BOOK OF THE WEEK: From romance to harsh reality

This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own by Jonathan Rendall (Faber and Faber, hardback, pounds 14.99)

Jonathan Rendall's troubled love affair with boxing, his ultimate disenchantment, centres on an association with Colin McMillan who held a version of the world featherweight championship and was, briefly, a cult figure.

If the experience provided Rendall with rare insights, it short-circuited an introduction to the ambivalence that came gradually to some of us who were drawn instinctively to the sport nobody should ever think of as a game.

The romantic notion Rendall had about boxing, first as an expatriate schoolboy in Greece and later when at Oxford University, would be dispelled by exposure to the harsh realities of what the famed American referee, Mills Lane called, "a business that just happens to get on the sports pages."

A fascination with the extraordinary Whitechapel lightweight Jack "Kid" Berg, who spent five years fighting in the United States and was recognised there as the junior welterweight champion, provides Rendall's book with some of its most compelling passages. This is especially true of a search for the great Cuban fighter, Kid Chocolate, who was unbeaten in 162 professional contests when Berg beat him in 1930 at the Polo Grounds in Harlem.

Refusing to acknowledge the passing of time, or as Rendall writes, "under the sincere impression that his boxing and New York days had only just ended," Berg's return to Harlem in his 80th year is poignant.

I was not alone in the opinion that it was loose thinking on Rendall's part to suppose that he could act as McMillan's advisor while continuing as a boxing writer. It led inevitably to conflicts, and Rendall's somewhat melodramatic belief that he was in danger of being beaten up.

When putting that suspicion forward, Rendall gives himself away. A succession of bleak images, the personalising of his despair, indicate a thwarted urge to fictionalise his experiences. As anybody who goes down that road risks unfavourable comparison with Leonard Gardner's classic Fat City and W C Heinz's highly regarded The Professional, if a boxing novel was Rendall's original intention he was wise to back off.

In any case, the book doesn't suffer from the constraints of documented evidence. Known facts about Berg, Kid Chocolate, McMillan and the other figures Rendall encounters add to rather than detract from their presence.

Maybe Rendall had good reason to fear for his life when attempting to expose a shady small-time American promoter, but you have to suspect that the threat only existed in his lively imagination.

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