Staff Pick: Four Kings

By George Kimball McBooks Press

North American sports in the 1980s were dominated by three decade-long storylines: the Lakers and Celtics taking turns winning a total of eight NBA championships, Wayne Gretzky essentially re-inventing the way hockey is played, and four middleweight boxers knocking each other silly with the entire world watching.

Longtime boxing scribe George Kimball has turned "the last great era of boxing" into one of the finest sports books to hit shelves in years. (Mark this down: It's the greatest book on the sweet science you'll ever read in which Muhammad Ali doesn't play a central role.) Four Kings is the story of nine championship prize fights, all held between 1980 and 1989, and all involving two of the aptly named "kings": Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns (born in Memphis in 1958), and Roberto Duran. With each chapter devoted to Kimball's recollections of a particular fight (he attended all nine events), the book represents a round-by-round chronicle of a time when boxing still mattered.

And while Kimball describes the necessary action of each fight with a vivid focus on the punches that made a difference, he focuses more on the cult of personalities this foursome came to embody, largely the result of the intensity of their rivalries with each other. Duran — the "Hands of Stone" who once knocked out a horse — loathed Leonard for the latter's extraordinary popularity, wealth, and propensity for antics in the ring. Hearns — the "Hit Man" who rose to fame in Detroit's Kronk Gym — brought out the very best in both Leonard and Hagler, only to come up short of victory. (His war with Hagler — the combatants landed a combined 190 punches in less than eight minutes — is considered by many the most fearsome three rounds in boxing history.) Find "Marvelous Marvin" at his home today in Italy (where he became a movie star after hanging up his gloves) and he'll tell you he won his 1987 battle with Leonard, only to have judges steal the decision.

Kimball's tales of intrigue that surrounded these megafights would fit seamlessly into a work of fiction, making the stories all the more dramatic for their veracity. A member of Leonard's entourage actually dyed his hair gray so that he could infiltrate Hagler's training camp before their "Super Fight." During one of the earlier battles, a portion of the ring collapsed, and the balance of the fight took place with volunteer college students literally holding up the boxers' platform from beneath the ring. In reading each tale so splendidly told, you get the impression the author could hold court on a bar stool longer than it took these nine fights to collectively make the history they did.

To the masses, boxing has always been — and will continue to be — about the heavyweight division. But without a modern-day Ali (or Dempsey, or Louis, or Marciano, or even Tyson), the sport has lost its footing, probably for good. And the loss for casual sports fans is that the greatest ring artistry is often seen well below the heavyweight division, where lightweights, welterweights, and middleweights display skills no 200-pound brute can muster. George Kimball recognizes the artistry of the middleweights, and he was an eyewitness to an era when that artistry took center stage for the entire sports world one year after another, a time when months of hype was actually met by as few as ten minutes in a boxing ring. Four Kings is a brilliant telling of that time.

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