Book Review: Black & White by Brian Dobbs

“To this day, it is only possible from ringside, and certainly not on television, to grasp

the force with which any skilled professional can deliver a punch, let alone a top heavyweight. Similarly, a trained boxer can take, with equanimity, a clout that would transfix an ordinary athlete. A policeman who had never seen a professional fight would readily believe that Slavin and McAuliffe were delivering blows of unparalleled brutality” – Brian Dobbs

Here we see the essence of Brian Dobb’s writing, the ability to contextualise a period in boxing history so alien to us, the modern boxing fan, as well as  showing how the epic battles of the past struggle on into the world of boxing we know today.

Black & White:The Birth of Modern Boxing, soon to be published, is an articulate work of reference that details the period 1890-1921 in immaculate detail. Starting from the very earliest eras of 1680-1890 Dobb’s catalogues the dark ages of the sport as underground bare knuckle fights where the norm and the police were as often involved as the referee. Court cases such as the one referenced in the quotation as well as several others are cataloged, their arguments and context set out in such a way that explains away the bigotry and misconceptions that to the 21st century reader are tantamount to abject absurdity. This era is perhaps the least penetrable to the modern boxing fan as boxing flits between the courtroom and the ring with a backdrop of a society that we today find difficult to even imagine. However the book does an admirable job of immersing the reader in its intricacies, the world around the boxers, what they had to go through and why. The Author explains the trials and tribulations the seminal figures in boxing were forced to go through as well as explaining the societal reasons for them.

The book moves then through the early gloved era and the series of tragic deaths in the ring that almost derailed the fledgling sport during its embryonic phases. A delicate balance is struck between describing the awful tragedies that occured and retaining a sense of  humanity and  sensitivity all while describing in detail the brutal realities that lead to these tragedies. The politics of this and all the era’s covered, where it relates to boxing, is weaved amongst intricate recountings of the fights in order to clarify in exactly what climate each bout took place and how it affected the landscape of boxing more generally. The achievements, attributes and skills of the myriad great fighters this book covers are too clearly delineated. The book describes the skills of Lewis, Langford, Papke, Ketchel, Johnson, Dempsey and many others with a deep knowledge of the craft of boxing. Black & White isn’t all  just left and right but instead the styles and idiosyncrasies of each boxer are given time and effort, comparison and juxtaposition so as to give an overall sense of how each stack up. There is however a need for a level of implied knowledge on this front, for those totally unschooled in boxing the in ring descriptions could be difficult. Given the nature of the book it’s unlikely to be read by someone with no interest in boxing but even then the nature of some of the boxing argot contained within there is a chance those who have never delved into boxing before the 70’s or 80’s may struggle somewhat.

The book despite its heavy going nature and detail focused purpose manages to track and clear narrative toward the future. Never does it deviate too far from the general attitude of progression, moving towards the modern. It remains with the cutting edge of boxing demonstrating what each of the seminal events it chronicles did for boxing and how they affected the forward march of boxing. Every chapter clearly focuses on a different aspect of the same chronological movement toward the fight that ultimately Dobbs recognises as the endpoint of the birth of modern boxing. My only criticism here is the vast range of the topics covered in a few sections. In places there are sections attempting to span areas of gargantuan scale that can take the reader out of the progression towards the endpoint, that said they are few and far between.

The story of race in boxing as the title suggests is also fundamental to the narrative created by the author. Race has been a crucial axis from which all society has been judged and its effects on all sports have been huge but none more so than boxing. The book explains why this is,  factoring in the visual, the metaphorical and the societal, Dobbs is able to switch the lenses through which we view race and force perspectives on the historical view of race in boxing. Those such as Johnson and Gans who’s punches in the ring echoed through society are rightly venerated for their impact on America, and their controversies are handled delicately.

Some of the photographs that Dobbs has found are absolutely stunning and breathe life into an era of boxing that can at first seem stale and lifeless. Although the photographs, unsurprisingly when considering the title are in black and white some are able to exude the color of the characters within. The high quality portrait of Sam Langford cap askew and beaming, a friendly face not befitting such a murderous puncher, is excellent. My personal favourite of these though comes at the end of the book. A detailed close up of Jack Dempsey’s right fist, his premier weapon of mass destruction gives the final chapter and the descriptions of Jack the real sense of tension, anger and ferocity they deserve. The photographs are cornerstones of what is as a whole a very well presented book. It has a clean and well punctuated construction that separates and highlights the relevant information and holds the reader through the more intellectually challenging prose.

Above all this book is meticulously researched and well referenced. As a book whose primary purpose is the pursuit of information it achieves its aim well. Facts, figures, dates and reasoning are abundant throughout and the reader is never in any confusion what the source is for any piece of information or reasoning. A wide breadth of books, newspaper, magazine and journal sources are used to justify all of the historical conclusions the book draws as well as supply yet more context to the events discussed. Remarkable and interesting quotations too litter the pages of Black & White; pugilists, reporters, referee’s, promoters, managers, an entire rich tapestry of characters have been quoted with beguiling accuracy, allowing their stories to live on long after they have departed.

Despite my extensive praise this book is not for the faint of heart or those without an appetite for the period. It is a dense work of fact that the more casual reader could find extremely difficult to access. It ,in fulfilling its factual purpose, does air more decisively on the side of documentation than entertainment. Although there is great joy to be found by those boxing fans who have an avid interest in the period it is not an easy reading sun lounger thriller. It is primarily a detailed work of reference for the most scrutinising of boxing history buffs sacrificing a page turning plot for painstaking detail.

Overall, as an avid boxing historian I enjoyed my time with the book, learning more about the time before boxing was the sport we know today.

My Rating: ★★★★

Ewan Breeze Of SimBoxx

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