IT MAY be cruel to ask a contemporary boxing fan to read George Kimball's Four Kings, a little like handing a starving man a menu from a four-star restaurant that's gone out of business. The bounty once available only underscores how bare the cupboard is today. Kimball's breezy, detail-packed book chronicles the careers of Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran, regal figures indeed who between them held 16 world titles and whose internecine battles during the 1980s defined their greatness. The book's subtitle calls those years the last great era of boxing. Nothing going on today challenges that.

Kimball, a longtime writer for the Boston Herald who was ringside for most of the fights described here, including all nine that his protagonists waged against each other, provides vivid, knowledgeable accounts of the action. (And there was plenty: During their careers each of the four beat at least one of the others and each of the four lost to at least one of the others.) He also draws clear, graceful portraits of four fighters whose styles in and out of the ring were so markedly different, and shows how interwoven their lives became.

The most engaging parts of the book, though, concern what went on between the main events—in the gyms, training camps, hotels and, not infrequently it seems, the barrooms—when the business of the sport was conducted. The colorful cast of characters includes such quintessential figures as Angelo Dundee, Emanuel Steward, Howard Cosell and Goody and Pat Petronelli, the Brockton, Mass., brothers who turned Hagler into a champion. Inevitably, Don King and Bob Arum strut and bluster their way through these pages as well, proving that some things haven't changed.

But so much has, of course. Kimball's four kings are no longer on their thrones. Thankfully, all four retired with their minds intact and their fortunes more or less so. (The profligate Duran spent as he fought, with glorious abandon.) It is the sport that is hurting.

Book Watch

Yankee Stadium, The Official Retrospective contains a vast array of first-person reminiscences—from dozens of Yankees; Jim Brown; Sugar Ray Leonard; Hank Aaron; Bill Clinton—that anchors the book's often evocative text. What will make the volume a coffee-table star, though, are the photos. Oh, my. Here's a close-up of Lou Gehrig delivering his "luckiest man" speech. Here's George Steinbrenner's office, complete with an easy chair in the shape of a mitt. Here's a snap of Joe D and Marilyn taking in a game. This book will clear pathways back to a place, long after the place is gone.

PHOTOJEFF SCHEID (HEARNS AND LEONARD)ARMS RACE Hearns-Leonard (above) and Hagler-Leonard (below) were '80s classics. PHOTOKEN REGAN/CAMERA 5 (SI COVER)[See caption above] PHOTO[See caption above] PHOTO

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