The Greatest Champion Who Never Was
Tom Molyneux, a black man born into slavery, wins his freedom with his fists. He then travels to England for two epic bare-knuckle bouts against the world champion, Tom Cribb. In the first contest, he knocked Cribb out, only to lose the fight as the result of various shady maneuvers. Truly he was "the greatest champion who never was."
This is the story of Tom Molyneux, a man born into slavery in the United States, who wins his freedom with his fists and later fights for the world championship in England. This novella offers an intriguing look at the brutal world of bare-knuckle boxing during the early 1800's and a detailed analysis of the dirtiest championship bout of all times.
Lenny Cavallaro is one of the masters of exciting, compelling fiction set in a past time which is conceived, captured, created with great originality. What great writer has not reconceived his art ab origine? Did not Beethoven ask himself, as if for the first time, What is music? Cavallaro's relationship to the history in which he sets his story is based on keen, thorough scholarship and..another element: he makes the history his own, as if he had imagined it. In short, he imagines it. This potent combination is irresistible. But we are talking about a heartrending story of a fight hero in which the expertly rendered description of the fighting is so gripping, the pacing so masterful, that we are caught up in it even against our will. And it is partly against our will - we become complicit in a drama whose brutality outrages us. The expertise about bare knuckle boxing is consummate. But here again we find the art of this great story built out of the tension between opposites: For Cavallaro's moral awareness is uncompromising and tuned to the highest pitch; he makes us keenly aware of the cruelty of this racist 19th century world in which human beings are treated like the protagonists of a cockfight. Does it have resonance today, not only in the world of boxing but in our world everywhere? Find out for yourself by reading this masterpiece.
Reviewed in the United States on May 18, 2012