Jonathan Rendall: Writer on boxing and gambling who lived life close to the edge

 

The theme of Jonathan Rendall's writing life was risk. He came to prominence in the late 1980s as a vital new voice covering that most literary of sports, boxing, and captured in urgent, seductive prose the risk to life and limb that assails a fighter every time he enters the ring. But the risk came closer to home too. Rendall wrote about playing the odds in a book called, ominously, Twelve Grand. The terms of the contract with his publisher were that he would take his advance – the titular £12,000 – and gamble it. It's one measure of how well the gambling paid that later in life he would joke about a sequel called Twelve Quid.

The most important throw of the dice in Rendall's life took place long before his first bet. Born in Oxford in 1964, he was adopted into a middle-class family in Surrey; his adoptive father was a bookseller. His parents took him and his younger brother and sister, also adopted, to Greece when he was 14. He was the beneficiary of a private education at Downsend Preparatory School, St John's Leatherhead and finally the Campion School in Athens. The odd ruckus with authority aside, he did well enough academically to return in 1983 to the city of his birth to study history at Magdelen College.

Rendall fell in love with boxing as a boy and as a young man went so far as to have a crack himself. Could he have been a contender? Probably not. He was certainly a tall and handsome bruiser, but representing the university in the light-heavyweight division at the annual Town vs Gown fixture, he took an unambiguous pummelling.

He went on to write about that only bout in This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own (1997), his memoir of a decade devoted to the sweet science, as he liked to call it, the sibilants hissing on his tongue. Where he couldn't land fluent blows in the ring, he had no such difficulty in print. The entire book – Jonathan Rendall at his brilliant best – is a bravura performance lacing screwball comedy with a romantic celebration of failure.

After leaving Oxford he entered sports journalism as a sub-editor on the sports desk of The Times, but his major break as a boxing correspondent came with two newspaper launches – the Sunday Correspondent, then The Independent on Sunday. In an era when giants still stalked the ring he sent back pungent ringside despatches from Las Vegas in which you could smell the sweat and the fear. And in his longer-form interviews with old fighters, the humanity – the despair and the hope – washed across the page. But however much he romanticised the ring's fallen heroes, the more fallen the better, he never quite shed the outsider's tendency to ironise. No wonder Tom Wolfe and Tom Stoppard would praise This Bloody Mary to the skies.

To most lifelong fans of the fight game, the job would have been a dream come true. But even as his brief broadened to write as tellingly about other sports – a superb piece on the great Leeds United team of the 1970s preceded David Peace's novel The Damned Utd by a good decade – he started kicking against the demands of the weekly deadline. It cost him much to write. There was something in him that battled the confinement of routine – an anarchic streak which is perhaps why he couldn't quite find a niche in boxing's hierarchy. He came to despise the transience of sportswriting, and his own talent.

For a while he successfully managed the career of the featherweight Colin "Sweet C" Macmillan, but when his career ended Jon chose not to take on other boxers. Instead he wrote This Bloody Mary as a farewell to the fight game. Then came Twelve Grand: The Gambler as Hero (1999), an early commission from Random House's newly formed sports imprint Yellow Jersey. It was theoretically a good idea: give a man who knows his way round dog tracks, betting shops and casinos a chance to double his money.

The problem was that Rendall soon realised the narrative would work only if he lost all the lot. This he promptly did, leaving the father of three young children catastrophically out of pocket. He also itched to turn what was conceived as an investigative story into fiction. Not for the first time he found himself locking horns with an editor. The book has characteristically thrilling passages, but also has something of the pantomime horse about it. The payday came when Channel 4 commissioned him to front the much admired documentary series The Gambler (which is to be repeated from this weekend).

For his third book Jon was emboldened to take the ultimate risk and go looking for his birth mother. Unlike for many in his situation, it did not end happily. Perhaps the writer whose muse was loss intuited that, once again, the resulting book wouldn't work any other way. Garden Hopping (2006) brimmed with stories from an unreliable narrator that may not have been all quite true. But then the story was always the thing for a gifted, even hypnotic raconteur who had the power to make friends and readers laugh and weep.

The terrible sadness is that his own life story was one he couldn't spin out. Problems with alcohol – for a time he wrote a drinking column for The Observer – were exacerbated in later years by an accident in which he was hit by a car, causing him to lose his sight. He recovered it after an operation. A biography of Mike Tyson announced for 2007 was left unfinished. Now that really could have been a contender.

He is survived by his ex-wife Susie and three children, George, Sofia and Xanthe.

Jasper Rees

Jonathan Rendall, journalist and author: born Oxford 11 June 1964; married (one son, two daughters); died on or before 23 January 2013.

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