The Business Of Boxing

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Dempsey and Rickard became an unbeatable combination. Rickard nearly matched the success of the Carpentier fight two years later, with a bout between his man and Luis Firpo. (This was the fight in which Firpo knocked Dempsey clean out of the ring, but Dempsey climbed back in and won.) The night Dempsey lost his title to Gene Tunney in 1926, more than 120,000 people packed Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia—an attendance record that stands to this day. And when Tunney and Dempsey fought their return bout, at Chicago’s Soldier Field on September 22, 1927, the gate came to an incredible $2,658,660. Luminaries lined the ringside at that rematch. “Kid,” Rickard told a sportswriter, “if the earth came up and the sky came down and wiped out my first ten rows, it would be the end of everything. Because I’ve got in them ten rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent. Just in them ten rows, kid. And you and me never seed anything like it.”

It was one of the most exciting heavyweight title bouts ever. Ten men died of heart failure while listening to the broadcast. Dempsey, who had been taking a beating, caught Tunney with a perfect punch in the seventh round and knocked him down, then stood over him, the better to nail him when he got up. Referee Dave Barry refused to begin counting over Tunney until Dempsey moved to a neutral corner, thus giving Tunney precious extra seconds to recover. Tunney got up—having spent about fourteen seconds on the canvas—and eventually won the match on points.

Was Barry wrong in forcing Dempsey to stand clear of his opponent? Could Tunney have gotten up in time if Barry had begun counting at once? And if he had gotten up, without those extra seconds would he have been capable of defending himself until the bell rang? Boxing fans are still talking that one over. At the time, the controversy was uproarious. Tunney asserted, “I’m quite sure I could have [gotten up in time],” and Dempsey agreed, but a lot of fans believed that Dempsey had been cheated out of the championship. The loud debate over the “Long Count” ensured that boxing would keep on getting bigger and bigger. Or so people thought.

 

Then Dempsey announced he wouldn’t fight again. Tunney fought once more; then he too retired. Rickard died suddenly in January 1929. Later that year the stock market went under. With no superstars, and with considerably fewer wealthy fans, boxing went into eclipse. By now promotion had been refined to a near-exact science, but there was no promoting to be done. The small clubs still flourished, and there was plenty of talent in the lighter weight classes to keep people interested, but there was no money.

And no great heavyweight, either, until Joe Louis came along. Joe Louis’s career is fascinating for several reasons. He was certainly one of the top five heavyweights of all time. He was the first black athlete to achieve true superstar status. And through his irreproachable public behavior and countless good works, he probably did more for black civil rights than anyone else at that time.

Early on, Ali observed the wrestler Gorgeous George, who played a loudmouthed villain whom the public loved to hate: “And I said, ‘Hey, that’s for me!’”

One of the most interesting things about Louis is how he was promoted. Memories of Jack Johnson’s in-your-face attitude, his carousing, and his liaisons with white women had not disappeared. Several deserving black challengers had been denied a chance to fight for the heavyweight title because the white powers that be didn’t want to risk having another arrogant black man sitting at the top of the sport. So Louis’s managers, two black businessmen named John Roxborough and Julian Black, set out to build a different image for their fighter. Louis never drank, never caroused, never set foot in a nightclub, and never allowed himself to be photographed alone with a white woman. In the ring he never gloated over a fallen opponent as Johnson had done; he never even smiled when the fisht was over.

Louis gained acceptance among white fans with surprising speed. He wasn’t loved at first, but because of his skill and his deportment, he was tolerated. He rose quickly through the ranks of contenders, turning pro in 1934 and defeating the former champs Primo Camera and Max Baer the following year. In 1936 he had a temporary setback. He was an 8-1 favorite to defeat the former champ Max Schmeling, but the German, who had discovered some weaknesses in Louis’s style, knocked out the overconfident “Brown Bomber.”

Louis got his career back on track immediately. The following year he showed how far black fighters had progressed when the reigning heavyweight champ, Jim Braddock, agreed to pass over Schmeling’s challenge and fight Louis instead because the black fighter was sure to draw a bigger gate.

Louis beat Braddock without much trouble, thus establishing black domination of boxing. Since 1937 only two white men have held the world heavyweight championship, for a combined total of five years out of the past fifty-four. This victory also set up the first real “Superbout” since the second Tunney-Dempsey fight: a rematch against Max Schmeling.