Jerry Izenberg Recalls The Time And Excitement
Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing
Skyhorse Publishing, NY, NY
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
From the time of John L. Sullivan and through most of the 20th Century being the Heavyweight Champion of the World meant being the stuff of legends. It was as close to immortality as any man could get. Young boys would dream of growing up and one day being the next Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis. To hold that great title also meant being arguably the most famous man in the world. It is impossible to recall the Roaring Twenties without thinking of Dempsey. The 30s and 40s always have Joe Louis’s visage looking at us from that time of the Great Depression and WWII. As America got back to work after the War we had Rocky Marciano to remind us of the value of hard work and perseverance. In between each of these great champions were other great men who left their own mark on the history of boxing. The Heavyweight Championship was the most difficult to attain and most prestigious honor to capture in all of sports and I would argue in any realm of the world of entertainment.
It is sad that today it is just a memory. That great title no longer exists. Oh, there are people, a lot of them, who claim it but none who have earned it. I doubt there are any young men today who wake up in the morning with that dream their grandfathers and fathers had of being the Champ. Those days are far behind us, but they didn’t go away without a fight.
The final era when the Heavyweight Title still meant something was also one of its most exciting, Jerry Izenberg in his new book Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing (Skyhorse Publishing, NY,NY) brings us back to that very exciting time.
If you were fortunate enough to have experienced boxing from the 1960s until the late 1980s Jerry’s book will bring back terrific memories of what may have been the most competitive period in the history of boxing among the big men. Mr. Izenberg argues it was, and he is standing on solid ground when he says so. It was certainly a very exciting time to be a fight fan.
As background Mr. Izenberg chronicles the rise and fall of the mob that took place from the 1930s up until the 1960s. We are introduced or reintroduced, depending on your age, to such characters as Owney Madden, Frankie Carbo, Jim Norris, Blinky Palermo, and many other gangsters who controlled boxing for decades. It is a sordid history of corruption and strong arm tactics and very worth reading.
After Rocky Marciano retired, the Heavyweight Championship fell into a sorry state. Cus D’Amato who had crusaded against mob control of boxing was able to take hold of the title with his young fighter Floyd Patterson. Mr. Izenberg sheds a lot of light on the real D’Amato who, it turns out, had his own mob connection. D’Amato also made it even more difficult for legitimate contenders to get a shot at the title because he was not going to allow his champion to step into the ring with any opponent who had a pulse. At least with the old mob a fighter could buy his way in. With D’Amato the division went into a period where having talent only increased a fighter’s chances of not getting a title fight.
Ironically, it took the underworld figure Sonny Liston to change things, though it took someone else to shake up the world of boxing. When Sonny won the title by destroying Patterson boxing epitaphs were being written. Boxing had gone from a mama’s boy to a man who was pure evil. It didn’t look like it could sink any further.
This is where Jerry’s book goes from the darkness to the glory times. A young Cassius Clay had returned from the Rome Olympics waving his Gold Medal and proclaiming himself “The Greatest”. He stepped up and whupped Sonny and began a new age in boxing. An age Jerry Izenberg was there to witness from beginning to end.
In a lively narrative Mr. Izenberg brings us to ringside and into the backrooms to visit with the fighters to relive many great moments. When Clay, now Ali, became champion he fought everyone. Of course, a number of these contenders had grown old waiting for a title shot, but they were no longer going to be denied. Ali fought often and was always heard from. He was loved and hated, and he was exciting. Boxing was now back in a big way, and Mr. Izenberg brings it all alive again.
As Ali was mowing down the old line of contenders a whole new crop was sprouting up. While none seemed an immediate threat to Ali, it was going to get interesting. Well, it did get interesting when Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army. With Ali sitting on the sidelines the heavyweight division still blossomed as many of the young prospects developed into serious contenders. By the time Ali returned to the ring boxing was a whole new picture. It had certainly become much more competitive and even more exciting.
Jerry Izenberg follows these events up until the implosion of Mike Tyson when it can be said heavyweight boxing was breathing its last. We are there for the three Ali v Frazier fights. The Foreman destruction of Frazier as well as Ken Norton’s win over and two controversial losses to Ali. And the rise of Larry Holmes, a fighter who never got the respect he deserved.
Mr. Izenberg’s insights are terrific, and his chapter on the Holmes v Cooney fight is particularly interesting. The racial overtones that fight took on were a sad episode, but it is good to know they were not shared by the fighters.
There are also many behind the scenes stories about the rise and fall of Mike Tyson that include one very personal moment the author had with the future champ as well as the story of Teddy Atlas’s break with D’Amato and Tyson. Boxing fans will love this.
And if that isn’t enough, Jerry takes you to the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis for a visit with Michael Spinks. The visit took place at midnight in the notorious project and it took plenty of courage for Jerry to show up. It does result in a very interesting story.
If you want to know what competitive boxing is like. If you want to know what it is like to have evenly matched contenders fighting for the title. If you want to get a taste of the electricity that would fill the air all across the country when the Heavyweight Championship was on the line you will find it in Once There Were Giants. It’s unfortunate it will never be seen again.