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


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  2. Stuff your ads, adney jhon. I liked this article and thanks for writing it Mr Silkov.

  3. it all could have been so different for him and eventually his sons.