Book review: Prize-Fighting

Arne K. Lang. Prize-Fighting: An American History. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2008. 266 pages.

In my all-too-brief, but then again way-too-long career in casino security, I always looked forward to fight weekends. Boxing fans, I discovered, were among the most interesting, intelligent, and historically-engaged casino patrons I had the pleasure of meeting. Folks coming to see Tom Jones or Foreigner never had too much to say. But one simple question like, “so who do you think was the best pound for pound fighter of all time” would be enough to spark a long conversation with a boxing fan.

So I’m always eager to read boxing history. If something’s able to inspire this much passion, it’s got to be interesting.

Arne Lang’s Prize-Fighting: An American History does a great job of capturing the drama of the “sweet science.” If anything, the title is too modest, as Lang starts his story in England, carefully explaining the roots of the American fight scene. Through meticulous research, he’s been able to bring to life 18th and 19th century venues, promoters, and fighters.

Lang then brings the sport in the 20th century, recounting fighters who are now obscure to the broader public, like Battling Nelson, the Durable Dane, and those who are still remembered, such as Jack Johnson. He includes chapters on promoters and boxing writers, and separate chapters on the roles of Jews, blacks, and Hispanics in the boxing game, thus widening his history from merely chronically who won which fight to describing the bigger social and economic forces that shaped boxing.

The book really hits its stride when Lang gets to Las Vegas, which is no coincidence: he’s been a fixture on the scene there for a while, and knows firsthand most of the important players. The reader gets to witness the birth of the “parking lot extravaganzas” and see how boxing has evolved. Thanks to his unique vantage point, Lang is able to provide an excellent account of how Las Vegas has changed boxing–and vice versa.

This is an excellent telling of boxing’s long history, and a must-read for the boxing fan.

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