A grab bag of stories about the American boxing world and how the Mob transformed it in the 1950s.
Jacobs Beach wasn’t actually a beach, but a stretch of pavement in Manhattan around which the boxing world revolved from the mid-’30s to the late-’50s. There, tickets for bouts at Madison Square Garden were sold, pairings were hashed out, drinks were swilled and mobsters jostled to manipulate the outcome of individual fights. By the end of the ’50s, professional boxing was so transparently corrupt that Sen. Estes Kefauver launched hearings on the Mob’s control of the sport, attracting millions of viewers through television. Thanks to the scrutiny, London Observer chief sportswriter Mitchell (War, Baby: The Glamour of Violence, 2001, etc.) writes, the boxing world is now more aboveboard but less entertaining than it used to be. The author knows his boxing history, and he delivers plenty of information on people like Mike Jacobs (the ticket-seller for whom the “beach” was named), boxers Joe Louis and Jake LaMotta, trainers and managers like Cus D’Amato and mobsters like Frankie Carbo. Unfortunately, Mitchell shows little interest in adhering to a narrative thread while discussing the world around Madison Square Garden, which makes his book feel like what the old-school reporters he admires called a notebook dump. Paragraphs leap from detailed information about fight purses to the Kefauver hearings to musings on the ring styles of fighters like James J. Braddock and Kid Gavilan. Mitchell also affects a tough-talking tone that’s presumably meant to evoke the noirish spirit of the times but too often makes him appear superior to the subject he’s discussing. In the later chapters, the author all but abandons any pretense of organization and instead delivers a series of profiles of luminaries like promoter Don King, painter LeRoy Neiman and On the Waterfront writer Budd Schulberg. Mitchell’s access to such people is impressive, but the interviews do more to burnish outsize reputations than illuminate boxing’s underworld.
A messy entry in a category of sportswriting that’s produced much better.