Book Review: A Ringside Affair - Boxing’s Last Golden Age by James Lawton

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The sport of boxing was in crisis. Mike Tyson, its biggest star; the man whose destructive force had thrilled audiences first captivated by the legendary Muhammad Ali - having recovered from a shock defeat to James Buster Douglas to restore his reputation with two first round knockouts and two bruising victories over Donovan Ruddock - had just been convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison. “It’s my opinion that to a large extent, Mike Tyson was railroaded in this case. "You have a young woman who was in his room, in his hotel, late in the evening at her own will. You have a young woman who was dancing for the beauty contest, dancing with a big smile on her face, who looked as happy as can be”, claimed a contemporary defender; a defender who would later be installed as the 45th President of America; a defender by the name of Donald Trump. It was, so the argument of Trump went, the young female’s fault. A topical point of conversation in late 2017, in February 1992, with the incarceration of boxing’s biggest star, surely it signalled the end of a golden age of the world’s oldest sport, ushered in by its greatest ever competitor, Muhammad Ali?

“I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own.” So said Muhammad Ali. And he was right. Boxing, perhaps even sport as a whole, had never known anyone like him. He was a phenomenon who intrigued the world about boxing. Little wonder then that, despite showing his legendary toughness to overcome the menacing Ernie Shavers at Madison Square Garden in 1977, budding boxing writer James Lawton was left to question what would come of the sport after Ali’s retirement, as the bruised unified world heavyweight champion cried out in agony as the light hit his eyes in the confines of his dressing room – an ominous sign of the health problems which would eventually claim his life. But Lawton need not have worried too much. What followed was a series of huge bouts and big stars as the boxing giants of the 80s and 90s fought tooth and nail to keep alive the light which Ali’s infectious personality and immense talent, not to mention highly capable dance partners, had shone on the sport.

‘A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age’, is Lawton’s account of following that mesmerising period in the sport’s history at close quarters while working as a writer with the Daily Express and Independent. Lawton recalls the legendary battles as Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns epically fought back and forth in an attempt to definitively claim Ali’s vacated title as the greatest boxer on the planet. Then there is the detailed close-up account of the against-the-odds rise and, all too predictable, painful fall that took Tyson from youngest world heavyweight champion to resident of the Indiana Youth correctional facility, and left boxing staring the abyss straight in the face. Boxing, of course, survived Tyson’s incarceration. And as Lawton vividly depicts, ‘Iron Mike’ was only a matter of months in to his jail term when Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe reminded the viewing public that in-ring action is what makes boxing most interesting. The book's final pages are largely dedicated to the shocking events of Tyson-Holyfield, the coronation of the extremely deserving Lennox Lewis and the final moments of two storied careers that finally brought Lewis and Tyson together in a professional ring.

Lawton’s book is an interesting account in to not only boxing but the perils of competition, fame, fortune, pressure, expectation and coping with disappointment. The tales of personal demons, the likes of which engulfed Tyson or Oliver McCall, are as prevalent as those of skilled pugilism. The book probably lacks crossover appeal (in the way of say a Moneyball) but most boxing fans, particularly any of an age old enough to recall the battles of Hagler, Hearns, Duran and Robinson and the rise and fall of Mike Tyson, would be glued to this revealing read. It also comes at a time when boxing is making a tremendous comeback, at the end of one of the most memorable years of in-ring action for decades, where a young heavyweight champion has used boxing to escape the trouble of the streets to become a superstar; another has succumbed to substance abuse and a torrid battle with mental health and the biggest, and best, fight of the year was marred by dubious judging – themes that are all hugely prevalent throughout the pages of Lawton’s enjoyable work. Lawton’s tale is a reminder of how great the sport of boxing is when the best fight the best. Here’s hoping it is on the Christmas list for every champion and every promoter operating in the sport today.

‘A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age’, written by James Lawton and published by Bloomsbury, is available from today, Thursday November 2nd. It earns a warm recommendation from this boxing fan.