Author Mike Silver’s favorite photo, with boxing legends Archie Moore (far left), Sandy Saddler, and Charley Burley.
Noted boxing historian Mike Silver’s passion for boxing has always surpassed that of any other sport, but he finds little to love about the sweet science today. In his latest book, “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing,” which was published in 2020 by Rowman and Littlefield, he utilizes his unparalleled knowledge of boxing history to remind fans why boxing was once the most popular sport in the world.
The book is a compendium of 40 years of his best articles where, according to the book jacket, he “captures the essence, charisma, tragedy, and romance of boxing like no one else.”
Silver is unapologetic about his negative feelings about the sport today, but explains, “I never criticize the sport without facts, logic, perspective, and a frame of reference.”
You can open this book to any page and become enthralled with the sport that once brought Silver so much joy, but ultimately led to immense disappointment.
He recalls visiting Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan as a teenager in the late 1950s.
“An afternoon at Stillman’s provided one of the greatest shows in town,” writes Silver, a lifelong New Yorker.
He describes the sights, sounds and smells – the excitement of watching world class boxers or preliminary boys sparring in the two rings.
Although scores of champions, including Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and Sugar Ray Robinson had trained there, one of Silver’s fondest memories is meeting Kid Norfolk, one of the greatest African America fighters to never win a title.
Silver had just begun taking boxing lessons but found himself starstruck when trying to think of an intelligent question to ask Norfolk.
“What is the most important thing in boxing?” he finally stammered, to which Norfolk responded, “Balance, son…balance” in “sonorous, deep tones.”
For the young, impressionable, and formative Silver, “it was an unforgettable moment.”
In the eponymous story, Silver writes about a 1970 bout between Canada’s Clyde Gray and Panama’s Humberto Trottman at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel.
Trottman, who was annoyed over what he believed was biased officiating by referee Sammy Luftspring, sucker punched Luftspring at the start of the sixth round.
The 54-year-old Luftspring, a former welterweight contender who had been blinded in one eye during a 1940 bout with Steve Belloise, responded in kind. He avoided a follow-up punch by Trottman, socked him in the heart, and followed up with three or four more shots without getting hit in return.
“Luftspring had been a formidable fighter in his day,” said Silver. “He never lost his pride and wouldn’t allow Trottman to take advantage of him.”
Silver introduces us to Benny Valgar, a “Forgotten Boxing Master,” of whom the legendary trainer Ray Arcel said in 1935, “Achievements that deserve to be recalled and celebrated are allowed to fade into obscurity.”
Valgar was a superb Jewish fighter who fought alongside the great Benny Leonard. He is one of only two boxers in history to engage in over 200 bouts and never be knocked out. The other is Harry Stone.
In “The President Boxer,” Silver recounts future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who boxed as a lightweight while attending Harvard and later befriended heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan.
Silver also revisits the tragedy of the 1962 ring death of Benny “Kid” P and even debunks the myth of the Thrilla in Manila.
Separating what he calls fact from fiction, Silver describes the third Ali-Frazier bout in Manila as “seriously flawed” because it did not “convey the excitement and quality of a truly great prizefight.”
Silver utilizes a panel of experts, including Teddy Atlas, to examine Floyd Mayweather Jr’s claim of being an all-time great, regales us with the stories behind boxing’s 10 greatest quotes, and describes what he calls the “world of professional amateurs” masquerading as alphabet champions today.
What is most compelling are the profound interviews he conducted with the likes of Archie Moore, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, Tiger Ted Lowry, Curtis Cokes, and Roger Donoghue.
In a 1983 interview with “the Old Mongoose,” Archie Moore, Moore told Silver how much he appreciated and admired watching skilled athletes practice their craft.
“I enjoyed watching Oscar Robertson move on the basketball court, Jim Brown on a football field, Andretti in an automobile, Willie the Shoe ride the horses,” said Moore.
Regarding Sugar Ray Robinson, Moore told Silver, “There’s never been anybody more graceful, skillful with a rope than Ray, and I’ve seen some awfully good rope skippers. I would rather see Ray Robinson punch a speed bag than watch the average guy go out and fight a six-round fight.”
Although Moore said “there was nobody more beautiful than (Robinson), Moore said he would have liked to see someone other than himself go out on a limb and opine that the under-heralded Charley Burley would have beaten Robinson in his prime.
In his 1998 interview with Carlos Ortiz, the former lightweight champion openly discussed his triumphs in the ring and his tragedies out of it.
“In my time of glory, I was loved by people because of my fame, because of my money,” said Ortiz. “Today, I’m happy. I may not have what I had in those days, but I tell you one thing. I’m the happiest guy in the world.”
Ted Lowry, a nearly 150 fight veteran who twice went the distance with Rocky Marciano, offered tremendous insight on past and present heavyweights in a 2003 interview.
He believed that Marciano’s determination more than made up for his deficiencies and he would have beaten the likes of Lennox Lewis and Muhammad Ali but would not have been able to overcome the jab of Larry Holmes.
“He (Marciano) was tough, and he was a good puncher,” said Lowry. “He had a lot of heart and was well conditioned. And it’s hard to beat a person like that, especially if they’ve got a lot of heart.”
Donoghue was hired by screenwriter Budd Schulberg to teach Marlon Brando the rudiments of boxing for his role in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront.” Donoghue had been a promising middleweight until he was involved in a 1951 rematch with Georgie Flores in which Flores sustained fatal injuries. Donaghue retired shortly afterwards with a 28-4 record (16 KOs).
Donoghue spoke of training Brando in the actor’s small apartment behind Carnegie Hall where no one could bother them but the steady parade of “chicks” who came to see Brando. He also discussed traveling to Hollywood and his attempt to break into the business as a writer, director, and technical advisor.
There was even talk of a movie called “8th Avenue” to be co-written by him and Schulberg and based on his career. Plans for the film fell apart when James Dean, who would play Donoghue, was killed in a car crash, and Humphrey Bogart, who would play his manager, became ill with cancer.
Former New York City Golden Gloves finalist Peter Wood, whose latest book is called “The Boy Who Hit Back,” said Silver’s book “brought a tear to my eye, a lump in the pit of my stomach, and a smile in my heart.”
Jonathan Eig, author of “Ali: A Life,” calls Silver “the Sugar Ray Robinson of boxing writers – smooth, smart, powerful, and tough to beat.”
If you have a fondness for boxing lore, a yearning for bygone fistic relevance, or ever wonder what happened to the sport that had once mattered more than all others, Silver, a first-rate writer and world ranked raconteur, will answer those questions for you.
“(The book) is a head-clearing reminder that boxing wasn’t always such a mess,” says Springs Toledo, author of the seminal 2019 book, ‘Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb 1919.’
“(Boxing) has the capability to be more than it is, that it should aspire to be more like it was. In this era of franchise skill sets and fading skill sets, Silver is here to stop the bleeding.”
You can purchase the book if you like, by clicking this link.