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A Long Time Coming, Nigel Collins’ Second Anthology Was Worth the Wait

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  • A Long Time Coming, Nigel Collins’ Second Anthology Was Worth the Wait

    Click image for larger version  Name:	bernard.PNG Views:	0 Size:	350.9 KB ID:	22151

    By Bernard Fernandez

    It is human nature, one supposes, to categorize people as members of easily identifiable groups. As far as pet preferences go, there are dog people and there are cat people. It’s usually a bit more complicated than that, but for purposes of my review of Nigel Collins’ too-long-delayed and highly readable second boxing anthology, Hooking Off the Jab, my preferred frame of reference is the difference between mathematicians and, oh, boxing writers.

    In mathematics, there is always one correct answer to any equation and math geeks like it when they can say with absolute certainty they’re right and everyone else is wrong. But if you’re a boxing writer at a major world championship bout, there could be hundreds of credentialed media members who see the same things, but produce reports that are slightly to vastly different, sometimes as individually distinguishable as fingerprints. All print or online journalists compete, in their own way, as fiercely as do gloved fighters, and all want their copy to stand out above that of their colleagues on press row. That, too, is human nature.

    Nigel Collins and I have co-existed, at least in a manner of speaking, in the same geographical and professional spheres for 35-plus years, and it is our shared good fortune that we arrived in the great fight city of Philadelphia from different points of origin – he from England, I from New Orleans via several other stops along the way – to cover a sport which has become such an integral part of our lives. But while we are on reasonably friendly terms, we do not interact socially and sometimes we have been made aware of the fact that we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on every issue of the day. And that’s OK, because it does not and could never detract from the fact that I am a huge proponent of his depth of knowledge about boxing, and his undeniable gift for expressing his passion for it through the power and majesty of the written word.

    Nigel has authored stories about boxing for many media outlets, including two stints as editor of The Ring during which he assigned me a number of stories for the magazine. I, along with many other fans of his work, have waited 32 years for a follow-up to his first anthology of the sweet science, Boxing Babylon, which was published in 1990. With Hooking Off the Jab, a 322-page collection of his most personal remembrances of fights and fighters, he demonstrates that, in the parlance of baseball, he has not lost any hop off his literary fastball.

    All of which raises a question, one that I think I can answer from my own experience. Once upon a time, at a newspaper for which I toiled before arriving at the Philadelphia Daily News in the spring of 1984, I was offered the opportunity to be promoted to sports editor, at a higher salary. To do so I would have to make story assignments and vacation schedules, attend daily editorial board conferences, all the while somehow ensuring that the reporters answering to me were kept as content as possible in a business where someone’s perception of his or her place in the pecking order is always open to personal perspective and attitude adjustment. A lot of potential problems, sure, but the real downside was that being the departmental boss would severely cut down on my available time to write, which was a tradeoff I could never accept. Regardless of occupation, each one of us has to recognize our strengths and cater to them for our own peace of mind and probable career advancement. Nigel took on those administrative duties and their attendant headaches a couple of times, but my suspicion is that, in retrospect, he might have preferred to write more and edit at least a bit less.

    Readers of mystery/crime novels all have their favorite authors, but mine has always been James Lee Burke, and not just because he is a native Louisianian. On nearly every page of Burke’s many books, there is a turn of phrase that is stunning, a flash of brilliance that paints a word picture that elevates the genre in which he labors to high art instead of simple narrative. In reading Hooking Off the Jab, several of Nigel’s descriptions rise to that level, and, no, not all of his entries are celebratory paeans to the sweet science. He sees the warts and blemishes, too, and has no qualms in pointing them out. Loving boxing does not mean one is forever obligated to like every facet of it. In detailing the factors that possibly contributed to the post-fight riot in Madison Square Garden after Riddick Bowe’s disqualification victory over low-blow artist Andrew Golota in the first of their two foulfests, Nigel puts it this way:

    “There’s the contagion theory,” said Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Kutztown University. “We know people do things in crowds they would not do alone. They think they’re anonymous. People make poor decisions in crowds. Another factor is tribalism, a strong loyalty to one’s own tribe, party or group, which was essential to the early survival of the human species.

    Disqualifications are a comparatively small percentage of overall results. Usually, it’s the audience that goes bonkers. Despite all efforts to suppress those darker parts of our nature, boxing fans are still boxing fans, a cult that worships at the altar of violence."

    A similar repudiation of the mob mentality that can affect a boxing arena, soccer pitch or anywhere else where tensions can run high is expressed in Nigel’s recollections of the ugly scene that occurred in London’s Wembley Arena on Sept. 27, 1980, when many fans of dethroned middleweight champion Alan Minter, more than a few of whom were inebriated, reacted to the third-round TKO victory by American challenger Marvin Hagler by hurling objects at Hagler and his cornermen. It is a benchmark of Hagler’s greatness, he continues, that he took all that negative energy, stored it internally, and used it as motivational fuel for the rest of his legendary career.

    Bitterness and anger can eat you alive, but it can also be the generator that drives your ambition. The differences between the two is discipline and balls enough to go for what you want, and Hagler had plenty of both. He brandished the chip on his shoulder like a cudgel, bashing down his opponents and the doors of the boxing establishment.

    There are, of course, references to the late, great Muhammad Ali, whose metamorphosis from divisive firebrand during a contentious period of American history to beloved and sympathetic figure later in life is examined by Nigel, who attended Ali’s funeral procession in Louisville, Ky.

    How strange that a boxer, a man who rose to fame by hurting other men, has been transformed into a symbol of peace. Had he been a preacher, his silver tongue and pretty face may have made him rich, but a boxer is something different … A boxer is the other side of the coin, the darkness without which there would be no light. Somehow, Ali managed to become both.

    It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that Nigel, as is the case with all boxing aficionados, includes an entry on a fighter particularly near and dear to his heart, former middleweight contender Bennie Briscoe, who in the 1970s was as much of a Philly sports icon as Mike Schmidt, Bobby Clarke and Ron Jaworski. Dig just below the skin of every boxing writer, even those who most closely adhere to the doctrine of professional impartiality, and a vein of hero admiration can be found. That was mined in Nigel’s description of the first fight he covered for The Ring, the Oct. 11, 1972, pairing of Briscoe and Luis Vinales at the Arena, which ended with Bad Bennie winning by seventh-round stoppage.

    I can still see him in my mind’s eye, his trademark shaven skull shining in the lights as he jogged down the aisle to the ring, the crowd cheering every step. The anticipation was palatable. You knew that if Bennie Briscoe was on the card, you were going to see a real fight. Somebody was going to be hurt … Bennie was my favorite fighter. Not the best I’ve seen, but my favorite, nonetheless. For me, he was the strongest symbol of the wonderful decade of the 1970s when Philadelphia boxing was basking in the rays of its last golden era.

    It should also come as no surprise to those who appreciate artistic accomplishment in all its varied forms that Nigel, before turning his full attention to the sweet science, was temporarily a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in part because of a submission for enrollment that was a relatively crude reproduction of a Boxing Illustrated cover of a fight between Gene Fullmer and Dick Tiger. To the eternal betterment of boxing, the would-be artist proved far more adept with a note-taking pen in his grasp than a paint brush.

    Artists living eccentric and often selfish lives are pretty much the norm. The truth is that in the long run, it’s the art that really matters, not the person who created it. Like boxers, artists sacrifice body and soul in pursuit of their aspirations. They couldn’t stop if they wanted to.

    And this, Nigel’s very cultured impression of the three-act passion play that was the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward archrivalry: Taken as a whole, the melodrama that was the Gatti-Ward trilogy could very well provide fodder for Euripides, Sophocles and their brethren, the guys who left the toga parties long enough to write Greek tragedies. Surely Shakespeare could do it justice.

    For what it is worth, my third boxing anthology, Championship Rounds, Round 3, will be coming out very soon. Some of the stories contained therein are my versions of ones that appear in Hooking Off the Jab. But Nigel and I are not mathematicians, and I suspect he welcomes, as do I, the chance to emerge victorious in any war of the words. But I have read what he wrote in beating me to the book-release punch, and I’m thinking I could live with a draw.

    Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the Class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Round 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, is currently out. The anthology can be ordered through Amazon.com and other book-selling websites and outlets.
    Last edited by AcidArne; 10-26-2022, 04:56 PM.

  • #2
    Thanks for the write up much appreciated. A good writer is one that I enjoy reading, makes me forget I am reading, does not get me thinking that someone is trying to sell me something or convince me of anything but just is talking with ink. That was how I felt reading the article you just wrote. Like I said much appreciated and thanks for making me interested in the book. I sometimes get so caught up in the ugly part of boxing I miss the beauty of the game...............

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    • #3
      "I sometimes get so caught up in the ugly part of boxing I miss the beauty of the game..............." This problem is scary, isn't it?

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