“Of all the skills a boxer has to master, none is as mystifying as pain management,” sports journalist Carlos Acevedo writes in ‘Yesterday Will Make You Cry’, his account of the ‘short, tragic career’ of Davey Moore, one of twenty no-punches-pulled essays in Acevedo’s collection ‘Sporting Blood: Tales From The Dark Side Of Boxing’.
Acevedo’s new release presents the stories in the shadows of icons of the sport, and even more tragically, the stories of those who had the potential to be, their inability to indeed manage pain in all aspects of their lives brought to the fore.
In a tale that has echoes sporadically throughout the collection of talent burning brightly then circumstance tragically extinguishing, Davey Moore would ‘rocket to stardom’ at a young age, headlining Madison Square Garden with Roberto Duran in the first sell-out of the arena since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to seeing the paychecks decrease and being forced to take pickup fights in humdrum hotel venues for a few hundred dollars, before tragically losing his life at just 28 years old.
Throughout Sporting Blood, pain and suffering, both the physical and mental, is illuminated, the individual pugilist protagonists suffering and subjecting, in and outside of the ring: Esteban de Jesus descending into narcotic purgatory before becoming a casualty of the AIDS epidemic, Frazier examining his own cultural impact in the dominant shadow of the more charismatic Ali, each tale is recounted with exceptional, deft skill, Acevedo allowing access to these complex characters, and indeed provoking empathy, in the space of a none-too-overwhelming amount of pages devoted to each. Sporting Blood unites some of the darkest personal and professional lives of the greatest boxers of the past century.
A fan of the sport since the late 1970s whose first boxing memory was seeing Gorilla Monsoon putting Muhammad Ali in an airplane spin on a WWF television show, Carlos Avecedo has been writing about boxing since 2007, for Boxing Digest Magazine (formerly Boxing Illustrated).
In 2009 he founded The Cruelest Sport, which aims to bring some analytical criticism to a sport and has contributed to Boxing News, Remezcla, HBO Boxing and The Ring. He has received first place awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America and in 2018 was named editor of Hannibal Boxing. Avecedo spoke exclusively to The Sportsman about his ‘Tales From The Dark Side Of Boxing’.
Where does the intrigue in such sports subjects come from, what the boxer accomplished inside the ring, or the character they presented outside of it?
I have always been fascinated by the hard lives that led to a hard profession and then played out in hard deaths. Often, the life of a fighter informs his style in the ring. Not always, of course, but even the most outrageous personality has to have had a storied career for me to be interested in him.
There are exceptions, naturally, most notably fighters who might have had storied careers but were prevented from achieving them because of self-destruction or even the deleterious effects of boxing itself. In some ways, it’s hard to separate the lives from the careers.
Of the fighters in Sporting Blood - including Jake LaMotta, Sonny Liston, Ad Wolgast, Jack Johnson, and so on - almost all of them seemed destined to become boxers based on their socio-economic background and their erratic personalities.
Were there any particular stories in Sporting Blood that particularly resonated with you, the ones you especially knew that you wanted to include in this collection?
Because Esteban de Jesús was so talented and so revered in Puerto Rico, his unravelling was truly painful to read and write about. But there are a few stories in the book that are somewhat personal to me. More than any other sport, boxing encourages over identification and the reasons for that are pretty simple.
First, the one-on-one aspect of boxing, along with the fact that none of the fighters are wearing masks or helmets or uniforms, which invariably create some distance between spectator and participant, makes it easier to empathise with the participants. That was the case with Davey Moore, whom I loved when I was a kid. He was such an exuberant fighter and he looked like so many of the kids I grew up with, since he was from the Bronx, like me. His story, of a man washed up at 24 or 25 and dead at 28, was truly emblematic of the dark side of boxing.
Mike Tyson was a cultural phenomenon. Everyone talked about him in high school; kids wore jean jackets with his likeness spray-painted on the backs. In 1988, Tyson seemed to be in the pages on The New York Post and The New York Daily News every day. I remember how hot that summer was and how Tyson was some sort of avatar to the people in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
As far as actual narrative goes, “The Windfall Factor”, about a late substitute, Bert Cooper, challenging Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title, is probably my favourite. It features drugs, con men, fixed fights, NFL players, a poisoning, and a murder.
How do you manage to remain objective when talking about harrowing and often unacceptable behaviour?
To an extent, I share that same background with many American boxers. In fact, the Bronx neighbourhood I lived in was so dangerous, it became a cover story for The New York Times. That makes it less likely for me to be judgemental, per se, because I know, firsthand, where some of these rough-hewn men come from.
This is not to excuse some of the behaviour depicted in Sporting Blood - Tony Ayala Jr., for example, is simply indefensible - but boxing was an outlaw pursuit for many years in America and then it became an offshoot of street culture. No matter how many fireworks they detonate during ring walks, no matter how glitzy television broadcasts become, no matter how much money certain events produce, boxing is not a genteel sport. It never has been. One of the reasons it was outlawed in America was for the simple fact that boxing matches drew a floating world of criminals and grifters, alarming lawmakers and the public at large.
Are there any particular boxing legacies you feel need to be reevaluated, for better or for worse?
When people talk about the glory days of boxing, they are referencing, more or less, the era when there were only eight weight divisions and one champion per each division. The absurd number of titles and weight classes today - along with the fact that there are fewer professional boxers than there were sixty or seventy years ago - makes it much, much easier for a boxer to reach statistical milestones or to become a champion.
With that in mind, I would say most modern fighters have to be reevaluated downward and most pre-1980 fighters have to be reevaluated upward. There are dozens of talented fighters from the past with 80-100 total bouts who never won a title and deserve to have more recognition. In the United Kingdom, for example, there is Jock McAvoy, who had over 130 victories, and in America, there are almost too many to count.
A good number of the boxers that are the subject of these essays came from large, often impoverished families, most likely being a middle child: Jack Johnson, Joe Frazier, Aaron Pryor, Don Jordan. Do you think a tough background and hard-upbringing is behind success and, quite often, downfall?
Generally speaking, boxers come from deprived and depraved backgrounds. A hundred to a hundred and twenty years ago, when America was a much harsher country, before education was compulsory and when children still worked in mines, boxing could offer an escape from grinding poverty for a certain kind of man linked to the rugged individualism of American legend.
What made them prizefighters - recklessness, impulsiveness, ego - often does lead to their downfall. Worse, a boxer has a short peak and when he retires, he is likely to be 30 or 31 years old, still young enough to have the same tendencies, although now they are no longer channelled into boxing. This paradox sets them up for disaster in retirement. They are still adrenaline junkies, still impulsive, still reckless, and, if you factor in the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, they are probably more impulsive than ever.
Sporting Blood: Tales From The Dark Side Of Boxing, by Carlos Acevedo, Hamilcar Publications, £13.99