Book Review: Mike Silver’s ‘The Arc of Boxing’

By Ted Sares on January 11, 2012
Book Review: Mike Silver’s ‘The Arc of Boxing’
In his book Mike Silver does not mince his words when he pays homage to the Golden Age

While ‘The Arc of Boxing’ may be overly subjective at times, boxing by definition is a pretty subjective business…

Mike Silver’s The Arc of Boxing has garnered very positive reviews.

“I didn’t write this book to fuel the debate; I wrote it to end the debate.”—Mike Silver

“The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened to boxing.”—Robert Mladinich

“I’d love to engage him in a debate, but I don’t think I’d win.”—Ted Sares

While this book is no longer new, it’s still as relevant as ever—maybe even more so. Accordingly, I have republished my review with only slight revisions.

At first, I was reluctant to review this book because there were so many other reviews out there (see below), but then I realized the real reason was that I was just plain jealous that I hadn’t gotten there first with what Mike had to say.

There is a short but incisive foreword by the esteemed Budd Schulberg that supports Mike’s contention, made clear in his title, that boxing is a lost art. Mike then goes about making his case by using the contributions and opinions of five prominent teacher-trainers as well as 17 fighters, fans and historians.

More specifically, Silver interviews world-renowned historians and scholars, some of the sport’s premier trainers, and former amateur and professional world champions to argue that socioeconomic and demographic changes have impacted the quality, prominence and even popularity of the sport over the past century to the point where many Old School aficionados can no longer relate. Unlike other sports, Mike contends that boxing has regressed. Indeed, he and some of his contributors are pretty merciless with their criticism. Also pointed out is the fact that the technical skills on display today are at an all-time low and that should be manifest to any serious fan who has the slightest concept of what proper technique is all about.

Silver does not mince his words when he pays homage to the Golden Age and lambasts that which followed. In short, he sets forth his argument, backs it up, and then pretty much dares the reader to refute it. I’d love to engage him in a debate, but I don’t think I’d win.

The author deftly put into words a lot of the things we boxing fans have been thinking or debating about for a long time; namely, that boxing isn’t like what it was in its golden years. For Mike, the Golden Age of Boxing is from the 1920s through the 1950s, and while I would take issue with this (and argue that the 1960s warrant inclusion), his reasons are sound in that there were far more boxing gyms, fight clubs, and registered pro boxers than today and significantly more than the decades that followed the 1950s. He backs this thesis with considerable evidence including interviews with Teddy Atlas, Freddie Roach, Emanuel Steward, even the celebrated ballet dancer and former amateur boxing champion Edward Villella, and a host of back-up statistics. The late Hank Kaplan, Chuck Hasson, Sal Rappa, Kevin Smith and Dan Cuoco (of IBRO) also made fine contributions. My Ring 4 brothers Carlos Ortiz and Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure are often quoted as well.

Two chapters in particular are must reads.

Chapter 13, titled “The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall,” argues that yesterday’s smaller heavyweights would indeed be a match for today’s monsters, though I for one remain unconvinced. Indeed, as a stone cold “Old Schooler,” I have struggled to rid myself of any related bias, but this book makes that task even more daunting.

Chapter 15, titled “Boxing’s Death By Alphabet,” goes after the phony and despicable sanctioning bodies as well it should and Mike makes a compelling case, but then we already knew they are rotten to the core and that sanctioning fees are also rotten to the core. Curiously, for example, in the 1950s there were approximately 5,000 fighters worldwide and generally eight weight divisions, with one champion in each. That’s one champion per every 625 boxers. Today, and with just the major sanctioning bodies, you have about one ‘world champion’ for every 70 pros.

However, despite the glowing aura that comes from the book, there is definitely an Old School bias and mindset that suggests just a tad of close-mindedness on the part of a few of the contributors. While most of what’s in the book is intellectually palatable, comments like the one on page 142 to wit: “Hopkins is an ordinary talent…Maybe he would have been a main event club fighter in the small clubs,” do not serve any useful or credible purpose. I also have great difficulty seeing Rocky Graziano beating Marvin Hagler (page 140). But I am doing a reverse halo effect here and need to be careful.

At the very end, the author states that “...if professional boxing is to continue in its present state it should be abolished.” He then refers to Pete Hamill’s famous quote, “You cannot love anything that lives in a sewer. And the world of boxing is more fetid and repugnant now than at any other time in its squalid history.” That’s pretty harsh criticism.

This book belongs on the shelf of any serious fan of boxing if for no other reason than this is the first time I have seen (or at least have read) a book about the “Old School” vs. “New School” debate. While it may be overly subjective at times, boxing by definition is a pretty subjective business.

I highly recommend it even at the hefty price tag. It’s like a great movie, you think about it long after you saw it. Using Mike‘s own technique of persuasion, here are some excerpts from other reviewers:

Clay Moyle: “I loved everything about this book. In my opinion it should be required reading for anyone who is inclined to post on any of the various on-line boxing forums to debate the merits of boxers from different eras.”

Paul Salgado/Ring Magazine: “It would be easy to dismiss Silver as losing himself in nostalgia, but to his credit the author comes up with some compelling arguments. And he doesn’t stop there. Utilizing short first-person narratives, he enlists a number of old school voices including Teddy Atlas, Bill Goodman, Mike Capriano Jr., and former lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz, all of whom dissect the sport and its participants, and critique the many changes that have led, they believe, to boxing’s to boxing’s currently diminished state. The book may be a lament, but the author clearly loves boxing. True aficionados, whether they ultimately agree with Silver or not, are sure to enjoy his book for its unmistakable knowledge and passion.”

Stan Hochman: “Silver explored the magic, studied the history, and wrote articles about it. And now the book, which Bernard Hopkins will hate. “Take every great middleweight from 1900 to the ‘60s,” Silver argued. “Mickey Walker, Stanley Ketchel, Marcel Cerdan, Jake LaMotta, all great fighters, some of them with the speed of lightweights and the punch to knock out a heavyweight.” And there’s no way they could have dominated a division and defended a title 20 times. Hopkins did, but that does not make him better than Walker, Ketchel, Cerdan, LaMotta and Harry Greb. Don’t forget Harry Greb. The guys Hopkins fought are on a primitive level.”

Harry Schaffer: “Mike Silver has assembled the views of true Men of the Ring and interwoven their vision of the events and event makers of the sport with his own astute observations to produce arguably the most thoughtful, fact based comparative analysis of the state of boxing and boxers ever written.”

Philip Sharkey for The British Boxing Board of Control Yearbook, 2010: “Although the book talks almost exclusively about fighters from the United States one can’t help thinking of modern day British champions facing ‘Golden Era’ fighters: Jack Kid Berg vs. Ricky Hatton, Randolph Turpin vs. Joe Calzaghe or Naseem Hamed vs. Ned Tarleton, would I’m sure, provide British boxing fans with the same level of debate. It is a thought provoking book. Other sports can be measured in heights jumped or distances ran or swam, but boxing is a far subtler science, the sweet science in fact!”

Robert Mladinich: “Silver is not a curmudgeon or a knee-jerk believer in the myth that what’s old is always better than what’s new. He, as well as his panel of experts, persuasively states his cases while speaking with great authority and insight. After reading this entertaining treasure trove of boxing ‘insider’ knowledge I felt like I had taken a graduate course in the finer points of the “sweet science.” The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened to boxing.”

Note: Mike Silver is a former boxing promoter and inspector with the New York State Athletic Commission whose many articles on boxing have appeared in the New York Times, The Ring magazine, Boxing Monthly and ESPN and Seconds Out websites.

Full Disclosure: This book was not given to the author as a review copy, nor was the author commissioned for a review. Mr. Sares paid in full for the reviewed book.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Mickey Walker vs Tommy Milligan

Mickey Walker vs Jack Sharkey

Harry Greb Training Footage

Stanley Ketchel vs Billy Papke IV

Jack Johnson vs Stanley Ketchel (1909)

Jake LaMotta | Marcel Cerdan 1/1

Randy Turpin vs Don Cockell

Sugar Ray Robinson & Randy Turpin interview

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  1. Mike Silver 12:15pm, 08/12/2013

    Well, better late than never. Do not know why I did not comment earlier. I would like to thank Ted for his outstanding review of my book and everyone who commented. It is much appreciated.

  2. pugknows 11:24am, 01/15/2012

    A great read. Controversial, but still great. Silver did his homework.

  3. Don From Prov 07:57am, 01/13/2012

    Don’t own the book but will ASAP.

  4. TEX HASSLER 12:43pm, 01/12/2012

    Rocky Graziano usually went for the KO. If he was able to find Ray Robinson’s chin it is likely he could find Hagler’s or just about any one else’s. Robinson and Hagler both had extremely good chins and I am not saying he could beat them, just that he had a chance. While Graziano was not a big middleweight if he punched in combinations and landed on the right spot he could have KO’d any one in that division. It is not alway how hard you punch but where the punch lands that produces a KO. In fact accurate punching is far better than hard punching and is often mistaken for hard punching.

  5. Jim Crue 07:58am, 01/12/2012

    I also agree that Graziano would probably not beat Hagler but Rocky was a very small middleweight and had the welterweight division not been so difficult I think his manager Irving Cohen would have had him fight there. But with Robinson, Gavilan, Tommy Bell the welterweights Irving matched Rocky perfectly.

  6. Jim Crue 07:54am, 01/12/2012

    This is a wonderful book. Society has changed so we don’t get the number of guys wanting or needing to be fighters to earn a living. For the most part the trainers of today are pathetic. And the fighters are in control of the training not the trainers. Remember when the great Eddie Futch dropped Marlon Starling because Marlon would not listen to him. Today trainers don’t want to lose the only meal ticket most of them have so they would not do that. Listen to the trainer in between rounds on the TV. What a joke most of them are. Today’s fighters get by mostly on speed and athletic ability not refined boxing skill. Roy Jones is an example of that. Of course he has a weak chin so that matters to. Watching the videos of the 30’s thru the 70’s it’s clear to see how well schooled the fighters were. Even a slugger like Graziano was rarely out of boxing position in the ring. Whitey Bimstein taught him well. The exception’s are many of the Mexican fighters. Boxing is a huge sport and a way out of poverty in Mexico so the fighters listen and the trainers seem very competent.
    Another great article!!

  7. Benno Roick 02:27am, 01/12/2012

    the most truthful book about the state of prof. boxing. You can´t be a serious boxing fan without that!
    The truth may hurt, but nevertheless it´s the truth!

  8. TEX HASSLER 05:28pm, 01/11/2012

    I agree with Mike Casey when he said, “One of the greatest books on boxing I have ever read.” I will go a step further and say this is the greatest boxing book written in the last 50 or more years. If you do not have Mike Silver’s book I would recommend that you go out and buy one NOW! It is that good and you will learn things about boxing that you never knew. I agree with Mike Silver 100% and I have been studying boxing since the early 1950’s and boxed some myself.

  9. raxman 02:52pm, 01/11/2012

    not read this one - in fact i have to say i’ve always favoured literature to sport books -ok i’m actually a snob - but i give this website major props and if a book gets rated highly on this site i’ll chase it up - as i did a couple of months ago with Kimball’s 4Kings. so i’ll chase this one up for sure.

    i like to make point of the note on Chapter 13 and want to give my take based on what i understand the premise to be.

    in order to compare Joe Louis say to the klits - one must assume Louis was born - lets say early 70’s - born of that era he wouldn’t be 6’2 &200; pounds in that era he was a big guy so you have to make him a big guy in this era - say 6’4 or 5 and 230ish - at that size what would he do to the klits? end of.

    and what Big George Foreman - Considered big in the 70’s at 6’3 &220; - born the same year as vitali he would have to be 6’6 and 240 as a young version #1 George (forget the old 250pound #2) - what would a George that big do to Vladamir? he wouldn’t make it out of the first round

    you era ratio the size of any of the pre 80’s heavy weights and most of them aren’t disadvantage by the klits size - without their size they mediocre at best

  10. jofre 01:51pm, 01/11/2012

    Terriffic review! I have the book and its a must read for any true boxing fan.

  11. mschmidt 01:39pm, 01/11/2012

    Nice review Ted- I read this when it came out- the only problem I had with it was the way to easy hit on the sanctioning bodies- there is a domino effect of problems for those of us that have acted as managers, promoters, or agents for fighters- small attendences at fight cards- fighters asking for purses that don’t support the numbers- fighters that don’t want to fight but for $$$$ that the cards dont support- promoters, evern on a small level that put on fighters that are not even remotely the best fighters in their geographical area but “sell tickets” on a one or two fight basis before they get their asses exposed- promoters who, given a testosterone level or ego level higher than the moon would not put your fighter on even if you paid both ends and any other dam thing, the lack of attendance requiring managers to “pay both ends” of a fight to develop a hit and miss prospect - solid corporate individuals being taken advantage of when they first come into the game and running for the hill after being drained shortly thereafter…. it goes on and on-the end result- the slow drain of boxing- the now marginal sport- pretty hard to have decent trainers when there are not enough dollars to pay them- they cant subsist or exist- A National Governing Body- a meaningful “fight league” that supports the development of fighters without all of the nonsense of the above- I could go on and on….go into any of the big name boxing gyms- it is the land of the walking dead- trainers, managers, same old same old- and round and round in the circle game we go.

  12. the thresher 01:34pm, 01/11/2012

    Thanks mates

  13. sthomas 01:25pm, 01/11/2012

    Great work Ted, makes me want to go get a copy today.  My loose take on the subject is that the true greats in any endeavor would be great in any era.  If one only believes those around now are the best ever, I ask them what kind of cello Yo Yo Ma plays.

  14. The Welshman 01:20pm, 01/11/2012

    O.K. Ted you’ve sold it to me, it’s on my list of ” must read “.

  15. Cheekay Brandon 11:55am, 01/11/2012

    Somehow this one slipped off of my radar. Thank you for republishing your revised review.  Very interesting. I’d welcome reading more of your re-reviews of older boxing books.

  16. mikecasey 11:48am, 01/11/2012

    One of the greatest books on boxing I have ever read. A lot of home truths here that need to be told. It can’t help being repetitive in places, as Mike Silver himself concedes, but it is a gem on why the game has declined and why quality has been vastly diluted.

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