Nigel Collins Book Helps Make Sense of Strange Sport
The new Nigel Collins book dropped at an interesting time, right about when word came that The Ring magazine, after a one hundred year run, would cease to exist.
Collins, author of “Hooking Off the Jab,” an anthology of his writing from 1980 to 2022, had done two stints as editor in chief of the mag, so I reached out to him, and other ex EICs, to get their takes on what it meant. Collins’ answer got to the point:
“I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner,” said the 76 year old Englishman, who was Ring chief 1985-1989, and again from 1997-2011. “Digital is so much cheaper. It was a matter of survival. At least The Ring is still alive, which is better than no Ring.”
That pragmatic response makes a certain sense when I think about it, after absorbing 44 pieces in the book, 14 of which appeared in Ring, 9 in Ringside Seat, 3 in Boxing News, one each from Grantland.com and his book Boxing Babylon. Fifteen of the entries are from dispatches to ESPN.com, a digital platform.
How one interprets the book will depend on what filters one is reading through, and, probably your age. Collins, who came to America at age 11, is a baby boomer, so he was a pretty fully formed adult as he built his knowledge base in the home base of Philadelphia. Collins supplied ringside wrap ups to Ring from press tables situated to offer a sterling view of a gaggle of local (and national, and international) players, like Bennie Briscoe, Mathew Saad Muhammad and then Joltin’ Jeff Chandler, and other all-stars who helped Collins become “the writer dude who knew a bit about boxing.”
Collins summarized himself as that in the book intro, and he could’ve clapped himself on the back harder, being that he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015.
I applauded his longevity and faithfulness to the sweet and more often savage science while reading Collins’ thoughts on the legacy of Muhammad Ali, the subject of the book’s first three entries.
It’s certain that some young ‘uns curious about this sport, maybe trying to decipher their attraction to the semi-structured racket which uplifted have nots and cemented their demise at a ratio which society has wanly accepted, will get a taste and have that appetite grow. That happened to me—I still recall the aisle at the Wellesley Free Library where I popped open “Writers Fighters” by John Schulian, reading til my legs got sore, because I was so fixated on the hijinks and heroics found in this sporting Combat Zone. Schulian helped hook me, as “Hooking Off the Jab” will another addict to be.
I use the word addict deliberately, because the task of covering the worlds of pro pugilism is arguably unseemly. I speak for myself with that characterization, while writing this review, because I’m afraid my connection to the sport, as a chronicler, bears relation to properties present in an addict. Covering the boxing beat gives me pleasure, joy, satisfaction, but at some cost.
Reporting, the journalism space, has mirrored the career of a stalwart ring professional. Collins got reps at the right hand of Burt Sugar at Ring, so he enjoyed some apex time, before newspapers and magazines started going on life support and getting their plugs pulled. Everyone has access to their own publishing platform now, so athletes can report on themselves, which removes the usefulness of middle man me. The compensation to ply this trade has dwindled in correlation with the growth of digital platforms, and technological advances which have paid dividends in efficiency, with those gains not trickling down to the laborers. I ask myself if my devotion to the craft is actually a stubborn inertia, and whether my continued participation is because of habit more than anything else.
Some of all that ricochets in my mind as I leaf through “Hooking,” the changes Collins and me, a Generation Xer who became cognizant of the sport in Muhammad Ali’s final “dash” to his career finish line, witnessed.
As I got the lay of the land from Schulian, budding fanatics will be obtaining the skinny from Collins. “Mayweather is unique in that he’s the only boring fighter to become a multimillionaire,” Collins writes in 2017’s “Who Is Floyd Mayweather,” making me chuckle and ruminate on the shift in fighting style of many of the games’ top level talents. The game has changed since Collins began his romance with covering the ins and outs, and not in a way that has resulted in a resurgence of relevance.
I don’t know there’s any other possible POV than the one Collins displays when he writes, “What the sweet science needs to take it into the next century is a boxer who happens to be a great athlete,” in 2000’s ‘Roy Joneses’ One Man Show.’ “For many, Jones’ big night in the Big Apple only deepened the suspicion that he’s probably not the one for the job.”
Collins at some level is maybe like me engaged in a quest to comprehend stark dualities that we wrestle with as sentient beings, with boxing being the focal point. He recalls heavyweight Sonny Banks, who in February of 1962 got stopped by Cassius Clay but not before gaining a notable resume line item. The Mississippi native Banks in round one at Madison Square Garden smacked Clay with a left hook, sending the budding icon to the mat. Clay regained his bearings, while Banks’ trajectory weaved back into the correct lane.
On May 10, 1965 then 14-1 Leotis Martin, on the ascent, whacked Banks fiercely, and sent him to the mat with a ferocious right hand. His eyes were closed, his body inert. The fans sensed the gravity of his stillness. Banks got rushed to a hospital near Philadelphia Arena, and succumbed to head trauma three days later. “I want to be somebody,” Banks, final record 18-7, had said, “but I’m nobody and have no chance of being anybody until I get in the ring.”
A fight writer in the mold of Collins mulls the stark nature of that stance, in a bid to make life’s incomprehensibilities less opaque, I think. He performs a service to readers while trying to illuminate our species’ frequently infuriating customs.
The Pennsylvania resident Collins’ phrasing gets a high mark when he writes, in 2017’s ‘A Touch of Larceny,’ “Prizefighting is the exception to the ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’ tenet. It has been its own enemy since the start but is still standing, albeit on wobbly legs from time to time… Boxing heaven is beyond our reach because it does not exist. Instead, think of it as the charming black sheep of the sports family, the one we love, not only despite its faults, but also because of them.”
Such insights are a rarity these days, as fight writing has become a vocational choice to be pursued against one’s better judgement. Hobbyists and side hustlers are not too likely to be so adept at deciphering and gracefully describing so smartly.
It is fitting that the last selection in “Hooking” is Collins’ jailhouse interview (“I Hate Everybody”) with Mike Tyson in 1994. “I know who I am and what I am,” said the then 28 year old Tyson, while serving three years minus a month sentence for rape, to RING boss Collins. “This doesn’t trip me out. I understand that people are into me for what I do. And they should not expect anything else out of me.” Tyson is likely to be the last pugilistic icon possessing the breadth of talents and traits which make him arguably the best known living boxer on the planet, 35 years after his peak. Collins is in a shrinking class of persons who not only covered those glory days up close, but own the desire and ability to report his findings.