Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Slats (2015)

By Rich Blake

It's always been difficult to get a handle on the life of Buffalo-born boxer Jimmy Slattery, at least without doing some serious research. He's spoken about with a bit of reverence around the town, mostly by - at this point - really old-timers who heard stories about him.

Slattery was a version of a world championship twice and fought a few of the big names of his time during the 1920s. You could probably argue that he was the greatest fighter ever produced by this area. His manager, Red Carr, was always impressed by Slats' talent - and lived until he reached 100 or so and told a few generations about those abilities.

But, as the quote from Ty Wenger of ESPN the Magazine reads on the back cover, "Why have I never heard of Jimmy Slattery before?"

Therefore, author Rich Blake comes to the rescue with a very detailed biography of the fighter called "Slats." Now we know that Slattery's career belongs with Buffalo's best sporting "What if?" questions, right up there with "What if the Bills had one their first Super Bowl?" and "What would have happened if the Braves had stayed in Buffalo until Magic and Bird arrived in the NBA?"

Slattery came out of the First Ward, a working-class area just south of downtown near the waterfront. He eventually started hanging out at a gym when he was in his teens, and this natural athlete soon developed an ability to box. Before he knew it, almost, Slattery had zipped through a successful amateur career and was ready to turn pro in 1921 at the age of 17 - adding a year on the application so he could be a legal 18-year-old.

New York State has returned to the pro boxing business around that time, but it wouldn't allow those under 21 to fight more than six rounds. So Slattery climbed the ladder, six rounds or less at a time. By the time he was 20, Slattery was clearly ready to take on the best in the business. In fact, he may have been at his best at that point. This was a brilliant fighter with great speed and a decent enough punch. Few could even catch him. The catch was that the big money came with longer bouts, so Slattery wasn't ready to cash in.

Eventually, of course, he did reach 21, and started to have some money in his wallet. That led to a little too much fun for the handsome celebrity athlete, in the form of chasing women and drinking. Slattery went on to win a couple of shares of the light heavyweight title, but lost the second one around the age of 26.  He fought a few years more, but he essentially had nothing left by the time he fought his last pro fight - exiting with a record of 111-13. Slattery was 29 years old. Unfilled potential is always difficult to accept.

Then what happened? Virtually nothing. The last 26 years of his life come across as something of a waste here. There was talk of a comeback, some work in the ring, some manual labor jobs. But mostly, it was just getting by from day to day and finding a drink. Throw in tuberculosis along the way, and it's no surprise that Slattery died in 1960.

Did he have any regrets? He said no. Still, the question lingers. Slattery was a minor star in the world of boxing in the Roaring Twenties. Heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey was the king of that world, but he rarely bothered to defend his championship. That was room for other boxing to take some of the spotlight, and Slattery had the ability and style to do it. He just didn't have the willpower to fight off the temptations involved. What if?

Blake certainly put a ton of work into researching this story. If anything, the story feels a little too crammed with information along the way, especially in the first half. But it's still a classic tale, rags to riches to rags, and the author certainly gets the feel of it right.

It's easy to see why Blake had trouble finding a national publisher for this project. Really, though, "Slats" is a fine fit for a regional literary effort. The audience is ready-made for an education on a local sports legend, and this will more than satisfy the curiosity of those who pick it up.

Four stars

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