Facts and fiction in the fight game

BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS James Reed finds the winners in the world of boxing literature
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The Independent Online
Boxing books are apocryphal fantasies about men who confuse fact and fiction. The sport is a bloody business with an exaggerated literary past and is best summarised by Don King: "You get what you negotiate and not what you deserve."

This year Don got what many thought he deserved - he was savaged in a real boxing book. There are homicides, shootings and sweet trickery splattered on the pages of American journalist Jack Newfield's Only In America: The Life and Crimes of Don King. (Morrow, $19.99).

Deaths, court battles and shotgun thugs follow Mr Malaprop, but his Teflon defence enables him to survive. It should be remembered that King did serve time for his crimes in the 1960s and is not a fraudster operating as an innocent. King's violent past is known and Newfield's quest for truth suffers from familiarity.

Steve Collins, the apparently mild-mannered Dubliner who beat Chris Eubank twice this year, found time for an autobiography. Celtic Warrior (O'Brien Press, pounds 5.99) is full of glorious insights that expose the men who earn money from the sport.

Collins is a maverick and is clearly as much a player as the people he writes about. "Boxing had helped me develop an instinctive distrust of people," he writes. When he remembers the time away from his wife and children, a tender side emerges. At times, he is both bored and mad: it is his life and he needs the chance to fight and secure a future. His chance finally comes when Ulster's Ray Close fails a brain scan and Collins is offered a fight against Eubank.

"I began to believe that for the first time in nine years things were beginning to turn my way," Collins recalls, after watching Eubank lose his cool at a press conference in Dublin. It was after this conference that Dublin's Lord Mayor, John Gormley, offered to accompany Eubank on a tour of the city. The boxer's reply is the sport's funniest moment of 1995: "Fuck the city!" It is a joyous but often mundane boxing tale - Collins made nearly pounds 2m this year.

The world's two finest boxing publications are British - Boxing Monthly and the seven-day fix for all fight junkies, Boxing News, now in its 86th year. They each have the onerous task of reviewing the sport's dullest books. Therefore, it is shameful that the roving editor of Boxing News, Harry Mullan, who also writes for the Independent on Sunday, was forced to publish a compilation of his work on his own when there is so much rubbish printed.

In Fighting Words (Colebridge, pounds 10. Tel: 01227 830149) Mullan floats with ease from forgotten bruisers like Evan Armstrong to the joy he felt when he finally sat down at ringside to report his first Muhammad Ali fight. It is real. His short piece on Eubank is one of the best written about the enigma from Brighton.

Arlene Schulman spent 10 years with a camera and a pen in American gyms and at fights. The Prizefighters (Virgin, pounds 14.99) is full of intrusive photographs of boys with black eyes and men with blank eyes. As a voyeur among the ordinary denizens of boxing's smelly halls, she records the conversations in detail - her time in Ghana with Azumah Nelson is impressive - but in every gym, every day, the dialogue is the same. However, the photographs are cool.

David Prior's Ringside with the Amateurs (Stantonbury, pounds 10) is the esoteric stormer of the year. It lists every champion since 1867 and that includes boys of 11, weighing less than five stone. Harry Carpenter introduces the amateur sport's finest book.

Peter Heller's nightmarish biography of Mike Tyson, called simply Tyson (Robson, pounds 10.99), is updated to include the August fight. Other Tyson books in 1995 were criminal, but not as bad as Champion of the World (Virgin, pounds 9.99). It is the Frank Bruno story again, but Malcolm Severs, the author from nowhere, fails miserably. This book is terrible.

There are rumours that a minor fight manager is planning a covert series of Dick Francis-style thrillers. I hope not, because novels about boxing are disastrous. The exception is Budd Schulberg's 1947 classic The Harder They Fall (Alison and Busby, pounds 8.99, published last month). It ripples with complicity and the sweet science has never been so beautifully exposed.

There was one work of pure fiction in 1995 and it was quite good. Peter Blauner's Casino Moon (Viking, pounds 9.99) had its moments with Joey Snails and Vinnie the Eyelid, but Elmore Leonard does Atlantic City far better and James Ellroy has cornered the boxing vignette market.

Finally, the most important book of the year - Bob Mee's British Boxing Records 1996 (Tel: 01789 730358). Mee's tome has grown each year and the fourth edition - sadly not available until after Christmas - will include complete records and weights of all 635 active boxers in Britain.