The other night, I arrived home to see that the shipment had arrived—my author copies of The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring. Holding one’s first book in his hands after years of work is as satisfying as I’d always heard.
The Boxing Kings is my attempt to encapsulate a long-running interest in the heavyweight champions into one narrative that includes them all. My hope is that readers gain insight into the vivid characters and events that make up this story.
Those vivid characters and events started taking hold of my imagination long ago. (I tell a bit of this story in the book’s Introduction.) I was about ten years old when I began carting books home from the Deerfield Public Library about boxing. These included John Durant’s The Heavyweight Champions, Nat Fleischer’s A Pictorial History of Boxing, and Dempsey, Jack Dempsey’s third and final autobiography, a book that read like an adventure tale. Later, I would read Randy Roberts’s Manassa Mauler, still the best book we have on Dempsey; Somebody Up There Likes Me, Rocky Graziano’s autobiography; George Plimpton’s Shadow Box, much of which went over my head, at my young age; and, at about the time the movie appeared, Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta’s life story, with what remains one of my favorite opening lines: “There was this bookie, Harry Gordon.”
I grew up in the waning days of Muhammad Ali, when the champ was all over television, his cultural power growing by the year but his ring skills evaporating faster than water on hot pavement. Ali fascinated me, as he did everyone, but all the boasting wasn’t to my taste. I preferred Joe Frazier, whose career was just ending. The library had a copy of Come Out Smokin’, by Phil Pepe, which stood, for many years, as the only book about Frazier, whose grit, decency, and stoicism inspired me. They still do.
As the years passed, my boxing obsession grew, though, in a pre-Internet age, I couldn’t always find what I wanted. The newsstands in my town never carried Ring magazine. I finally tracked down the monthly publication known as “The Bible of Boxing” in a drugstore in Lawrence, Kansas, on a family trip, and became a subscriber. For years, I must have read every word in The Ring, including its small-print coverage of international fights, in a section called “Rings Around the World.” In the magazine’s back pages, I noted ads for old fight films, from a company called Ring Classics. They sold Super 8 mm prints of classic bouts: Johnson-Jeffries, Dempsey-Willard, Louis-Conn, Marciano-Walcott. I collected about a dozen.
Back then—the late 1970s—there was no readily available way to watch old fights, beyond a few highlight programs on television like The Way It Was or Greatest Sports Legends. Before YouTube, before Classic Sports Network, and all the rest, I had those films and those books. The Boxing Kings would be a much poorer book without YouTube, but I doubt very much that YouTube would have fostered my love for the sport in the same way as going down to the basement, loading the reel to reel, turning off the lights, and watching fights on silent film, with no commentary. It’s an entirely different experience than having hundreds, if not thousands, of fights at your fingertips, all accessible with one click. Scarcity fostered my devotion, as scarcity often does.
Last summer, when Ali died, I felt, along with millions of others, a vast circle closing—in my case, not just having to do with my memories of him but also with the roots of the passion that led me, all these years later, to write The Boxing Kings. During the week leading up to Ali’s funeral, one of my colleagues asked if I was following the news coverage. Sure, I said; as much as I could.
“All your guys are out there,” he said.
“You know, the champs—Foreman, Tyson, Holyfield—they’re all over the place. Every time I put on the TV, I see one of them.”
My guys: I hadn’t thought about the heavyweight champions that way, but in retrospect, it seems obvious. Since I was a kid, they’ve formed a gallery in my mind of exemplars—whether cautionary or courageous, inspiring or mysterious. I couldn’t shake them, so I wrote a book about them. I hope you’ll like it.
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