The Duke by Carlos Acevedo - Issue 7
A book as brilliant as Morrison's story is tragic
Hello. Hope you enjoy issue 7 of All Sports Books newsletter. We turn to boxing this week with a review of the upcoming book The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison by Carlos Acevedo (published on 12 April). I’ve been a huge fan of the books published by Hamilcar Publications over the last few years, and the Duke is yet another brilliant boxing book. In that spirit, this week’s older book review is a repost of my review of Bundini from 2020.
New Book Review - 🥊‘The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison’ by Carlos Acevedo (2022)
Boxing, with its cruel, brutal, beautiful nature, lends itself to great writing. The sport itself, with stakes so much higher than any ball game, with death and serious illness an ever present shadow, seems to call out to the very best writers in search of stories that go beyond sport. Boxers, and their very willingness to put their health on the line for money, glory or desperation, are compelling characters. But only sometimes do we get a writer as good as Acevedo and a subject as compelling as Morrison and the result is, inevitably, a brilliant book.
Morrison may be best known to many as the guy who played Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. He reached a level of fame early thanks to the movie and as a young handsome heavyweight fighter he had the charisma and image to potentially make a successful career in the sport. Ultimately, Morrison’s life and career would twist and turn is ways both unexpected and tragic.
While he would achieve some success in the ring during a particularly weak period for heavyweight boxing, his lifestyle and the his demons would ensure he never progressed beyond the ‘Great White Hope’ label before becoming a cautionary tale. His battle with Aids, both medically and psychologically, would shape the last years of his life as he went deeper into the world of conspiracy theories and crackpot medicine.
The Duke is above all an exceptional work of biography. Acevedo chronicles Morrison’s unique life in fascinating, forensic detail with an abundance of stories highlighting the absurdity of Morrison’s life. Between his traumatic childhood, his steroid obsession, his HIV denialism and his womanizing, Morrison experienced enough to fill many lifetimes. Acevedo’s achievement is to tell the story in a way that is riveting but not lurid, gripping but not eulogizing.
One aspect that sets the book apart is Acevedo’s assessment of Morrison’s boxing career in the broader context of the sport. He dissects the quality (or lack thereof) of his opponents and highlights the difficulty of assessing Morrison’s actual talents when he was so poorly matched for almost all of his career.
Aged before he was grown, famous before he was successful and washed-up before he was 30, Morrison experienced a life that few would emerge from unscathed. That his vices were so clearly enabled, that his was career so poorly plotted, and that his delusions were so troubling validated by those around him doesn’t absolve Morrison from judgment for his actions. Acevedo however does properly paint him as a man whose chances of a happy ending were slim from the beginning.
Like all great sports books, it goes beyond the sport and places Morrison in the context of his time and wider celebrity culture. Acevedo is a sensationally good writer with some brilliantly memorable turns of phrase. I’d also strongly recommend his essay collection A Sporting Blood.
The Duke is unputdownable in a way non-fiction rarely is. It grips you and submerges you in a narrative that is riveting, comic, and ultimately tragic.
New Sports Books - What’s out recently or coming out soon?
Keep an eye out for these sports books out recently or coming out over the next week:
⚽Marcelo Bielsa: The Foundation of Success at Leeds United by Salim Lamrani
⚽West Ham United: From East End Family to Globalised Fandom by Jack Fawbert
⚽The Last Busby Babe: The Autobiography of Sammy McIlroy by Sammy McIlroy with Wayne Barton
⚽Addicted to Football: A Journey from Anfield to Almost Everywhere by Jon Newby
⚽Feeling Blue: A True Story of Love, Life and Belonging by Richard Denton
⚾ How to Beat a Broken Game: The Rise of the Dodgers in a League on the Brink by Pedro Moura
🏥 A Delicate Game: Brain injury, sport and sacrifice by Hana Walker Brown
🏇The Fast Ride: Spectacular Ride and the Undoing of a Sure Thing by Jack Gilden
⚾ Stolen Dreams: The 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars and Little League Baseball's Civil Warby Chris Lamb
⚽Out of the Blue: Chelsea's Unlikely Champions League Triumph by Gary Thacker
A not so new sports book review - 🥊 ‘Bundini:
Don’t Believe the Hype’ by Todd Snyder (2020)
My favourite book of 2020. I’ve struggled to finish this review because I’m trying to capture the book and not just gush with praise. Bundini:
Don’t Believe the Hype didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them away, and it deserves to be considered among the very best biographies.
Muhammad Ali is possibly the most written-about sports figure of all time. I’ve already written a post on the best books I’ve read on Ali. Throughout every book, film, documentary on Ali, Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown hovers in the background as a mysterious, often thinly drawn, character whose importance is undeniable but whose contribution, and very essence, appears unknowable. I’ve always been fascinated by Bundini yet unable to picture who he was and sort between differing depictions of a quasi-mystical sage and a drug addled thief.
Bundini is best know for penning the immortal line ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee’. He was a corner man, a hype man, a philosopher, a friend, a confidant, a spiritual guide and a hundred other things for two of the greatest boxers of all time – Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. But none of that captures the unique contribution Bundini made to their careers and indeed the lives of those around him.
I’ve written this paragraph 5 times trying to capture my own take on Bundini but I think it’s best to leave it to George Foreman who the book quotes as saying ‘Bundini was the source of Muhammad Ali’s spirit’. Bundini was no saint and had plenty of flaws but he was a man full of love. He was one of those rare people who have an energy about them, who have charisma and colour and vibrancy. I am very much not that type of person myself but I am very drawn to those who bring a passion, a love and an uncontrollable energy to the world and those around them. That these gifts are often accompanied by demons, addictions and personal flaws makes them all the more compelling.
Snyder has done an incredible job in capturing Bundini. Both his magic and his flaws. The heart of the book is Bundini’s son, Drew ‘Timothy’ Brown, a man whose own life story merits a biography. As Synder sets out in the introduction, this book is a much the story of a father through his son’s eyes as it is an objective biography.
Great biographies need both a compelling subject and the right biographer. Robert Caro’s masterful series of books on Lyndon Johnson would not have reached the same heights if not written by a writer with as a keen a fascination of the workings of power. The years Caro spent writing The Power Broker shaped his future work on LBJ.
Similarly, Snyder is the perfect person to capture Bundini’s life. An incredibly talented writer, the son of a boxing trainer, and a professor of rhetoric and hip-hop, it’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit.
As an aside, the book also made me realise that Muhammad Ali’s old training camp has been opened to the public and is less than an hour drive from my in-laws in Pennsylvania. I absolutely cannot wait to visit! (Update: I went to Fighter’s Heaven and it was fantastic and I wear my Fighter’s Heaven sweatshirt every day - highly, highly recommended)
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter. More books next week!