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The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing was first published in the nineties and written and compiled by Harry Mullan, the late journalist and editor of the venerable British Boxing News. When Mullan died his friend and fellow boxing writer Bob Mee took on the task of updating the book on a regular basis and although my copy goes up to 2007 you can now buy a 2010 edition should you wish. The book is your standard reference guide to boxing, its weight divisions, history, most famous boxers, the most legendary fights etc, but does try to be a little more than a standard chronological illustrated guide too. There are some bits and pieces and sections about some of the more important behind the scenes characters in the sport and the darkside of boxing. The book is also a bit more opinionated than other boxing books of this type (which tend to be dry and factual) and expresses a weary dismay at the proliferation of governing bodies and organisations which has led to the faintly ridiculous situation of several boxers in each weight division walking around calling themselves the 'world champion'. Once there were eight weight divisions with one world champion in each of those weights but now there are countless weight divisions and about a billion boxers claiming world titles of some description, be it WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO, WFF, IBC etc, etc. This is commonly referred to in boxing as 'alphabet soup' and Harry Mullan was never shy in lambasting this state of affairs.
I suppose the best thing about this book is that it takes the reader into the modern era of boxing more than many of these illustrated boxing guides do. So you can read about Floyd Mayweather battering Ricky Hatton or Lennox Lewis laying waste to 100 years of jokes about British horizontal heavyweights by, much to the annoyance of the Americans, dominating boxing's flagship division and finally putting out the fading aura of menace and trouble that used to be called Mike Tyson. Some the profiles and descriptions of fights are a bit on the short side but that's a fairly standard thing with these books for reasons of space. There is an awful lot to cram in. The origins of boxing are covered well here and I prefer it if they don't dwell on this era too much (as they don't there) and always enjoy the introduction of James J Corbett into heavyweight boxing. Corbett was not a hulking brute but someone who ushered boxing into a new era by his application of strategy and defence. Boxing is not necessarily always about who is the strongest or the hardest puncher but also about guile, science and technique, and Corbett was one of the first boxers who really understood this and took it into the ring. The familiar trawl through the decades is well covered in the book and always feels comprehensive and the fact that the book branches off into a few different directions is a nice bonus.
Unavoidably, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing does tread over ground already heavy with the footprints of similar books, something that boxing fans who find themselves buying these when these spot one at a bargain price had already long since accepted. There is not much new to say now about The Thrilla in Manilla between Ali and Frazier or the Hagler v Hearns fight but I suppose you could hardly call your book The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing and leave some of these things out because they've already been covered a gazillion times. Perhaps of more interest to those who already know about all these things anyway is the peek behind the curtain of boxing to look at some of the scandals and double dealing of people like Don King, a man who makes Sepp Blatter look like Frank Spencer. King started life on the streets of Chicago as a 'numbers runner' and was essentially a small time hustler. He served time in prison on a manslaughter charge for kicking to death a man who owed him money and somehow ended up as the most powerful man in boxing, a ridiculously wealthy and brilliant businessman who promoted The Rumble in the Jungle between Foreman and Ali and controlled the fortunes of people like Mike Tyson and Julio Caesar Chavez. King's catchphrase 'Only in America' could just as well have been 'Only in boxing'.
One of the major sections of the book is a quick profile of 200 boxers which is perhaps a bit familiar but interesting enough. I quite enjoy illustrated boxing books by British authors as there is more of a domestic tinge than usual and you get a number of pugilists from Blightly thrown into the mix. The fact that this book is more up date than many boxing books of this type is another plus of course with more recent names such as Joe Calzaghe featured. Calzaghe was a bit strange really as he only really became highly respected and mildly famous in the twilight of his career. The book has another section which looks at twelve all time greats in more depth and this is generally well done. You get all the usual supects here, everyone from Muhammad Ali to Joe Louis to Sugar Ray Leonard. The book scores well on the picture front too and there are many good stills and photographs of the boxers, fights and legendary venues that have graced the sport over the decades. The book is well over 200 pages too so it's a substantial and weighty volume that is attractive to flip through.
The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing is a good addition to the boxing bookshelf and worth considering for boxing fans who like these types of books. It has a bit more subjective content than other books of a similar type and tries not to be the standard chronological history of boxing by varying the chapters and sections up a little and looking at things like venues and promoters. I would recommend this book on the whole, especially if you can find it at a good price.
When it comes to the best in boxing information books one of the very best series was Harry Mullan's excellent "The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing" (for those viewing that as a spelling mistake, it's an English published book and it is "Encyclopedia" there) which had been one of the long running sets of books that the former editor of Boxing News had done. Though when he passed away at a sadly young age in the 1990's from illness his friend and fellow boxing writer Bob Mee took over the reigns of the series and carried on the books in Harry's memory, the latest version to have been released was released in 2009. For some the first edition of the book in the 1990's was a great step in the right direction of how boxing books should be done, Mullan was well known in boxing circles as being a smart man with clear views and strong integrity which meant he was ideal for the writing of such a book though he passed before the second book could be released it was obvious that the book was of such a high standard it was going to be hard to follow on, though that's what Bob Mee has managed to do as he's built on the work of his predecessor marvelously.
The newest version of the book is a 232 page book with an RRP of £20 is a hardback that's split into several sections all wonderfully well written and brilliantly detailed, as all work of Mullan and Mee is. Historically they are the two British writers who stand out on their own as being amongst the very best boxing writers, and are on a par with Americans Thomas Hausser, Bud Schulberg and Bert "Randolph" Sugar. The book starts with a fittingly well written tribute to Mullan by Mee explaining the reasons behind the original book and what Mullan felt about what "boxing" had become, where titles were pointless trinkets that were a business' "toy" to make money out of rather than the defining example of what a "World Champion" really was.
The first proper "boxing" section looks at the "Origins" of the sport, dating it back to back to the original Olympics but focussing much more on the established British "tradition" of bare knuckle boxing dating back to James Figg the first accepted "British" Champion. They go over the rule changes and how the sport became international with the fight between Tom Molineaux of America and Tom Cribb or the UK. This section ends much like the era with the passing of the torch from John L Sullivan, The Boston Strongboy to "Gentleman Jim", James J Corbett. Rather than follow this up with a chronological and rather messy feature about boxing like many similar books Mee follows the lead of Mullan in the original and writers short pieces about boxers, ignoring the relative mess that boxing history has become. The likes if the WBA/WBC/IBF/WBO and the numerous "World Champions" that seem to amass by the bucket load on a regular basis with out need. As a result the second boxing section looks at 200 of the best fighters arranged A-Z going from the well known legends of the sport like Joe Gans and Benny Leonard, to more modern day fighters like Joe Calzaghe, and Lennox Lewis. Also included are some lesser well known fighters such as Yuri Arbachakov and Khaosai Galaxy, in what becomes of the books best sections.
The book then looks at 12 fighters in depth, the all time greats such as Muhammed Ali, Roberto Duran, Dugar Ray Leonard, Joe Louis and Jack Johnson. Although the profiles are really well written, if possible a bit short, what they lack is a great amount of variation, of the 12 fighters 7 were heavyweights and only 2 were considered "pre-war" fighters (with Joe Louis spanning the war and not being counted here as post or pre war). For fans of Bob Mee's writing these are exactly what they will be used to from him, his regular pieces are very similar to these (though his regular pieces are often much longer and more detailed). After this there's a look through some of the most important fights in the sports history, such as the infamous battle between Sullivan and Corbett which saw Corbett pronounced the world champion. The fight between James J Jeffries and Jack Johnson which saw Johnson beating the former world champion in a fight that many saw as being the chance to shut up Johnson, the flash and brash African American who had been rubbing the whites up the wrong way with his attitude. The war between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Heard is included here as is the Thrilla In Manilla (Frazier v Ali III) and comes all the way up to the fights between Calzaghe-Kessler and Ricky Hatton-Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The book then looks at the other things in boxing such as managers, trainers and promoters, to boxing fans this is often a part that only the hardcore fans know much about so to those outside of the ones that would consider themselves fans this may seem a little un-needed. However if you decide to have a read you're almost certain to see yourself lost in the myriad of complexity that makes boxing such a nightmare to be a fan of at times. Promoters and managers having a bigger control over fighters than the fighters themselves seems backward as a result they seem to play a bigger part in the sport than they possibly should. To true boxing fans these sections (which also look at the "governing" bodies and controversies) could well be the best part or the book an insight in to the things they may not usually read about when given books on the history of the sport which can regularly seem alike repeating the same information as other "history" books in a similar vein. This is what separates this book, it's not a history book, but a true boxing book. Though the book does end with a more traditional look over the past title fights it's done enough to stand out from the others. Though saying all this it does have one serious problem, the £20 price tag for many is far too high and despite the fact can be found cheaper ("The Works" were selling it for £6.99 near the start of 2009) it's now quite rare to find new so it will almost certainly be full priced. Other than the price, which is about £5 too much, it's an excellent book.
One of the very best boxing books of recent times.