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Tales of the Fight Game

Boxing is the subject of three new books, each of which delivers a solid punch

I heartily commend to your attention any one of three new boxing books—Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers, by Ronald K. Fried (Four Walls Eight Windows, $21.95); In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk about Their Art, by Dave Anderson (William Morrow, $20); and Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, by Thomas Hauser (Simon & Schuster, $24.95). You will observe, however, that I say, "any one of three," because to read them all, as I unwisely did, is an exercise in redundancy comparable to attending a festival of Murder, She Wrote reruns. All three books have virtually the same cast of characters—trainers Eddie Futch and Angelo Dundee are featured players in each—and the same anecdotes. Indeed, Dundee's story about buying precious time for Ali by complaining to ring officials about a torn glove after Henry Cooper knocked Ali down appears almost word for word in all three. It's true that as a biography Hauser's book follows a narrower course, perilously approaching overkill, but there's more than enough Ali material in the other two books to satiate even the most ardent fan of the old champ. So take my advice: Pick one of these and forget about the others, unless, that is, you are partial to twice-told tales.

Of the three, Fried's Corner Men has the considerable advantage of historical perspective, since not all of his subjects are contemporary. There is a wonderful chapter on Stillman's Gym in New York City and its pistol-packing proprietor, whose family name, it turns out, was not Stillman. When the elegant Gene Tunney proposed opening the windows in Stillman's smoke-filled sweatbox, the then featherweight champion, Johnny Dundee, protested, "Fresh air? Why, the stuff is likely to kill us." There is also a chapter on the sage but sinister Jack Blackburn, an ex-convict twice accused of murder who nevertheless trained Joe Louis into the heavyweight championship. When Jim Braddock knocked Louis down in the first round of their 1937 title fight and Joe rose to his feet too quickly, Blackburn offered this piece of between-rounds counsel: "You can't get up so fast that nobody in the place didn't see you was down."

Fried's is also the only one of these books that is actually written. In his In the Corner, Anderson, the excellent New York Times columnist, merely sets the stage for his subjects with a few paragraphs—"When the door opened, the aroma of sizzling chicken sweetened the eighth floor room...." —and then lets the subjects, on tape, take over the narrative. Hauser, the author of an earlier book about boxing, The Black Lights, scarcely goes this far. Instead, he tersely introduces the next in line of his more than 150 speakers and then hands over the mike. It is a book not so much written as recorded. Still, there are good moments on these tapes. One of Anderson's cornermen, Kevin Rooney, who was discharged by the Mike Tyson camp, has a grand time taking potshots at Don King, Robin Givens (the former Mrs. Tyson) and Givens's mother, Ruth Roper. And Dundee admits that his advice to Ali in the famous "rope-a-dope" win over George Foreman in Zaire was to stay off the ropes.

Hauser purports to give a balanced account of Ali's life, and he is thorough in having doctors detail Ali's ongoing medical problems, but in the earlier chapters, at least, the scales are tipped heavily in the champion's favor. Ali is variously described in these pages as "the most recognizable person on earth" and "the most beautiful fighting machine ever assembled." And though dissenting voices are heard later on, the only logical conclusion the reader might reach is that Muhammad was a mountain few fighters of any era could conquer.

That isn't necessarily the verdict some of Fried's or even Anderson's old-timers render. Futch, who trained Ali foe Joe Frazier, considered Ali a limited fighter who "did so much with so little.... And his defense was monolithic. He pulled back. He very seldom ducked, he very seldom blocked a punch.... And he never threw a body punch."

Mannie Seamon, who succeeded Blackburn as Louis's trainer, claims that the Brown Bomber "would have whipped Cassius on the best day of Clay's career." Ray Arcel tells Anderson that no one was better than Jack Dempsey on the day Dempsey poleaxed big Jess Willard for the heavyweight title. And Charley Goldman, who trained Rocky Marciano, was forever loyal to his man. When some expert would comment after one of the Rock's KO wins that "Rocky don't look so good in there," Goldman would reply, "That guy lying on the floor don't look so good either."