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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Review of The Night the Referee Hit Back

The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing
By Mike Silver
Rowman & Littlefield, 2020

Along with Ken Blady's Jewish Boxers' Hall of Fame and Allen Bodner's When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport, Mike Silver's Stars in the Ring is one of the three most seminal books for those of us interested in Jewish boxing history. The Night the Referee Hit Back, a collection of previously published articles, is Silver's follow up, and it's fantastic. All boxing enthusiasts should read Silver's book, but Jewish boxing fans especially.

Part One begins with a masterful profile of Stillman's Gym, once the epicenter of the boxing world. The sights, smells, and sounds of the legendary gym are intertwined with its rich history and Silver's personal recollections. It will be an invaluable article for generations of boxing historians to come. The other articles are chock full of amazing Jewish boxing history about boxers-turned-referees such as Sammy Luftspring and Ruby Goldstein, the smooth boxer Benny Valgar, and, of course, Stillman's. The articles that aren't about Jews are just as entertaining and informative.

Part Two is filled with opinion pieces that often buck popular beliefs. Silver curmudgeonly waxes nostalgic about yesteryear at the expense of the modern era. The "Thrilla in Manilla" wasn't that good, Floyd Mayweather wasn't that good, the coaches, the boxers, nothing was as good as it was when Silver was coming up. For the most part, he's right. With the exception of the referees (who I would argue have done a better job of stopping non-competitive fights earlier than they used to), Silver accurately diagnoses the current problems with boxing: There are too many belts, too many weight classes, and too many protected fighters. Unlike some other sports, an observer can reasonably argue that boxers used to be better because there were more of them, they fought more often, and they've remained the same size due to- for the most part- the same weight restrictions. But Silver can go too far in making his point.

In an article about an HBO card featuring Isaac Chilemba vs. Dmitry Bivol and Sergey Kovalev vs. Eleider Alvarez called "A World of Professional Amateurs," Silver describes Chilemba as "a second-rate opponent whose purpose was just to survive the 12 rounds and collect the payday." The Jewish Boxing Blog has covered Chilemba for ten years, and that's an unnecessarily harsh and unfair take. In both fights, Silver says he saw "fewer than a dozen body punches... There were no double jabs or combinations or feints, ducking, parrying, or weaving under punches." I went back and checked my notes from Bivol-Chilemba, and they directly contradict virtually every point of this assessment. I then rewatched the fight for this review and concur with my notes.

Silver also asserts, "Other than occasionally stepping back out of range to avoid a punch, defense was limited to the usual gloves in front of the face while standing still waiting to be hit. No attempt was made to slip a punch and counter." Slip and counter is actually a great description of Chilemba's style. In fairness, Bivol's timely jabs and infrequent combinations prevented Isaac from countering much, though. Chilemba kept his left far too low and his right just below his chin, which meant his defense relied on the shoulder role, slipping punches, and ducking Bivol's attacks. An excellent defensive fighter, he certainly didn't hold his gloves in front of his face waiting to be hit. Silver's overall argument is valid, but his specific analysis of Chilemba was off base.

Part three features transcripts of interviews Silver has conducted. The ones with Archie Moore, Carlos Ortiz, Ted Lowry, and Curtis Cokes were particularly insightful. Part four includes miscellaneous articles that often link boxing and showbusiness. There's also a profile of three boxers who fought in five different decades, including Saoul Mamby.

The Night the Referee Hit Back is a must read for boxing fans, particularly those interested in Jewish boxing history. Today's boxing scene is heavily criticized, but Silver's critiques, while occasionally overeager, are provocative and often instructive. The  cranky view of today's fighters aside, the history within the book is absolutely enthralling.

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