slattery would fight with his hands down by his sides, as he bounced about the ring in a manner akin to how a young Muhammad Ali would box some 40 years later. The Irishman also had a good punch in both hands, and the ability to lash out with blinding combinations.  Add to this a toughness, which defied his handsome, yet fragile looking physique and it seems that Slattery had it all. At one point during the 1920s he was heralded as the next World heavyweight champion, and praised and admired by figures such as Jim Corbett and Gene Tunney.  Former World heavyweight champion, Corbett, had described Slattery as “the most perfect fighting machine I ever saw."

Despite all of his ability, Jimmy Slattery was fatally flawed with a love of the nightlife and an idiosyncratic attitude to the serious side of boxing. After turning professional as a lanky 17 year-old, he began to find success as a boy wonder. The adulation and success that quickly came his way soon found him being drawn towards the bright lights, fast cars and glamorous women, rather than the humdrum repetitiveness of training.  Although Slattery would go on to win the World light-Heavyweight championship twice and finish his career with an impressive 111(49koes)-13 record.  His was still a talent perhaps only half realised.  Finished as a top fighter by the age of 28, Slattery’s life soon descended into the chaotic twilight world of alcoholism.

Since his death in 1960, at the age of 56, Slattery has been all but forgotten by the wider boxing world. All of that is about to change now, with Rich Blake’s meticulous and engrossing biography of the wayward, yet, immensely talented boxer, who was being called a ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ of the ring by boxing writers 20 years before the great Willie Pep made that nick name his own.      

Rich has produced a biography that is not only fascinating for the detailed facts, which he uncovers about Slattery’s life, but it is crafted in such a way that it is really hard to put down once you begin reading it. While Rich’s admiration for ‘Slats’ is clear, within these pages, he does not let it colour his work, and is not blind to the fighter’s darker side.
Slattery’s life reads like a film script. An unknown, fragile looking teenager discovers that he can fight when standing up to the street bully, and within five years, he is facing the great Harry Greb, and despite losing to Greb, is being hailed as one of the greatest talents in his or any division.  In the end, however, Slattery’s success would prove to be the trigger of his own ruination and demise.

Slattery rose to fame like a character from Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”  With his fall from the heights being just as fast and spectacular, as his rise.  Slattery in many ways embodied the ‘roaring 20s’, and looked for a while as if he really might be able to burn the candle at both ends, and continue to be a success inside the ring. His boxing career eventually fell apart, just as the roaring 20s came to a devastating end with the wall street crash, and the beginning of the Great Depression.
Rich does a great job of bringing Slattery back to life within the pages of “Slats: The Legend & Life of Jimmy Slattery. Slattery is revealed to be a complicated, flawed, yet, courageous, and a good-hearted man. He succumbed to the pressures and temptations of a success and fame, which came too fast and too soon for someone who was still a teenager when he first started, to taste the forbidden fruits of the fast life.  Indeed, as you read through this biography, and read about the fame and fortune that Slattery’s fistic ability brought to him, it becomes clear how difficult it must have been for any young man to keep a clear head when faced with the intoxicating acclaim, and the increasing demands of the ever growing throngs of fans and ‘hangers on’ that increasingly surrounded him.

Slattery’s boxing career is very well described here, with many of his most important contests analyzed in great detail.  One thing that emerges from these pages is that, despite his flaws and self destructive nature, Slattery still achieved an outstanding career, with his victories over the very best light-heavyweights of his day, plus two reigns as world champion.  If he was a wasted talent, he was a wasted talent who still managed to achieve an awful lot in the short time that he made the boxing ring the stage for his talent.  Slattery’s greatest fights with the likes of Jack Delaney, Paul Berlenbach, and Tommy Loughran are all relived here in great style.  Rich also provides insightful portraits of Slattery’s greatest rivals and the overall effect is to bring back alive these great characters and fighters of the 1920s era.

Undeniably, this is a bittersweet biography.  After experiencing Slattery’s greatest triumphs inside the ring, and being entertained by his daring playboy lifestyle outside of it, we then witness his fall from grace, as both his boxing career and private life collapse, and his steady alcoholic decline to his early death in a tiny hotel room.

This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in boxing’s golden era of the 1920s, and one of that era’s most gifted and flawed characters.  In the end, Slattery was as golden and flawed as the era in which he tasted his greatest success.  Slattery’s life might be seen by some as a tragedy, but can someone who has achieved so much in his life ever be truly tragic?  One thing that Jimmy Slattery was not, is ordinary, he was an extraordinary man in an extraordinary time, and it is good to see him brought back to life here in such a stylish manner.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and
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Sunday, August 16, 2015

TBG Book Review: Flight of the Hawk: The Aaron Pryor Story

The Boxing Glove Sunday Book Review by Peter Silkov
"Flight Of the Hawk: The Aaron Pryor Story" By Aaron Pryor and Marshall Terrill

When people talk about the greatest fighters of the 1980s, the names usually mentioned are those of Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, or Thomas Hearns. However, there were many other great fighters who were active during what may well have been one of the last ‘golden eras’ that the sport of boxing will experience. One fighter, whose name was mentioned in the same breath as those of Leonard, Duran, and Hearns during the early 1980s, and who for a while looked as if he had the ability to eclipse the success and fame of all three previously mentioned men, was Arron “The Hawk” Pryor. 

In “Flight of the Hawk,” Aaron Pryor tells us his story, from a difficult and often traumatic childhood, to his discovery of boxing as a teenager. It is a story of how he used his talent as a boxer to achieve wealth, fame, and success, only to then self-destruct, and see everything he had built and achieve collapse around him. He ended up back on the streets of his childhood with nothing except a bad eye and a life threatening drug addiction.

Pryor was one of the most charismatic, and controversial boxers of this time. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 20, 1955, into a dysfunctional family that struggled with poverty and various abuse issues. Pryor was a fighter who seemed to have talent to burn, and burn it he did.  Style-wise he was a fast, free swinging, boxer-fighter.  He fought with the kind of pace and aggression which provoked comparisons with the legendary Henry Armstrong.  He would come forward, throwing punches with both hands from all directions, and as a fight went on, he only seemed to get stronger and faster. In addition to this, Pryor could also box with great skill. Along with these attributes, Pryor had a swashbuckling attitude, he didn’t just want to win his fights, and he wanted to entertain. He would disdain his boxing skills and go toe-to-toe with his opponents, often taking punches he didn’t need to in order to underline his superiority.  Fans quickly took up his chant, ‘Hawk Time’, at his fights, with every contest, he became more popular.

Some purists frowned at Pryor’s approach in the ring. The fans, however, loved it.
After a great amateur career, which saw him just miss out on a place in the 1976 Olympic Games, and compile an amateur record of (204-16, Pryor turned pro in late 1976, and started demolishing opponents with impressive ease. Although he was climbing up the lightweight division with every fight, Pryor found that the top men in the 135 division were not eager to meet him in the ring. So, Pryor moved up to the light-welterweight division and on August 2, 1980, he knocked out Antonio Cervantes, who had been a great world champion in his own right in the 4th round, to win the WBA world light-welterweight championship.

What followed would be 5 years of brilliance, chaos, and ultimately self- destruction.  Pryor would never lose his world title in the ring, instead he was gradually stripped of recognition as world champion by the various world boxing bodies, as his life spiraled out of control.

In all, Pryor made 10 defences of his world title, with his crowning moment being in his 6th defence in November 1982, when he defended the title against the legendary Alexis Arguello.  In a fight that has been recognised as one of the greatest fights of that decade or any decade in fact, Pryor displayed the true extent of his ability for perhaps the first and only time of his professional career. In this fight, Pryor showed clearly that he had the possibility of greatness.

After he had bludgeoned Arguello into a 14th round knockout defeat, the talk was of Pryor fighting the likes of Duran, or Leonard, in what would have been huge fights. Yet, just as he had truly arrived, and was at last gaining the recognition that his talent and hard work deserved, Pryor’s world started to crumble. Although he would make 4 more defences of his world title, including beating Arguello for a second time, in reality, it was all down hill for Pryor after the first fight with Alexis.

With Marshall Terrill, Pryor details his climb to the top, and then the devastating fall back down to earth. His story is an often harrowing one, which shows the true ravages and dehumanization that comes with drug addiction. But, what might have been a great tragedy, in the end, turns into an uplifting story of redemption. As Pryor shows that the strength and will power, which made him a success in the first place, could also lead to his recovery from his addictions.

“Flight Of The Hawk” is interspersed with a lot of interviews with Pryor’s friends, fellow boxers, and family members, which serves to build a detailed and compelling portrait of Aaron, both as a person, and as a fighter.

As is often the case with boxing biographies, this is a great study of the human spirit, and all the conflicting facets that make human beings so complicated. We see once more how one man can be so talented and dedicated, and yet at the same time, how that same single-mindedness that took him to success, could also undo everything he had achieved.

“Flight of the Hawk” was published in 1996, has a number of photos, and Pryor’s full boxing record in its back pages.

This is a fascinating study of one of the greatest boxers of the 1980s, and how a man survived the destruction of that talent, and his boxing career. Just as he was in the ring, Aaron Pryor’s autobiography is hard-hitting, unrelenting, and will hold your attention from the beginning to the end.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and
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Sunday, August 9, 2015

TBG Book Review: Ted 'Kid" Lewis: His Life and Times

The Boxing Glove Sunday Book Review by Peter Silkov

“Ted Kid Lewis: His Life And Times”  by Morton Lewis

This week we are reviewing a book that was first published in 1990. “Ted Lewis: His Life And Times” by Morton Lewis.  Ted Kid Lewis has good cause to lay claim to being Britain’s greatest ever boxer. His career, which spanned from 1909 to 1929, is one of the most impressive of his time.  Beginning his career as a bantamweight, Lewis would climb the weight divisions all the way to the light-heavyweight class, even though he would never weigh much more than a middleweight himself.

Born Gershon Mendeloff, on October 28, 1893, in London, as Ted Kid Lewis, he would become one of Britain’s most exciting and respected fighters, taking America by storm, with a style that would gain him the nickname ‘The Crashing Dashing Bashing’ Ted Kid Lewis. 

Morton Lewis has written a fascinating biography about his father, a man who is a genuine ring legend, who won titles at multiple weights, and during the years 1914 to 1920, became Britain’s most popular and successful export to America.

“Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis: His Life And Times” is a captivating account of Lewis’s life and boxing career, from his earliest days growing up, to the ups and downs of his great boxing career, and finally his post boxing life.  It is a tale of rags to riches and then back again. Because of  Lewis’s strength of character and popularity, he and his wife Elsie lived in relative comfort into their later years.

Lewis career is a stark reminder of just how drastically boxing has changed in the last 100 years and how much harder the ‘hardest game’ used to be in Lewis’s time.  In 1912, at the age of just 18 years old, Lewis had no less than 39 contests, of which he lost only 4.  In his prime, Lewis thought nothing of fighting every two weeks, at least.  Indeed, he was of the old school of fighters who kept in fighting shape by fighting regularly, rather than spending months between fights toiling in the gym.

Lewis was a fearless man, always ready to fight anywhere and at any time, with no worry about the reputation or the size of his opponent; the bigger, both in size and reputation, was always the better for ‘The Kid.'

Even in today’s era, where weight jumping is common place and there are more titles than contenders, Lewis’s achievements are still unmatched, certainly by any other British fighter.  He won British and European titles at Featherweight, Welterweight, Middleweight, and also won a British title at light heavyweight.

It is his feats at welterweight, which are most remarkable.  In all, Lewis fought 28 times for the World welterweight title, 15 of them against his archrival, Jack Britton.  The rivalry between Britton and Lewis has gone down as one of the greatest in boxing history, with the pair fighting no less than 20 times between 1915 and 1921, with 15 of these fights being for the World welterweight championship.  The two men dominated the World welterweight title for over half a decade, as they duelled against one another, again and again, for the title.

Lewis first won the world title in his 2nd fight with Britton, then lost it in his 6th fight with Britton, regained it in his 13th fight with Britton, only to finally lose it once more to Britton in their 18th meeting.  Lewis was the first British fighter to regain a world title, a feat that stood unequaled until the 1980s, when Dennis Andries won regained the World light-heavyweight championship.  Although by this time, there were already multiple ‘world champions.’

This book offers a fascinating insight into the boxing world during the 1910s – 1920s. The reader has to marvel at the toughness, determination, and courage of the fighter of this time. These boxers entered the rings week after week, months after month, often carrying injuries of fights, which they had received in previous fights just recently.  In such a world, it took very special breed to come out on top and dominate, and Lewis was indeed a very special fighter.  He is also shown to have been a man of great integrity throughout his life and career.  Taking the ups and downs of his career without bitterness, or self pity, even though he often had to deal with the darker side of the hardest game.

Like many of the greats of the ring, Lewis went through his money as quickly as he made it. He fought on long past his prime, but he never fell into bitterness or regret and instead, lived an active and contented life until his death in 1970, at the age of 76.

Although Morton Lewis is writing about his father, this biography is a well balanced account of one of Britain’s greatest fighters.  This is recommended reading for anyone who wants to read about a time when boxing was bursting at the seams with activity, and when champions were few, but contenders were many.

“Ted Kid Lewis: His Life And Times” has a good collection of photos, many of them rare, and never seen before in print.  There is also a full list of Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis’s boxing career in the back section of the book.

Despite his greatness, Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis is a name not readily recognized by many of today’s boxing fans. By writing this biography about his father, Morton Lewis has produced a wonderful work, which will keep his father's memory and accomplishments alive to boxing followers, both old and young.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and
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