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Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The Lasting Legacy of Boxing Historian Mike Silver

In 2004, the renowned boxing historian, Chuck Hasson, walted into the Natonal Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia to view an exhibition called "Sting Like A Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish-Boxer," curated by Mike Silver. Hasson looked around and said, "Mike, you did good." Chuck’s affirmation was special. "It meant more to me than a dozen positive reviews,' said Silver.

Since he began writing about boxing in the mid-1970s, Mike Silver has become one of the most important voices in the sport. The author of three of the best books out there, The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing, and The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing, his passion for pugilism has never faded, despite viewing most of the current crop of fighters with a critical eye.

Though Silver possesses immense knowledge and a unique talent for conveying information, his interest and career in boxing began as a result of several serendipitous events involving his family. "My father was an immigrant who grew up on the Lower East Side," Silver told The Jewish Boxing Blog, "He didn't mention the Yankees or the Dodgers. The only sport he talked about was boxing."

Born in Russia, his father, Samuel, immigrated to the United States at the age of ten. "He was the youngest of six siblings and the only one who didn't speak with an accent," said Silver. "He was the most Americanized." Sam attempted to regale his sons with stories of the old Jewish boxers from the Lower East Side, but as a kid, Mike didn't yet take an interest in his dad's tales. The first spark came when Mike looked up boxing in the World Book Encyclopedia, a ubiquitous presence in every household during the 1950s, and became intrigued by the pictures of heavyweight champions Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and John L. Sullivan.

As a boy, Mike was more interested in professional wrestling than boxing. One day when he was 14, he fell ill and had to miss school. Mike asked his younger brother to pick up a magazine that he saw displayed at the corner candy store that had a photo of wrestler Johnny Valentine on the cover. The magazine was Stanley Weston’s Boxing Illustrated, Wrestling News. After Mike finished with the wrestling articles, he read the boxing section. "That magazine was terrific in conveying the colorful history and romance of the sport. People don't realize, boxing was- in its heyday- a romantic sport," he explained.

Just as Mike found his passion, his dad found him a boxing trainer. Willie Grunes was an old school coach from the Lower East Side. An autodidact, Grunes sold peanuts at the old Madison Square Garden in the 1920s while picking up moves from the great fighters in the ring. Through the years Willie developed a tremendous understanding of the science of the sport. "Over the past four decades I’ve met, observed, and interviewed many trainers, some of whom are very famous," said Silver. "Only a few came close to the depth of Willie’s knowledge of the finer points of boxing technique."

After some lessons with Grunes, Mike attended summer camp. When he came back, Willie's gym had closed, and the trainer was operating out of the world famous Stillman's Gym. "I saw the famous fighters I had seen on tv," Mike recalled. Silver eventually sparred with some of the pros, but Willie was sure to stop any gym wars. "He knew how to train you and not get you killed." Willie would holler, "Move with him. He's green," and the pros would move and throw light punches and jabs, many of which landed on Mike's arms and shoulders.

Grunes had trained lightweight contender Maxie Shapiro, among others, to fight something akin to the precision of a ballet artist in the ring. The trainer taught Mike moves that mimicked Barney Ross: combinations, footwork, mixing his punches up and down, and how to make an opponent miss. Two of Grunes's former students, Bill Goodman and Tony Arnold, also taught Silver a ton about the sweet science.

Silver had a few amateur fights, but Grunes wouldn't let him fight in the Golden Gloves. "Too many ringers," he said. Guys would have over a dozen amateur fights off the books and try to fight as a Sub-Novice. One day when he was a 17 year old, Mike had a bad headache after a rough sparring session and understood it was time to give up boxing. After all, he wanted to go to college. His time learning under Grunes gave Silver a deep understanding of boxing and its difficulty. "I was exposed to enough of it to appreciate how hard it is."

In the mid-1970s, Silver read an article about four heavyweights. He disagreed with the article's assessment and wrote a letter about it to Sports Illustrated. They published the letter, which showed he had something worth saying. His first article as a journalist, though, was another act of serendipity.

Mike's brother was in medical school and working his ER rotation when he saw a new patient with a vaguely familiar face and a familiar surname. "Are you Mickey Walker, the fighter?" he asked. "Yep, and I fought them all," came Mickey Walker's reply. He raced to the phone and called his boxing-mad brother.

Walker was soon transferred over to Jewish Memorial Hospital where Mike met the legend. Walker was laying in his hospital bed. "He had a glow," Silver remembered. "The only other person I've ever seen with that same glow was Robert Kennedy when he was running for senator." Silver noted how long and muscular Walker's arms were even as an older man in his seventies. The champ was a bit out of it and asked, "How's Harry Greb doing?" Silver didn't have the heart to tell him Harry Greb had been dead for nearly fifty years.

Two other early articles buoyed Silver's acclaim. In 1974, he interviewed Roberto Duran through his trainer Freddie Brown. In the article, Silver described Duran as a "pocket-size Jack Dempsey." A while later Silver introduced himself to Duran's manager who responded, "Mike Silver, I know you! You're the guy who said Duran's a pocket-size Dempsey." Silver's only regret about the interview was not having his picture taken with the lightweight world champion. 

The other article arose from an interview with a hard-punching middleweight named Artie Levine. Levine, who Sugar Ray Robinson said was the hardest puncher he ever faced, welcomed Silver to his house. It was Silver's first entry for the legendary magazine, The Ring.

Silver takes a dim view of boxing's deteriorating quality. In his estimation rapacious promoters, the damaging influence of so-called “sanctioning organizations”, and scores of bogus belt holders have "destroyed whatever credibility the sport had.” He explained, "Boxing fell apart by the mid-1990s. It was out of control. In addition, there were very few trainers capable of teaching the finer points of boxing technique.” Around that time, short-sighted boxing pundits wondered aloud if Roy Jones Jr. was the greatest fighter of all-time. "Better than Sugar Ray Robinson?" decried Silver incredulously. The historian set out to set the record straight. Not only about Robinson, but about what he saw as the steady decline of his beloved sport.

Over the next few years, his color-coded files decorated the floor of his home. He considers The Arc of Boxing to be as much an engineering project as a writing one. He had to fit in different segments into the right chapters. He relied not only on his own expertise, but also that of many knowledgeable boxing men, including Bill Goodman, Tony Arnold, Teddy Atlas and Mike Capriano, Jr. After about fifteen publishers rejected his manuscript, McFarland took a chance on it. Numerous experts have since declared The Arc of Boxing "a must-read" for all boxing fans.

Fundamentally, Silver is an advocate for the fighters and for the sport. He has been praised as a "purist" and "old school," but those same words have been used to dismiss him. Silver's criticism of current fighters' technique isn't some blind longing for nostalgia, however. He enjoys watching Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko. Tyson Fury intrigues him; Silver hasn't seen a big man move like that since Buster Mathis. Silver believes fighters should be taught by true teachers, not only to improve their skills, but for their own safety. His concern for the fighters' safety is, in fact, the topic of his forthcoming book, which will be his fourth.

Whether through his books, his articles, his museum exhibition, his amazing cameos in boxing documentaries, or by simply helping out other historians, Mike Silver has left a lasting legacy on the sport he loves. At the end of our interview, I intended to ask Mike some random boxing questions of which I hadn't found answers. "Since I have an expert here..." I started. "Who? Is someone else  listening?" he joked. "You are!" I shot back. "You're the expert, Mike!" Mike, you've done good.

Mike Silver (center) with four Jewish boxers at the "Sting Like A Maccabee:
The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer" exhibit at the Philadelphia Jewish Museum.
From left to right: Phil Pollack, Sammy Farber, Silver, Herbie Kronowitz, and Morris Reif
photo courtesy of Mike Silver

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