Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Review: Undisputed (2024)

By Bruce Anthony

Welcome to Fantasyland, Boxing Division.

Boxing is a sport that lends itself to mythical matchups. It's simple enough that fighters can be compared relatively easily, even when they lived in different eras. Therefore, it's always fun to try to guess who might be the best boxer of all-time.

That sort of discussion usually comes up when discussing heavyweight champions. It's the glamour point of boxing, since everyone wants to know who can be the so-called baddest man on the planet. The names are legendary - Ali, Louis, Dempsey, Tyson, Marciano, Foreman, Frazier, etc. 

But who was the best ever? That's the tall order taken on by Bruce Anthony in his book, "Undisputed." 

It's a little tough to know how good Anthony's qualifications for this task are. He is from England, and has worked in the publishing industry for all of his adult life. There are no writing credits, boxing or otherwise, available. But he obviously has put some time and effort into researching this book.
Anthony has an interesting technique at trying to identify the best heavyweights in history. He starts by picking the top 20 boxers in the class, dating back to James J. Jeffries, and presenting some background information including some ratings. Then he gives his personal rankings from one to 20.  

From there, Anthony sets up something of a fantasy boxing league. All 20 fighters fight each other in the imagination in a round-robin format. The best record wins the mythical title, That's a lot of boxing - maybe the number could have been reduced to 16 relatively painlessly. 
And we're off. Anthony takes an important step right away to making such a tournament realistic. He realizes that a good big man usually can handle a good little man. This wasn't much of an issue from, say, 1910 to 1960. A heavyweight was at least 175 pounds, and it was relatively rare to see one above 200. For example, Jack Dempsey checked in at 187 pounds, while Rocky Marciano was a pound more. No matter how great their skills are, they would have had trouble with the best boxers of the past 50 years or so from a physical standpoint.
The author also eliminates champions after the Klitschko brothers. In some cases that's because they haven't finished building a record. But boxing's list of champions has become so fragmented in recent years that it's difficult to figure out who is the best at a given moment. Better to leave that judgment to future historians. 
Then it's on to fights, one man's opinion about how specific bouts might fare. We all carry a variety of biases into such discussions. For example, I think that history has underrated Sonny Liston and Larry Holmes a bit. Liston was a terror during his career but didn't get a title shot until his 30s - heck, we're not completely sure how old he was for his first match with Muhammad Ali. Holmes was just awkward enough to be troublesome for anyone, but he came along right after Ali and suffered in comparison. On the other hand, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe seemed a little too inconsistent in their careers to rank highly. But a book like is designed to start discussions. We sail through the 190 fights, some mismatches only getting a paragraph while others receive several pages.
There is some chance involved in a boxing match, as outcomes can differ. That's why there are rematches. Anthony's outcomes at least are rational, and there are some surprises in the final rankings. (No spoilers here.) And that's fine.
There are some problems along the way. The book takes no time at all to zip through. There's not that much material to begin with, and there is some repetition in the information about the boxers that could have been lost quite easily. It might have been nice to have a few different voices weigh in on the subject. Perhaps some quotes could have been found on the particular skills of a given boxer, even if those experts couldn't give thoughts on how a particular matchup might go. 
The writing can be a little clunky and cliched. The longer descriptions of the fights used in the glamour matchups sometimes go a little bit over the top. The use of some of the nicknames like "Bear" for Liston and "Rabbit" for Patterson came from Ali taunts, and seem out of place. It's a little surprising to me that the phrase "pissed off" is used along the way in passing every so often; a larger vocabulary would have been nice even if the phrase is allowed on radio/television at times these days.
Add it all up, and "Undisputed" is involved in a split decision. It will provide some fun for those interested in the subject, and that's nice. Just don't consider it the definitive word on the subject. Because there really isn't one.
Three stars
Learn more about this book from Amazon.com. (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)
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