To say today’s guest is a prolific writer and boxing historian would be an understatement. With her longtime collaborator Mark Scott, she is the co-author of four books: “Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American Boxing Champion,” “Tex Richard: Boxing’s Greatest Promoter,” “Boxing Short Stories,” and “The First Black Boxing Champions: Essays on Fighters of the 1800s to the 1920s.” In May, she and author David W. Wallace will release their upcoming book “The Magnificent Max Baer: The Life of the Heavyweight Champion and Film Star.” She is currently the Co-Editor of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), a passionate advocate for the preservation of boxing history. And best of all, she was once a professor of Rhetoric and Composition at both the University of Southern California and St. Edwards University. Please welcome to the “Lo’s Gym Blog,” my fellow boxing rhetorician, the one and only Colleen Aycock.
Throughout your career as an author and boxing historian you’ve worked exclusively with McFarland and Company. My first book, “The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity,” was also published via McFarland. I suppose that makes us literary stable mates. Tell us about your relationship with McFarland and the work they do to preserve boxing history.
CA: McFarland publishers is a major independent academic publishing house still going strong in today’s book market when many university publishing outlets have been forced to scale back operations or even close. In 2007 when I was looking for a publisher for the Joe Gans biography, no one wanted a “boxing book.” It didn’t matter that the subject was the first black boxer from the United States to win a world title, who helped to break the “color barrier” and prove the lie of white supremacy, or who helped shape the course of cultural history. Popular publishers were not interested. Today, some of those imprints have published a few boxing books, but they initially turned me down. Even my own literary agent (I was previously writing non-fiction in other areas) and the agent of my co-author, Mark Scott who was writing fiction at the time, dropped us. Neither agent wanted anything to do with boxing as a subject. Those snubs, along with about thirty rejections of the book, only made me more determined to write (and speak very loudly) about the importance of the history of boxing. I turned back to my academic roots and the academic presses. McFarland had published in 2001 the book James J. Corbett (McFarlandbooks.com) written by a great theater historian, Armond Fields, from the University of Southern California. Since USC was where I was from academically, I felt like McFarland was a good match. The company was already well-known for its outstanding collection of baseball books.
I’d like to think that I’ve helped to grow their boxing collection by helping other writers find a home for their serious work. This publisher is clearly not for every writer. But if writers are serious scholars/historians, willing to consult the Chicago Style Manual and document their sources, they are ready for McFarland. Some writers are unwilling or uninterested in doing that, thinking it a waste of time. But then, anyone can self-publish anytime, anywhere today. And some very unprofessional writers are more interested in letting you do the hard work and then they take your work as though it was their own research. Such was a subsequent Gans book. The publishing world can be a dirty business. The people at McFarland, on the other hand, have integrity. The satisfaction that I enjoy working with them comes from knowing that the work is appreciated, their books are here to stay and will continue to be found in the libraries long after I am gone.
Aside from McFarland, you and I have something else in common. You were, at one point, a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Southern California. How did you make the transition from rhetoric professor to boxing historian?
CA: True. How many rhetoricians are there today so interested in boxing? At least two! When rhetoric resurfaced as a subject of study in U.S. universities in the mid-1970s, USC offered the first doctoral program in the new field of rhetoric and writing. I was in the second official class of 15. I don’t know how many of us in those first two classes eventually obtained the degree because coursework was quite lengthy and many fell out. If we did manage to graduate, jobs in the new field were difficult to find in the 1980s because many English departments didn’t know what to do with us. With the need to teach undergraduates the basics of writing, the field exploded in the 1990s. Unfortunately, I needed to repay bills and get a job after graduate school, even though I did teach for three years afterwards. At the same time, the State Farm Insurance Companies had recently settled the largest class-action lawsuits for discriminating against women to date. The settlement required them to hire women as agents. I joined the agency force in Austin, Tx, and remained an agent from 1985-1995 when I left to become editor of the agent’s national magazine. While living in Washington D.C., and writing biographies for the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s Statuary Hall, beginning in 2001, I found myself spending more and more time in the Baltimore library downtown researching the life of Joe Gans and discovering for myself his old haunts around the city.
My introduction to your work came with your book on Joe Gans, the first black American world title holder in any professional sport. Many novice boxing historians assume Jack Johnson was the first to break the color barrier. What drew you to write about Gans and why do you think he isn’t celebrated in the same way sports fans celebrate Jack Johnson or even Jackie Robinson?
CA: As a fourteen year old, my father, Ike Aycock, left the hills of Troy Mississippi and a large family to find work in South Texas. Prior to and during the Great Depression, as many boys and men did then, he found boxing. His story was so sad, that he told me not to feel sorry for him because the black boxers had it worse. That did it: I wanted to know all about the early black boxers. After moving to the D.C. area in 2001 (surviving 911, anthrax, and the Montgomery Co. sniper when my kids were in school there) I decided that I needed to take advantage of my time near Baltimore to learn about Joe Gans. I think he was a forgotten hero in that he died so young, at 35. Then Jack Johnson came along and took the spotlight in a way that whites could vilify him. Jack Johnson’s story stayed in the mainstream news and minds much longer, but not necessarily in a positive way, and thus overshadowed all the good that Gans accomplished during his short life. Also, the fact that Gans’ title was stolen seemed too confusing and complicated a matter for the history books. Joe Gans was the Jackie Robinson of his era, but Robinson had the benefit of a news media more willing to discuss black inequality. (Newspapers during Gans’ lifetime merely reported the many lynchings, but during Robinson’s lifetime, opinions condemned them.) The Jackie Robinson story still seems modern. The question we might ask is, “Will anyone remember Jackie Robinson’s story when our generation is gone?” Also, in Baltimore, a city known as the Monumental City, I’ve tried for over a decade to get a statue of Joe Gans erected there; but the city has yet to find a benefactor. At least the cemetery where Gans is buried is now clean and better maintained.
I’ve always been fascinated by boxing promoters. Your book on Tex Rickard is on my “To Read List.” Set it up for me. What made Rickard so interesting, important to boxing history?
CA: Tex Rickard lived nine lives during his very short life. He was a product of the Old West when outlaws and shootouts were exchanged for boxers and boxing rings. He was a cowboy who literally took over New York. He was, first and foremost, a Texas sheriff, who was afraid of no man and who carried a badge and a gun for a lifetime. He was an important and storied figure during the Alaskan gold rush where he made and lost his first fortune. He made his second fortune in the new mining camp in Goldfield, Nevada. He owned the largest saloon in the business, and when no one else would promote Joe Gans, he brought Battling Nelson and Gans together in a Battle of the Century—what turned out to be the longest fight (42 rounds) in modern history. After his promotion of the Great White Hope fight with Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, he used his profit to buy a ranch. But Texas, his first choice, proved too small for the ranch of his choice. He decided upon South America: a five-million acre ranch in Paraguay run with the help of Texas cowboys. What I found most interesting in the Rickard research was a piece of history that coincided with Teddy Roosevelt. At a time when everyone was touting Roosevelt’s discovery of the wild South American interior, who was it that met Roosevelt’s boat and party to escort the former president into that “wild” country—Tex Rickard! After his stint in South America, Rickard returned to the East Coast to dabble in boxing (in his big way) and to establish a profitable new Madison Square Garden, which became known as the house that Tex built for boxing. (Although few know that the New York Rangers were first known as Tex’s Rangers.) Rickard was in the process of establishing a series of Madison Square Gardens (in partnership with Jack Dempsey) when he died unexpectedly of appendicitis. I believe the genius of this man should be studied in every major school of business.
Your upcoming book on heavyweight champion (and film star) Max Baer is of interest to me for a variety of reasons. (1) I am a boxing nerd. (2) Max Baer was the father of actor Max Baer Jr. who is best known for his role as Jethro Bodine of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Aside from boxing, I write about Appalachian culture. Tell us about the new book!
CA: Again, I am indebted to my father for this one; he was one of Max Baer’s sparring partners. While many, including Max Baer, Jr., have denounced the portrayal of Max Baer in the movie Cinderella Man, it was a wonderful boxing movie, and one that I love to revisit. But as Max, Jr. said, “The only thing Ron Howard got right about his father was his name.” Max was NOT the villainous character he was made out to be in the movie. He was a kind and very gentle soul. But he was a terrific actor, a great entertainer, and a great boxer, with one of the hardest chins and fists in ring history. Max Baer was the bright light and life of one of the hardest periods in our nation’s history. He gave hope to many and put a smile on faces. His boxing career spanned the entire decade of the 1930s, and many said that boxing would have died in that decade if it were not for Max Baer. When the war came to America, men volunteered and the gyms closed. Both Max and his brother (also a contender) served in the armed forces. There were only a handful of days in a year when Max Baer did not appear in the news. I hope I have put a more personal face on his story, added a bit to the history of boxing and Hitler’s preoccupation with the sport, given a more complete retelling than the movie version of the Cinderella Man fight with Jim Braddock and what was happening behind the scenes, and a different look at the famous Louis-Schmeling fight through the eyes of Max Baer. I have also tried to document his movie, radio, and tv careers.
(Incidentally, the sitcom The Beverley Hillbillies where Max Baer, Jr. appeared as Jethro has always reminded me of Max’s situation when he bought a mansion in town for his parents and moved them off the hog farm to live in luxury. They moved out of it into a more modest home! It is not out of the question to assume that the idea came from one of the Baers.)
And finally, I know that you are not just a boxing historian but also a boxing fan. What are the big fights that Colleen Aycock wants to see in 2018?
CA: I confess: I don’t study the current fights; I just watch them and am thrilled to find any boxing matches on television for free. I don’t like showboating, slow bouts, bizarre bird-like masks, and boxing trunks that look like skirts with flags and fringe on them. Other than that, I respect any boxer who has the courage to get into the ring. I just want him or her to enter the ring without the celebrity entourage and the façades and stand ready to fight. So, with that aggression in mind, I am looking forward to Showtime’s February 17 welterweight fight between Danny Garcia and Brandon Rios in Las Vegas. I hope Deontay Wilder’s bout with Luis Ortiz in March will be interesting, as well as Carl Frampton’s bout with Nonito Donaire. But what I am really excited about is the tremendous talent and interest in the heavyweight division. Who wouldn’t want to see Anthony Joshua take on Tyson Fury? I’m sure that if that one makes, it won’t be free.
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