Every so often, a serious writer who is not a sports journalist by trade is attracted to boxing. He is drawn by the same things that arouse interest in the rest of us: the genuine courage of the fighters and the greed of many of those who profit from them, the bloodlust of the spectators, the extravagant sleaze of the whole scene and, occasionally, the psychosociological implications of a sport in which two men try to render each other senseless while others watch.
Now it is Thomas Hauser's turn. Hauser, a lawyer, is the author of four works of fiction and four of nonfiction, including Missing, which was much acclaimed as both a book and a movie. Hauser has written The Black Lights (McGraw-Hill, $16.95), the title taken from a quote of Muhammad Ali's about what a fighter sees "when you get hit and hurt bad."
Actually, The Black Lights offers two books for the price of one: The first is Hauser's review of boxing's history and current state, and the second is an account of three months he spent in 1984 with WBC super lightweight champion Billy Costello while Costello prepared for and won a bout in defense of his title. Whatever else their merits, and they should not be denied, neither book is worth the price; nor does either one add anything significant to public appreciation or understanding of the sport. This is so despite the puerile boast on the book's jacket about the astonishing "secrets" to which Hauser supposedly has been privy and the breathless claim that if the work were fiction you could hardly credit some of the extraordinary characters. This last could only be true for readers who have never heard of Don King, Howard Cosell or Gerry Cooney.
Hauser's diarylike description of his time spent with Costello, which makes up roughly the last third of the book, is well written and even touching in spots. But it is loaded with inconsequential detail. One example is the six pages devoted to a visit to New York's Felt Forum and an almost round-by-round account of six bouts between fighters you have never heard of and probably never will. Properly edited and cut, this one of the two "books" would have made a good magazine article—which would have benefited further from appearing reasonably soon after the events described occurred. The diary section is most effective when it traces the difficulties encountered by Mike Jones, Costello's manager, in arranging for the title defense in the face of conflicting pressures from Don King, CBS and Jones's own loyalties. The climactic scene of this sequence, which takes place in King's office, is firsthand testimony to that promoter's volcanic temperament and bullying tactics. King had refused to be interviewed by Hauser; after observing this scene, Hauser didn't need the interview.
The other part of The Black Lights, Hauser's historical and analytical treatment of boxing, reads disconcertingly like an academic dissertation: It is heavily dependent on library research and the writings of others. This means that if you've paid any attention at all to the sport over the years—by reading the sports page, for example—Hauser's book is largely an exercise in redundancy. It quotes extensively from the work of Pat Putnam and William Nack published in this magazine, from Michael Katz writing in The New York Times and from other journalists and commentators. If you don't know who won the second Louis-Schmeling fight, the effect on the brain from a punch to the jaw or the fact that the television networks call the tune in this sport as they do in most others, then you might want to read it. But you will also be obliged to read minibiographies of fighters and other boxing figures who are of little interest and less relevance; the backgrounds of those who are significant are twice-or thrice-told tales.
One remarkable and newsworthy asset of the book is a jacket blurb by Jimmy Jacobs. Jacobs, a respected authority on boxing for at least a quarter of a century, declares that The Black Lights is "the best and most important book I have ever read about any sport." Cynics may make a connection between this and Hauser's statement in the book that "it's a privilege" to be Jacobs's friend and that he owes special thanks to Jacobs, who "introduced me to the world of professional boxing." I prefer to believe Jimmy has been too busy to do much reading for some time.