Robert Downey Sr. is an actor and filmmaker, best known as the father of his Academy Award-nominated son and namesake, Robert Downey Jr. What is not as widely known is that the elder Downey is a former Golden Gloves boxer, and an insatiable reader of good sports stories and, especially, good stories about boxing.
So when Downey asked longtime New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow if he had done enough boxing columns to publish the sort of retrospectives he had previously done on football, baseball and basketball, Berkow agreed that it might be a project worth undertaking. The result was Counter Punch: Ali, Tyson, the Brown Bomber and Other Stories of the Boxing Ring, published last year by Triumph Books.
The best of Berkow on boxing, as it turned out, rates alongside some of the best work done by other celebrated writers whose treatises on the sweet science earned them the A.J. Liebling Award for Outstanding Boxing Writing from the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Berkow, 74, is the 31st winner of the Liebling, which he will receive on April 24 at the BWAA’s 90th annual Awards Dinner in New York. He joins, among others, the distinguished likes of W.H. Heinz, Shirley Povich, Budd Schulberg, Jimmy Cannon, Robert Lipsyte, Allan Malamud, Bill Gallo, Dick Young, Edwin Pope, William Nack, John Lardner, F.X. Toole, Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, Peter Finney and Sandy Grady.
“They were the best of the best, the crème de la crème,” Berkow said. “I’m hugely honored. It took a lot of work, but also a lot of love for all of us who wrote or write about boxing.”
Berkow has lived and worked in New York for most of his adult life, but he was born and raised in another tough town, Chicago, where at the age of 7 he became enamored of such tough-as-nails fighters as Rocky Graziano and middleweight champion Tony Zale, one of the Windy City’s favorite fighting sons.
“Boxing is the best thing for a sports writer to write about because there’s always the aspect of life and death,” Berkow said. “There’s nothing more dramatic for any writer to write about, which is why so many of our greatest writers have written about boxing.
“I covered lots of stuff, but I’ve always had as avid an interest in boxing as anything in sports, maybe because there are so many great characters to write about. I loved being around guys like Rocky Graziano and (trainer) Freddie Menna.”
The BWAA Awards Dinner, which will be emceed by Brooklyn Nets announcer David Diamante, takes place the night before unified heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko defends his titles against Bryant Jennings in Madison Square Garden. The event – the location of which has yet to be announced – is open to the public. Ticket information and other details, such as the names of the winners of other awards, has been or soon will be released and can be found on the BWAA web site (www.bwaa.org).