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November 4, 2011

Book Notes: ‘The Big Fight’ a worthy read

—  Boxing has always been a brutal sport but it once had its heyday on the American landscape, right up there with baseball and horse racing. In the 1950s and ‘60s the Friday night fights were a staple on national television. There was one  champion in each weight divisionand popular champions such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali became household words.

Times have changed over the last 50 years. There is now an alphabet soup of world governing bodies so convoluted that one may find at least three champions in any one weight class. Every noteworthy fight is on pay-per-view.

The casual fan hasn’t even heard of 99 percent of the boxers.

Worse than that is the sheer violence that has turned people off.

One former champion bit the ear off the reigning champion during a bout.

And death in the ring, while rare, has been known to happen.

One exception to the dark side of the sport is the Olympic Games. The Olympics are usually considered a less violent form of boxing because participants wear head gear and fights only lasted three rounds. The one downside is that decisions are still subjective, with politics and nationalism often playing a role in a judge’s decision.

The United States usually has one or two boxers that win gold medals each Olympiad but rarely puts together a dominating team.

One exception occurred in 1976 when, out of the blue, the U.S. squad shocked the world and won five gold medals. The most charismatic boxer of all was Sugar Ray Leonard, the gold medalist in the light welterweight division.

Leonard captured the country’s imagination because of his exuberance, catchy nickname, and his dominance of a powerful Cuban in his gold medal bout. He also wonplaudits for his plans to retire and become the first member of his family to attend college. How could anyone not be swayed by such a story?

Of course, like most storybook tales, Leonard did not quit and attend college. The lure  of money and theability to get his family out of poverty overwhelmed his educational dreams. He turned pro and eventually won five world titles.

He also retired four times, originally because of a detached retina, but kept coming  back because he missed the limelight. He recently published his autobiography and it is stunning in that it that his public image was a far cry from his private reality. The book also exposes the seamy side of boxing and everything that goes with it. Leonard is clearly no angel but he at least deserves credit for giving a no-holds-barred description of his life and profession.

For those who followed his career Leonard’s tome provides an illuminating insight into the physical and mental preparation for every one of his important bouts. It’s all there including the Olympics, the two fights with Roberto Duran, his brutal encounter with Thomas Hearns, and his epic comeback against Marvin Hagler.

What is also there is his being sexually assaulted in his youth, his fathering his first son in high school, his constant cheating on his wife, and his battle with drugs and alcohol. As stated earlier, Leonard is no saint but he isn’t atypical either. Many topflight athletes give in to the temptations of success and money.

I would recommend “The Big Fight” to anyone who has followed Leonard’s career, has an interest in boxing, or is curious how success can spoil successful athletes. In pulling no punches Leonard shows that life at the top is not all peaches and cream. His book provides a good object lesson in appreciating what you have rather than envying those who seem to have it all.

DAVID KENT is the librarian at the Cooperstown Village Library.