Paul Beston's The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring is available now. The book's Introduction is reprinted in its entirety below, courtesy of the publisher.
He seems everywhere these days—on Broadway, in movies, on talk shows. He mocks himself gently; he weeps easily. He is a damaged human being, he would be the first to say, and somewhere in memory lurks the man who threatened to eat an opponent’s children and who, in one of his biggest fights, took bites out of another opponent’s ears. But that menacing figure is nowhere to be seen today, and those who feel generously toward Mike Tyson hope that the demon is gone for good, replaced by this devoted family man. He has been a public figure for so long that we have almost forgotten why we first paid attention.
He was the last great heir to the American crown: the last American heavyweight champion who mattered to a world beyond the ring, whose presence transcended sports, who seemed to represent something central about American identity. The last champion, not the first: Tyson brought an end to a lineage that once seemed as if it would go on forever. For most of the twentieth century, boxing was prominent in American life, and the heavyweight championship—the richest prize in sports, as it was long known—held a special place in the national mind. The champions themselves occupied a public office not unlike the presidency, though they were often better known and better liked than the man in the White House.
Like the presidency, the heavyweight championship came with perks, precedents, and boundless opportunity—but also unrelenting criticism, unexpected limitations, and the persistent burden of the past. It was an office both royal and republican, as befit its British and American heritage. The title brought kingly benefits, and its possessors sometimes actually wore a crown. Yet the title could not be given: it had to be earned and, once earned, defended.
The heavyweight champions number among the most memorable figures in our popular culture. Some rank with the greatest boxers ever to step into the ring, while others were more notable for their unusual personalities or for their social significance; a rare few combined all these attributes. Often sparking ethnic, racial, or even national pride, their exploits seemed to mirror broader social trends. The country’s best writers interviewed them, profiled them, and analyzed them. They appeared on cereal boxes and Time magazine covers, in comedians’ monologues, in the conversations of weekday commuters, and probably in our dreams.
It was called the heavyweight championship of “the world,” but the title seemed more like a national property. With only a few exceptions, all the champions of the twentieth century came from the United States—American kings in the American century. And then, almost right on schedule, when the century passed, so did they.
Tyson became a huge star in the 1980s, but by then, his sport was struggling to hold on to fans, especially when it left free television for the lucrative but isolating opportunities of cable and pay-per-view. Eventually, the heavyweight title ceased to be an American possession, passing first to Britain—fittingly, as modern boxing started there—and then to Ukraine.
Few in America today can name the heavyweight champion, and boxing is not even the most popular combat sport any more, at least among younger fans, who prefer mixed martial arts. When the heavyweights moved to distant shores, boxing lost its narrative in America. The sport’s great figures—and some remain—are no longer integrated into our cultural fabric. No American champion stands as a reference point in the language, an easy metaphor with which to make arguments about other things. The long prominence of the heavyweight title in this country looks increasingly like a twentieth-century phenomenon, a product of unique and temporary circumstances. That wasn’t how it seemed in the 1970s, when boxing seized hold of my young imagination and wouldn’t let go.
Around 1976, when I was ten, I started returning home from our local library carting books with titles such as The Heavyweight Champions or A Pictorial History of Boxing or Dempsey. I’d become drawn to boxing—the sport was all over television back then—and to boxers. These were the waning days of Muhammad Ali, who was by then the most recognized face in the world, though his ring skills were slipping. Most of his late fights were on regular television, and I remember the anticipation of seeing him, along with the carnival atmosphere that often prevailed. But I also found myself compulsively watching matches involving fighters at any weight—middleweights, lightweights, featherweights, bantamweights—unable to pull myself away. Compulsions sent me to books, and soon I had memorized the Dewey decimal call number for boxing: 796.83. Most boxing books at my local library centered on the heavyweight champions, and I sensed for the first time the thrill of historical knowledge, the promise that if I followed the trail back far enough, I could trace a line from the beginning to what had happened yesterday.
Why boxers? It must have had something to do with their solitariness, though if it had been only that, I might have idolized painters or scientists or tennis players or political dissidents. It must have had to do as well with the danger that they courted and the loneliness of it—because fighting another man is about as lonely as it gets, especially when a crowd is watching. I’d already developed a passion for solitude and an aversion to group dynamics. Boxers seemed pure, autonomous.
And then there were the images: the fighters, the gloves and trunks, the roped square surrounded by the collage of faces. Two battlers wearing tights in blurry old photographs, surrounded by crowds of men in greatcoats and hats and, in the distance, stark pine trees; a scowling fighter standing over a dazed opponent who sits on the canvas, clutching the middle rope; a black man lying on his back, arms up, seeming to shield his eyes from the sun, as a white man paces over him and distant spectators seem to leap out of their seats.
I watched it; I read about it; soon enough, I wanted to try it. My brothers and I acquired the necessary equipment and started boxing in our basement, armed with the instructional manual Inside Boxing, by former champion Floyd Patterson. I pored over the book’s photos showing how to execute various punches and defensive moves. Early on, I mostly boxed with my eldest brother, Rick, who had three years on me and thus did not fight me at full strength. Later, my brother Pete, just a year older, was my main sparring partner.
In the pages of Ring magazine, I saw ads for old fight films on Super 8 mm. They were sold through a long-gone company called Ring Classics, based in Hauppauge, New York. The films were silent, almost all shot in black and white, and, projected onto a blank wall or white screen, they transported me to another world. The first two I saw were Joe Louis versus Billy Conn, in 1941, and Rocky Marciano versus Jersey Joe Walcott, in 1952, in which Marciano won the title with a pulverizing right hand. (One of boxing’s iconic photographs captures a Marciano punch distorting Walcott’s features.) I remember anticipating the climactic thirteenth round in both fights and the whispering sound that the reels made as they turned in the dark.
I took my last punch as a recreational boxer just before graduating from college. My last sparring partner landed a right that sent a thick ring of pain under my jaw and around both ears. I’d gotten headaches before from sparring, but not like this. I decided to conserve my remaining wattage for the challenges ahead.
By then, I’d begun to lose the boxing thread. The sport grew more disorganized and confusing by the year. As I moved into middle age, my affection for it was based in memory. Boxing felt like some habit from youth that I had mostly renounced.
Mostly. I learned as the years passed that boxing wasn’t quite done with me, and that its characters—especially the heavyweight champions—formed a gallery in my mind, always accessible and somehow never exhaustible. If we are the sum of our youthful passions, I’ll never escape the boxing brand. No use trying to do so, anyway. As Joe Louis said: You can run, but you can’t hide.
The Boxing Kings tells the story of the heavyweight title in America, examining the lives and careers of the champions, with a special emphasis on the seven who have held a defining place in our culture: John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. The narrative is built around these key figures, though it incorporates the stories of their peers and rivals, all memorable in their own right. The book charts how America changed as the title shifted from one claimant to another and how the major champions developed an uncanny connection with their times.
They came from every point on the American map. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, was a native of Galveston, Texas, where his family lost everything in the great hurricane of 1900. Johnson spent much of his public life walking on America’s racial fault line: he bested white men in the ring and bedded white women outside it. At a time when black Americans faced enormous adversity, such behavior made Johnson notorious, at least among whites. After the federal government used questionable charges to convict him for violating the Mann Act—a law designed to stop interstate prostitution—he fled the country and lived as a fugitive. Reactions to Johnson from whites and blacks, from critics, and from the law offered a stark glimpse of the country’s racial obsessions half a century after Appomattox.
From Colorado came Jack Dempsey, a former hobo whose early life would have fit neatly into a Jack London novel. Dempsey fought in a style never before seen—a swarming, hyperaggressive attack perfectly suited for the sensation-mad Roaring Twenties. So many people wanted to see his fights that special arenas were built to accommodate them. Dempsey met with presidents, shot movies with Charlie Chaplin, earned almost as much money in one fight as Babe Ruth did in his entire career, and helped make Americans sports crazy, as they have remained.
Joe Louis, an Alabama sharecropper’s son and the grandson of slaves, fought out of Detroit. He was Jack Johnson’s opposite in every way, inspiring blacks and whites during the Depression and World War II with his patriotism, his dignity, and his politically tinged showdown with Hitler’s favorite boxer.
When Louis retired, the champion’s shoes seemed impossible to fill, but Rocky Marciano, an Italian American from Brockton, Massachusetts, stepped into them. Marciano achieved something that no other champion could claim: he fought an entire career without tasting defeat. Along the way, he embodied the American promise, especially for Italian Americans.
Louisville’s Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, champion in the 1960s and 1970s, who symbolized an era of protest and social change. Like Johnson before him, Ali inspired black pride and white resentment—not by pursuing white women but by joining a militant black nationalist group, the Black Muslims, and speaking out on racial issues. Like Johnson, Ali squared off against Uncle Sam: in his case, he refused induction into the armed forces for service in Vietnam and was convicted of draft evasion. But Ali had better luck than Johnson, winning a Supreme Court appeal and becoming, by the end of his career, the most celebrated athlete of all time.
Ali’s departure left a Louis-like hole: he had called himself “The Greatest” for years, and many agreed with him when he said that boxing would die after he was gone. But Mike Tyson, a troubled young man from Brownsville, Brooklyn’s violent streets, proved Ali wrong. Tyson reminded many of a young Dempsey, and his love of boxing history made his rise seem fated—until a different kind of fate intervened.
These men and their contemporaries stood on some of the great stages of the twentieth century, before a public willing to make them rich but usually wanting more in return than they could deliver. Some loved holding the title; some were nearly destroyed by it. None were the same afterward. Sometimes cast as primitives lacking inner lives, they were as complex and flawed and sympathetic as people everywhere. Among them were comics and straight men; blowhards and introverts; prima donnas, hoodlums, and opportunists; workingmen, preachers, and saviors. Like all classic American heroes, they faced their greatest tests alone.
Their story starts long before Tyson and Ali, Louis and Dempsey, and even Jack Johnson. It starts in Boston, with John L. Sullivan, the first of the line. It was Sullivan who made the heavyweight title a commercial property, just as commercialism was becoming an American invention. Sullivan’s appeal generated huge public interest in boxing, which was still an outlaw sport. His career symbolized the struggles and triumphs of the Irish, then the nation’s largest immigrant group—though he earned sums of money unmatched by anyone below robber-baron status. He may have been the best-known American of his time, his picture hanging in countless homes and taverns, even as he squandered his money and drank himself into health and legal troubles.
One other thing: Sullivan made the title synonymous with America. “There isn’t a self-respecting American,” he said, “no matter what tomfool ideas he may have about boxing in general, who does not feel patriotic pride at the thought that a native born American, a countryman of his, can lick any man on the face of the earth.” He wore a diamond-encrusted championship belt that read: “Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L. Sullivan, by the Citizens of the United States.” The belt served as the model for those that his successors would wear; the sentiments represented the quasi-royal authority that heavyweight champions would attain in America. It was that authority—along with unimagined riches—that gave the heavyweight title its special character and that made such different men willing to fight for it.
From The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring, by Paul Beston, published by Rowman and Littlefield. Copyright © 2017 by Paul Beston. All rights reserved.