Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: The Name of the Game (2012)

By Adam Heach

"The Name of the Game" is a strange book. At its completion, I wondered more about how the information for the text was collected than about the story itself. Can't say that's happened before.

Let's start with the basics. This is essentially the story of Thad Spencer, a heavyweight boxer who was in his prime during the Sixties. It's a good story too, well researched by Heach. Spencer grew up in Portland, Ore., turned professional at a very young age, and worked his way up the heavyweight ladder at a slow pace. Part of the problem was that Spencer was lured almost from the start of his career by the distractions of the street.

Eventually, though, Spencer piled up a few wins and wound up in the world boxing rankings. He was on the verge of making some good money, relatively speaking. Spencer was on the list of potential opponents for Muhammad Ali when the champion had his title stripped in 1967 for evading the draft.

Spencer entered the elimination tournament designed to find Ali's successor, although he wasn't  one of the favorites. Then he actually got in top shape and surprised Ernie Terrell in the opening round. That gave Spencer a shot at Jerry Quarry in the semifinals, although Spencer spent some of his new-found riches. He previously had developed a fondness for cocaine, and didn't have the discipline to get ready for Quarry. He got out of shape, and turned in a dreary effort during that turned out to be his one shot at stardom. If Spencer wins that fight, where does he go next? We'll never know; it was straight downhill from there, essentially. The Terrell fight was his last sanctioned victory.

One of the subplots of the story comes with Spencer's trainer/manager, Willie Ketchum. The ring second was a boxer lifer who always had wanted to train a heavyweight champ, and thought Spencer had a shot. But Ketchum eventually grew tired of Spencer's antics and attitude, and the two went their separate ways. The longtime trainer sounds like a classic boxing character.

Based on the notes at the back of the book, Heach - a pen name for Brendan Granahan - spent a lot of time finding information on Spencer. There are a variety of newspaper articles referenced. He needed to do so, in order to come up with enough material with more than 400 pages of material. Heach does a particularly good job at describing Spencer's fights, which apparently has satisfied the boxing fans who have read the book and commented on it on line.

All well and good. But the book leaves a lot of questions during a reading about how the book came together that never get explained.

The biggest concern centers on the sources of information. Spencer has dementia and Ketchum died more than 30 years ago, and the book reports on the thoughts and private conversations of both men at several moments of their careers. Where did they come from? Did someone start a book on this subject long ago and leave notes behind? We never find out.

In addition, there are long passages of conversations that read like a transcription of news conferences with reporters, with references to such moments as Ketchum puffing on a cigar. It seems like the author took quotes from a newspaper story and "created" a conversation - since it's tough to believe that a sound or video recording of such sessions would still be around. But the reader doesn't know for sure, because there's no list of interviews. Heach might be taking literary license here to "recreate" conversations based on the newspaper stories, a technique that has been used before in nonfiction books. But it would be nice to know what the story is; the reporters in the conversation are never identified.

The book is self-published, which often leads to problems. There are more typos here than in a professional book, and chapter headings on top of each page jumps from the left- to the right-hand page and back at times. The book also could have used an outside editor's touch in spots; at least 50 pages could have come out of the story quite easily.

Some run-on sentences pop up. Here's one example:

Since the death of Davey Moore at the hands of Sugar Ramos in 1964, Thad Spencer was the only fighter Willie had handled, but the arrangement had turned into a bad marriage and emotionally, not to mention professionally, Spencer's inconsistency as a fighter and wayward antics outside the ring were taking too great a toll on him, and while he hadn't fully given up on Thad Spencer as a heavyweight who could not only fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, but also win it, now he started to look elsewhere for suitable candidates to manage and train as he started to return to the fight business on a full time basis.

Meanwhile, Heach has the odd habit of not using hyphens on compound adjectives (top notch fighter, near empty dressing room, up and coming fighters), which often causes some confusion for the reader, and not using enough commas to separate dependent clauses. Facts and first references (such as first names) get repeated within a few sentences every once in a while too. As a result, this is a difficult book to read in spots because the reader has to stop and decipher what's on paper.

"The Name of the Game" was obviously a labor of love by Heach, and the story line is an almost classic boxing tale. Still, there are too many unanswered questions and unsolved problems here, leaving the impression that, at the least, more explanation about the writing and research needed to be done. Therefore, it's tough to give this an enthusiastic review without more information.Maybe there's a good explanation, but it should have been in the book.

Two stars

Learn more about this book.

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