Donald McRae: “I try to be fair and to give the interviewee a platform to talk for themselves.”

Donald McRae: “I try to be fair and to give the interviewee a platform to talk for themselves.”

The quality of a writer can be judged in many ways. Too many complicate their work, you sense they have a dictionary at hand with a view to confuse their readers at the expense of their own inflated ego. Others, far less qualified to write, write in a simplicity that adds nothing to their work and very little to the reader. There is a balance that very few find. Those that excel in their craft, can humble, educate and inspire.

Born in South Africa in 1961, Donald McRae has in his many years as an author and columnist found that rare balance. His work is diverse, and the quality of his writing draws you in, even on subjects, you have little or no interest in.

A career in writing always looked likely for the former teacher:

“I always knew I would become a writer. I love writing – much as I sometimes moan about it – and it has given me opportunities to meet some fascinating people. I like writing books most of all because I then have the time and the space to try and get beneath the surface of my subjects. It has allowed me to write about people in heart surgery and sex work, boxing and criminal law. Some of my books have been set in the past and some have been rooted in the here and now. I have written a memoir about my family living under apartheid in South Africa as well as helping people such as Steven Gerrard, Eddie Jones and Victoria Pendleton with their autobiographies. It has been diverse and interesting and I love writing very human stories.”

McRae goes wide and far in his search for his subjects. But boxing seems to draw him back in more than anything else. The sport seems to bob and weave more than the fighters who grace the sport, often with scant reward for their work. But boxing gives more to any willing writer than perhaps any other sport, the good, the bad and the downright ugly, a writer has many things to play with. A simple sport that is surrounded by politics, greed and the distinctly uncomfortable. A dirty sport ruled by the dirty dollar.

But nevertheless, it brings a fascination to many, as ugly as it might get, boxing is never boring and never short of stories. And a sport that McRae just can’t let go of:

“I have loved boxing since I was a little boy living in South Africa. That interest simply grew once I started meeting and writing about fighters. In my work for The Guardian, where I write their Sports Interview of the Week, I have met many different sportsmen and women. Most of them are interesting – but the fighters always stand out. They have the best stories and they, almost always, are the most open and approachable people. Many fighters have a relatively limited education but the gravity and intensity of boxing can make them reflective and insightful. They also often speak with real eloquence. And there is nothing like a great fight…as we discussed with Taylor and Serrano.”

Boxing tests the soul. A love-hate relationship and even when you don’t hate you question the love. Often it leaves you cold, dig a little deeper you quickly realise it’s even dirtier than you ever could have imagined. Trust me, the best stories are the ones you will never ever read. But it is the brave underappreciated employees that suffer, the accumulative damage tells in later life. Many are left with life-changing consequences, and without the rewards their efforts fully deserve. For many different reasons, they can’t let go either. McRae also knows at times he should have walked away:

“I think if you don’t have some ambivalence and doubt about boxing you can’t be looking closely at all. It is corrupt and dirty and very, very dangerous. I have wanted to walk away from it many times – especially when I have seen, in close-up, the damage it does. I have seen terrible things in boxing. There has been catastrophe and death. It is also very corrupt in so many ways. But I love the fighters and the trainers, and of course, they are amazing to write about.”

Boxing is no stranger to controversy. The Noble Art could easily have been labelled the Dark Art. Links to the unscrupulous side of society have been there since day one. The sport has multiple episodes where it should have learned. It hasn’t. It never will. But recent events, have raised a certain lingering narrative once again. The alleged stories and crimes centred around Daniel Kinahan are already in the public eye and need no further telling here, but it was always a case of when and not if, the story would blow up and leave some running for cover and at some pace. McRae, maybe more in hope than any real conviction, believes boxing just might have turned a corner this time and finally seen the light out of all the dark:

“The Kinahan saga has been depressing. So many people just tried to ignore the truth. Kinahan’s influence permeates every corner of boxing but I think his time in boxing is finished. The determination of the US government to bring him to trial has been a complete game-changer. It will take a long time for boxing to recover but the last month has been a huge step forward. Boxing did nothing to stop his rise…and it took a few courageous reporters and the US law enforcement agencies to finally bring about change. I feel a bit more hopeful about boxing now.”

McRae is without any question one of the finest writers around. His work has few equals, and if you see his name attached to an article, you feel obliged to read it, regardless of the subject matter. Writing, especially in transcribing interviews is a craft, McRae mastered it many years ago. But the talent behind the keyboard is only as good as the person that they interview. Writers need to choose wisely:

“In terms of my work for The Guardian we are always looking for interesting human stories in sport – and obviously they prefer me to interview the best-known people in sport. I also like meeting more obscure sportspeople too as they often have the best stories. When it comes to my book work I am looking to interview people who add depth and texture and help me understand the subject.”

Any writer, especially one who dares enter the often fickle world of boxing, will at some point upset someone. What is written, isn’t always what people read. Even McRae isn’t immune to this:

“I try to be fair and to give the interviewee a platform to talk for themselves. Most of my interviews are pretty positive but of course, some become acrimonious. I don’t like upsetting people but, in sport and life, some interviewees try to drive their own agenda at the expense of truth. It’s not great when there is dissent between us but I remind myself that I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t have the odd falling out. But I would say that 90% of my interviews are enjoyable and, I think, fair to those that I am meeting.”

Many books have been written on boxing, some pass you by, once read quickly forgotten, but others live long in the memory. McRae is the author of one of the greatest books ever written on the sport. A timeless classic, that despite its length, could easily be read multiple times. Maybe even the defining book on the sport.

One online review accurately describes Dark Trade – Lost in Boxing.

‘Dark Trade is Donald McRae’s illuminating five-year journey through the intense and forbidding world of the professional fight game. Tyson, Bruno, Hamed, Benn, Eubank, Holyfield, Watson, Jones, and Toney confide in him their fears and ambitions. Their fantastic, almost mythological stories are uncovered in new and striking detail, drawn from the hundreds of hours McRae has spent in their company. With wit, compassion, and lucidity, Dark Trade examines the ways in which race and violence beat at the heart of American and British society and what it is that drives men to pursue this most brutal kind of fame.’

But despite the many plaudits, McRae told me the book came close to never being published:

“I just felt compelled to write a book about boxing. I was lucky enough to interview the likes of Mike Tyson, James Toney, Michael Watson, Chris Eubank, Oscar de la Hoya, Roy Jones Jr, Naseem Hamed and others. I became close to some of them, Toney most of all, and I loved working on that book. It got sent to 10 publishers and nine turned it down flat. I was discouraged but the subject was so powerful that I kept going. It took me five years to write and it was a great experience.”

One classic in any resume is enough for most, but McRae has several. He also picked a delicate subject and wrote In Sunshine Or In Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope In The Troubles. A personal book in many ways:

“I grew up in South Africa under apartheid and, at the same time, Northern Ireland was besieged by The Troubles. I was always interested in Northern Ireland and of course, Belfast is a great fight city. I was fascinated by the way in which fighters, and the inspirational trainer, Gerry Storey, transcended the sectarian divide. I knew there were some compelling and beautiful stories to tell.

“I was lucky that Gerry Storey, Barry McGuigan, Hugh Russell, Davy Larmour and Charlie Nash helped me so much. The book is about their interlocking stories and they were so open and helpful. But, yes, there is a lot of pain in the book and it was hard to witness that at times. Still, it is also a book full of hope and light. I loved working on it.”

McRae isn’t finished yet, a sequel of sorts to Dark Trade is on the way:

“I am deep in researching and writing a new book about boxing now. On the surface, it is a Dark Trade for the 2020s. But I think it is a much deeper and more reflective book. I am having a great time, too, following some fascinating and very diverse fighters in Britain and America. It will be published in 2024 so I have got a lot more work to do.”

Writing is to some extent a dying art, one that is overshadowed by YouTube and the numerous video led outlets that cover boxing in the modern world. A privileged seat in press row is often shared with endless tripods and cameras. Space for the feet is a premium, health and safety a hope. The YouTube outlets play their part, but like the never-ending websites that pop up on a daily basis, the quality varies. If you have seen one Eddie Hearn interview you have seen them all. The questions rarely stray from the obvious, like writers, there are many, but good video interviewers are hard to find. Dignity is often sacrificed for clicks. Too often. Like myself, McRae understands video outlets have their place, but the written word shouldn’t be lost in the new age:

“They play a huge role in boxing and there are some good video interviews. Most, however, are forgettable and very amateurish. I don’t get swamped by them and I still love reading in-depth and really considered boxing interviews that have been written online and in print. The YouTubers are fine for quick hits but I go elsewhere to find more meaningful content.”

Even some of the biggest outlets in boxing don’t pay for written content, to earn is reserved for the few. It will get harder still. But McRae is one of the lucky ones, but equally, he understands how hard it is to make a living out of writing:

“It really is hard. One of the few advantages of being my old age is that I have had a chance to carve out a living for myself as a writer. I feel very lucky and privileged to do so.”

But there are writers who carve out a living and extremely talented ones at that. McRae sits near the top of my go-to list, and the list he has compiled is a who’s who of writing:

“There are many – from great old writers of the past like AJ Liebling and Hugh McIllvanney and so many other giants to many of my contemporaries. I always read Thomas Hauser, Mark Kriegel, Tris Dixon, Matt Christie, Elliot Worsell, Steve Bunce, Michael Foley, John Dennan, Gavan Casey, Jake Donovan, Alan Dawson, Carlos Acevedo, Chris McKenna and so many others. There are also relatively new-ish writers like Craig Scott, Jimmy Tobin and Tom Kershaw who are interesting. Of course, there are too many to mention here. In terms of books, McIllvanney on Boxing, David Remnick’s King of America, Tris Dixon’s Damage, Elliot Worsell’s Dog Rounds, Thomas Hauser’s Ali book and his earlier Black Lights always come to mind. There are many others I’ve forgotten but really love.”

Despite the moving world, the likes of Donald McRae and others will ensure some things remain the same. A writer who can engage and enlighten his audience in equal measure. So much work of the highest quality imaginable, a body of work that few can match. Or will match.

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