Boxing in Philadelphia

Tales of Struggle and Survival

By Gabe Oppenheim

Rowman & Littlefield. 250 pages. $40.50

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Reviewed by Glen Macnow

This has been a lousy century for boxing books. As the sport fades from public consciousness, compelling writing on the fights has become as rare as a legitimate heavyweight title bout.

The last enthralling boxing book was Stephen Brunt's Facing Ali, a 2004 collection of portraits of 15 hopefuls - from Joe Frazier to Jean-Pierre Coopman - who stood in the ring against the Greatest.

We'll give a nod, too, to Thomas Hauser, who produces annual essays on the sport. Beyond that, there's no great chronicler - no A.J. Liebling, no Norman Mailer, no Joyce Carol Oates. Instead, Amazon's charts are clogged with picture books of bloodied mixed-martial-arts goons resembling so many costumed professional wrestlers.

So give credit to recent Penn grad Gabe Oppenheim for his effort, Boxing in Philadelphia: Tales of Struggle and Survival. Oppenheim sifts through the grit, the black eyes, and the corruption to present a candid, loving look at a sport that has been so historically important in this town that there is a breed known as "The Philly Fighter." You know the guy - inner-city tough, smart, humble, and incapable of quitting.

Oppenheim's book runs from past to present in just over 200 pages. Most of his stories are familiar tales of woe: Jimmy Young, Tim Witherspoon, Bennie Briscoe, Meldrick Taylor. They're fighters who ended one punch or one second away from glory, gullible naïfs done in by corrupt management (hello, Don King) or horrible life decisions.

The author, too young to have witnessed most of it firsthand, relies on a muse, a sketchy retired trainer named Mr. Pat, to get into the stories. He also relies on words from Philadelphia journalists who were there, such as Stan Hochman, Bernard Fernandez, Marcus Hayes, and Mark Kram. This is not meant as a shot at Oppenheim - most historians, obviously, chronicle events they didn't witness firsthand. But given the choice between Oppenheim reciting a fight he is watching on YouTube, or getting my senses whetted by experts who were actually there . . . well, the kid isn't in their weight class.

To his credit, Oppenheim is a strong, descriptive writer with an affection for his topic. The best chapter may be his paean to Philadelphia's shuttered or bulldozed boxing emporiums - the Arena at 45th and Market, the Alhambra, the Cambria. Most notable, of course, is the Blue Horizon, that sweaty, smelly, onetime mansion on North Broad that became home to nationally televised fights in the 1980s. Oppenheim catches the spirit of the joint and also raises from the dead all those Guys and Dolls characters who populated Philadelphia boxing in the day.

The flip side is that when Oppenheim writes about the more recent scene, the tales and cast aren't as interesting. Mike Jones, from Mount Airy, and Teon Kennedy, from the Strawberry Mansion area, held regional belts. But neither carries the cachet or romantic backstory of fighters from the past. Can't blame the author; he's working with the material he's got.

Boxing in Philadelphia moves fast. And it shows promise. My hunch is that the author, who is just 27, has some superb books ahead of him.