Kyle Sarofeen: Daring To Change
By Chris Akers
Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, has as much a history on the page as it has in the ring.
Magazines such as The Ring and Boxing News have reported on the sport for over 100 years. Books such as Dark Trade and Unforgivable Blackness have viscerally articulated the lives of boxers both in and out of the ring.
Kyle Sarofeen is one of the co-founders of Hamilcar Publications, a Boston-based publisher that is focused on the world of professional boxing. They have published books over the last year on Edwin Valero, Johnny Tapia as well as real life stories that blend boxing with true crime.
Before going into Hamilcar’s future publications and how his own interest in the sport began, I asked Kyle how best to describe Hamilcar:
“Essentially what we are is sort of a opposite of a corporate publisher in every way. I think in particular, when it comes to the acquisition side of things with boxing and we’re moving into hip hop and true crime as well, which is sort of like an offshoot of books we’ve already done like the Bundini Brown book.
“The author of that book Todd Snyder is writing a book about boxing and hip hop as well. So we’re going into hip hop as sort of a straight category, not necessarily connected to boxing. And then True Crime growing out of the Hamilcar Noir series. But in terms of who we are, I think that with boxing and hip hop in particular and later with true crime, especially the boxing, we sort of know the subject matter better than your average publishing house. We’re sort of like a boutique publisher in the best sense of the word. In terms of corporate publishers, it’s sort of like an assembly line and we’re sort of the opposite of that as well.
“What we’re doing. We’re trying to change it a little bit, in the sense that Andy came up with this phrase ‘not just another boxing biography.’ You read especially autobiographies and they’re very similar. We try to weave in other elements such as cultural elements and things like that.
“For example, Carlos Avecedo’s book (Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing) is very literary and very intelligent. Put it this way, you have someone like Norman Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates writing about boxing. They don’t really know it. Carlos knows more about boxing than these literary figures that have written about it.
“I’d put his prose up against anyone. Maybe in terms of what we’re doing, our guys really know the sport and they can write. It’s almost like a book by book thing, but a lot of boxing books lack weight to a degree. We try and find guys who can really write artfully and who know boxing, as oppose to the Big Five publishers.”
The Big Five are Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillian, Penguin Randon House and Simon & Schuster:
“The Big Five, look at the books that they put out. I’m not criticising those books at all, but a lot of those boxing books are written by people who have written another kind of book. Which is cool. It’s not to say that we wouldn’t have someone write a book for us who had wrote on other subjects. But I think that our guys know boxing.”
The seeds for this were planted a few years ago when Kyle was working for big publishers and realised that he wanted to do his own thing:
“I was a production manufacturing person, production editor, production manager, which basically meant that you handled the manuscript about a book, you had to handle the printing of the books. I sort of got pigeonholed and I wanted to acquire books.
“The idea I had at the time was I knew that no one in those publishing houses knew anything about boxing. I think in terms of who we are, we know the category better than anyone else, just because I’ve been into boxing since my teens but also a book person and I think it’s an unusual combination.”
This lead onto co-founding Hamilcar with Andy Komack, who he has been friends with since their teens, part of the same high school crew growing up in a little seaside town north of Boston called Rockport. The seeds that were planted when Kyle was working for big publishers, started to flourish after he received a text from Andy three years ago:
“Digital marketing and business development is Andy’s background and he send me a text going on three years ago in June. He was sort of between jobs and he worked for start-ups doing digital marketing for a long time. He sent me an email and he was thinking about purchasing an existing website and we having it and trying to make some money of off that. He shot me a text and was like ‘this looks like an auction website.’
“I had finished an NBA about a year before that. I was entrepreneurial minded. I wanted to do business. He did too. Interestingly, I was doing private equity research at the time. The initial idea wasn’t necessarily publishing, but basically we decided we wanted to do a business. I worked for publishers for 18 years. I know that stuff. You want to do books? And that’s basically how it happened.
“I think what has happened with him and me is that our skill sets dovetail perfectly and I think our personalities dovetail perfectly. That can of why I think this thing taken off. He worked really well at what I can’t do and vice versa. In terms of what we each bring to the table it just fits. The two of us and a team of freelancers, it just kind of works. It like lightning in a bottle in a way.”
The stories that have been told about boxing have been vast and compelling. Yet it is quite a leap from books being published about the sport to deciding to form a publisher that focuses on it. So what was it about the sport that made Kyle think that he should form a publisher that centres around boxing stories?
“Where do I start?! For me, I was pretty athletic as a kid. I played tennis at a pretty high level, college football, high school basketball. I was sports obsessed. They used to have shows over here. ABC and NBC would have sport shows in the early eighties before ESPN. So I kind of watched everything, whether it was American Football, baseball, car racing, boxing, whatever was on I loved sports.
But in my twenties, boxing was the one sport, the only sport that really held my interest. Courage, skill, drama, suspense, the characters. There no sport like it. There isn’t. Tex Cobb said ‘in tennis you made a mistake it’s love 15. In boxing you made a mistake it’s your ass.’
“I love everything about it. I don’t care if you’re intellectually inclined or not. I think it’s interesting how people who are intellectually inclined, sometimes you find that boxing’s the only sport they’re into which I think is interesting. My partner Andy, who has developed as we’ve gone on a real interest and love for the sport, something that he said early on, talking about Don McRae, me not putting myself in the same breath as Don, but people who are very sophisticated, intellectually they love it.”
On a podcast last year, Kyle talked about the fighters and fights that got him into boxing in his teens. These included the Holmes vs Cooney world title fight, Hagler vs Leonard, as well be being a fan of Mike Tyson. There is however, one, almost obscure fight that particularly piqued his interest – Vinny Pazienza vs Dana Rosenblatt. Why this fight?
“Part of it was local. Vinny is sort of local. But that was Tuesday Night Fights, which I watched all the time. That was more an example of something that popped into my head. Rosenblatt was talking so much shit before the fight! He was a college guy. Vinny knocked him the f..k out pretty much! You know what’s funny? The woman who used to cut my hair, she worked with Rosenblatt mortgage company. She told me, even before this everyone knew I was a boxing fan, she was like ‘Oh I worked with a former pro boxer.’ I was like ‘Oh what was his name?’ She said ‘Dana Rosenblatt.’ I was like ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’”
Hamilcar started by acquiring boxing books that had already been published. The first two books they acquired were Ron Lyle’s biography Off The Ropes and Jacobs Beach:
“Those were the first two right deals that we did just to get rolling. The production cycles are shorter when you acquire the rights to a book from another publisher.”
Award winning writer Donald McRae was mentioned earlier and it was arguably his most famous book Dark Trade, that had never been published in the U.S, that Hamilcar also acquired the rights to:
“I think it was an obvious choice for us. We were looking to acquire something that was a higher profile book. That book is a classic. One of the best boxing books ever written. James Toney is featured throughout it. It spoke to me because of that, because James is basically my favourite fighter of all time, along [Marvin] Hagler and Ali.
“Essentially it was how good the book was. It’d never been published in the U.S. Don came over here and the book for the most part is about him travelling the U.S talking to American fighters, though there are some UK guys too like Nas [Hamed]. It was largely set here. I knew after reading it and generally in terms of the high esteem people held that book in, that it was something that we wanted to do.
“James was in it more than any other fighter which appealed to me as well. It was cool we could put James on the cover. That was part of the reason we connected as a publisher and an author. Right away we said we think James belongs on the cover. I think that really spoke to him as well. Speaking of us as a publisher vs a corporate publisher, they never would have put James on the cover. In the UK edition, they put Holyfield on the cover. That’s a really good example of what we do but differently in my view that speaks to real fans. We are doing James’ bio as well, which is been written now. No big publisher would do that. They wouldn’t know how to do it.”
A new section has been added for the new version and the new cover, a painting of James Toney, was done by Amanda Kelley, a talented illustrator who has also done the painting for the front cover of a future book Hamilcar is releasing about one of the greatest fights of all time. The painting features the two fighters in combat who were involved in that fight:
“We’re publishing next summer a book on the Hagler-Hearns fight The War and she did the painting for the front cover. It’s one of the most incredible book covers I’ve ever seen, because of that painting. I don’t even have words for it. It’s just unbelievable. Four Kings (about the fights between Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Hagler and Tommy Hearns) for example sold 40,000 copies over there in the UK and The War will be better than Four Kings without question. [Don] Stradley’s an awesome writer. The War will be better than Four Kings and will be an incredible book for hardcore fans. The fact that her painting is on the cover, I think that book going to sell like the Four Kings or hopefully more and that people will know her for that. I think it will raise her profile. She’s a wonderful person as well.”
This last year Hamilcar have developed a series of books collectively known as Hamilcar Noir, real life boxing stories with elements of true crime:
“The original concept both Andy and I came up with two years ago. Originally we conceived of it as an ebook series, which is funny to look back on, as our sales have been about 90% print. We were looking to do something commercially. I always liked true crime as well.
“I think part of it is commercial, not in the sense that the writing lacks weight, but as boxing with murder and mayhem, and have short books. The idea was to have these short entertaining books that people could kind of bang through and part of it was also editorial innovation at the same time. No one’s really done that before, mixed boxing with true crime. It’s been done in books but not as a branded series that is specially like that. Basically, it is entertainment with weight. That’s how I describe it with sensational covers. The titles are meant to be cheeky. It’s like the tabloids here and in the UK.”
The first writer they approached was Don Stradley, who has been writing for the Ring Magazine since 2004. From there other writers have followed.
“Before we started Stradley wrote an article about Mike Jacobs (Madison Square Garden promoter in the 1930s) that was so good. Andy and I came up for the concept and he was the first guy we approached. He lived in the next town. We had coffee and we really vibe. He got the series, understood what we were aiming for. He wrote Berserk (about Edwin Valero) and Slaughter in the Streets (about how Boston became boxing’s murder capital).
“There’s a manuscript that I am working on now. It’s in production. Carlos Monzon – A Fistful of Murder. Stradley’s our anchor. The Valero book was so good, we just wanted him to write as many of those as we wanted to. Paul Zanon approached us. He’s a great guy. He has interviewed Teresa Tapia for Boxing Monthly and he came to me with that idea and I immediately said of course. A lot of these ideas with me getting on the phone with guys and brainstorming and talking and refining. I think it’s connected to the fact that unlike editors at other publishing houses. Sometimes the editorial process coming up with book content is pretty organic.”
As for future books in the Hamilcar Noir series, one fighter that will be written about about is arguably the biggest waste of talent in the heavyweight division in the last thirty years:
“Ike [Ibeabuchi] was something we kept hearing about. People were saying that we should do a book about Ike. It wasn’t necessarily on my radar. Then Luke [G. Wlliams] approached us about doing a book about Ike and we went forward with it. He had interviewed him and there was something serendipitous about that.”
Like any company, brand exposure is vital. Hence why Hamilcar Publications were at the Boxing Fan Expo in Las Vegas and the International Boxing Hall of Fame last May, making their presence ever known:
“The Fed Expo was great. We had Al Bernstein with us at our table. James Toney was at the booth next to us, signing copies of Dark Trade. Hagler-Hearns grew out of a conversation that I had there. Saturday night we went out to a club and watched the Canelo-Jacobs fight with James and his crew. So we were part of James’ crew for the night Andy and me. You haven’t lived until you’ve rolled with James Toney and his crew right!! He’s a friend of ours.”
As with everything, the coronavirus pandemic is putting everything on hold at this present time. Though once this is over, what are the future plans for Hamilcar?
“We’re expanding into two categories – hip hop and true crime. The Bundini book, Todd Snyder who wrote that book is writing a book called Beatboxing – How Hip Hop Changed the Fight Game. He’s already interviewed half of the Wu Tang Clan who are really big boxing fans. He also interviewed Biz Markie, Vinnie Paz from Jedi Mind Tricks. Rich boxing fan. Also interviewed Zab Judah.
“After that book, I think Todd is going to write a straight hip hop book for us. Those two worlds cross over. That’s why we did this book. True Crime as well. We’re expanding into those two categories. I guess good subjects in boxing are endless to a degree. A lot of ideas that I’ve had we’ve done. That’s not to say you can always come up with interesting ideas in terms of boxing. It’s not like we’re going to run out of subjects and stop posting boxing books. We’re not. but I think that expanding into those two categories just allows us to grow and expand.”
Boxing will always provide us with engaging and visceral stories, due to the nature of the sport and the background of its combatants. Hamilcar Publications will continue to be at the forefront of that, publishing true stories that will appeal to both boxing and non-boxing fans alike.