Boxing has a long and storied history, dating back to ancient Greece where it was a popular sport in the Olympic games. Even before that, its origins can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia, where it was practiced as a form of hand-to-hand combat and a test of strength and skill. However, it wasn't until the 18th century that boxing as we know it today began to take shape.
In today's article, we'll briefly explore the history of boxing along with some prominent controversies before introducing out top ten books on the subject.
A Brief History
In the early days, bare-knuckle boxing matches were brutal and often deadly, with few rules and no protective equipment. However, as the sport grew in popularity, it began to become more regulated. In 1867, the Marquess of Queensberry rules were introduced, which established the standard rules for modern boxing. These rules, which included the use of gloves, the establishment of weight divisions, and the introduction of timed rounds, revolutionized the sport of boxing and laid the foundation for its modern-day format.
Throughout the 20th century, boxing continued to grow in popularity, with legendary fighters such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali capturing the public's imagination. However, the sport has also faced its fair share of controversy, with concerns over safety and allegations of corruption.
Prominent Boxing Controversies
1. Fight Fixing
Over the years, allegations of fight fixing and corrupt practices have plagued boxing. Various instances have raised suspicions that certain fights were predetermined or manipulated for financial gain, casting doubt on the integrity of the sport and damaging its reputation.
2. Judging Controversies
Judging decisions in boxing have often been a subject of controversy. Disputes arise when fights end with controversial split decisions or when perceived dominant performances are not reflected in the judges' scorecards. Such controversies have led to calls for reform in judging criteria and systems.
3. Performance-Enhancing Drugs
Like many other sports, boxing has had its share of scandals related to performance-enhancing drugs. Several high-profile boxers have tested positive for banned substances, leading to suspensions, stripped titles, and tarnished legacies. These incidents have highlighted the ongoing battle against doping in boxing.
4. Weight Manipulation
Boxing's weight divisions play a crucial role in ensuring fair competition, but fighters engaging in extreme weight cutting and dehydration practices to gain a size advantage have raised concerns. Instances of fighters missing weight, causing last-minute changes or disadvantageous matchups, have sparked debates about the ethics and safety of weight management in the sport.
5. Inadequate Safety Measures
Last, the safety of boxers is a paramount concern, and controversies have emerged around insufficient measures to protect fighters from long-term health risks, such as traumatic brain injuries. Calls for improved safety regulations, better medical oversight, and enhanced post-fight medical care have been fueled by tragic incidents and the long-term consequences faced by some fighters.
Why Read One Of These Books?
It's a great question, and I'm glad you asked. For me, it comes down to 3 reasons:
1. Books on any topic provide perspective. Boxing is such a complex sport. A lot of the legends that you'll read more about below have a perspective on training, being in the ring, and handling the media that most people just don't have.
2. Knowledge. For every one of these books, I learned something. At any age, it's easy to say that we know it all, but wisdom tells us that we don't. Being open to learning and having resources like these are a tremendous gift.
3. Last, I think it's important to have an expectation of enjoyment when you pick up a book. Nobody wants to read a bunch of boring recollections. These guys not only have great stories to tell but they tell them in a way that made me want to read more.
The Top 10 Best Boxing Books
Controversies and "the why" aside, there are many great books on boxing, covering everything from the history of the sport to memoirs and biographies to books on training and technique. Here are my ten picks for 2023 that I would consider must read boxing books. Whether you're a young amateur boxer or life-long fan of the sport, I'm confident you'll enjoy this list.
1. The Sweet Science
I can write better than anybody than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better. - A.J. Liebling
A classic book that is often regarded as one of the best books ever written about boxing. Liebling's writing is insightful, witty, and full of colorful characters. The Sweet Science was first published in 1956, seven years before Liebling passed away. It is a collection of essays about boxing, which Liebling viewed as a metaphor for life itself.
The book covers various aspects of the sport, including its history, its famous fighters, and the culture surrounding it. Liebling was particularly interested in the personalities of the boxers and the colorful characters that made up the boxing world.
Liebling also writes about the social and political context in which boxing takes place, including the role of race and class in the sport. Throughout the book, he provides vivid descriptions of the fights themselves, using his keen observational skills and his gift for storytelling to bring the action to life.
2. King of the World
This biography of Muhammad Ali provides a detailed look at the life and career of one of boxing's most iconic figures. The book covers Ali's early life, his rise to fame as a boxer, and his impact on American culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Remnick also delves into Ali's personal life, including his relationships with his family, his wives, and his close friends and advisors.
The title of the book refers to Ali's self-proclaimed title as the "King of the World," which he famously declared after winning his first heavyweight title in 1964. Remnick uses this declaration as a starting point to explore the broader cultural context in which Ali emerged as a public figure and a symbol of resistance against racism and war.
Throughout the book, Remnick provides vivid descriptions of Ali's fights and his unique fighting style, as well as his charismatic personality and his impact on the sport of boxing. King of the World is a compelling and insightful portrait of one of the most iconic figures in American history.
3. Undisputed Truth
Tyson's memoir provides a candid look at his life, including his rise to fame, his struggles with addiction, and his time in prison. The book was first published in 2013 and covers Tyson's life from his childhood to his retirement from boxing.
In the book, Tyson candidly recounts his experiences growing up in poverty in Brooklyn, his troubled relationships with his family, and his entry into the world of boxing. He also writes about his meteoric rise to fame as a boxer, including his various championships and his infamous personal life, which included drug addiction, tumultuous relationships, and numerous run-ins with the law.
Throughout the book, Tyson offers his perspective on some of the most significant events of his life, including his highly-publicized divorce from the actress Robin Givens and his 1992 conviction for rape. He also writes about his relationships with other boxers, including his rival Evander Holyfield, as well as his trainers and promoters. This book made our list of best sports biographies as well.
4. The Fight
This book provides an account of the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, which was held in Zaire and is now known as the "Rumble in the Jungle."
Mailer provides a detailed account of the build-up to the fight, including the negotiations between the boxers and their promoters, as well as the political context of the event, which took place against the backdrop of the Cold War and the struggle for African independence.
Mailer also offers an in-depth analysis of the boxing match itself. He provides a blow-by-blow description of the fight, as well as insights into the tactics and strategies employed by both fighters.
Beyond the actual fight, The Fight is also a broader exploration of the sport of boxing and its place in American culture. Mailer reflects on the history of the sport, its social and political significance, and the various personalities involved in the boxing world. The totality of what Mailer delivers makes this one of the best books on boxing.
5. Boxing: A Cultural History
This book provides an in-depth look at the history of boxing and its place in culture, from ancient times to the present day.
Boddy traces the origins of boxing back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and then follows its evolution through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern era. She examines the changing social and cultural contexts in which boxing has taken place, including its role in class, race, and gender politics.
The book also covers the development of boxing as a sport, including the establishment of rules, the emergence of professional fighters, and the growth of boxing as a popular form of entertainment. Boddy analyzes the styles and techniques of famous boxers throughout history, from Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson.
Throughout the book, Boddy explores the cultural and symbolic significance of boxing, including its associations with masculinity, violence, and ritual. She also examines the portrayal of boxing in literature, film, and other forms of popular culture, and considers its influence on art and fashion.
6. The Greatest: My Own Story
This autobiography provides a detailed look at Ali's life and career, as told in his own words. The book was first published in 1975 and covers Ali's life from his childhood in Louisville, Kentucky, to his early years as a boxer, his conversion to Islam, his political activism, and his return to boxing after a period of exile.
In the book, Ali writes in his own voice about his experiences as a young athlete, his rise to fame as a boxer, and his battles both inside and outside the ring. He reflects on his fights with other famous boxers, including Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier, and shares his thoughts on the political and social issues of the day, including the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
Throughout the book, Ali's trademark humor and bravado shine through, as he regales readers with tales of his training regimen, his friendships with other boxers and celebrities, and his personal relationships with his wives and children. If you're an Ali fan, I'd also recommend the biography by Thomas Hauser, which we previously wrote about.
7. The Black Lights
The Black Lights tells the story of a young Mexican-American boxer named Julio Escobar, who grows up in a poor, working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles.
The novel explores the social and cultural pressures that Julio faces as a Mexican-American, both inside and outside of the boxing ring. Julio is torn between his loyalty to his community and his desire for success in a sport that is dominated by white boxers.
As Julio rises through the ranks of the boxing world, he grapples with issues of identity and belonging, including his relationship with his Mexican heritage and his desire to assimilate into American society. He also struggles to reconcile his love for his family and community with his growing fame and success.
Throughout the book, García offers a searing critique of the racism and inequality that pervades American society, particularly in the world of boxing. He also provides a vivid and authentic portrayal of the Mexican-American experience, depicting the rich cultural traditions and struggles of this often marginalized group.
8. Raging Bull
This autobiography provides a firsthand account of the life and career of one of boxing's most notorious figures, Jake LaMotta. The book was first published in 1970 and is a brutally honest account of LaMotta's life, both inside and outside of the boxing ring.
The book covers LaMotta's upbringing in the Bronx, his early career as a boxer, and his rise to fame as a middleweight contender. LaMotta provides detailed accounts of his most famous fights, including his six bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson. He also reflects on the darker side of boxing, including the physical and emotional toll it takes on fighters.
But Raging Bull is more than just a boxing memoir. LaMotta also writes candidly about his troubled personal life, including his tumultuous relationships with women and his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. He is unflinching in his descriptions of his violent behavior, both in and out of the ring, and the consequences it has had for himself and those around him.
The book was adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as LaMotta. The film, which was released in 1980, is widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece and is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made about the sport of boxing.
9. The Devil and Sonny Liston
The Devil and Sonny Liston provides a detailed look at the life and career of Sonny Liston, a controversial figure in the world of boxing. The book offers a detailed and provocative look at the life of one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures in the history of boxing.
Liston rose from a childhood of extreme poverty in rural Arkansas to become one of the most feared boxers of his era. He was known for his devastating punching power and his ability to intimidate opponents both inside and outside the ring. However, Liston's reputation was tarnished by persistent rumors of his ties to organized crime, as well as his tumultuous personal life.
Tosches delves deeply into Liston's early years, tracing his path from his humble beginnings in the South to his arrival in St. Louis, where he became involved in the criminal underworld. The book also explores Liston's boxing career, including his famous fights with Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali).
Tosches also delves into the cultural and social context in which Liston lived, exploring issues of race, poverty, and corruption in mid-20th century America. He also offers his own interpretation of Liston's character and motivations, seeking to uncover the truth behind the many myths and rumors that surrounded the boxer's life and career.
10. A Flame of Pure Fire
This biography of Jack Dempsey provides a look at the life and career of one of boxing's greatest champions, as well as a glimpse into the culture of the 1920s. The book tells the story of Dempsey's life, from his early years in poverty in Colorado to his rise to become one of the most famous and successful boxers of his era.
Kahn paints a vivid portrait of Dempsey, capturing both his physical prowess in the boxing ring and his charismatic personality outside of it. He explores Dempsey's personal relationships, including his marriage to his wife, Estelle, and his friendships with other famous figures of the time, such as Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway.
The book also offers a detailed account of Dempsey's boxing career, including his famous bouts with opponents such as Jess Willard, Georges Carpentier, and Gene Tunney. Kahn provides readers with an insider's perspective on the world of boxing, exploring the cultural and social context in which Dempsey fought and the many controversies that surrounded his career.
But A Flame of Pure Fire is more than just a sports biography. The book also explores the broader cultural and historical context of Dempsey's life, offering readers a window into the changing social landscape of early 20th-century America. Kahn examines issues of race, class, and gender, as well as the impact of technology and mass media on the world of sports and entertainment.
Join The Discussion
We hope you enjoyed this list about the best books about boxing. Boxing has a unique part in American history, and some of these books (and athletes) played a much larger role in the socioeconomic issues of their time. Shoot us a note if there are boxing books that you'd recommend we check out.
For other lists by sport, check out the Recommendations section of our website.
Before you go, take 3 minutes and 46 seconds to watch the video below. You'll have a better day!
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
Check out healthy energy drinks from Celsius: