Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

January 6, 2009

The Sweetest Science

Veteran boxing scribe George Kimball revives the era when a distinguished quartet of pugilists ruled the sport.

Max Lakin

There is a kind of after-hours stigma attached to modern boxing. Far removed from Ali standing—black-and-white-poster-print—over Liston, fights now are usually a rock-em, sock-em Late Nite show piped out on deeply-buried cable stations, or a blue-moon main event accompanied by the letters PPV and sponsorships shinier than the shorts in the ring. Boxing's been given the inorganic HBO treatment—bastardized, some would say—by grotesque caricatures like Tyson and his impossibly-high-pitches theatrics.

Which is perhaps why boxing—the way it used to be—has been canonized, too, enjoying somewhat of a sentimental resurgence in the mainstream with movies like Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, and Resurrecting the Champ portraying a pageant of grit and heart—of earnest men giving themselves to the ring and doing it for pride and class, not promotional contracts.

George Kimball. Photo by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.
"Every generation has fretted about the decline of the sport and longed for the good old days."

George Kimball. Photo by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.

It is precisely this kind of boxing that veteran sportswriter George Kimball chronicles exhaustively in Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Durán and the Last Great Era of Boxing, an enthusiastic jaunt through the sport's brief return to artistry in the post-Ali era, painted by Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, and Roberto Durán.

The book reads like a compendium of boxing manna in its own right, with recollections from fighters, promoters, and those for whom simply watching these fighters spar was as much a thrill as a gift. But more so, Four Kings is the product of Kimball's immediately apparent zeal for the processes of the sport—the sweat-and-blood stuff that Norman Mailer and W.C. Heinz poured their souls out for—and the guttural impulses that qualify the act of grown men walloping each other as a ballet suite.

Kimball has written about more than 400 title bouts, and spent a quarter-odd century doing it for the Boston Herald. He has a 1986 Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism, and a marriage license from the Reverend George Foreman (yes, he of the grill). Gelf spoke with Kimball about writing on a subject so ingrained in his memory, witnessing the transformation of boxing, and bottling up the last great breaths of the sport. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can hear Kimball and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Friday, January 9, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Why write this book now?

George Kimball: Until I retired from the Boston Herald in late June 2005, I really didn't have the time to do it. For me, writing a column for a daily newspaper was such a mentally exhausting exercise that the last thing I felt like doing on my own time was more writing. Then once I did retire, I involved myself in a number of projects, among them working on The Chairman of the Boards, Eamonn Coghlan's autobiography, so I still didn't get to it right away. I knew I wanted to write books, if only because I realized that 99% of what I'd written over the previous 35 years had wound up wrapping fish, and once it came into focus I was able to throw myself into Four Kings and commit to a pretty disciplined writing schedule. The fact that I'd been diagnosed with cancer two months after I retired provided additional impetus. I wasn't sure how much time I had but I wanted to make the most of it. I'd kept boxes and boxes of stuff that had survived half a dozen moves and two marriages, so the moral of the story is: Don't ever throw out anything. I cite a couple dozen books, a like number of magazine sources, and five newspaper archives, but the truth of the matter is that, by a long shot, my principal sources were my own clippings and notes. And once I got it organized, the writing itself came fairly easily. Once I had a clear idea in my own mind what I wanted to do with it, this was a book that pretty much wrote itself. If you mean why now instead of then, if I'd written it in, say, 1990, right after the rivalry ended, it would have been a very different book. With the perspective of a quarter-century, the focus was much clearer, and of course today there's a certain nostalgic appeal to fans of that era, as well. Gelf Magazine: Why did Leonard, Durán, Hagler, and Hearns become so prolific in the 1980s? Do you think their fights would have been as important if didn't coincide with the near-complete meltdown of major American athletics at the time?

George Kimball: Leonard, Hagler, and Durán all had twice as many fights in the '70s as they did in the '80s, and Hearns had nearly as many (24 to 25). But their most important fights occurred in the latter decade—with the obvious exception of Durán, who would have been a Hall of Famer on the strength of his lightweight accomplishments even had he never fought the other three. The Four Kings era was for him really a second career.
From a boxing context, they were always going to be viewed as important, but back then, even the casual sports fan was paying attention. Because of their earlier exposure on network weekend television, they were all familiar to audiences, so people were more invested in their later, bigger fights, and the fact that the Ali era had just ended allowed these later boxers to assume center stage. But the fact that MLB and the NFL had numerous labor-driven work stoppages and that the Olympics were undermined by boycotts obviously worked in favor of the exposure these fights received.

Gelf Magazine: After the height of performance marked by the kings, boxing kind of fell back into the shadows: persistent rumors of fixed fights, crooked officials, etc. Was that underbelly always there, or was that just a credit to the greatness of Hagler and Co., that they had kept the sport hoisted on their shoulders for as long as they did?

George Kimball: I beg to disagree with you here. Fixed fights were far more prevalent in an earlier era, when gambling was an underground industry and bookies handled all the action. With most betting today taking place at sports books, there's a scrutiny in which unusual betting patterns are immediately obvious. Today's sanctioning bodies are no doubt corrupt, but in a different way than when the mob was the most influential force in the sport. And the era of the Four Kings was immediately preceded by the US Boxing Championships scandal of the 1970s in which Don King, ABC, and The Ring were all implicated.
Hagler himself complained that "Vegas judges" and gambling interests influenced the outcome of the Leonard fight, but an investigation determined otherwise. You still get very questionable decisions today. I think that has more to do with the ineptitude of some of the judges they assign than with larcenous motives.

Gelf Magazine: You credit the quartet with "saving boxing from itself." Where do you consider the sport today, in terms of those years? Where do you think it's going?

George Kimball: I don't think today's overall quality is what it was then, though in some of the lower-weight classes today you have the potential for some truly great rivalries that will be viewed kindly 25 years from now. From a worldwide perspective, the sport remains enormously popular, and you've probably got more boxing available on US television than ever before. The networks, and HBO in particular, don't always encourage the best matchups, and in fact often discourage them in their own self-interest, so you wind up with huge moneymakers like Pacquiao-De La Hoya, which was a big "event," but in terms of its importance on the boxing landscape, it was almost irrelevant.
As far as I can tell, every generation has fretted about the decline of the sport and longed for the good old days. Today's heavyweights suck, and they all seem to speak Russian, but back in the '60s old-timers used to bitch because there seemed to be no credible challenger among the guys Ali was beating before his exile. Compared to today's heavyweights, guys like Folley and Machen and Terrell and Cleveland Williams look like Hall of Famers.

Gelf Magazine: You were witness to all nine of the kings' collective fights. Was that a conscious decision on your part, some prediction of their caliber, or just serendipitous?

George Kimball: Serendipitous, I'd say. I covered 90 world title fights between 1980 and '89, and these happened to be nine of them.

Gelf Magazine: Of all the fights between the kings, which do you consider the most important, and is that the same as being the greatest?

George Kimball: Almost every one of them was memorable. The first Leonard-Hearns fight in 1981, because of all its dramatic nuances, was end-to-end the greatest fight I've ever covered. Leonard-Hagler was the most controversial and hence probably the most-discussed today. Hagler-Hearns was the most furious and action-packed, while it lasted, and Leonard-Durán II—the No Mas fight—the most notorious. But insofar as importance goes, I might have to say that the first Durán-Leonard fight really set the stage for the others. If they'd never fought, or if Leonard had won it, who knows how the rest of the decade might have played out?

Gelf Magazine: How does "The War"—Hagler and Hearns's Tax Day bout in 1985—rank in your personal Hall of Fame? Does it hold up to its grandiose moniker today?

George Kimball: Although it certainly was a War, Hagler-Hearns was actually billed as "The Fight." Bob Arum saved "The War" for the second Leonard-Hearns fight. It was almost certainly the greatest short fight in boxing history, and the first round remains the standard against which all others are measured. It was breathtaking in its fury—but it only lasted eight minutes.

Gelf Magazine: After Hagler lost the middleweight title to Leonard in 1987, he retired from boxing, moved to Italy, and became a B-movie actor. This was a guy described by Howard Cosell as "a man so fierce that hair fears to grow on his head." Did you see that coming?

George Kimball: I don't think anybody did. Marvin was a blue-collar guy, and even when he fought for the title he was hoping to earn enough money to open a laundromat. In his prime, he did a couple of commercials where he was cast as a sophisticated, gentlemanly squire with elegant diction, and those were effective mainly because it was such a contrast to his image. Who could have guessed he would adopt and grow into that persona?
As I note in Four Kings: "That Hagler was going to be a world champion seemed to me a foregone conclusion. That he would in his dotage occupy a box at La Scala was somewhat less predictable."

George Kimball at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part I.

George Kimball at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part II.

George Kimball at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part III.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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