Sunday, March 27, 2016

TBG Book Review: Thinkin Big: The Story of James "Quick" Tillis, the Fightin Cowboy

Review by Peter Silkov

Thinkin Big: The Story of James "Quick" Tillis, the Fightin Cowboy

By James ‘Quick’ Tillis and J. Engleman Price

“Thinkin Big: The Story of James "Quick" Tillis, the Fighting Cowboy” is the quirky and entertaining autobiography of former heavyweight boxing contender, James ‘Quick’ Tillis, which comes at you as fast and snappy as one of ‘Quick’s left jabs.

Tillis was one of top contenders in the heavyweight division during the 1980s, a time when the division, and boxing as a whole, was still enjoying the after effects of the Muhammad Ali-inspired golden era of the 1970s. This was a time when the heavyweight division was still full of talent and distinctive characters. A contest for the World heavyweight title was still able to spark the kind of buzz and interest that is all too absent today. Yet, is was also a bittersweet time, which saw the various world boxing bodies begin their steady erosion of the sport’s credibility with their multiple world titles. The 1980s would also see a number of the sport’s top names fall victim to drugs, alcohol, corrupt managers, and promoters. The heavyweights of the 1980s are often referred to as the ’lost generation’ due to so many of them seeing their careers derailed by a mixture of self-indulgence and managerial and promotional corruption.

After he was inspired to take up boxing after watching a young Muhammad Ali win the World heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, Tillis compiled a 92-8 amateur record, before turning professional in 1978.  ‘Quick’ would model his style on his hero, Ali, and become a slick, hit and move boxer, with a good punch ,and a sturdy chin.

In a era that was populated by heavyweights who had been inspired by ‘The Greatest,’ Tillis did not always receive the praise and recognition that his talent deserved.

James Tillis, was born James Theodore Tillis, on July 5, 1957, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Descended from Choctaw Indians, Tillis is as much at home on a horse, as he is in a boxing ring, hence his second ring name of ‘Cowboy.’ Tillis comes across as having more than a little of the swash buckling gunslinger in his autobiography. 
In “Thinking Big” Tillis gives us an engaging recollection of his boxing career; a career, which saw him rise to the heights, and come within touching distance of the World heavyweight championship.  Unfortunately, Tillis’ rise to the title would end in a disappointing defeat, and after that, his career would become a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, triumphs, and defeats.  Tillis’ ring form became erratic, with flashes of brilliance being interspersed with patches of laziness, and a lack of stamina, that all too often, saw him lose fights that he seemed capable of winning. 

Later he would find out that there was a medical reason for his lack of stamina in some of his key fights.
 Tillis recounts how ill health, poor management, and bad luck hampered his career.  James’ story is about fighting for survival in one of the toughest and most unforgiving of professions. Boxing is still seen as a sport by many, but it is a sport that is run by some very ruthless and unforgiving businessmen.  It is a profession where a fighter, if not careful, can be ate up and spat out, when they are no longer useful.

Despite his defeats and setbacks, Tillis never falls into self-pity, he always seems to be ready to laugh at his own misfortunes, and admit to his own mistakes.

During his career ‘Quick’ fought many of the best heavyweights of his generation, including, Mike Weaver, Ernie Shavers, Pinklon Thomas, Greg Page, Gerrie Coetzee, Tim Witherspoon, Marvis Frazier, Tyrell Biggs, Carl Williams, Mike Tyson, Joe Bugner, Frank Bruno, Gary Mason, and Evander Holyfield.  Tillis fought the four biggest punchers of his era in Weaver, Shavers, Coetzee and Tyson, and his detailed accounts of his fights with Weaver, Shavers, and Tyson are amongst the highlights of the book.

Tillis was the first man to take Tyson to the 10-rounds distance, and to also give a glimpse of how ‘Iron Mike’ would eventually be defeated…by a mobile heavyweight with a good jab.  Indeed, many people felt that Tyson was lucky to get the point’s verdict in his fight with ‘Quick.’

“Thinking Big” is a very visceral account of James’ ups and downs in life, both inside, and outside of the ring, and despite the ups and downs, he always retains a sense of humour that fills, and lights up the book. You really do feel, when reading this book, that you are sitting with ‘The Fighting Cowboy’ beside a burning campfire, listening to him tell you the story of his fighting career.  It is a colourful and exuberant ride, and you will finish the book wishing that we could get back to the days when the heavyweight division was populated by colourful fighters such as James ’Quick’ Tillis.  This is a book, which is quick on the draw, and doesn’t slacken its pace until the final bell.

*The book contains many photographs, the photos on this page are not from the book.

Copyright © 2016 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to

Sunday, March 20, 2016

TBG Book Review: Mexican American Boxing in Los Angeles

The Boxing Glove Sunday Book Review by Peter Silkov

 “Mexican-American Boxing In Los Angeles” by Gene Aguilera

“Mexican-American Boxing In Los Angeles” is one of those books, that once you pick up, and start reading it, you don’t want to put it down again, until you have devoured it, from cover, to cover.  Once finished, the chances are that you will want to go back and read portions of it again. Author Gene Aguilera has created a little gem here, which records the colourful and exciting history of boxing in Los Angeles, with a passion and depth that, belies the books compact frame. Like many of the fighters, whose stories are mentioned within its pages, this book is a great example of how great things can often come in small packages.  Whilst it weighs in at 128 pages, “Mexican-American Boxing In Los Angeles” has a wealth of content and detail that makes it feel far more substantial than other books many pages larger.  

Aguilera has interspersed mini career biographies of the numerous Mexican-American fighters who have fought in Los Angeles, with a stunning collection of rare photos of the fights and fighters, who have made the Los Angeles area such a legendary boxing hot bed over the years.

The Mexican pugilist has long held a special place within the sport. Few other nationalities in boxing have had such a colourful and exciting history as the Mexican boxer, except that is, his American counterpart, and so taking this into account; it is not hard to understand the appeal of the Mexican-American fighter to the fight fan.  Mexican-American boxers have, for many years, been stars for both Mexican and American fans.  Mexican fans will always support their own fighters with a fervour that few other nationalities can match. On the other hand, the American fight fan, though naturally more guarded and picky about the boxers whom they give their affections too, is normally a soft touch for a fighter with a big punch and big character.  It should therefore be no surprise then, that for many American boxing followers, the Mexican-American fighter represents the best of both worlds.

The Olympic Auditorium in the 1970s
Gene Aguilera takes us on an historical ride through the swashbuckling exploits of the fighting men who put Los Angeles onto the boxing map.  We visit the famous arenas and stadiums, where so many unforgettable fistic wars were witnessed by thousands of screaming fight fans, places such as The Olympic Auditorium, The Inglewood Forum, The Legion Stadium, and Wrigley Field.

We also get to meet many of the fighters whose exploits inside the ropes would make them stars who were worshipped by their fans. They were treated like Rock stars, long before the birth of rock and roll.  Mexican-American boxer had a certain style, a certain code of fighting. They were brave and aggressive inside the ring, with a big punch, and a willingness to give the fans what they want, which was excitement and action in every round of every fight. These fighters were not unskilled in the finer points of boxing, but they understood that their fans wanted them to fight, win or lose, in a certain way. They understood that they were entertainers, as well as fighters.  Usually these men led as eventful and often controversial lives outside of the ring, as they did inside it.

One more prerequisite of the Mexican-American boxer is that he always fought the very best, resulting in the countless legendary ring wars that are scattered through the last 100 years of boxing’s history. While many world champions have come from the Mexican-American community, there are also many more that never reached the final heights, especially during boxing golden days, when one world champion ruled each division. You had to be something special just to get a shot at a world title.  Yet, even those who did not win world titles often won legendary status.

Aurelio Herrera
The first true Mexican-American boxing star was Aurelio Herrera, a lightweight, whose punching prowess was likened to the heavyweight champion James Jeffries.  Herrera fought the top featherweights and lightweights of early 1900s, in a career that spanned 1895 to 1909, and he beat many of them. He probably would have won a world title had his hard-hitting fighting style inside the ring, not been matched by his penchant for hard living outside of the ring. As with the many Mexican-American fighters who followed him,

Herrera earned a fortune with his fists, due to the explosive mix of his ability, and the excitement and charisma that he brought to the ring. The Mexican-American pugilist seldom performs to anything less than a full house. Like so many of those who would come after him, money flowed through Herrera’s hands with the speed of his punches in the ring, and by the time he had retired there was little left.  Yet if anything, Herrera was adored by his fans as much for his flaws and his foibles, as for his ability to knock a man out with one punch. Herrera inspired generations of Mexican-American fighters to believe that they too could find fame and fortune with their fists. This included countless young Mexican boxers who would make the pilgrimage to Los Angeles, in the search of fistic glory.  Over the years, Los Angeles became the Promised Land, for all such fighters looking to change their lives with their fists.

Herrera was followed closely by Mexican Joe Rivers, another sensational lightweight, who twice challenged, unsuccessfully, for the World lightweight championship in 1912, and 1913. Rivers world title fight with Ad Wolgast in 1912 has gone down in boxing history as one of the most savage and controversial world title fights ever seen.

The first Mexican-American to win a world championship was Baby Arizmendi, who won the World featherweight championship in 1932.  Arizmendi was Mexican born, but a long time resident of Los Angeles by the time he won his world championship.

Manuel Ortiz
Perhaps the greatest Mexican-American boxer was Manuel Ortiz, who was World bantamweight champion from 1942 to 1950, with just a two-month hiatus in 1947, when he lost, then regained his title against Harold Dade.  Ortiz defended his world title 21 times during the 1940s, a feat only surpassed by the World heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

One of the most refreshing things about the Mexican-American fighters is that they seldom weigh in above the middleweight division, and offer great examples as to why there is far more to boxing than just the divisions above welterweights. Indeed, these are the fighters who have convinced many experienced boxing followers that the best action to be found in a ring is between lighter weight fighters.

The 40s were the beginning of a golden era for Los Angeles, a golden era, which would last on into the 1980s. Aguilera gives us portraits of the Mexican-American fighters who filled these decades with legendary ring wars. Some won world titles, and others were just contenders, but all had that certain something that marks the Mexican-American fighter out as special.

Welterweight, Art Aragon, was the original ‘Golden Boy’ and a top contender from the late 40s to the late 50s, while lightweight Enrique Bolanos was one of the most feared lightweights in the world through the mid, to late 1940s.  Although both men failed gallantly in their attempts to win world titles (Bolanos being beaten in 3 classic duels for the world championship by Ike Williams), each broke box office records when they fought in Los Angeles, and earned fortunes during their careers.

In many ways, Los Angeles reached its peak as a boxing hotbed during decades of the 60s to 80s.  The stars of this time were fighters like Mando Ramos, Bobby Chacon, Danny ’Little Red’ Lopez, Armando Muniz, and Carlos Palomino. 
Little Danny Lopez

Mando Ramos, was a young sensation who won the world championship by the time he was 20. Bobby Chacon is another boxer who won a world title while in his early 20s, and lived life as fast outside of the ring, as he fought inside of it. Then there is Carlos Palomino, a World welterweight champion of the mid 70s. Also, Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez, World featherweight champion of the late 70s to early 80s,and one of the most exciting world champions of modern times.

Aside from those who won world titles, there is a long list of Mexican-American fighters who were top contenders during the 60s to 80s era, fighters like Jesus Pimental, Ruben Navarro, Armando Muniz, Frankie Durate, Earnie Lopez, and Frankie & Tony Baltazar. 

When boxing was having its most successful era of modern times, Los Angeles was at the forefront of many of the most important matches of this era.

Carlos Palomino
With this book, Gene Aguilera has created a time capsule for the boxing aficionado.  You can smell the sweat and smoke of the arenas, hear the shouts of the crowd, and the thumping of the gloves against flesh. This is a book that you will feel the need to dip back into again and again, whether it be to read up on one of the outstanding fighters mentioned within its pages, or to look at some of the multitude of rare photos that can found on every page.

This book is a little gold mine for anyone with an interest in the Los Angeles boxing scene, and the golden era of boxing itself; when champions were real champions, and the contenders fought each other almost every week in order to try and get a shot at becoming champions themselves.

For any boxing fan, this book is the real thing.   

*Note: On February 19, 2016, Gene Aguilera was inducted into The National Boxing Hall of Fame. 

Where to find the book:

You can find "Mexican American Boxing in Los Angeles" at many retail book shops, online, and independent dealers.

Here are a few:

Copyright © 2016 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Kid Azteca: The Mexican Champion That Punched His Way Through Five Decades

Kid Azteca is one of Mexico’s legendary fighters. Azteca never won a world championship, but he was a top contender for the World welterweight title throughout most of the 1930s and 40s. He was one of Mexico’s earliest boxing stars, paving the way for the many great Mexican world champions who would take over many of the sport's lighter weight divisions from the 1950s onwards.

Born Luis Villanueva Paramo in Tepito, Distrito Federal, Mexico, Azteca’s birth date is generally given as being June 21, 1913, but some sources have placed his birth date as June 21, 1917, which would make him only 12 years old when he started his professional boxing career in 1929. Starting his career fighting under the name of ‘Kid Chino’ Azteca was a strong and fearless fighter, with a dynamite punch, that would score over 100 knockouts during his career. Some of the top names that Azteca fought, included fighters such as Battling Shaw, Tommy White, Eddie Cerda, Joe Glick, Eddie Frisco, Ceferino Garcia, Manuel Villa 1, Richie Mack, Young Peter Jackson, Baby Joe Gans, Cocoa Kid, Chief Parris, Fritzie Zivic, California Jackie Wilson, Charley Salas, and Sammy Angott.

Azteca won the Mexican Welterweight title on October 23, 1932, when he out-pointed David Velasco over 12 rounds. It was the beginning of a tremendous 16-year reign, which would see him defend the title successfully 11 times, before vacating it, undefeated champion, on March 1949. Azteca would try and regain his title 10 months later, on January 28, 1951, but was stopped in 10 rounds by El Conscripto. By this time, Azteca was in his late 30s and fading, yet he carried on fighting until 1961, going 28-2-2 in his last 32 contests, although against lesser opposition than he had fought in his prime.

Kid Azteca finally ended his career with a 1st round knockout of Alfonso Malacara, on February 3, 1961. Azteca ended his career having achieved the rare feat of fighting within 5 decades, and scoring over 100 knockouts, making him one of boxing’s most formidable punchers. Azteca’s final record was 192(114koes)-46-11. Kid Azteca died on March 16, 2002. 

Copyright © 2016 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to

Sunday, March 6, 2016

TBG Book Review: Sweet Agony

By Peter Silkov

‘Sweet Agony’ is the only book by Paul Sykes, a 6’ ft. 3”in., 16 stone, ex-professional heavyweight boxer, record breaking weightlifter, and notorious ‘hardman’, who at the time of this book’s original publication, in 1990, had spent 21 of the previous 26 years of his life in prison. 

After almost two decades out of print, ‘Sweet Agony’ has finally been reprinted.  This is a book that has been a cult classic and collector’s item for many years, partly due to the lingering mystique of Paul Syke’s name, reputation, and partly due to the fact that ‘Sweet Agony’ is something a little bit special. ‘Sweet Agony’ is one of those books that stays with you long after you have read it for the first time. The book’s title describes its contents, at times it is an amusing, entertaining read, yet, with an overriding sense of melancholy throughout. St Thomas Aquinas said that he feared ‘the man of one book,’ and one would have to wonder what he would have made of Paul Sykes had they ever met. 

Paul Sykes was a violent man, whose temper was fueled by a dangerous relationship with alcohol, and most of his prison sentences were due to assaults, and often upon figures of authority. Sykes was born on March 7, 1946, and grew up on the Lupset estate of Wakefield, and even before the publication of his book, ‘Sweet Agony,’ was already a local legend. Much of that legend was built around his short, but meteoric boxing career. 

Sykes had been a promising amateur boxer, before his teenage spiral into petty crime saw his boxing hopes derailed, as he began his many stints in jail. During the late 70s, in one of his longest periods out of jail, and despite already being in his early 30s, Sykes became a professional boxer, and in just 16 months, fought his way to a shot at the British and Commonwealth, heavyweight titles. ’Sweet Agony’ focuses on that part of Sykes’ life, where he had the chance of escaping from the demons that had already shaped his life, demons that would eventually totally consume him. 

When reading ’Sweet Agony’ one thing that becomes clear, for all his faults, Paul Sykes was a complex man. ’Sweet Agony’ is a many layered book, which as well as dealing with Sykes’ boxing ambitions, he also analyses his constant struggle with himself, and the world around him. It is clear that Sykes is a person who found the day-to- day life outside of prison hard to cope with in the extreme. By the time he turned professional, at the age of 32, Sykes had already spent nearly half his life behind bars, and as you read ’Sweet Agony’ it becomes clear that in many ways for Sykes, ’freedom’ was a day-to-day torture. Sykes’ only escape from the internal disquiet, which fills much of ’Sweet Agony’ is either alcohol or boxing. There is a feeling throughout the book that Sykes’ boxing career is a last chance for him to become something in his life. As Sykes draws nearer, to what has become the inevitable showdown with John L Gardner for the British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles, the overriding feeling of foreboding and desperation in Sykes becomes more and more palpable.

Sykes writes throughout this book with skill, feeling, and often with a self-depreciating humour. Despite its often gritty subject matter, there is a lot of humour in this book. Yet, there is also an undercurrent of sadness and melancholy, as the reader and perhaps the author himself, is only too aware of the ultimate hopelessness of his boxing ambitions, and the ultimate consequences of this inevitable failure.

‘Sweet Agony’ gives a fascinating insight into the world of heavyweight boxing in the late 70s. At one point, Sykes was used as a sparring partner for the World heavyweight champion, Leon Spinks, and was on the threshold of the real big time, but Sykes’ boxing career crumbled just as quickly as it had taken off. His title fight with John L. Gardner is the climax of ’Sweet Agony,’ but while this book offers compelling insights into Sykes’ rollercoaster boxing career, it is also a study of the psychology of a man seemingly bent on self-destruction.

The reasons for Sykes’ disturbed personality are not hard to find. It is clear that he had a very fractious relationship with both his mother and his father, and that he suffered varying abuse from his father. Sykes’ maniacal hatred of authority figures is quite telling when you find out that his father, after 10 years in the army, spent the rest of his working life as a prison warden. It is almost as if Sykes lived out the vast majority of his adult life to spite and shame his father.

Ironically, whereas his boxing career had failed to change the course of his life, it did look for a while as if Sykes might change the course of his life when ’Sweet Agony’ was published in 1990. Sykes’ natural writing talent was clear to see and he was awarded the Arthur Koestler literary award for ’Sweet Agony.’ Yet, once more, Paul could not escape from his demons. In 1990, there was a documentary made about Sykes, ’Paul Sykes At Large.’ It is a compelling, often disturbing, portrait of himself at the time of the publication of ’Sweet Agony’ and follows him when he is newly released from prison. The documentary soon shows dark glimpses of Paul’s eventual fate, as he returns to drinking on his release from prison, and his troubled relationship with his wife, Cath, his children and parents, becomes all too painfully clear.

It is no accident that Paul wrote ’Sweet Agony’ while in prison, and upon his release, never wrote again. Perhaps prison was the one place in which Sykes felt comfortable. Certainly on his release from prison, Sykes was never able to regain the control and focus which had allowed him to write ‘Sweet Agony’. 

‘Sweet Agony’ is the kind of book that stays in your mind long after you have read it. It is funny, sad, thoughtful, and outrageous. It is in many ways, one man’s final attempt to make sense of the chaotic and destructive course that his life has taken; an attempt at redemption. In the end, Paul Sykes’ life reads very much like a Greek tragedy. His life took on a much darker tone in the years following the publication of  ’Sweet Agony,’ as Sykes fell into a spiral of alcoholism, and pretty crime.  Ultimately, Sykes’ ’hard man’ reputation became just another burden upon him. The curse of the unbroken cycle of violence and abuse has seen both of Sykes son’s jailed for murder. Sykes himself died in 2007 of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver.     

Paul Sykes’ life was not one with a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination. Ironically, it is his one book, ‘Sweet Agony,’ which stands as the most positive aspect to emerge from a violent, chaotic, life. ‘Sweet Agony’ is a funny, insightful, and gripping novel, by a complex, intelligent and talented, yet, ultimately fatally flawed man.  

 Copyright © 2016 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to