(ED. NOTE -- One of the legendary sportswriters of the 20th century was Ring Lardner. The following excerpts from "Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner," by Jonathan Yardley, Random House, 1977, date from the time Lardner was writing a national column for John Wheeler's Bell Syndicate, which he began in 1919. Included here are vignettes from two famous fights, Dempsey-Firpo and the first Dempsey-Tunney bout.) (In 1923), special assignments took (Lardner) to two fights involving the Wild Bull of the Pampas, the Argentine heavyweight Luis Firpo: in July, 1923, against Jess Willard and in September against Jack Dempsey. The second bout was held in Jersey City (sic) and won by Dempsey. It was a brilliantly fought contest in which Firpo gave the champion as much as he could handle; this was the bout in which he knocked Dempsey out of the ring, a moment frozen on a great sporting canvas by the artist Edward Hopper. Ring's report on the bout showed that even though his interest in the outcome of sports events was by now minimal (unless he had a bet down), his admiration for skill and courage was undiminished: "They was a big question before the fight as to whether or no the Wild Bull could take it. He took it and took it plenty and come back for more, and got it. They aint nobody living that could take what he took before he finely took that left and right in succession and became the tame cow of the pampas. Anybody that said he quit ought to be writing jokes for the theater program. In fact Luis didn't know when the fight was over and was still groggy when he staggered down the steep stairs out of the ring, escorted by some of the same policemens that had tried to keep me from seeing the fight. "And they was another question settled to-night, namely can Dempsey take it. Jack was on the receiving end of four or five of the most murderous blows ever delivered in a prize ring, but he come back after each one and fought all the harder. Even when he fell into Mr. Rice's lap, he picked himself up without assistance and stepped right back to the place where all the shooting was going on . . . "He never lost sight of the main idear, that he must get this guy and get him quick. He didn't get him one too quick and if the fight had went a round longer they would of been wholesale deaths from heart disease with maybe some of the victims in Dempsey's corner. All and all you won't hear no squawks to the effect that those who paid to get in didn't their money's worth, even they paid a hundred smacks for a seat. It was a FIGHT." LARDNER THOUGHT DEMPSEY-TUNNEY A FIX . . . the heavyweight championship fight of September 24 (1926) in which Gene Tunney took the title away from Jack Dempsey (was) one of the last major sports events Ring covered, and it left bitter taste in his mouth. For one thing, he had come to admire Dempsey greatly, respecting his skill and courage. For another, he plainly thought Tunney, who spouted Shakespeare and ten-dollar words, was a P.R. man's creation. When Ring visited Tunney's training camp at a small town west of Saratoga, he and Grant Rice encountered the champion walking the countryside with a book under his arm. Ring asked him what it was. "The Rubaiyat," Tunney replied proudly, and then waxed rhapsodic on the beautiful scenery he had encountered during the day. To which Ring retorted: "Then why the book?" Ring was similarly disdainful in a letter to the Fitzgeralds. "You ought to meet this guy Tunney. We had lunch with him a few weeks before the fight and among a great many other things, he said he thought the New York State boxing commission was 'imbecilic' and that he hoped Dempsey would not think his (Tunney's) experience in pictures had 'cosmeticized' him. Ring had no stated intention of attending the fight, much less covering it, but Heywood Broun declined at the last moment to report it; Herbert Swope and Jack Wheeler asked if he would fill in, and he reluctantly agreed. The fight was held in Philadelphia, and Tunney, at twenty-nine two years younger than Dempsey, won a shocking ten-round decision. Ring wrote just one story under his own by-line, and his assessment in that was concise: "It was only this morning that Dempsey told the appers he would fight like hell. He did. His favorite tune seemed to be 'Oh How I Miss You Tonight.'" But that was not the only store he wrote.After the fight, he repaired to his hotel with Rice and Benny Leonard, who had held the lightweight title for eight years and was widely respected for his knowledge of the game. The rain, a sore throat and a hangover had done Rice in, but he was under obligation to file a story to the Herald-Tribune. Ring told him, "Take a slug of bourbon and lie down. I'll file your overnight." He did, in a story that bore scarcely a syllable's resemblance to the florid Rice style: "Gene Tunney, the fighting marine, is the new heavyweight champion of the world. In the presence of 135,000 persons, who sat through a driving rainstorm in Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium, Gene Tunney gave Dempsey one of the worst beatings any champion ever took. He not only outpointed Dempsey in every one of the ten rounds, but the challenger hammered the champion's face almost out of shape. It was like nothing human when the tenth round ended . . . "Tunney fought a great fight, but it was quite evident that when it came to a matter of pressure Dempsey had blown completely up . . . "Tunney took the best that Dempsey had to give without any sign of breaking down for leaving his feet. It might have been slightly different if Dempsey had been able to keep up his few head-long assaults, but after twenty or thirty seconds of hard rushing he tired quickly and was forced to slow down and take a lot of punishment." The story portrayed a champion who was fighting listlessly and a challenger who could not finish him off, and it made neither fighter happy; since both thought Rice had written it, they refused to speak to him for some time. What presumably angered them was the story's between-the-lines implication that, at best, something was odd about a fight in which a fighter of Tunney's checkered puglistic background could so completely dominate the champion, who was himself the most dominating fighter of his time. The implication was not accidental. Benny Leonard thought the fight was a fix; he said so, and Ring -- who seems to have needed no persuading -- agreed. He said so emphatically to Scott and Zelda: "I get $500 on Dempsey, giving 2 to 1. The odds ought to have been 7 to 1. Tunney couldn't lick David (Lardner) if David was trying. The thing was a very well done fake, which lots of us would like to say in print, but you know what newspapers are where possible libel suits are concerned. As usual I did my heavy thinking too late; otherwise I would have bet the other way. The championship wasn't worth a dime to Jack; there was nobody else for him to fight and he had made all there was to be made (by him) out of vaudeville and pictures. The average odds were 3 to 1 and the money he made by losing was money that the income tax collectors will know nothing about." Ring added that he thought the entire chain of bouts leading to the championship fight was rigged "to give the public a popular war hero for champion." His comment on that was: "Well, he's about as popular as my plays." Whatever the actual facts in the case, Ring firmly believed his interpretation of the fight was correct; it was salt in whatever remained of the wound inflicted by the Black Sox seven years earlier. LEONARD STUNS HAGLER IN SPLIT DECISION (Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, April 7, 1987) By Richard Hoffer Sugar Ray Leonard's enormous bravado, which was nearly offensive in the pre-fight buildup, became a promise fulfilled Monday night when, after was essentially a five-year layoff, he returned and upset boxing's dominant champion, Marvelous Marvin hagler. The sheer audacity of what he attempted was somehow matched by the strategic elegance with which he did it. The comeback, culminated before the largest world audience to ever see a bout, had been judged foolhardy by most. The symmetry of their careers, their destinies so intertwined, somehow forgave the circumstances of the obvious mismatch. They deserved each other five years ao, but this was better than never. Still, only those who believed in time travel gave Leonard any chance against Hagler. Leonard would have to return five years, to a time when hands were fast and legs tireless, to meet the foreboding Hagler on anything near equal terms. Well, he wasn't the welterweight of 1982, when he first retired after eye surgery. But there was more about Leonard than his tasseled shoes that recalled his time of greatness. For 12 tactically brilliant rounds, he circled and countered, confusing and confounding the bewildered middleweight champion, until he had secured a split decision. Though the judges did not entirely agree on what they saw -- Lou Fillippo had it 115-113 for Hagler, Dave Moretti 115-113 for Leonard, JoJo Guerra 118-110 for Leonard -- the only person near the ring in the parking lot at Caesars Palace to voice any genuine surprise at the decision was Hagler himself. "I beat him and you know it," he said immediately afterward. "I stayed aggressive. C'mon. I won the fight." But Leonard's game plan never let Hagler in the fight. He circled outside, daring Hagler to stalk him, occasionally entangling the champion in a brisk flurry. Hagler missed monumentally as he chased Leonard. Although neither was hurt or in any danger of going down, it was clear that Leonard was hitting more than Hagler and gaining angles on a man not particularly known for his balance. "Hit and run, stick and move, taunt and intimidate," explained Leonard, facing the press in a jaunty yachtsman;'s cap afterward, "a variety of things." It was not always pretty and may have disappointed the nearly 300 million people watching, in that it lacked boxing's conclusive conclusion. But it was not ugly, as even Leonard's attorney, Mike Trainer, had predicted when the comeback was announced a year ago. Richard Steele, the referee, said: "Maybe he fought him the only style he could win with." Leonard, of course, knew better than to lead Hagler into any kind of brawl. Hagler (62-3-2, 52 KOs) had leveled Thomas Hearns, the last fighter to try that, in just three rounds. In fact, he did fighter Hagler the only possible way. And he fought him that way the entire night. Leonard (34-1, 24 KOs) danced outside from the first round. The clinching was plentiful. And at times, Leonard leaned back into the ropes, imitating the last great popular champion, Muhammad Ali. It was obviously frustrating for Hagler. His long looping rights missed by feet, it seemed. Once he threw a punch, followed it into a ring post, while Leonard bobbed and returned to the center of the ring. Leonard gave him head feints, his hands dropped, offering his chin disdainfully. Once, in the seventh round, Hagler threw three large right hands in a row. They sailed wide, tremendous arcs in the desert air. Leonard was masterful in his attempt to frustrate Hagler. In the fourth round, Leonard mocked his opponent with a bolo punch to the stomach. Hagler, of course, would not be unnerved in the way that Roberto Duran was, when Leonard frustrated him into submission. Still, he was made, and the two often crossed stares at the bell, and several times had to be escorted to their corners. Hagler was often exhorting his long-time nemesis. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he kept repeating. "Once," said Leonard, shrugging his shoulders, "he called me a sissy." In the later rounds, when Leonard was obviously and desperately tired, Hagler began to close the distance between the fighters. In the ninth round, Leonard appeared in trouble in his own corner, but he battled out of it with a vicious fury. At times, he seemed to die against the ropes. Or was he inviting Hagler in for that staccato counter-punching? In that ninth round, the best of the fight, Leonard four times ensnarled Hagler in some reckless flurries. It was dangerous and, considering the scoring up to that point, unnecessary. In the 11th round, Leonard got cute. He got up on his toes, smirked as he circled the champion, and threatened yet another bolo punch. In the 12th and final round, with Hagler continuing to miss, Leonard mocked him by raising his right glove, apparently in anticipation of victory. Inasmuch as this fight is expected to pull in more than $60 million, a record gross, there will undoubtedly be some who felt they didn't get their money's worth. Yet Leonard, who received a flat guarantee of $11 million to Hagler's $12 million (plus a percentage of the gross), certainly made an effort to earn his. For, he won with as much grit as wit. At the fight's end, he collapsed into the arms of his handlers. Those legs, suspect going into the fight, hadn't failed him until then. Leonard, 30, had fought just 12 rounds in six years but his year of conditioning apparently dissolved the ring rust that so affects boxers. Of the unlikeliness of his achievement, Leonard said: "It's the first time a young guy came back against an old guy." Previous examples of failure do not apply. Hagler, 32, was obviously disappointed, and he referred very quickly to the trouble he has with judges in Las Vegas. He lost his first title bid on a controversial draw with Vito Antuofermo here. But he admitted that Leonard, who he had pursued for years, fought a "courageous fight." He could pursue him, but it doesn't look like he'll ever catch him. Hagler, who was stopped short of his 13th title defense in the sixth and final year of his reign, must now hope for a rematch. Leonard will not likely be quick to oblige, if at all. In the ring he said, laughing, "depends on the contract." But later, he refused to guess one way or the other as to what he'd do. The decision certainly creates some interesting matchups, and it will be fun to speculate on the combinations. Hearns, who has lost to both, will want in on the action. Permutations abound. If Hagler and Leonard remain true to their peculiar destinies, they are likely to chase each other around for years more, until finally, they really are too old for this kind of thing. (ED. NOTE -- Leonard and Hagler were fighting for the International Boxing Federation, or IBF, middleweight title.) THE UGLY SIDE OF BOXING (Scripps Howard News Service, Feb. 1, 1998) The Bible says "The love of money is the root of all evil." Mike Tyson, a converted Muslim and multimillionaire many times over, may or may not agree with that passage. But in Richard Hoffer's book, "A Savage Business, The Comeback and Comedown of Mike Tyson" (Simon and Schuster, $23.00), Hoffer says money and evil were intertwined in Tyson's dubious comeback after he was released from prison on March 25, 1995. "I think the whole comeback, people saw it as money for the taking," Hoffer said in a phone interview. "The prospect at so much money at so little peril or jeopardy, it was so intoxicating. ... All that money inflames inflation and greed." Hoffer, a senior writer at "Sports Illustrated," takes an incisive look at the sordid world of boxing, concentrating on the shadowy rise and public fall of Tyson. Hoffer shows how Don King maneuvered to set up a limbo line of pretenders to take a fall for Tyson, setting him up to earn $135 million in less than two years. Hoffer pulled no punches in describing how King handpicked Tyson's first sorry opponent, Peter McNeeley. "McNeeley, an irrepressible lug of such suspect credentials that the world was set howling with the announcement of him as Tyson's opponent, was an example of genetic matchmaking," he wrote. "It was as if King, who had a pretty large pool of inept heavyweights to dip into for Tyson's first foe, was unwilling to trust in even their established incompetence. "... McNeeley, delight that he was, happened to be one of those fighters who was born to lose." Hoffer said that promoters actually fought to NOT include McNeeley on their cards. And no wonder. McNeeley may have had an impressive record of 36-1 before facing Tyson, but his opponent's record was a laughable 148-436. McNeeley's only loss came the first time he fought somebody with a winning record. But that didn't stop King from setting up this mismatch, which ended after McNeeley's corner threw in the towel in the first round. Tyson's next match wasn't any better, a third-round TKO over another soup can, Buster Mathis. Then came the paper champions at King's disposal. "The three champions -- Bruce Seldon, Frank Bruno, and Francois Botha -- were rendered all the more ridiculous by their necessary subservience," Hoffer wrote. "They were champions, but at the same time they were really just hopeful challengers, angling for some of that Tyson loot." Hoffer explained how each fighter emerged from the heavyweight morass to cla im one of the three major alphabet-soup titles. Each of their stories had some degree of skullduggery, especially Botha's meteoric rise to the top of the International Boxing Federation rankings. "Number 10 in the IBF's July rankings, Botha had soared to No. 1 in less than a year," Hoffer wrote. "How mysterious was this? Botha had never beaten a fighter in the top 30, and now he was ranked ahead of Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and lots more fighters. "After Botha leapfrogged Michael Moorer, Moorer's promoter, Main Events, filed suit against the IBF. According to the complaint, Botha got the rating `in conformance with the plan of Don King' and IBF president Bob Lee had `solicited bribes and/or extorted monies' to effect that plan. Lee suddenly agreed that Moorer was a worthy challenger and ordered the new IBF champion ... to give Moorer first shot. (And the lawsuit was dropped.)" King was able to set up Tyson's one-sided demolitions of Bruno and Seldon. But before Tyson could unify the heavyweight title, Evander Holyfield got in the way. Hoffer shows how Holyfield "stood up to the bully" and shockingly TKO'd Tyson in November 1996. The book concludes by describing their infamous rematch and Tyson's subsequent one-year suspension for biting Holyfield. Hoffer expects Tyson to fight again this year, but he isn't quite sure what to think of Tyson's newfound fascination with wrestling. Tyson recently appeared at a World Wrestling Federation event and supposedly will participate in Wrestlemania XIV in March. "It looks like to me that he's mocking boxing," Hoffer said. "He could be looking at a way to get out of boxing." Still despite Tyson's flaws, Hoffer feels the money will be too big for Tyson to stay away from boxing for too long. "There would have to be a lot of fiascoes before you burn out his image entirely," Hoffer said. "He's going to be worth money for a long time. There's a big payday for anyone associated with him."