To review ‘The Gods of War’ by Springs Toledo is an honour but a difficult task. How can I spend 1000 words reviewing a series of essays that take you on a journey through boxing history? 1000 word cannot do this particular book justice. When I think of a book created by a collection of essays, I think of something that has been loosely collated by a writer’s work throughout his time on the subject of pugilism. Loosely, is not the term I would use when describing ‘The Gods of War’. The collections of essays are a hypnotic history lesson that you cannot put down. They take you from Jess Willard getting pounded from pillar to post by Jack Dempsey to the destructive Roberto Duran and stop along the way to pay respect at the Grave of Sonny Liston.
The book is separated in 3 stages. The first, entitled ‘Immortals’ entwines history and philosophy with some of the great Jewish fighters that have graced the ring. Toledo uses his literary prowess to effortlessly glide through different periods in history to bring context into his articles. He writes about first Jewish-Roman war, the battle of Masada and transforms it to a 1920’s bout between Joe Welling and Johnny Dundee, where “this time the Jew defeated the Roman.” But the battle in Masada is used as a mirror of comparison with the final bout of the career of Barney Ross, where both the Jews in Masada and Barney Ross put on a valiant and heroic stance till the end. This is not just pointless context added to beef up the word count. Toledo’s efforts bring a different dimension into his work that is rarely seen in boxing essays today. This transition of time periods is perfectly exhibited when he compares Kid Chocolate with, well Kid Chocolate. He tells us of the original first Cuban champion and along the way writes about others who adopted the moniker, until he ends up at Peter Quillin. You have just gone through history in the space of a few paragraphs, and it is all linked fluently.
We then begin the second section of the book and quite frankly my favourite. The ‘Liston Chronicles’ is a chronological collection of essays that do not allow us to forget the impact of one of the toughest heavyweight in history. Forward to today and people will tell you Sonny Liston is that barbaric brute who took a dive against Muhammad Ali. Yet, Toledo makes it his objective to stamp on that consensus. There is a subtle balance when describing Liston’s thug like mentality with his in ring genius. In four segments we are left a detailed account of the life and legacy of the Heavyweight champion. Successful efforts are made to analyse the style of Liston, discarding the view that he was just a brawler who happened to possess a bit of power. He states “At times Sonny’s skilful slips and counters could make James Toney raise an eyebrow.” This then leads to the writer making comparisons with other heavyweight champions across time, giving us a stick which we could measure Liston with. Normally, attempts to compare heavyweight from different times are futile and miscalculated but you feel that in this chapter the comparisons have a purpose and are not wildly thrown into the book. They allow us to deconstruct the myths about Liston and instead bring new and refreshing analysis to one of boxing’s mysterious characters.
As a reader who wanted the ‘Liston Chronicles to continue into a dissertation, I was left feeling somewhat guilty. The way Toledo highlights the rise and fall I was thinking as though Sonny was never appreciated for what he was. This fact is grows stronger when the author tries to investigate the reason as to why nobody knew the birth date of Liston.
“To many purists the image (Of taking a dive Vs Ali) is an insult because they know the liston of 1959-1960 was among the most fearsome wrecking machines the heavyweight division has ever known. It is time we visit his grave, reanimate those unsettled bones and give Sonny his due.”
Everything that is written in this book is leading us on a path. The history of the great Jewish fighters, men of a thousand hearts like Alexis Arguello and Jack Dempsey and the gifted yet forgotten Sonny Liston culminate into a centrepiece. Visualise this centre piece as a huge monument featuring ten men in boxing attire with a golden plaque with the word ‘The Gods of War’ written on to it. This is the final part of the book, which explores the ten greatest warriors in the modern era. For me personally, the idea of an all time P4P list is slightly overused and completely subjective. Yet, the list Toledo compiles is somewhat refreshing.
“Everyone who is anyone has offered their own pound for pound pecking orders at one point or another, though they’re usually too flawed to take seriously…The cold hard fact is that it takes more than cold hard facts to understand something so dynamic. Boxing is about sweat and blood. A definitive list then would come with objective data in one hand and a glove on the other.”
Toledo compiles his list on the basis of a few categories – Quality of opposition, ring generalship, longevity, dominance, durability, performance against larger opponents and intangibles. Here, the writer begins to give each of his ‘Gods’ an in depth analysis on the most important aspects of their career. For someone like me who is sceptical on these types of lists, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the seamless transition of language, facts and narrative that paint a balanced picture. However, one thing I do find difficult to understand is how the category points are calculated. There is not enough information to suggest how the writer has come up with some of the numbers to define the boxers. I would have definitely liked this aspect to be further clarified. Nevertheless, Toledo does a good job in backing up his list and shows us why Willie Pep was an elegant master and why Henry Armstrong and Ezzard Charles were in leagues of their own.
Like I mentioned previously, a one thousand word review does not do the book justice. I haven’t been able to touch on the wonderful linguistic prose used or the number of quotes used to add volume to his words. This is a highly recommended book that forms literature into a factual understanding. I found that the purpose of this book was to educate, and not like a dull science book in school. Instead it teaches you about this history of great men who have reigned in this sport, it teaches you about how writing should be, It teaches you about ‘The Gods Of War’.