The Boxing Kings:
When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring
By Paul Beston
Rowman & Littlefield
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
From the time of John L. Sullivan up to the reign of Mike Tyson just about everybody knew who the Heavyweight Champion of the World was. It was the most prestigious of all sporting titles and the man who held it was one of the most famous, if not the most famous man on the planet. From 1885 up to 1990 only 30 men were able to claim that title.
Being the Heavyweight Champion went beyond just winning fights. Unlike other sports, the Champ did not compete as part of a team. This was a solitary accomplishment that was the epitome of rugged individualism. It took more than just physical prowess to win the title, it also took strength of character and a determined will.
People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations. In that period I doubt there was a boy alive who didn’t at one time dream of holding the title. The history of those men who did reach that goal is a very rich one that often mirrors society as a whole. While many books have been written about individual title holders, there has been a need for a broad history of the era when everyone knew the names John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and many others.
Now, thanks to Paul Beston, the Managing Editor of City Journal, that need has been filled. In The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring Mr. Beston tells the story of these unique individuals with insight and respect while at the same time not glossing over their weaknesses. If you are not already familiar with this history there is no better book for you to learn from. If you are an experienced boxing fan you will find this work refreshing and informative. I consider myself to be a bit of a boxing expert and I still found much that was new to me while reading this lively narrative.
It was interesting to find out that John L. Sullivan, who is well known for drawing the color line when it came to defending the title against black challengers, was one of the first people in the ring to congratulate Jack Johnson, the first black champion, when he defeated Jim Jeffries. Sullivan also rode on the railroad car with Johnson and his black supporters after the fight. There may have been an ulterior motive for Sullivan’s actions, but it is still surprising to read about this considering the time in which it took place.
There is so much more. Johnson, who is seen today as a man who stood up and broke through the color line drew one of his own and would not defend the title against some of the finest “colored” heavyweights of his day. Johnson, with his extreme behavior, not only offended whites but finally even blacks who did not find him a good example for their children. To quote the author, “As a black man living on his own terms-not those of whites, not those of blacks, and not those of Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois-Johnson had no home in the America of his time. But he didn’t have to make the choices he made.”
Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved. In the case of Jack Dempsey, a man who would become one of the most beloved figures in the history of sports, we learn he had his problems stemming from his not having served in the military during WWI. It was a stain that would haunt the great champion for years. Yet, even with that baggage his magnetism provided for the first million dollar gates in history. Dempsey also brought boxing out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
Mr. Beston shines in this book in that he not only has done painstaking research, but he is also a great writer who never gives his readers a dull moment. In a chapter entitled The Substitutes he covers the period between Dempsey and Joe Louis. For many this time is looked upon as a lull between two great champions, but it was actually a fascinating period. It was during this time that two of the champions were not from the United States, making it truly a world championship. As that world was slipping into chaos it appeared the Heavyweight Championship was too. Max Schmelling won the title on a foul, the only fighter ever to do so. Gangsters were becoming heavily involved in the game, and there was even a question of whether or not Jack Sharkey threw his fight with Primo Carnera.
It took Joe Louis to bring stability and honor to the sport. While reading Mr. Beston’s chapter on the Louis years one is filled with joy and sadness. Louis was not only arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, but also one of the most important figures of the 20th Century when it came to unifying the nation and breaking down racial barriers. Louis does not receive the credit he deserves for all he accomplished. He is given his due here. As Mr. Beston writes “Louis was a light in black America’s darkness, and a generation would never forget him for it.” When reading that line I can’t help but think of how Muhammad Ali would later mock the aging champion.
Louis was the first black golfer to play in a PGA event, another wall he broke through. I have to admit I was almost bought to tears reading about Joe’s days after boxing. This man who had done so much for boxing and for his country was hounded for years by the IRS and relegated to being a greeter in LasVegas. Paul Beston gives this great man the respect he earned and deserves.
Mr. Beston brings us Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Blockbuster. Marciano possessed the grit, determination, and sheer will that allowed him to overcome his physical shortcomings to become the only undefeated champion in history. He was also a hero to working class America. Following Rocky, Floyd Patterson’s rise to the throne ushered in a period when boxing appeared to be fading away. Then along came the colorful and handsome Swede Ingemar Johnson who briefly shot some adrenaline into the veins of the sport. We see Sonny Liston, the man whose stare paralyzed opponents and whose lifestyle made him unwanted as champion. Mr. Beston gives us insight into this complicated man who is almost impossible to understand. If boxing were the works of Shakespeare, then Liston would be one of the “problem plays”.
In reading the chapter on Muhammad Ali, the man who certainly saved boxing but at at a cost, I can’t help but think of how different things would have been if Ali had made some other choices. His decision to become part of a radical black separatist movement that preached racial hatred was so at odds with the unifying movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This charismatic young champion could have done so much to further race relations but chose to take a different path. It is ironic he is looked upon as a great Civil Rights leader when he preached separation of the races. Mr. Beston gives us much insight into Ali’s career, but I think he could have a whole book just on this one subject where he would be able to delve more deeply into this subject.
Paul Beston closes his history with the years following Ali and ends with Lennox Lewis taking over as champion. In these chapters he discusses the bitterness of Larry Holmes and even made me feel some sympathy for Mike Tyson. He gives his thoughts on why the Heavyweight Champion is no longer a recognizable figure.
I read a lot of books on boxing. There are a number of good ones out there. However, some are well researched but poorly written and not well edited, while others are plain awful. In The Boxing Kings we have the rare book that is well researched, well written, lively, informative, and fully conveys the author’s love for the sport while taking an honest view of it. If books were fighters some would be tomato cans, some journeymen, some contenders, and a very few would be Champions. Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown. I highly recommend it.