BOXING'S GOOD OLD DAYS TAKE SOME SHOTS (Chicago Sun-Times, December 6, 1998) By Larry Hamel Almost all boxing fans can harken back to the epic battles of yesteryear, their eyes glazed in reverence to such hallowed names as Robinson and LaMotta, Louis and Marciano. Most will state without hesitation that today's fight game pales in comparison to the good old days. Boxers back then were true warriors, nothing like the current crop of pretenders who are too scared to take tough fights or make outrageous monetary demands when a promising payday beckons. The good old days are so revered that ESPN paid a reported $80 million for a collection of classic fight films. To a lot of fight fans, nostalgia holds more appeal than the present. Baseball might be the only other sport that so treasures its tradition. And boxing most certainly is the only sport in which its current stars are widely deemed as grossly inferior to its legends. As perpetuated by cynical media, boxing is viewed as a cesspool of corruption populated by criminals, cheats, swindlers and thieves. And the negative news generated by some of boxing's most prominent figures, most notably Mike Tyson and Don King, does nothing to dispel that notion. But is the sport today all that bad? And were the good old days all that great? A thought-provoking documentary on the life of Sugar Ray Robinson, perhaps unwittingly, provides insight into just how golden the good old days of boxing really were. ``Sugar Ray Robinson: The Bright Lights and Dark Shadows of a Champion'' is a must-see for boxing fans. It premieres Tuesday on HBO. Be prepared for a reality check. You might be surprised to learn that the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in history had to wait six years before getting his first shot at a world title. Six years, despite being universally regarded as by far the best welterweight in the world. As the documentary puts it, promoters were hesitant to ``darken the division'' with a black champion. Equally disturbing were the testimonials of the extent of participation of organized crime in the sport. You'll undoubtedly be saddened by the recounting of how Robinson's first title defense ended in tragedy. Jimmy Doyle died a day after being knocked out by Sugar Ray. One haunting black-and-white image of a disconsolate Robinson giving a statement to authorities speaks for the fighter's grief. Isn't it eye-opening that Robinson was vilified in his time for being a no- nonsense negotiator who often pulled out of fights at the last minute if he felt he wasn't being paid enough? You might find amusing the story of Robinson going AWOL from the Army in World War II, then getting an honorable discharge after claiming to have fallen and having amnesia. Or perhaps you won't. What isn't so funny is that, despite projecting himself as a devoted family man, Robinson was a blatant philanderer and frequent wife-beater who all but ignored his own children, according to first-hand accounts from his family. At the end of his career, his business ventures bankrupt, Robinson was forced to keep fighting long after his skills had eroded. The punishment he absorbed in his 202 fights over 24 years contributed to premature senility. In his final years, stricken by Alzheimer's, he was the classic punch-drunk old fighter. Born Walker Smith Jr., Robinson died at age 67 in 1989. After watching the hour-long documentary, one can't help but come away feeling that although times have changed, boxing really hasn't. Judging from the story of Sugar Ray Robinson, the fight game today is no better or worse than it has ever been. I don't buy the premise that there are no good fights anymore, any more than I'd accept the notion that there were no stinkers back in the good old days. We've been fooled into an unrealistic view of the past because the crummy fights are never shown on ESPN Classic. Just this week, Don King roared into Chicago with Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis in tow to hype their March heavyweight unification bout. That's a match that fans everywhere want to see. Even though some in the media have called Oscar De La Hoya a chicken for ducking Ike Quartey and Felix Trinidad, De La Hoya has been one of the most active champions in recent years. He meets Quartey in a February megamatch. The man regarded by many to be today's best pound-for-pound fighter, Roy Jones Jr., has cut a swath through three weight classes. He seemingly has run out of quality foes. At one point in his career, Robinson was 90-1-2. Do you think he might have popped a tomato can or two along the way? ``About the only difference now is that the promoters have bigger egos than the fighters do,'' said Jones, who was in town last week week on a tour to promote the documentary. While boxers in Robinson's day worked for a percentage of the gate, ``today it's the promoters who guarantee the purses,'' Jones said. ``The promoters take the [financial] risk. That's why it's a challenge to get two great fighters in the ring.'' But most often, the challenge is met THE HOT CORNER (Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, December 8, 1998) By Larry Stewart (A consumer's guide to the best and worst of sports media and merchandise. Ground rules: If it can be read, played, heard, observed, worn, viewed, dialed or downloaded, it's in play here. What: "Sugar Ray Robinson: The Bright Lights and Dark Shadows of a Champion" Where: HBO When: Tonight, 10.) The rather lengthy title tells the story of this excellent one-hour documentary on the life of one of boxing's all-time greats, Sugar Ray Robinson. Born Walker Smith in Detroit in 1921, he began boxing at age 13 and had an 85-0 record as an amateur. When he was 15 he showed up for a fight without documentation and his trainer handed him a card with the name Ray Robinson on it. The name stuck, and "Sugar" was added later. Robinson turned pro in 1940 and was the world welterweight champion by 1946, when world titles meant something. He defended that title five times and won the middleweight title by battering Jake LaMotta on Feb. 14, 1951, in the "Valentine's Day Massacre." It was the sixth time those two fought and Robinson went into the fight with a record of 120-1-2. Robinson finished his 24-year pro career with a record of 175-19-6 (109 knockouts and two no-contests). He retired in 1965 at 44. Joe Louis called him the "greatest fighter to ever step into a ring." But then there is the other side of Robinson, which is explored by Emmy Award- winning producers Kirby Bradley and Jack Newfield, who also did "Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion." Ring magazine editor Nigel Collins provides much of the commentary. Robinson was married three times, first as a teenager--a union that produced a son, Ronnie Smith, but one that was annulled. In his second marriage he had a second son, Ray Jr. Both sons appear in the documentary. Says Ray Jr.: "When Dad and Mom got divorced, she came to me and said, 'I want you to know that I love your dad, but I really don't want to take any more beatings, and I'm tired of his messing around.' " But Ray Jr. also expresses love for his father and nearly breaks down as he talks about the good times. "His passing [in April 1989 at 67] profoundly affected me," Ray Jr. says. Former welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio says: "When he died, I said, 'I don't give a . . .' And there's no sense in putting on an act now to feel sorry for the son of a . . . . because he was the most arrogant person you'd ever run into." Says Newfield, a boxing journalist: "There is a quirk in American hero worship where people love you more if you have been humbled once or twice, if you seem vulnerable, if you have a weakness. I think this is true of Robinson. After he lost a couple of times, when he reached the level of being a mere mortal and not a god, then I think he became more and more popular." DEMPSEY WAS BIG DRAW AS A REF, TOO (Florida Times-Union, Saturday, September 27, 1997) By Bill Foley Ray Schneider and Honey Boy Snipes were doing what they did best, but Ol' Will could do it better. Even though it was Ray and Honey Boy who were doing it, it was Ol' Will more than 3,500 Jacksonville (Fla.) fight fans turned out to see on Sept. 17, 1930. William Harrison ''Jack'' Dempsey was at the zenith of a second career. Fight promoters were discovering the former heavyweight boxing champion still could fill arenas, just by refereeing fights between any couple of doofusses. Not that Schneider and Snipes were doofusses - or doofi, as the case may be. But neither were they household words. Jacksonville fight promoter Ed Corley knew a good thing in the squared circle. So he welcomed Dempsey and his business manager, Leonard Sacks, with open mitts when the ex-champ offered to dip his beak in an already boiling Jacksonville purse. Ol' Will, the alter ego of the Manassa Mauler, was packing houses throughout the sticks that summer, three years after his exit as America's most popular boxing champion. And Dempsey was more than just another pretty face, said syndicated sportswriter Frank Menke. His very aura uplifted the sweet science. ''If you yearn for the thunder of thudding fists or crave spectacles of falling bodies, then go to your neighborhood brawl promoter and ask him to hire Ol' Will Harrison Dempsey as referee,'' wrote Menke for King Features. ''Ol' Will has concocted a knockout record as third man in the ring unparalleled in ring annals. For the last 45 fights he had refereed, 35 ended with kayo swats.'' Corley was promoting weekly boxing matches at the National Guard Armory. He, himself, was an alter ego. In greener years, Corley was the redoubtable Fearless Ferns, Jacksonville fistsmith of unparalled fame and acumen, as he himself would not hesitate to tell you when he passed into yet another life as a Jacksonville police homicide detective. Lightweights Schneider and Snipes had met two weeks before at the Armory. Jacksonville Journal sports editor Charlie Baker described fight fans as ''quite agog'' over the first bout. Schneider was invariably described as the ''local Hebrew youngster.'' He was fresh off a third-round knockout of Tony Peon of Tampa. Snipes hailed from Macon, Ga., and was coming off a win over the always impressive Pinky Phillips. Snipes won a very unpopular 10-round decision. The fight set the stage for the rematch - and the appearance by Ol' Will. ''Despite a verdict to the contrary, Ray Schneider, local Hebrew youngster, easily defeated Honey Boy Snipes in 10 rounds of tough fighting,'' Baker wrote, contradicting the judges. ''Waging the fight of his life, outgaming and outfighting, the youngster won with ridiculous ease, in this writer's humble opinion.'' Which opinion counted for nothing, or course, other than to stir the pot for a rematch and Ol' Will, and the gate went wild. Everybody who was anybody lined up for a ducat. The turnout was sure to strain the Armory, and just when things couldn't get any better, W.L. ''Young'' Stribling, the King of the Canebrakes and Jacksonville's favorite fighter, personally flew the ex-champ to Jacksonville. If the crowd was going to set a record, it would break the one set by Strib himself, two years before in his bout with Italian Jack Herman. ''If a new attendance record for a fistic engagement in this city is not shattered, it will be a case of someone being unable to count or a cloudburst must take place to keep the fans away,'' wrote Baker. As it was, it rained all day. But still, the arena was packed and justice was done. ''Honey Boy Snipes today is just another defeated boxer and victim of the ever-improving, fistic prowess of Ray Schneider, colorful little Jacksonville Hebrew,'' Baker wrote the next afternoon. ''Hestitating not an instant, Jack Dempsey, as referee, raised Schneider's right hand at the end of 10 rounds of savage and interesting milling . . . Jack merely confirmed the opinion of 3,500 fans.'' And one sportswriter, one fight promoter and Ol' Will, world's most famous referee. JOHNNY BIZZARRO DEAD IN ERIE, AGE 60 (The Associated Press, Friday, December 4, 1998) ERIE, Pa. -- Johnny Bizzarro, who made unsuccessful bids for the world junior lightweight and lightweight boxing titles during the 1960's, is dead at the age of 60. Bizzarro died Thursday night in the emergency room at St. Vincent's Hospital. An autopsy will be performed. Bizzarro, a native of Italy and longtime resident of Erie, compiled a 54-11-2 record with 24 knockouts. He bid for the junior lightweight title in 1963 and lost a 15-round decision to Gabriel "Flash" Elorde in Philadelphia. In 1966, he was stopped in the 12th round by Carlos Ortiz in a challenge for the lightweight championship at Pittsburgh. Survivors include his wife and seven children. Funeral arrangements were pending. JOE RINDONE WAS ONE OF THE BEST (Boston Herald, Saturday, December 5, 1998) By Joe Fitzgerald Joe Rindone's death probably escaped the attention of a lot of people who think they know this city well, but if you never heard of Dynamite Joe, you're barely off the turnip truck. Joe, buried Thursday after succumbing to lung cancer at 72, was a Roxbury-born middleweight who served with the Marines in World War II, then returned home to become a legend in the salad days of boxing at the Garden, along with the likes of Red Priest, Sal Bartolo, Normie Hayes, Spider Armstrong, back in the days when Tommy Collins, Tony DeMarco, Paul Pender, Tom McNeeley and Joe DeNucci kept the old joint rocking. "There was nothing like fight night at the Garden," Brighton's Jimmy "Tuck" Twomey, 72, recalls. "Everyone wore soft hats in those days and you could always spot a fight fan because his would have a high crown. The air would be blue from cigars and everyone would be running down to the good seats, hoping to find one that wasn't taken. "I'll never forget the night I went to see Pender fight Carmen Basilio. Who's sitting in my seat but Rocky Marciano. I didn't want to embarrass him, so I went to an usher who looks over and says, 'Oh, that's Rocky. Just tell him to move.' I said, 'I ain't telling him to move; you tell him.' So he does, and Rocky, with that high-pitched voice, says, 'Sorry about that, fella,' then moves to another seat. I guess (promoter) Sam Silverman let him into the building but never gave him a ticket. "Oh, the stories you could tell, like how Collins, minutes before going out to meet the lightweight champ, Jimmy Carter, starts belting out the national anthem from the top of his lungs, singing his heart out, whacking his trainer: 'C'mon, sing!' " This was Joe Rindone's world and, from Roxbury to the North End, he was revered in it. "The crowds worshipped him," Freddy Valenti, son of the legendary promoter, Rip, recalls. "He fought everyone, ducked no one. I remember the night Bob Murphy hit him with a low blow. They stopped the bout, Joe went to his dressing room to recuperate, then returned and continued to fight. He always gave it everything he had, putting on a terrific show." But the night they all remember was the night he took on Sugar Ray Robinson, October 1950. Sugar Ray, then at the top of his game, was known to carry local fighters the full 10 rounds, just to give a crowd its money's worth. "I'm sitting there in Typewriter Row with my pal, Sam McCracken," Twomey recalls. "Joe, figuring it would go 10, starts getting a little fresh, mussing Robinson's hair. Sam says, 'Listen, Sugar's talking to him.' We heard: 'You better ease up, hear? This is your daddy talking.' Sugar was getting mad, but Joe did it again. "All of a sudden, Robinson hits him with a left hook, the perfect punch: boom, all over in 6. Joe never got up." DeNucci, now state auditor, recalls Rindone with great respect. "I grew up reading about him, admiring him. He was from an earlier time. Those of us who came along later owed guys like him so much for creating the great boxing atmosphere we had here in those days. It was men like Joe who paved the way. "I was grateful for the chance to say that at his party when he retired from the Boston Housing Authority. Joe was legitimate, a very big part of a different world, and I'm just thankful I was around in time to catch the end of that era." Joe Rindone Jr., 47, was too young to have watched the old man in action, but when he went to work for the Lottery 22 years ago, he received a crash course in family history. "I was a courier, on the road all the time, and when I'd walk into places and mention my name, oldtimers went crazy, like they couldn't believe they were talking to Joe Rindone's kid. That's when I began to fully realize just how popular Dad had been." He was more than that, young Joe. "He wasn't a Ted Williams or a Bobby Orr," Twomey concedes. "But he was as colorful as they come, one of our own, and I'm so thrilled you're writing about him because Dynamite Joe deserves to go out like the great man he was." RENTLESS SYMBOLISM OF MUHAMMAD ALI (New York Times, Saturday, Dec. 5, 1998) By Robert Lipsyte Post-Apocalypse, when Muhammad Ali's old fight videos become the graven images of a new religion based on individual reinvention, one of the sacred texts will surely be David Remnick's "King of the World," a shrewd and lively retelling of Cassius Clay's two fights with Sonny Liston. For now, the book should solve plenty of holiday gift-giving problems, certainly among sports fans, Ali fans, '60s fans, boomers in general. "Ali is an American myth," writes Remnick in his epilogue, "who has come to mean many things to many people: a symbol of faith, a symbol of conviction and defiance, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of racial pride, of wit and love." Even in decline, Ali is symbolic; now he mirrors our fears of aging, of falling ill, of being vulnerable, writes Remnick, "to the unpredictability and danger of life." It is this relentless symbolism that makes Ali both a seemingly accessible object of almost universal adoration and a tantalizingly remote human being. Other than his best friend, the photographer Howard Bingham, no one seems to have stayed close to Ali for a long time unless there was money involved. At 56, he is married to his fourth wife. The Ali that we think we know -- the crowd-pleasing, crowd-displeasing, always crowd-assembling entertainer and moral prism -- may actually be, by now, who he really is. That persona took form in the two main years of Remnick's book, 1964 and 1965, in which Ali first began to "shake up the world." It was during those two years that Cassius Clay, the classic artist-athlete, passionately devoted to his craft and to his career, began to transcend boxing, the sport he briefly ennobled and then left seamier than ever, if only by comparison. A champion at 22 (though much younger in many ways), Ali was shaped by attention, controversy, scorn; there was more time to become a world figure than a fully realized person. But he was clearly a person of his time. Remnick sets the early '60s scene of racial change and confusion, in which the model of the black athlete with which whites were comfortable -- Joe Louis -- was no longer in stock. And the new version, Floyd Patterson -- a troubled youth salvaged by public school psychologists and a father-figure manager, a grateful Christian, an integrationist -- wasn't really a full-fledged heavyweight. His humiliating defeats by Sonny Liston, who was depicted by the press as the stereotypical "Bad Negro," became a national problem, for the NAACP, for Frank Sinatra, for liberals, for boxing. Enter Cassius Clay, Olympic light-heavyweight champion, handsome, extroverted, ingratiating. Boxing hyped him because he was, literally, fresh blood. Most of the press treated him contemptuously, but at length, because he was easy copy. (Remnick's treatment of the leading sports columnists of the time is cool, fair and devastating). Clay was handed a decision he did not deserve (against Doug Jones) so that he could go on to a title shot at 7-1 odds. The traditionalists who dubbed him braggart and clown did not think he was ultimately much better for the game than was Liston, but the kid had the cross-over appeal to boost the closed-circuit gate. Few recognized that he was the real goods, as a boxer and as a seeker. Once he became champion, he began to reinvent the title and himself. The heavyweight champion, Mr. Man, had tended to be a thug (John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Liston) or a defender of the faith (Gene Tunney, Louis, Patterson). The rare individualist, such as Jack Johnson, was isolated and discarded. Ali not only challenged white, Christian America, but replaced its values. He discarded Christianity, the local plantation folk who originally sponsored him as a pro and the customary rituals of his title, including joining the Army to cheerlead the troops. Having built him up, establishment America had to strip him of his title and deny him corporate endorsement to try to break him down. But by the time the antiwar movement and Howard Cosell caught up with Ali, the "white power structure" was stuck with him. For all that we know about Ali, and "King of the World" smartly packages those critical two years, there are still mysterious pockets. We could know so much more about the fascinating infusions of fearfulness and self-confidence he received at home. What emotional needs were served by the Nation of Islam that did not come from boxing or the civil-rights movement? How could he have betrayed Malcolm for Elijah Muhammad? And now, trapped in the prison of Parkinson's disease, is he truly as serene a soul as he seems when he says: "God's showing me that I'm just a man like everyone else. Showing you, too. You can learn from me that way." Then again, perhaps all we need to know right now is from one old enemy. "I came to love Ali," Patterson told Remnick. "I came to see that I was a fighter and he was history."