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In the Ring With Paul Beston

The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the World
By Paul Beston
(Rowman & Littlefield, 357 pages, $36)

Boxing fans are pretty thin on the ground these days — downright hard to find, in fact. No surprise, considering how the quality of the sport has declined. And how few fights are either televised or available to attend at local forums. For those still wishing to watch a fight, the sweet science has largely been replaced by something called mixed martial arts, which resembles a fight in the alley behind a bar.

Save for a few high profile, elaborately hyped, big money fights, usually on premium pay channels, boxing is a niche sport now, followed and cared about by few, scorned by many as something brutal and atavistic. (Even many people who love football ding boxing for being brutal — talk about the pot calling the kettle brutal.)

But this hasn’t always been the case. As hard as it might be for current young people to fathom, for about two-thirds of the last century, boxing, along with baseball, was one of America’s two favorite sports. When television was firmly establishing itself in American living rooms in the 1950s, there was more boxing on the tube than any other sport. People watched it. People cared about it. A large majority of women took a jaundiced view of the sport, but fathers and sons rarely missed the Friday night fights.

As a pre and early teen, not only could I recite the lineups of every team in the American and National leagues (OK, maybe not that of the St. Louis Browns), but I could name every champion, and many of the top contenders, of every weight division down at least to light weights. So could almost every boy in the junior high school I attended in Tampa. For the better part of the century, the heavyweight championship of the world — and there was only one of these for most of this history — was the richest prize in sports. Now, with the proliferation of sanctioning agencies, each with its own champion, even those few who still care about boxing have trouble keeping track of which Russian holds which of the alphabet soup of crowns and belts.

In The Boxing Kings, Paul Beston, managing editor of City Journal, gives a thorough and readable tour d’horizon of the heavyweight championship from John L. Sullivan in the late 19th century, when spectator sports were first capturing the attention of Americans, though the sad end of Iron Mike Tyson’s bizarre career, which featured a meteoric rise followed by near free-fall. The fall being caused by Tyson’s own thuggish behavior, which went so low as to include cannibalism. (See the second Tyson/Holyfield fight, where Tyson, seeking to avoid the whipping that was sure to follow, chose to end his night via disqualification by biting a chunk out of Evander’s right ear.)

The title is called the heavyweight championship of the world. But for most of the 20th century the title was held by American fighters. There were brief interludes when the championship was held by such as Max Schmeling of Germany, Primo Carnero of Italy, and Ingemar Johannsson of Sweden. But the big boys of boxing, when boxing mattered, were Americans.

There were periods when talent in the division was thin and the crown was held briefly by undistinguished fighters such as Jack Sharkey, James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and Jimmy Ellis. But Beston doesn’t linger over these. His book is primarily a treatment of the seven major American heavyweight champions. Between Sullivan and Tyson, these are Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and, of course, the surreal traveling circus and cultural calamity that was Muhammad Ali. Beston also treats of such honorable mentions as Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield, and Jersey Joe Walcott.

Beston tells the story of these champions’ lives and describes their important fights (most of which readers can watch on YouTube, thereby making Kings a truly rich experience for fight fans). He also demonstrates how these men fit into the American culture of the time. Jack Dempsey’s relentless, swarming style was something new in the ring, and perfectly fit the roaring twenties in which he fought. Along with baseball’s Babe Ruth, Football’s Red Grange, Golf’s Bobby Jones, and Tennis’s Bill Tilden, the Manassa Mauler helped make spectator sports an important and permanent part of American life. Joe Louis gave pride and hope to black Americans. Rocky Marciano demonstrated that the son of Italian immigrants barely making it could achieve the American dream through hard work with the aid of remarkable punching power. The chaos of Muhammed Ali reflected the chaos of America during the long period in which the Louisville Lip was in the public eye, ear, nose and throat.

Boxing is clearly a lifetime love of Beston’s. But in Kings he doesn’t attempt to hide the dark underside of the sport, which includes mob influence, thrown fights for the benefit of gamblers, larcenous promoters and managers who cheated fighters of what they earned in the ring, ravenous television executives who enabled the proliferation of sanctioning agencies and new weight divisions that produce bogus champions by the dozens. But for all the brutality and corruption of boxing, Beston is able to see and share with readers the thrills and beauty of the sweet science. Boxing fans, and those who know and/or love boxing fans, should get this fine book. Or at least tell Santa about it.

Larry Thornberry
Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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