NEW BOXING BOOK COVERS SOME OLD GROUND
But any tale worth retelling is worth retelling twice
by Don Stradley
My fondest boxing memory involves an old issue of The Ring magazine that fell into my hands when I was a wee tyke. It was a special issue focusing on the heavyweight championship, and it's centerpiece was a lengthy story describing each time the title changed hands, in order, starting with James J. Corbett beating John L. Sullivan in 1892. The lineage fascinated me. Reading about it not only transported me to various locations, from Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, Australia, to Yankee Stadium in New York, but as each champion fell and a new one took his place, it felt like the vanquishing of kings. I liked the expression "title reign" because it gave the champions a sense of being regal. I was also intrigued by the cheerless expressions of men like Jim Braddock and Ezzard Charles and Floyd Patterson, haunted visages that didn't seem to exist in football or baseball. The players of team sports looked to me like army grunts, faceless pawns out to do a job. The heavyweight champion was different. As Paul Beston writes in The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring, "Some may not have deserved to be champion; others could not seem to fill the role once they stepped into it." Like a famous surname or sudden wealth, the title could be a burden.
Beston's book, which is a nice read even if we know these stories all too well, reminds us again that the heavyweight championship once meant so much more than it does now. Joe Louis could defend the title against a no-hoper and it would be front page news. The timely historical factors - a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't come up with something as intense as Johnson-Jeffries in 1910, or Louis-Schmeling II, or the first Ali-Frazier bout - played a big part in the mythology of the title, as did the way certain fighters appeared born to represent their eras. Perhaps of more importance is the often forgotten fact that many boxing managers were also theatrical agents. From its earliest days, boxing was a wing of the entertainment business, and the heavyweight champ was something like a circus attraction, inflated, of course, with the notion of being the toughest guy in the world. This claim was bogus, to be sure - the champion was usually the guy with the best connections, and if by some chance he could actually fight, he'd hang on to the title for a few years.
Yet, the heavyweight championship became, in Beston's words, an "American franchise." When Dempsey lost the title to Gene Tunney in 1926, he said, "I lost to a good man, an American - a man who speaks the English language." Sullivan said more or less the same when he lost to Corbett. Gradually, though, the heavyweight champion became a lot less fascinating to the general public. Beston points to Ali as the tilting point, and he's probably right. "Before Ali," he writes, "the title had made modest men into bigger men. But after him the title seemed somehow smaller." Why Americans no longer dominate the heavyweight class is a question that can never be answered to my satisfaction - Beston offers the usual bromides about the swelling of the middle class, the popularity of other sports, etc. - but it's probably due to the fact that America doesn't really dominate anything anymore. Face it, by the time Bruce Seldon was wearing a title belt, we were screwed.
Beston provides nicely detailed portraits of the major champions, and elegant snapshots of those who were the less than legendary. He's especially handy with the quick one liner that puts a champion in perspective, such as when he calls Rocky Marciano, "an embodiment of American striving," or describes Larry Holmes as "boxing's version of a venture capitalist." Naturally, the largest sections of the story belong to Louis and Ali, but for my money the best part of any book such as this one is the period from Sullivan to Dempsey. To me, boxing history goes wonky when New York begins to monopolize the action. I prefer my title fights to take place in rugged, undeveloped territories, with Bat Masterson collecting weapons at ringside. But that's just me. The Boxing Kings is a fine book, partly because Beston portrays the fighters not as unblemished heroes, but as flawed, fallible men. It might've been nice if he'd found more humor in the stories, but he opted for a serious tone. His background includes the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and the American Conservative, so we can't expect him to be a bag full of laughs.