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The Greatest Boxing Book Never Written and More Literary Notes

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  • The Greatest Boxing Book Never Written and More Literary Notes

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    By Thomas Hauser

    Sooner or later, most important boxing personalities put their name on an autobiography or cooperate in the writing of a major biography by a third-party author. But one book that would be among the most consequential and interesting boxing books ever will probably never be written.

    Don King was black and from the streets. Rather than hide it, he stuffed it in people's faces. He forced America to accept him as he was on his terms. We're not talking about an athlete, singer, or movie star who made his mark by entertaining people. We're talking about commerce and economic control. King shaped boxing for decades and bent it to his will. The stones he cast into the water sent ripples throughout America.

    But only one major biography of King has been written - Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King by Jack Newfield. It's a warts-and-all story without the all and a book that King despises.

    So why hasn't King written his own story? There have been many lucrative offers. And Don has never been at a loss for words.

    Years ago, Alan Hopper (then director of public relations for Don King Productions) told me, "Don cares about his place in history. He wants his due in terms of historical perspective. But I also think that Don is motivated by a fear of sorts. He'll keep going and won't retire because, if he did, he'd have to reflect. And in that reflection, he'd be forced to face his own mortality."

    Writing an autobiography requires reflection. King is choosing to not do it. His book, if well-crafted, would be wonderful. But like all great magicians, Don is likely to exit the stage without telling anyone the full story behind how his tricks were performed.

    * * *

    Good writers do more than write their own lines. They have an ear for quotes from others. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez has just released his third collection of boxing articles. Like its predecessors, Championship Rounds: Round Three covers a wide range of personalities and issues. And once again Fernandez serves up an array of quotes in the context of his articles that are worth requoting. Ten of my favorites are:

    * Sugar Ray Leonard: "I could always tell in the dressing room when I was warming up if it was going to be a good night or a long night. If you don't feel like you have it that night, it is the most frightening feeling for a fighter. It's like you have a vision you're about to die and you can't do anything about it."

    * Ricky Hatton (after being knocked out by Vyacheslav Senchenko in final fight of his ring career): "I have to be a man and say, 'It's the end of Ricky Hatton.'"

    * Bert Sugar (on whether fight fixers, steroid cheats, and other miscreants should be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame): "You can always make a case for somebody's exclusion. It depends on how moralistic you want to be. But remember, this is boxing we're talking about."

    * "Michael Spinks (after announcing his retirement at age 31 following his first-round loss to Mike Tyson): "Maybe I am too young to retire. But if people are waiting for the day I step back into the ring, they'll be surprised."

    * Oliver McCall: "For today, yes, I'm clean and sober. But when it comes to drugs and alcohol, you're never completely past it. You know when it'll be completely past for me? When I'm laid to rest."

    * Deontay Wilder: "When people get dressed up and come out at night to a fight, they come to see knockouts."

    * Jim Lampley (on the death of Harold Lederman): "No one in the sport had more friends because no one in the sport was more deserving of friends."

    * Bernard Hopkins (after being knocked out in the last fight of his long sojourn through boxing): "All credit to Joe Smith. He did what he had to do. But it was Father Time helping him. I stayed in the game too long. I admit it."

    * Mia St. John: "I wasn't the best. But I fought the best."

    * Buster Mathis Sr: "I was never a champion but I was fortunate enough to get close. That's more than a lot of people in this business can say."

    In this latest volume of his Championship Rounds series, Fernandez recounts how Howard Cosell once dismissed him as "another no-talent newspaper hack."

    Cosell was wrong.

    * * *

    Hamilcar Publications was created in 2019 for the purpose of publishing books about boxing. Editorially, its track record has been excellent. Damage by Tris Dixon heads a list of notable offerings. But publisher Kyle Sarafeen has been faced with a difficult reality since his company's inception. Boxing books are a hard sell. Thus, to keep the company economically viable, he has added books about music and true crime to its catalog. Roadhouse Blues: Morrison, the Doors, and the Death Days of The Sixties by Bob Batchelor is its latest offering.

    Music was a crucially important lifeline for the youth culture of the 1960s. The Beatles were a catalyst for change in ways that were almost unimaginable. "One analogy," Batchelor writes, "might be to think about their influence like the rise of the internet or cell phones. One moment, nobody had heard of these things. And in seemingly the next, they were staples in people’s lives."

    A wave of new groups joined the Beatles in providing the soundtrack for a global counterculture. 1967 (the summer of love) was followed by 1968 (the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy, unrestrained police brutality at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and inner-city riots across America).

    "The Doors," Batchelor states, "invaded the music scene in parallel with the expansion of the war in Vietnam and its stranglehold on the nation’s consciousness. There was no way to unravel the fighting in Southeast Asia and the global protest movement from what was happening in popular culture."

    Within that framework, the Doors created a unique sound and an almost apocalyptic vision of society. "Their allure," Batchelor writes, "was rooted in a combination of [lead singer Jim Morrison's] satanic poet-prince persona and the pounding psychedelic sound the band created."

    Morrison had a seductive velvety voice that could turn in an instant into a shriek or howl. He was intense, brooding, melancholy, angelic-looking at times and seemingly deranged at others. The three musicians backing him (keyboard player Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore) were remarkably talented in their own right. They provided, in Densmore's words, "the perfect sound bed for Jim to lie down in."

    No other group sounded like the Doors. Their music was their own and instantly recognizable. "Light My Fire" - their signature song - was released in 1967 and climbed to the #1 slot on the Billboard 100 in addition to anchoring their debut album. It expanded their fan base and brought the group to the masses.

    But there was a problem. A big one. Morrison didn't struggle with alcohol and drugs. He reveled in them. LSD was his drug of choice and he frequently drank himself into a whiskey-induced stupor.

    Mick Jagger could be wild onstage but he always seemed to be in control. Morrison was unhinged.

    "The more successful the Doors became," Batchelor writes, "the more erratic Jim got. The situation deteriorated to the point that they just tried to keep him as sober as possible on show nights." There were times when Morrison was "so loaded he could barely stand up; he was slurring and staggering.” Away from the stage, he was "drinking until he passed out and frequently waking up - literally - in a gutter or somewhere on the street. Jim was in free fall, and no one had figured out how to help him."

    "You couldn’t tell Jim Morrison what to do," Robbie Krieger acknowledged. "And if you tried, he would make you regret it. Anyone who attempted to step into a role of authority over him became the target of his unresolved rage."

    Morrison's conduct onstage was part and parcel of his self-destruction. He was, in Batchelor's words, "caught up in finding out if there were limits - and then exceeding them."

    Journalist Hank Zevallos described the scene at one Doors performance: "Girls press forward against the stage. Morrison grunts, begins squirming, singing. The music weaves and screams into one climax after another. Morrison is literally raping the microphone between his quivering thighs, advancing toward the hungry girls pressing against the stage."

    Morrison was arrested twice during concerts. The first time was in 1967 after a verbal altercation with a police officer in Connecticut that resulted in the singer being maced. The second (more serious) incident occurred in Florida on March 1, 1969. Morrison was drunk and verbally abusive to the audience and simulated masturbation. He was arrested and charged with multiple criminal offenses including inciting a riot and indecent exposure. A forty-day trial followed.

    "The key piece of evidence was missing," Batchelor writes. "No one had proof that Jim exposed himself. Even for those who swore he did, their distance from the stage would have made it impossible to really see anything. There were hundreds of photos from the show. Not one proved a thing."

    The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of indecent exposure. Morrison was sentenced to six months in prison but allowed to remain free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal. The case was never resolved. He died in Paris on July 3, 1971, at age 27. The cause of his death is unknown.

    "What we have," Batchelor concludes, "is speculation and educated guesses. Jim may have accidentally overdosed, snorting heroin and/or cocaine in the bathroom of a seedy Paris drug den that fronted as a nightclub. He could have done drugs with Pam [his girlfriend at the time] in their apartment and died with or without her knowledge. She was hooked on heroin, but Jim hated needles so there’s little chance that he injected himself. There is also a possibility that Jim died of a heart attack brought on by alcohol addiction and stress."

    Batchelor writes well and his narrative flows smoothly. His work is an insightful look at the Doors as creative artists and a compelling portrait of Morrison. But there are areas where Roadhouse Blues falls short of the mark.

    In that regard, allow me a personal note. I was born in 1946 and came of age in the 1960s. I listened to the Doors and their contemporaries in real time and experienced the touchstones of that era as it unfolded. I was a student at Columbia when student protests shut down the university. As a young lawyer, I traveled to Ohio and Mississippi to play a small role in litigation that resulted from the killing by law enforcement authorities of four students at Kent State University and two at Jackson State College.

    Batchelor takes a darker view of the 1960s than I think is warranted. Yes, the country was divided. And established institutions were fraying at the edges. But the arc of history seemed to be moving toward social justice.

    The biggest concern I have with Roadhouse Blues is that Batchelor keys repeatedly on the war in Vietnam as defining The Sixties and gives short shrift to the civil rights movement. "Everything that happened in the Sixties," he writes, "culturally, politically, economically, or socially - must be viewed through the lens of Vietnam. The war and the activism it sparked served as the wellspring for everything that happened thereafter."

    But the civil rights movement was a moral crusade and dividing force of equal magnitude.

    I should also note that there's a lot of material in Roadhouse Blues about Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles but not a single mention of Motown (which played a major role in defining the music and culture of The Sixties).

    Moreover, as good as the Doors' music was, there are places where Batchelor goes overboard in stating the group's importance. "The goal of Roadhouse Blues, "he writes, "is straightforward - to examine how the Doors became the Doors [and to] think through their lasting impact on American and global culture."

    In service of that end, Batchelor says of Jim Morrison, "Few cultural icons have had a more lasting impact." And he concludes, "The Doors can be used as a lens for looking at the era. Their experiences help us see it clearer and give us context for the whole scope of American history including the country’s present and future."

    That, to me, is an overstatement.

    What's incontrovertible, though, is that the Doors' music speaks for itself.

    Thomas Hauser's email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing's highest honor - induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

  • #2
    Thanks for the tip on the boxing book always looking for a good read. As far as the book on the Doors let me first say L.A. Woman is one of the best recordings ever made and I own 3000 recordings on vinyl and have traffiked in many thousands more thru the years. And the amount of tape I own is unreal. I am not a hoarder just love music and audio. There is nothing like a vaccumn tube amplifier and a piece of vinyl. It does the trick. Remember when to smoke a joint was a matter of expression ? A symbol of your individuality ? Remember when to show yourself you had to prove yourself. I hated refer I really did but I participated because it was show of difience against the system. Sounds a bit corny but if you lived in those times you understood. A lot of people thought they were just rebelling against the system but they were to travel down a dark tunnel to hell and some into there death not even knowing why they lived and died the life they lost. It was a time that helped define this country. But it was smokey and blurry and never quiet got to the point but it did change a lot of minds.
    Finally and I could go on and on about this point....... Willie Dixon who by the way did spar with a noted heavy weight look it up if you care to once said and I quote " Roots and Fruits" The Blues is the roots and every thing else is the fruits" Everything sprang out the blues all music borrowed from the blues just a fact and I know the facts of music. Willie Dixon wrote over what 500 songs ? And played Bass with some of the most noted musicans of all time. Muddy Water and Chess records. Look it up dont take my word for it. To create music is a mysterious thing, a thing of beuty often some of the most poetic and attractive music is that made by the suffering souls of man. Listen to a field holler from deep down south, the hollers of those suffering from hate of man to man. The exclusion of participating in the everyday life of those around you. And yet some of the most powerful sounds the most melodic songs and voices have come from the suffering of man. That is the story of the blues. That often transends to the music that is made sometimes that music and expression is kept down and stamped out but it never dies. Anyhow enough out of me for now.

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