The best books on boxing with tough, vulnerable characters

Jonathan Starke Author Of You've Got Something Coming
By Jonathan Starke

Who am I?

All these pugilistic narratives touch on people in hardship moving through dark spaces in their lives. I care about people on the fringes. I’ve known many people who have little or nothing. For a lot of my life, I’ve had little. I used to box. When something’s in your blood, you think about it every day. I can’t remember a day I haven’t thought about boxing. Once you’ve done it, it’s hard not to want to go back. You try to just pretend it away, but when it’s in you, it’s got hold. Because I understand this so well, feel it, have lived it, I absorb these boxing stories in a different kind of way. 


I wrote...

You've Got Something Coming

By Jonathan Starke,

Book cover of You've Got Something Coming

What is my book about?

You've Got Something Coming is a breakthrough debut novel about a down-and-outer who can’t let go of boxing, his small daughter, and his attempt to give them a better life. Trucks, an aging boxer with only thirty dollars, breaks his deaf daughter, Claudia, out of a children's home in Wisconsin one night during the dead of winter. He gives her used hearing aids to help with her deafness, and they begin a winding journey of grit and cold and fierce love while hitchhiking across the country. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Rope Burns

By F.X. Toole,

Book cover of Rope Burns

Why this book?

This is the most beautiful, touching, and emotional book about boxing, penned by a cut man who didn’t stumble into writing until he was in his sixties. Toole’s prose is sharp, lean, commanding, and coming from the mouth of truth. His gritty characters tell it and show it like it is, and it’s Toole’s ability to demonstrate the love trainers have for their boxers and passion for the pursuit of boxing, along with all the big hearts and often unseen vulnerability in the sport, that makes this story collection so open and heavy and heartfelt and breathing and alive.

Rope Burns

By F.X. Toole,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rope Burns as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Ring magic is different from the magic of the theatre, because the curtain never comes down - because the blood in the ring is real blood, and the broken noses and the broken hearts are real, and sometimes they are broken forever. Boxing is the magic of men in combat, the magic of will, and skill, and pain, and the risking of everything so you can respect yourself for the rest of your life.'The hermetic world of boxing is notoriously difficult for outsiders to understand, though it has provided a source of fascination to numerous writers, including Norman Mailer, A.J.…


Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine

By Thom Jones,

Book cover of Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine

Why this book?

The importance of these stories lies within the relatable concept of how people choose to medicate—through pills, alcohol, sex, distance, lies, boxing. Jones’s characters are full of grit and sharp tongues, broken bones, each pursuing a way out of the mediocre feeling of their existences. Some want to chase greatness, while most just dream of coming up out of the hole for a moment in hopes of seeing the light. What Jones teaches is that there’s always redemption in the beauty of the attempt. 

Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine

By Thom Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Faber Stories, a landmark series of individual volumes, presents masters of the short story form at work in a range of genres and styles.

He met Liston's gaze but found it almost impossible to sustain eye contact. Soon it became an exercise in the control of fear. Sonny Liston gave Kid Dynamite the slightest hint of a smile and winked.

In the build-up to a fight, Kid Dynamite's head swirls - with thoughts of his estranged father, his difficult relationship with his stepfather, the time he met his hero, and the sense that his own life is reaching a moment…


Fat City

By Leonard Gardner,

Book cover of Fat City

Why this book?

I first picked up this novel the year I started boxing. It follows the rough lives of Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, two boxers living in separate but parallel worlds—Tully an aging boxer fooled into thinking he can relive a few more glory days and Munger figuring out the hard lessons of what it means to lose. I love how this novel amplifies people eking out difficult lives who spend most of their time in dive bars, cheap motels, and seedy parts of town engaging with dubious, colorful characters. The writing is sparse, direct, sad, and unsentimental. Here Gardner is always pursuing a tough reality.

Fat City

By Leonard Gardner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fat City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Tremendous' Geoff Dyer

'A pitch-perfect account of boxing, blue-collar bewilderment and the battle of the sexes' San Francisco Chronicle

A major cult film directed by John Huston

Stockton, California: a town of dark bars and lunchrooms, cheap hotels and farm labourers scratching a living. When two men meet in the Lido Gym - the ex-boxer Billy Tully and the novice Ernie Munger - their brief sparring session sets a fateful story in motion, initiating young Munger into the "company of men" and luring Tully back into training.

Fat City is a vivid novel of defiance and struggle, of the potent…


The Professional

By W.C. Heinz,

Book cover of The Professional

Why this book?

Heinz takes the day-to-day minutia of being a boxer and makes it something beautiful. While the novel follows Eddie Brown’s quest for the middleweight title, told from the cynical perspective of sportswriter Frank Hughes, what’s really being relayed is everything it takes to build up to the one moment so few people ever face—that one-on-one in the ring you’ve got nowhere to run from the truth, from yourself. Did you prepare enough? Did you give it your all? And just who in the hell are you, really?

The Professional

By W.C. Heinz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Professional as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1958, The Professional is the story of boxer Eddie Brown's quest for the middleweight championship of the world. But it is so much more. W. C. Heinz not only serves up a realistic depiction of the circus-like atmosphere around boxing with its assorted hangers-on, crooked promoters, and jaded journalists, but he gives us two memorable characters in Eddie Brown and in Brown's crusty trainer, Doc Carroll. They are at the heart of this poignant story as they bond together with their eye on the only prize that matters,the middleweight championship. The Professional is W. C. Heinz at…


The Contender

By Robert Lipsyte,

Book cover of The Contender

Why this book?

The mantra for this novel could be that the effort matters more than anything—the attempt, the trying. Winning is something, but it’s not everything. Brooks, a high-school dropout, has to find his way in a world where his closest friend is dying from drug addiction, his household is broken, and street thugs are after him. Against all odds, if you love something and want it, the pursuit of that dream can help those who chase it with enough intensity to possibly overcome the hardship. When so many boxing stories are written with utter bleakness, there is light here.

The Contender

By Robert Lipsyte,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Contender as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The breakthrough modern sports novel The Contender shows readers the true meaning of being a hero.

This acclaimed novel by celebrated sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, the recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in YA fiction, is the story of a young boxer in Harlem who overcomes hardships and finds hope in the ring on his path to becoming a contender.

Alfred Brooks is scared. He’s a high-school dropout, and his grocery store job is leading nowhere. His best friend is sinking further and further into drug addiction. Some street kids are after him for something he didn’t…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in boxing, bildungsroman, and coming of age?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about boxing, bildungsroman, and coming of age.

Boxing Explore 21 books about boxing
Bildungsroman Explore 220 books about bildungsroman
Coming Of Age Explore 120 books about coming of age

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Book Thief, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower if you like this list.