Listening to the excellent new Matt Hill album ‘Savage Pilgrims’ I was particularly struck by the track ‘Bendigo’ which tells the story of a 19th century Nottinghamshire prizefighter. It set me thinking about boxing-themed songs and how I’d not really heard such a good one in some while. So here I present to you ten more boxing-themed songs.
Whether you view boxing as a noble art or as legalised thuggery, there is no denying its place in the American national psyche. Legends and heroes have been forged from this, the toughest of all sports. Muhammad Ali in his prime, was arguably the most famous person on the planet. Yet for every triumph, every victory, there is another story; one of lives ruined, lives destroyed and ultimately lives lost. But for all it faults and criticisms it continues to exert an unbreakable grip over millions, this writer being one of them.
All my moral, social and political views tell me that I should be repulsed by the sport, but I’m not. Ask me to enter into a debate in defence of boxing and I will decline as I don’t have a leg to stand on. I know its wrong, but I’m hooked, it’s a lifelong addiction from which I don’t wish to escape. Below are a series of ten songs in the Americana style (well more or less) which relate to boxing or boxers
Round 1: Emmylou Harris ‘The Boxer’
There have been numerous versions of Simon & Garfunkel’s hit but this one by Emmylou Harris is my favourite. Harris is a brilliant interpreter of songs and here her wistful delivery achieves perfect resonance with the sadness and hopelessness of the lyrics.
Round 2: The Felice Brothers ‘Ballad of Lou the Welterweight’
The Felice’s dark tale of a fictional boxer dying in the ring highlights the bestiality of the sport by juxtaposing Lou having sex before his fight with his “girl” then witnessing his passing away in the eighth round. Deep and powerful stuff.
Round 3: Mark Knopfler ‘Song for Sonny Liston’
Sonny Liston is the subject of much speculation. It is said that he was under the control of the mob and that he threw both his fights against Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) on their instruction. His death in suspicious circumstances has also been attributed to the mob, who it is said, having no further use for him, decided that he knew too much. All of this is brilliantly covered in Nick Tosches’ book ‘The Devil and Sonny Liston’. Here Mark Knopfler explores the story in his own words.
Round 4: Freakwater ‘The Louisville Lip’
Muhammad Ali was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky so it’s unsurprising that Freakwater, who also hailed from Louisville, should mark him in song. The song focuses the racism and discrimination that the young Cassius Clay faced in 1960 after returning to his hometown following his gold medal-winning performance at the Olympics. After being refused service in a restaurant, Clay reportedly threw his medal in the Ohio River.
Round 5: Warren Zevon ‘Boom Boom Mancini’
Zevon was a boxing fan and Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini was a friend of his. Zevon wrote this song as a tribute to Mancini whom he felt was unfairly blamed for the death of Korean fighter Kim Duk Koo. The song contains the line “they made hypocrite judgements, after the fact” in reference to the incident.
Round 6: Sun Kil Moon ‘Salvador Sanchez’
Mark Kozelek might not fit everyone’s definition of ‘Americana’ but he is without question a brilliant songwriter. His band is named after a Korean flyweight boxer and their debut album ‘Ghosts of the Great Highway’ contained no less than three boxing-related songs including a 14 minute epic about the death of Duk Koo Kim mentioned in the Warren Zevon song above. This one is about Mexican featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez who became world champion at 21 but was tragically killed in a car accident two years later.
Round 7: Tom Russell ‘The Eyes of Roberto Duran’
Tom Russell wrote a great song in tribute to Muhammad Ali which appeared on his ‘Modern Art’ album. This earlier one references the Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran known as ‘Hands of Stone’. The song is actually less about the boxer than it is about Russell’s Mexican girlfriend. How she felt about being compared to the notoriously obstinate and aggressive champion is not documented.
Round 8: Phil Ochs ‘Davey Moore’
Bob Dylan wrote ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ in response to the death of the boxer 4 days after losing his featherweight title to the Cuban, Sugar Ramos. Whilst Dylan’s question is largely rhetorical, Ochs is typically uncompromising and has no hesitation in laying the blame on boxing’s greedy promoters and money men, as well as its paying public.
Round 9: Bruce Springsteen ‘The Hitter’
Springsteen’s epic song tells the story not of a great champion but of the journeyman fighter trying to earn a living by plying his trade both legally and ultimately, illegally. The Hitter in question is a representation of the wider struggle of the abandoned, the poor and the desperate lengths that they will go to just to get by.
Round 10: Bob Dylan ‘Hurricane’
You didn’t seriously think I’d forgotten this one, did you? Probably the first song most readers will have thought of when looking at the title of this article. Dylan’s powerful highlighting of the case of Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter is one of his greatest songs and played no small part in the eventual overturning of Carter’s conviction.
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