Boxing by the Book: “Pugilatus” by Ted Spoon

By Robert Ecksel on September 17, 2014
Boxing by the Book: “Pugilatus” by Ted Spoon
When I asked why this book, why this sport, Spoon said, “Somehow, boxing just matters.”

“The greatest thing about boxing might not be the characters, fights or inspirational stories, but the promise that more are on the way…”

“Of one thing I am certain. Boxing will never die… not while men are born with ambition or with hands that can be curled into fists.”—T.B. Shepard, The Noble Art

This is not boxing’s golden age. Pay-per-view revenue may be through the roof. A handful of boxers earn unimaginable sums. But away from the bright lights of superstardom, the sport we love to love, and everyone else loves to hate, suffers from dwindling credibility, a shallow talent pool, and a general erosion of skill.

It may sometimes seem hopeless, but all is not lost. Boxing has, among other things, continuity in its favor, or as A.J. Liebling wrote, “The sweet science is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.”

In that spirit, Ted Spoon has written his first book, the superb “Pugilatus.” Described as an almanac in novel form, it is less a celebration of the sport, although it is certainly that, than a “coherent overview of the last 300 years, detailing each era to reveal their connection.”

The book is not a catalogue, nor is there a record index. This is a book for those who read. Handsomely illustrated with drawings and photographs, and impeccably written by one of boxing’s finest writers, “Pugilatus” relies on particular themes that unify the past and present, yet debunks the notion that boxing is like most sports in that it continually improves. Rather, as Spoon writes, “Boxing changes, evolves, and not for the better, but according to its surroundings.”

“Pugilatus” is divided into three sections: (1) Bare-Knuckle Fight, (2) Marquess of Queensberry Rules, and (3) Fight Stories.

After a brief introduction in which Spoon answers the question, “What was a bare-knuckle fight?” the book begins in 1743 with Broughton’s rules, which codified boxing and brought some order to what had until then been a very disorderly sport. The chapters in the bare-knuckle section focus on the London Prize Rules and are titled “Becoming,” “Renaissance,” “A Golden Era,” “Infamous & Unstable,” and “The New World.” Gracefully written and impeccably researched, these chapters establish the foundation from which boxing grew. In addition to a compelling narrative, each chapter is represented by gracefully understated profiles of Jack Broughton, Daniel Mendoza, Jem Belcher, Tom Belcher, and Tom Sayers, the fighters that best embody each category and period in time. To those mired in the present, those names mean nothing. But to those of us as fascinated by boxing’s past as its present, the aforementioned are the founding fathers of the fight game. All that followed is due in large part to these pioneers.

“As I began researching,” Spoon told me, “I was impressed by not just the science behind bare-knuckle fighting but the variety in styles. Contests were often gory marathons, but then you had men like the unorthodox Jem Belcher who blitzed opponents. Brother Tom Belcher was better with a pair of gloves (‘mufflers’ as they were known then). For every 10 brandy-swilling louts there was a clever pugilist who used the ring, parried and set traps.”

The second section of “Pugilatus” concentrates on the Marquess of Queensberry rules. According to the author, the seven chapters in this section “represent boxing, not as a directory, but as a shifting idea.” The book is light on statistics, which are often more burden than relief, in favor of close-ups of key fighters, their major fights and opponents, in addition to the tenor of the times in which they fought.

Chapter 1 covers the years 1880-1899 and includes essays on John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, Peter Jackson, “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey, Joe Choynski, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jim Jeffries, who was not only “clad in thick muscle from top to toe,” but was “a breath of fresh air.” Chapter 2 covers the years 1900-1919. Seamlessly blended with the chapter preceding it, in reintroduces us to Tex Rickard, Joe Gans, Battling Nelson, Abe Attell, Jim Driscoll, and Stanley Ketchel. Other great middleweights would follow in Ketchel’s wake, but as Ted Spoon writes, “never again would there be one so ruthless.” Chapter 2 ends with the appearance of Jack Dempsey, at which time a new era in boxing had begun. Chapter 3 covers the boom years 1920-1939. An essay on the unearthly Harry Greb anchors this chapter, and is followed by portraits of Jimmy Wilde and Pancho Villa, Tommy Gibbons and Luis Angel Firpo, the brilliant Mickey Walker, and the tantalizing round robin between Jack Sharkey, Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera, James Braddock, and Max Baer. Chapter 3 ends with rise of Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” who “ruled the throne with his humble, though no less iron fist.” Chapter 4 covers the years 1940 to 1959. Spoon profiles Charley Burley, Eddie Booker, Holman Williams, Cocoa Kid, and Ike Williams, and includes a series of superb essays on Marcel Cerdan, Tony Zale, and Jake LaMotta, Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler, Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, and Carmen Basilio. The heavyweights are represented by Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson, and the omnipresence of TV, “which magnified, for better and for worse, the theatre of fist-fighting.”

Chapter 5 details the glory years from 1960-1979 and the emergence of Sonny Liston, the tragic circumstances surrounding the fights between Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret, Dick Tiger and his fights with Joey Giardello, Hurricane Carter and Gene Fullmer, and the rise of a boisterous young heavyweight named Cassius Marcellus Clay. Chapter 6 covers the years 1980-1999 and celebrates Salvador Sanchez, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Ted Spoon revisits the racially-charged bout between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney, the deadly fight between Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Duk Koo Kim, and ends with the “Bite of the Century” where Mike Tyson imploded in public, at the expense of Evander Holyfield’s ear. Chapter 7 starts in 2000 and brings us to the present day with essays on Oscar De La Hoya, Lennox Lewis, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones, and the Klitschkos. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao receive the attention they deserve, as does Andre Ward, Carl Froch, Gennady Golovkin, Guillermo Rigondeaux, and Sergey Kovalev. The last words of the Marquess of Queensberry section of “Pugilatus” are Ted Spoon at his best: “From gripping and bitter memories comes a reassuring thought. The greatest thing about boxing might not be the characters, fights or inspirational stories, but the promise that more are on the way.”

The third and final part of the book is devoted to “Fight Stories.” Although the fights covered are known to those for whom boxing is not just a sport or spectacle but a way of life, the writing is impeccable, head and shoulders above most of what passes for writing in these woebegone times. Fitzsimmons vs. Corbett, Johnson vs. Jeffries, Willard vs. Dempsey, Greb vs. Tunney, Wilde vs. Villa, Louis vs. Schmeling, Zale vs. Graziano, Pep vs. Saddler, Robinson vs. Turpin, Marciano vs. Walcott, Jofre vs. Harada, Ali vs. Frazier, Pryor vs. Arguello, Tyson vs. Douglas, and Barrera vs. Morales are lavished with lengthy essays that are as refined as they are exemplary.

In the wildly ambitious “Pugilatus,” Ted Spoon presents 300 years of boxing history in 300 pages. That in itself is no mean feat. But the writing is so wonderful, the author’s knowledge and compassion runs so deep, that this book, an achievement by any standard, is a must-read for those with an interest in boxing, no less than for those with a predilection for fine writing.

When I asked the author why this book, why this sport, he answered matter-of-factly, “Somehow, boxing just matters.”

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  1. Eric 01:33pm, 09/19/2014

    Seven reviews on Amazon, and all seven give this book 5 out of 5 stars. Might have to purchase this book myself.

  2. Robert Ecksel 11:55am, 09/19/2014

  3. Mohummad Humza Elahi 10:56am, 09/19/2014

    Excellent achievement, Ted!  If a link to purchase can be provided…

  4. Bob 02:20am, 09/18/2014

    The book sounds fascinating and I agree with the author that boxing somehow matters. However, from a socially significant standpoint, I think it mattered much more in decades past than it does today. The boxers, and the sport itself, served as representatives of both established and emerging cultures.  The exploits of the participants were legendary because their actions spoke to more than the fan base. Boxing will always matter in some way, but could be so much more to so many more people if it would only stop cannibalizing itself. I’m going to pick up the book. Sounds like a winner by a writer with a proven track record of exemplary work..

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