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George Kimball, at 67; covered glory days of boxing

George Kimball was a longtime boxing writer for the Boston Phoenix and Boston Herald. George Kimball was a longtime boxing writer for the Boston Phoenix and Boston Herald.
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2011

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Author George Kimball, a former radical hippie poet out of 1960s Kansas who became a renowned boxing writer during more than 30 years with the Boston Herald and the Boston Phoenix, died of cancer on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 67.

Mr. Kimball - a raconteur who could argue as passionately about Irish novelist James Joyce as he could discuss the great lightweight brawler Roberto Duran - was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus a few months after retiring from the Herald in 2005.

The diagnosis helped propel Mr. Kimball, an unrepentant smoker of unfiltered Lucky Strikes, into a period of prolific writing drawn from years capturing every uppercut, hook, and TKO ringside at more than 350 title bouts.

The result was a definitive work on boxing’s last glory days of the 1980s. His book “Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing,’’ with an introduction by Pete Hamill, sold more than 45,000 copies worldwide, according to his agent.

“I’d love to see ‘Four Kings’ take its place in the pantheon of sports literature, but as a sports editor once said to [award-winning boxing writer Bob Waters], ‘Well, that certainly makes you a tall midget,’ ’’ Kimball told the Independent in the United Kingdom in 2008.

He wrote eight books. His last was “Manly Art: They Can Run - But They Can’t Hide,’’ a compilation of boxing commentary and reporting published this April. He also worked on “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing’’ earlier this year and “The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song from Ali to Zevon.’’

“The people he adored were those [boxing] beat writers who got their stories, who made their deadlines and made art,’’ said his agent, Farley Chase of Waxman Literary Agency in New York. Chase called Mr. Kimball a brilliant writer whose e-mails could be literary works of their own. “Just the experience of reading his e-mails, you had to put on your seat belt, turn off the phone, and focus.’’

Born George Edward Kimball III in Grass Valley, Calif., Mr. Kimball was the oldest son of an Army colonel.

He lived an Army brat’s life, growing up around the world, including stays in Taiwan and Germany. He went to high school in Texas and had an ROTC scholarship to Kansas University. In college, he became engulfed in the antiwar movement. He told his family he was arrested several times.

He lost his eye in a fight, according to his third wife, Sarah, of Hull. They had a daughter and a son and divorced after 20 years together.

In Kansas in 1970, he ran a colorful and unsuccessful campaign for county sheriff as the Democratic nominee in Republican-dominated Douglas County. His slogan was, “Vote for me: I’ll keep an eye out for you,’’ according to the Lawrence Journal World.

Though boxing came to define his life, Mr. Kimball was a man of letters.

He was an editor at the Midwestern magazine Grist before moving to New York to become part of the literary scene. His work appeared in Rolling Stone and The Paris Review.

He was in his 20s when he wrote a satirical pornographic novel called “Only Skin Deep.’’ Mr. Kimball’s friend and fellow wild man Hunter S. Thompson called the book “a vicious and intolerable mockery of the whole filth industry.’’

“Angry Young Man to Grand Old Man is the most-worn career path in American letters, but a career arc of ’60s Radical Poet to Activist to Dean of Boxing Writers must be its most singular variation,’’ Kimball’s colleague, former Herald sports columnist Michael Gee, wrote in a tribute.

Mr. Kimball became sports editor at the Boston Phoenix in 1972.

He went to the Herald in 1980 and won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1985.

Writing for the Phoenix in 1976, Mr. Kimball described a weigh-in before the fight between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton:

“After casting a few barbs at members of the press, singling out Dick Young of the Daily News and his sometime tormentor Howard Cosell (Ali’s Cosell imitation is superb), Ali began pointing out other celebrities in the assembled throng. He kidded Barry White about his name, and then called Dustin Hoffman to the stage. (This initially didn’t make much of a stir, since the day before he had called for Elvis Presley to join him on the stage and had 500 heads scouring the room when he cackled and shouted, “April Fool!’’)

Hoffman joined Ali at the microphone and the Champion hugged him protectively, boasting that “Dusty knows who’s going to win.’’

“He knew and loved boxing far more than boxing ever deserved to be known and loved,’’ wrote Globe Magazine writer Charles P. Pierce in a blog post about his mentor from their days working at the Boston Phoenix. “He was wild and profane and an absolute old maid about the rules of golf. He loved Ireland like a native. At a newspaper full of cranks and eccentrics, which is what once made the Phoenix great (ask around, kidz) he was the undisputed king of them all.’’

His sports column guaranteed punchy, vivid scenes, and one-liners.

“The Oakland Raiders arrived in town for Super Bowl XXXVII last night. Their fans will be along as soon as they make bail,’’ Mr. Kimball wrote in 2003, in a column pondering whether God roots for any particular team. “Super Bowl XXXVII may mark the first time in the history of the event in which Satan has an active rooting interest,’’ he said.

In 2004, Mr. Kimball married New York psychiatrist Dr. Marge Marash. Two-time former world heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman officiated at the ceremony.

For the past 14 years he wrote the weekly America at Large column for Dublin’s Irish Times and has been a columnist for the website TheSweetScience.com.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Kimball leaves his mother, Susan of Fayetteville, N.C.; a daughter, Darcy of Denver; and a son, George E. “Teddy’’ Kimball IV of Brooklyn, N.Y.

A celebration of his life is being planned. No date has been announced.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.