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How to become a boxing writer

Tris Dixon talks to two of the greatest boxing writers in history about the trials and tribulations of writing a boxing book

ASK a well-read boxing fan to list their favourite 10, nay, five books and you will likely find work published by Thomas Hauser or Donald McRae at the summit.

They are two of the modern greats of the genre, authors who write lines you dream of being able to construct, who effortlessly succeed in generating the best quotes from the most timid interviewee and who can create a narrative so absorbing it can send you into a gloomy spiral knowing you have reached the end of something quite magnificent.

Their work not only stands the test of time, people from all walks of life can enjoy it. A boxing historian may dog-ear pages as he goes along, marking future points of reference, while a twenty-something holiday-maker can lose days glued to a kindle.

We recognise McRae and Hauser as well-established award-winning authors, yet their paths have been wholly independent and not without challenges.

Former Wall Street lawyer Hauser is best-known in these circles for his brilliant debut boxing book, The Black Lights, and working with “The Greatest” on Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, the definitive Ali title.

McRae’s first boxing manuscript was Dark Trade, but the equally sublime In Black and White about Joe Louis and Jesse Owens made him the first two-time winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, an accolade Hauser earned for Ali.

Yet both of their initial efforts nearly accepted different forms.

The Black Lights was about the hard times faced by Billy Costello, former WBC light-middleweight champion.

“I deliberately did not want a superstar,” the straight-talking Hauser recalled. “If I had been able to attach myself to someone like Larry Holmes, who was certainly a star in those days, a Roberto Duran, it would have distorted the process because it wouldn’t have shown how the average fighter has to scramble to get anything. And here was Billy Costello, he was an undefeated world champion and he had trouble getting a TV deal – so you can imagine what it was like for the clubfighter. I wanted somebody who had things a little tougher.”

He understood that would make it a harder sell to a publisher, but he also knew what he wanted to achieve from a creative standpoint.

“I decided I wanted to write a book about sports and you can’t just go into Yankee Stadium and talk to the Yankees,” he continued. “You can’t just go in to Madison Square Garden and talk to the New York Knicks. But you can go into any gym in any city in the world and talk to fighters, so I decided to write about the sport and business of boxing.”

Billy Cayton and Jim Jacobs, co-managers of Puerto Rican Edwin Rosario, offered their fighter as the focal point. Hauser travelled to the island for a couple of fights but did not gel with the boxer. The language barrier, the logistics…

“Meanwhile, I had gone up to Catskill to interview Gerry Cooney and Mike Jones who was Cooney’s co-manager, he also managed Billy Costello,” Hauser went on. “I met Billy when I was up there. I liked Billy. I liked Mike. I liked [trainer] Victor Valle and it made so much more sense to build a book around Billy, who lived in New York, trained in New York and trained in Gleason’s – which was in Manhattan at the time – so I switched over to Billy.

“Ali was a different kind of research. That was focused on one person. I did all the archival work I could find, I interviewed about 200 people and I hung out with Ali for a year and a half. I realised very early on that I couldn’t just sit and ask him questions the way I would with Billy Costello or Mike Jones, the best way to interact with Ali was to hang with him, have my yellow pad with me and write down anything that came to mind.

“The best things would come where I would say [something like], ‘I was talking with Mort Sharnik today, who told me about going to hospital with Sonny Liston after the first fight.’ And Ali would say, ‘Man, what did he say?’ And of course he was off and running about what he remembered about certain aspects of that night.”

The centrepiece to McRae’s Dark Trade was, in the end, James Toney, but the original concept that had a working title of Showtime was Mike Tyson.

Publishers would have preferred that, as evidenced when, after two years of work, McRae’s agent – who had implored him not to write a boxing book “because they don’t sell” – fired out a 50-page proposal to 10 perspective publishing houses.

There were polite but abrupt rejections from nine. McRae was despondent. He wondered why he was bothering.

“I think there had been a couple of early books about Tyson but I didn’t think they had really captured him and his sort of madness, but I knew that would be too difficult because he was almost the most famous person in the world and it would have been impossible to get sustained access to him,” McRae explained.

“I started to think perhaps if I had Tyson as a key figure then I could find others to open it up. The book begins with me going to meet Tyson and his life was just starting to explode into complete chaos but I was following other fighters closely. I knew Tyson was going down into a dark place and would be locked away fairly soon so I quickly thought, ‘Who else would capture me with that same kind of intensity.’ And Toney obviously was the figure.

“It sounds like I was being calculated, like I was looking for a sensational figure, I wasn’t. It was just who was going to fascinate me to the extent that Tyson had. There was something more to him than just a bad-mouthing guy. I instinctively knew. By then, he hadn’t even won a world title, hadn’t beaten Michael Nunn, and most people thought he wouldn’t beat Nunn, but he was on my radar. Tyson and Toney were going to be the building blocks.

“I was living in the UK and it was important to me that I had a UK base to the book and Michael Watson, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn were all coming up. Those kind of figures were obvious to me and I couldn’t do all of them. The Benn-Eubank fight had been a titanic battle so instinctively you would have thought I would have gone for them, but Watson was coming up to fight Eubank and I just thought the contrast between them was so deep and compelling.

“Nigel, I sort of pushed to one side, even though he was a fantastic fighter. Eubank was like a cartoon figure but I knew he was a tough guy, a hard person, so I wanted – which I didn’t quite do – to attempt to get beneath the surface of Eubank, find out who he was as a human being and similarly Michael Watson, I felt a similar emotional bond to Watson. He liked boxing the same way that I did. He spoke about the good things in boxing whereas Eubank was sort of dismissing boxing as a violent, awful sport.

“Then there was that catastrophic night when Michael ended up in a coma and the book became a much deeper, darker subject and my desire to find out about these people as human beings was accentuated because someone I liked a lot had almost lost his life. Suddenly this was not just that I wanted a book out on boxing, it was something that became so deeply personal to me and I spent five years on it.” 

The Black Lights and Dark Trade are two classic ‘must haves’ for sports fans.

Yet Hauser and McRae, both uniquely talented, are very different. Hauser does not suffer fools while McRae is more patient. You might contend Hauser’s writing is more direct while McRae’s is softer. The results are similar.

“Whether it’s about football, politics or Beethoven, a good book is well-written, it flows nicely, for a non-fiction book it should break new ground, people should enjoy reading it and that’s true of any book,” said the New York author.

“I get sent a lot to review and most of them are mediocre. Some of them are very, very good, and each year I publish this list called Holiday Reading which I think are the best books written and there are certain books, like Don McRae’s book on Emile Griffith or David Margolick on the second Louis-Schmeling fight and they’re just excellent books.

“I got a review copy now of a biography of Rocky Marciano by Mike Stanton and I’m about 75 pages into it and I said to myself yesterday, ‘This is a really good book.’

“Two people can tell the same story and one person makes it seem fresh, new and breaks new ground. So this is really good book. It’s not a good boxing book, it’s a good book.”

McRae concurred.

“The books I like are the ones about the human beings who happen to be fighters,” he explained. “What a fighter feels like in the hour before he goes into battle, what he feels like after a first defeat or a win of huge magnitude, if you can get inside his head and find out what motivates him, what hurts him emotionally and what inspires him.”

Of course, both authors set out with similar goals, not just to turn out exceptional prose but to inspire.

Writing books is a solitary process. You might interview dozens of subjects, you may attend events with thousands of people, but the real work is done behind closed doors, alone, to silence, with just pages of notes to read or a dictaphone playing softly, constantly being rewound and allowed to flow again.

You compose a first draft, sharpen it repeatedly and then it goes to the publishers. That is neither when the relief kicks in nor when the process ends.

It is edited and proofread, then returned for final comments and amendments. If you’re lucky, you may get a month to go through it all one last time, by which point 300 pages looks like an unsolvable jigsaw – but it’s too late to go back and start over.

For McRae, who is coming to the end of a project that mixes Irish history and boxing, he had to complete it by August although it is not released until April 2019.

Behind the scenes, publishers will be planning sales, going back over it with a toothcomb and working on marketing strategies.

The author can do no more.

“Finishing a book is deeply emotional because it’s taken years to get to that point and with the last line of a book I type out and there’s a mix of elation and exhaustion but there’s also kind of a sadness because it’s over,” admitted McRae.

Then, weeks or months down the line, the postman arrives with either a parcel or a box depending on the generosity of the publishers.

“I made the decision that I was going to write what I wanted to write and as long as it was nicely published I would be happy,” Hauser stated. “Do I like it when one of my books is made into a feature film like Missing was? Yes. Do I like it when one of my books like the Ali biography is on the London Times on the New York Times bestseller list? Absolutely. I love it. But a book like Waiting for Carver Boyd or Mark Twain Remembers which didn’t get that sort of recognition means just as much to me.”

Then review copies are mailed out.

“I have never gotten too high over good reviews and I’ve never gotten too low over a negative review,” Hauser said. A salty review can make an inexperienced author question everything. “Like everybody else I would rather have a good review and if you have a good review that’s well placed, in the New York Times or something like that, it can help sell books. But often reviewers are ignorant or biased. I’ve had reviews of my books where clearly that person hasn’t read the book – and some of those were good reviews.

“It’s more important to me to have feedback from people who I respect. If I write a boxing book it means much more to me what someone like Bruce Trampler, who’s a serious reader, or Larry Merchant, or Jerry Izenberg or Don McRae than some guy who’s reviewing it for a newspaper who knows very little about boxing or writing to begin with.”

McRae takes criticism a little more to heart. Of course, neither McRae nor Hauser swim amongst too many undesirable reviews.

“I do look at them,” admitted Donald. “I think the ones that stay with me are the negative ones because they still hurt but I do force myself to think, ‘Well, what didn’t they like about the book?’ And most of the time they have made some pertinent points, which I have tried to take on board. But on the whole I’ve been lucky with reviews and if someone says it’s not a good book you must still hold onto the things that you value about it.”

The landscape for having boxing books published is unforgiving. Big names help enormously but for McRae and Hauser it is important for them to hold true and write about what matters to them. Yes, they may file assignments for the money because they are writers and have a bottom-line to cover as much as the next guy.

But those principles have held them in good stead, allowing them to make the choices that they want.

“With The Black Lights, if I had gone in and said, ‘We are basing this book about Ray Leonard’ would that have gotten a bigger contract? Yeah,” Thomas conceded. “But I don’t know that I would have got that access to Ray and when I went in with Ali’s biography I got a lot more attention and money than I would have gotten had I gone in with Howard Davis’ biography. But that’s the choice a creative artist makes.’

Ask an author with several titles to name their favourite book and it is like asking a content parent to label their favourite child.

“They all mean different things,” McRae agreed. “I used to get a little pissed off because people would always talk about Dark Trade. Of course, I’m happy that they like the book but for me I can’t easily look at it because it sometimes seems so overblown, the language is excessively over the top…

“But I think the figures in that book are so powerful, Tyson, Toney, Eubank, Watson, Naseem, Oscar De La Hoya. It won Sports Book of the Year and it opened up a lot of doors and people are kind enough now to still like it so I guess that is the most important of my books.

“I do think A Man’s World about Emile Griffith is too long, I wish I could change things, but in many ways I think that is a better book than Dark Trade.

“Hopefully there’s going to be a feature film about A Man’s World that will be shot next year. Then I did one about Joe Louis and Jessie Owens, that meant a lot to me and I like that book, but if I had to pick one it would be Dark Trade because it opened so many doors.”

Hauser has written fiction and non-fiction as well as plenty of non-boxing books. He has also had numerous collections of his boxing writing published.

Has he a favourite?

“I don’t think any project will bring me as much joy as the fun I had while I was working on the Ali book,” he said. “All of the time spent with Muhammad, the people I interacted with that really was a joy. And it’s obviously also a very important book in terms of my creative legacy. That was very special to me.

“But Mark Twain Remembers is one of my favourite books in terms of if I had to point to books that I’m proudest of having written I would say that and the two Charles Dickens books, with The Baker’s Tale being number one and The Final Recollection of Charles Dickens being number two. Those to me are just very special books. So I would say Ali and Mark Twain Remembers, but The Black Lights started it all for me and in some ways Waiting For Carver Boyd is the purest boxing writing I’ve done.”

Hauser and McRae have, between them, written plenty away from boxing but it is their work on the Noble Art that defines them, certainly for the sport’s fans.

It was Ernest Hemingway who once claimed, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Hopefully these two literary dons have a few more drops to share about this bloody business.

Boxing News
The Boxing News office in 1951

10 WRITING TIPS

1. No regrets

One of the nine publishers who originally rejected Dark Trade went on to make a deal with McRae to print a later edition softback.

2. Get the right title

“Suddenly I was thinking about these guys and they were basically working in a dark business so I was thinking about the words dark and business and then I thought, ‘Well, trading punches,’ and then it seemed obvious,” said McRae about Dark Trade.

3. Take your time… if necessary

McRae spent five years on Dark Trade while Hauser took years over Ali. He wrote Waiting For Carver Boyd in 10 days. “Depending on how you look at it either 10 days or 20 years, because there’s a lot of thought,” said Hauser. “But that was something very quick. I had a straightforward linear idea and I said, ‘Okay, let’s go to work. Let’s put it down’.

4. Take it or leave it

I’m aware of one current A-lister who won’t sign a book deal because it’s not for as much as he thinks he was worth. To get the big bucks in books, huge names only need apply.

5. History-makers

When you write a book that can shape how a fighter is remembered, there is an extra burden. Hauser had it with Ali and McRae with Emile Griffith. “There’s a feeling of importance, that you wanted to do justice to him,” admitted Donald.

6. Keep the concept original

McRae said he may revisit the format of Dark Trade but insists it “will not be a sequel.”

7. How to do it

“Every book is different,” said Hauser. “You have to be creative and let each book tell you the best way to research it and put it together.”

8. More than just a name

The life story of one brilliant British fighter might not be told in full because he no longer looks anything like he did in his prime. You don’t put a picture of someone from their heyday on the cover of a modern book and some publishing houses feel he is unrecognisable from his fighting days.

9. Do your homework

Hauser’s is one of the great researchers. “For Mark Twain Remembers, which is a novel about Mark Twain, slavery and boxing and a young man coming of age and that was a huge undertaking.  At first, I read every book that Mark Twain ever wrote and a lot of his articles, so I could write in his voice. I also had to do a lot of research on slavery in the United States, because that was a theme and I had to do some research on bare-knuckle fighting, because that was an area where I wasn’t particularly well-versed.”

10. Just do it

“Even if publishers and agents are telling you not to do a book if you believe in it go for it,” said McRae. “Most of the time they do know what they’re talking about, but if you feel it so deeply in your bones it’s something that’s going to be worth doing, you’ve just got to go for it.”

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