This last week I started reading three recent boxing autobiographies or biographies, but didn’t get far with any of them. They weren’t awful, but weren’t good either – plodding, literally blow-by-blow accounts offering little insight into the moral, emotional and financial complexities of what Mike Tyson has memorably called “the hurt business”.
I thought back to Dark Trade, because it gets to the heart of those issues in a way few other books on boxing have managed. It was first published in 1996 but will be reissued this spring, and it is still in print and available on Kindle.
Donald McRae is a white South African, a fact not calculated to endear him to the predominantly black protagonists around which Dark Trade is based. But his obvious obsession with, and conflicted love of, boxing must have disarmed them, because through many hundreds of hours of meetings they opened up to him. The roll-call of his interviewees is impressive: it includes Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Frank Bruno, Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn, Michael Watson, Oscar De La Hoya, Naseem Hamed and James Toney, plus the promoters Don King and Frank Warren. McRae plays an active part in the narrative, but his presence is enhancing rather than obtrusive as he wrestles with the sport’s ambiguities.
Death and catastrophic injuries stalk the pages, and few of the fighters he talked to escaped the ring unscathed; he grew especially close to Toney, his favourite boxer, and Toney’s subsequent decline into slurring incoherence in the Noughties provides a sad, unwritten coda.
McRae’s original choice of title was Showtime; he had planned an altogether jauntier work, emphasising the glitz and glamour of the fight game. The sombre truths he learned inspired instead a haunting, utterly memorable book.
Published in paperback by Mainstream, £11.99