Books: Sport: Try a little tenderness

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The Independent Culture
George Plimpton once asked the former light-heavyweight champion, Billy Conn, if there was any truth in the view that a top boxer would not last two seconds against a seasoned streetfighter. The Irish-American laughed: he had plenty of encounters with streetfighters, and it "was like knocking over a girl". Whatever his Boycottian tendencies, Conn was a genuinely tough guy, but I doubt even he would have voiced a similar opinion in the hearing of Lenny McLean: 22 stone bare-knuckle bruiser and East End hard man.

McLean was the unofficial British all-in brawling champion, and his pacey autobiography The Guv'nor (Blake, pounds 14.99) contains most of the elements you might expect: the Krays, lectures on how the old-style villains kept the streets safe, a lovely old mum, right slags and genuine diamonds, Mad Frankie Fraser, and enough brutal violence to satisfy any teenage boy tired of books by SAS men.

McLean wonders how the ungloved Victorian prize fights could have lasted so long. No answer is supplied by Tony Gee's sprightly Up to Scratch (Lennard/ Queen Anne pounds 14.99), an anecdotal account of the golden age of the prize ring. But there are plenty of compensations - not least, a chance to enter the world of swells, low-lifes and sporting gents who once surrounded the roped square.

The relationship between boxer and trainer is often so close they end up with a single double-barrelled name between them: Tyson-D'Amato, Ali- Dundee. Nick Pitt's excellent The Paddy And The Prince (Yellow Jersey, pounds 16) reviews the umbilical bond that links Yorkshire Yemeni featherweight Naseem Hamed with eccentric Sheffield-based Irishman Brendan Ingle.The two men are gifted, and both have their faults. Ingle is prone to heavyweight didacticism; shopkeeper's son Hamed to an obnoxiousness bordering on cruelty. Pitt's account is so balanced and sympathetic you end feeling a little sorry for both.

In The Guv'nor there is photo of Lenny McLean on the set of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with co-star Vinnie Jones. The footballer, normally noted for being so rugged, looks oddly nervous. Perhaps this is why Jones makes no mention of the meeting in Vinnie (Headline, pounds 16.99). In fact, the former Wimbledon enforcer spends much of the book playing down a fearsome reputation and playing up his genuine love of the countryside. He almost succeeds. Nevertheless, the moment when he writes, a propos magpies, "I shoot all vermin", is one of the most genuinely chilling in sporting literature.

The searcher after less confrontational toughness might do better to invest in Close to the Wind (Headline, pounds 18.99), Pete Goss's gripping account of his gruelling experiences in the 1996 single-handed round-the-world yacht race. Jones might be able to grab Paul Gascoigne's privates, but would he be able to operate on his own elbow without anaesthetic using faxed instructions - as Goss did in mid-ocean?

Another high-class example of the sporting memoir is Harry Redknapp: my autobiography (Collins Willow, pounds 16.99), a refreshingly honest effort from the West Ham manager. It includes a colourful account of the Poplar boy's tribulations with foreign players (Marco Boogers ran away and was later discovered living in a caravan) - and the mandatory reference to the Krays.

The more modern trend is towards the confessional. Tony Adams's Addicted (Collins Willow, pounds 16.99) is the perceptive and painful account of the Arsenal skipper's battle with alcoholism. This is an excellent book about men whose will to win is sometimes a terror of losing; though old-fashioned fans might wonder where all the soul-unburdening will lead. It seems only a matter of time before an England player appears on Esther to announce he is a woman trapped in a man's body.

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