October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
Some people think that the history of boxing as a glamorous business, as promotion rather than as sport, begins with Muhammad Ali and Don King. Before Ali, they say, boxing was I just a bunch of palookas punching each other. Ali was boxing’s first showman, they say, the first glamour boy, the first bad guy whom the fans loved to hate; the first black athlete to be revered worldwide, the sport’s first true media creation. Don King, meanwhile, is sometimes thought of as the original larger-than-life promoter, the man who first showed us that a boxing match can be turned into one small part of a weeks-long media circus—one that can end by grossing, as did the Holyfield-Forman bout last spring, well over $70 million.
But the truth is that Ali and King were simply another case of history repeating itself. “The championship is like one of those frames you stick your head through to be photographed,” writes the novelist Wilfred Sheed. “The face is your own, but the clothes and posture belong to the management.” Unlike many other sports, such as football, basketball, and hockey, which have become businesses only within the past few decades, boxing has always been more of a business than a sport. The only real difference is that the business end of boxing gets more coverage now than it did a generation ago.
“The misty-eyed hero worship is gone from boxing now,” says Nigel Collins, the former editor of The Ring magazine. “All sports are treated as businesses today, and boxing in particular is less of a sport, more of a spectacle. I’m amused, when I go to a major fight, to see spectators lined up with their cameras, not to take pictures of the fighters but to shoot the celebrities coming into the arena.”
Sounds like what you’d see at a premiere instead of a fight? Well, if you’re a boxing fan, you’ve noticed that boxing people—the fighters, promoters, managers, and trainers—don’t remind you of sportsmen so much as they remind you of theater people. This may be partly because boxing is such a serious sport and such a personal sport. It’s impossible to treat it as a game; it has to be treated as drama. But boxing is most closely related to theater because it relies so heavily on promotion.
Baseball and football don’t need to be promoted heavily. The Super Bowl and the World Series happen every year, and they always attract plenty of fans. Major fights occur at irregular intervals, and, like plays, one never knows if they’re going to be hits or flops. It all depends on how they’re built up. With good business sense, a gambler’s instincts, and the right gimmick, a fight promoter can make a fortune. A miscalculation will ruin him.
Boxing wasn’t always a major sport in the United States. In Great Britain boxing has been popular since the early 1700s, but it took longer to catch on here because it has always been an urban sport, appealing almost entirely to city dwellers; and the United States simply didn’t have enough of them to support it until the late 1800s. Bareknuckle prizefighting began to catch on in California during the gold rush; it got a boost when an American, John C. Heenan, held the British heavyweight champ, Tom Sayers, to a draw near London in 1860. But the popularity of boxing was also hampered by the fact that it was illegal. This wasn’t because bareknuckle fights were so brutal (believe it or not, they almost never resulted in serious injury) but because the matches encouraged gambling and rowdy behavior on the part of the spectators. Prizefights had to be held in secret. Only a few hundred insiders and high rollers knew where and when a fight was going to take place. On the appointed day, the time and location would be revealed to them, and they would assemble there to watch the fight.
There was no admission fee. The business side of boxing depended entirely on betting. The fighters fought for a purse put up by their backers (hence the term prizefighting ); the backers, in turn, hoped to profit by betting on their man. The cops, ordinarily, would have been persuaded not to interfere until the bout was over, at which time the fighters and fans would rush out of the local jurisdiction before they could be nabbed.
When the Marquis of Queensberry rules (mandating gloves and forbidding wrestling) began to catch on in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the law became more lenient in some states. Glove fights were sometimes permitted as long as the fans behaved themselves and as long as the bouts were officially billed as exhibitions. That is, the official story was that the fighters were not trying to hurt each other but merely trying to entertain.the crowd with a not-too-violent display of their boxing skills. This kind of setup sounds preposterous today, but it was common practice. Cops often entered the ring and stopped a fight if it looked as though things were getting too rough.
The legendary champion John L. Sullivan was a leading advocate of the Queensberry rules. He believed that the old-fashioned London Prize Ring (bareknuckle) rules allowed too many opportunities for running and stalling and thus helped an inferior fighter to win by wearing out his opponent. “I want fighting, not footracing,” Sullivan said. Also, it was good business to switch to gloves. Bareknuckle fighting was illegal everywhere, and Sullivan often ended up paying a hefty fine after a bareknuckle fight. Glove fighting, however, existed in a sort of legal limbo: the authorities might permit a bout to take place now and then, on an ad hoc basis.
Some people believe that the 1892 match between “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and John L. Sullivan was important because it was the first heavyweight championship bout in which the Queensberry rules were used. This is not true. Sullivan won the heavyweight title in 1882, fighting with bare knuckles, but he defended his title both with and without gloves over the course of the next decade.
What made the Corbett-Sullivan bout so important was its impact on the business side of the sport. The Louisiana authorities had decided to take a chance on legalized boxing, and the result was the first heavily promoted boxing show to take place in the United States. Corbett-Sullivan was the first heavyweight championship bout, promoted as such, to be held legally. It was the first heavyweight championship bout for which an admission fee was charged. And because of Corbett’s knack for self-promotion, this bout set boxing on its way to becoming a major sport in America.
Billed as the “Carnival of Champions,” the three-day event was held at the Olympic Club in New Orleans. On Monday, September 5, 1892, George Dixon defeated Jack Skelly for the featherweight championship of the world; on Tuesday Jack McAuliffe knocked out Billy Myer, successfully defending his lightweight title; on Wednesday night Sullivan and Corbett had their historic showdown.
Sullivan, thirty-four years old and nearly 20 pounds over his best fighting weight, was long past his prime and had not faced a serious challenger in three years. Corbett was only twenty-six and in perfect shape. But while Corbett was known to be a clever boxer, he was never a hard hitter, and he weighed only 178 pounds to Sullivan’s 212. The oddsmakers made Sullivan a 5-1 favorite.
Had Sullivan won, the unsurprising result would not have been extensively reported. As it was, Corbett fought the fight of his career, combining his blinding speed with brilliant tactics to frustrate, exhaust, and finally knock out Sullivan—and the upset victory was front-page news. The conqueror of the mighty Sullivan was the talk of the nation, and he made the most of it. He traveled all over the country, giving exhibitions and appearing in a play specially written for him, called Gentleman Jack . Sullivan had done the same thing, but his boisterous, macho persona had limited his appeal. Corbett, who could be suave and charming, was able to get the middle and upper classes—and a lot of women—interested in boxing for the first time.
But Corbett and his manager, Bill Brady, had to do it all themselves. They booked the personal appearances; when Corbett defended his title, he and Brady had to reach an agreement with the challenger, find a suitable venue, organize the publicity, do just about everything but take tickets. There was money to be made in boxing, but it went mainly to the gamblers. Fighters made relatively little, and promoters even less.
The guy who single-handedly changed boxing from a sport to a business was a cowboy and gambler named George Lewis (“Tex”) Rickard. Rickard had made a good living as a faro dealer in the Yukon during the gold rush of the 189Os; in 1904 he began plying his trade in the tiny mining town of Goldfield, Nevada. Like any good businessman, he had a talent for making money by persuading other people to invest in his enterprises. When the Goldfield town fathers decided it was time to attract more tourists and settlers, Rickard had an idea.
“Why not stage a prizefight?” he asked. “You fellows put up the money, and I’ll sign the fighters and put up an arena.”
Within an hour Rickard had raised fifty thousand dollars to cover the fighters’ purses and the construction of an arena. Next, he contacted several of the best fighters in the country, offering them a guaranteed purse. He finally lined up Joe Gans, the lightweight champion of the world, and Oscar (“Battling”) Nelson, the number-one challenger, for a guarantee of ten thousand dollars for Gans, twenty-three thousand dollars for Nelson. (Although he was the champ, Gans was obliged to take the short end of the purse because he was black. Nelson styled himself the “white lightweight champion.”)
Now that legalized glove fights allowed promoters to charge admission, fighters were promised a percentage of the gate money in addition to stakes and side bets. But an absolute guarantee of a certain sum? That was a shocker. It looked to most people as though Rickard was playing Russian roulette with five bullets in his gun.
Rickard had the money, though, and he wanted to let people know it. He took the entire purse, thirty-three thousand dollars, and stacked it, in the form of shiny new twenty-dollar gold pieces, in the window of the bank next door to his casino. Then he made sure that pictures of the money got to every major newspaper in the country.
The brainy Gans and the brawny Nelson were two of the best fighters of their day and certainly two of the most popular “little men” of all time, so the fight generated a lot of interest. For the few days prior to the bout, Goldfield wasn’t a town but a fair, with gamblers, hucksters, tourists, and businesspeople swarming into the hamlet from all over the West. On September 3, 1906, some eight thousand spectators packed the arena Rickard had built in ten days out of green lumber that could easily be dismantled and resold afterward.
It was a fight to the finish; Nelson had insisted on that condition since his main attribute was the ability to take unlimited punishment. But then Gans was known for his ability to dish it out, and as the bout wore on, it was clear that no amount of strength could make up for Gans’s superior ,talent. By the fortieth round Nelson looked like a sure loser.
He began hitting Gans below the belt, butting him, and gouging him with thumbs and elbows. Referee George Siler overlooked these tactics for a while, but in the fortysecond round a terrific shot to the groin sent Gans to the canvas. This foul was so flagrant that Siler disqualified Nelson and declared Gans the winner.
The match did not turn Goldfield into a metropolis. Its population today is less than one-tenth the attendance at that fight. But the bottom line for Rickard was a profit of nearly fourteen thousand dollars—tax-free in those days.
“If you’re talking ‘pivotal,’ that fight was it,” says the boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar. “That was the Rubicon between boxing as a sport and boxing as a business. Before that was B.C. ; after that was A.D. ”
The financial success of the Gans-Nelson bout made various state governments see the business sense of relaxing their antiboxing laws. Some states repealed them; others simply stopped enforcing them. By about 1920 questions about the legality of boxing had virtually disappeared.
It’s interesting to note also that there was relatively little racial tension surrounding the Gans-Nelson bout. White-versus-black boxing matches can indeed be charged with politics, racism, and hatred—but mainly if they are heavyweight fights. In the lighter weight classes, black boxers encountered some discrimination, but they were at least able to fight and beat white boxers, even a century ago. Black heavyweights were another matter. They were seldom able to get matches with white fighters and were never allowed to compete for the championship.
The reason is pretty simple. As Norman Mailer once wrote, “The heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a very real possibility that he is.” The possibility that the toughest man in the world could be black was not something many white people wanted to face in the early part of this century.
About the time Gans was beating Nelson, a black heavyweight named Jack Johnson was making too much noise to be ignored. He’d beaten all the best black heavyweights, plus whichever white ones would fight him, and now he was issuing public challenges to the heavyweight champion Tommy Burns. It took a while, but Burns finally agreed to meet him at Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908, after Johnson had followed the reluctant champion halfway around the world seeking a match. Johnson won easily, and the first black heavyweight champion of the world was crowned.
This was an intolerable situation for many white Americans. The novelist Jack London spoke for millions when he appealed to the man who had retired undefeated as heavyweight champ in 1905. “But one thing remains: Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you!”
Enter Tex Rickard once again. This time his guarantee to the two fighters was a fantastic figure: $101,000, with 75 percent to the winner. In addition, both would get a $10,000 bonus for signing and a percentage of the film rights. Most experts, out of sentiment more than good sense, assumed that Jeffries would win, and if so, the distribution of the fight film to movie theaters nationwide could fetch more than a million dollars (in today’s dollars that might translate to roughly $35 million).
Clearly, though, Rickard wasn’t risking much by offering this guarantee. There was no way this fight could miss, as long as everybody knew when and where it would take place. After all, this was the fight that was supposed to prove—once and for all—that the best white fighter will always be stronger, smarter, and braver than the best black fighter. The hype began immediately. Jack London’s racist newspaper campaign got the ball rolling. A picture of Jeffries and a grinning Johnson sitting behind a row of champagne bottles as they signed the contract for the fight was circulated nationwide—and so were rumors of Johnson’s preference for white women. One white sportswriter wrote of Jeffries, “Let’s hope he kills the coon.”
The bout was scheduled to take place in San Francisco on July 4, 1910. But antiboxing sentiment was still strong there, and under threats of economic boycotts, California’s governor, James J. Gillett, suddenly decided that the state’s law permitted only exhibitions—not real fights. So with only a couple of weeks to go, Rickard had to uproot his entire operation.
The search for a new site didn’t last long. The mayor of Reno, Nevada, promised that a twenty-thousand-seat stadium could be built there immediately, that there would be no local protests, and that the town could handle any number of visitors. If Goldfield in 1906 had been a melee, Reno in 1910 was bedlam. For eight or nine days the town overflowed with visitors who slept in hammocks, on pool tables, and on park benches, ate in shifts at the local restaurants, and kept the brothels and casinos hopping twenty-four hours a day.
It’s anybody’s guess whether Jeffries in his prime could have beaten Johnson. But on the day of the fight, Jeff was thirty-five years old, had been out of the ring for six years, and had just shed more than a hundred pounds of flab. He was rusty, tense, out of shape. His timing was completely gone.
Johnson’s plan was not so much to hurt Jeffries physically as to destroy him psychologically, to humiliate him in front of white America. He made a fool of Jeffries, teasing him unmercifully as he beat the stuffing out of him. Jeffries lasted into the fifteenth round on pride alone; finally his corner threw in the towel. In the following few days dozens of blacks were killed in race riots in cities across the country.
In the short run the Johnson-Jeffries bout set boxing back. Distribution of the fight film was officially blocked; Johnson was chased out of the country on trumped-up charges of promoting prostitution; black fighters found it harder than ever to meet white opponents; attempts to repeal anti-boxing laws in several states were stalled.
But over the long haul this fight was a major step forward for boxing as a business. The hype had sparked new interest in the sport, especially among black Americans, who, as they moved in greater numbers from the rural South to the big cities, gradually became boxing’s dominant ethnic group. Rickard had shown that there was an awful lot of money to be made. And now that a black man was the undisputed champion of the world, the search for a white man who could whip him kept a lot of peripheral fans interested.
Still, it was a few years before the greatest promotional coup in the history of sport, the so-called Battle of the Century, took place. In 1915 Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, the “Great White Hope,” who in 1919 was defeated by the great Jack Dempsey.
But Dempsey faced a problem. Talent in the heavyweight division has always been a cyclical thing. Every few years a whole crop of topnotch heavyweights comes along at the same time. In between it seems there’s nobody around who could lick his grandmother. The latter situation held in the early 1920s. Aside from Dempsey, there were no quality heavyweights. If he wanted to cash in on his championship, he’d need some kind of aimmick. Dempsey’s manager, Jack (“Doc”) Kearns, thought of one.
Georges Carpentier was a Frenchman, a hero of World War I, and probably the handsomest boxer of all time. He was thought to be the premier fighter on the Continent, and he had single-handedly made boxing fans out of a long list of Europe’s elite. He was an utter contrast to Dempsey, who was one of the meanest-looking men imaginable, with a killer’s eyes, a prison-style haircut and a perpetual snarl.
A good-guy-versus-bad-guy confrontation always sells tickets. Furthermore, Kearns believed that Carpentier was overrated. The Frenchman’s successes against third-rate European fighters had given the public an exaggerated impression of his abilities; besides, he was really only a middleweight. Kearns and Dempsey knew they’d have nothing to fear from him.
There were plenty of promoters itching for a chance to stage a Dempsey-Carpentier bout, but Kearns and Dempsey wanted Tex Rickard. They knew that this match, if promoted properly, would bring in an unimaginable sum—a gate of as much as one million dollars, Kearns thought—and they knew that only Rickard could do it.
But for once Rickard needed persuading. His first instinct was to promote the bout, but his business sense warned him it would be a flop. He would not commit himself. Kearns’s method of persuasion was something O. Henry couldn’t have made up.
One November day in 1920 Rickard was having lunch at his usual table in Manhattan’s Hotel Claridge when he noticed Kearns across the room, sitting with two wealthy-looking Cuban eentlemen. He walked over to greet Kearns, who introduced his companions as the financiers Marcos González and Rafael Passo. who were offering a combined purse of five hundred thousand dollars for a Dempsey-Carpentier bout to be held in Havana. Stunned, Rickard told Kearns, “Don’t sign anything until you hear from me.” A few days later Rickard, Kearns, Dempsey, Carpentier, and Carpentier’s manager, François Descamps, held a press conference in the ballroom of the Claridee to announce that Rickard would promote the fieht, guaranteeing three hundred thousand dollars to Dempsey, two hundred thousand dollars to Carpentier (“Draw, lose, or get killed,” as one sarcastic Dempsey fan put it), plus 25 percent of the film rights to each fighter.
And where were the two Cuban millionaires? After their free lunch at the Claridge, plus twenty-five dollars and a few cigars each, they’d had to eive back the fancv suits and return to their regular jobs, waiting tables at a restaurant across town.
The next step was to convince the public that the frail-looking Carpentier had a chance to beat the fearsome Dempsey. This was done by adding an air of mystery to an already exotic character. He trained in secret, in a farmhouse surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by dogs. He claimed to be working on a “secret punch” that Dempsey would be unable to withstand. The hype worked. A surprising number of experts—including Jim Corbett—picked Carpentier to win.
Those closest to the action knew the real score. Even Carpentier must have known he had no chance. Rickard actually believed Dempsey might kill the Frenchman. He visited Dempsey in his dressing room before the fight and begged him to go easy. “I mean that, Jack,” he said. “If you kill him, all this will be ruined. Boxing will be dead!”
Dempsey, years later, recalled that he couldn’t believe his ears. “Imagine that,” he said, “the damn fool must have thought we were going to fight a duel with guns or something!”
The “Battle of the Century,” as the match was billed, took place at a temporary stadium near Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 2, 1921. Eighty thousand people paid a total of $1,789,238 to see it; hundreds of thousands more listened on the radio—the first time a heavyweight championship fight had been broadcast. (A preliminary bout between Gene Tunney and Soldier Jones had the distinction of being the first boxing match ever broadcast. Tunney would be heard from again.)
It was far from a great fight. From the opening bell it was clear that Dempsey was too strong for the Frenchman. In the second round Carpentier surprised Dempsey with a hard right cross, his “secret punch.” But Dempsey recovered quickly, beat Carpentier to a pulp in the third round, and knocked him out in the fourth.
The public wasn’t disappointed though. It continued to romanticize Carpentier, pointing out his courage in getting into the same ring with the “Manassa Mauler.” George Bernard Shaw wired him, “I admire you now more than ever.”
Dempsey’s popularity rose too. Previously he’d had relatively little exposure, and those who knew of him had thought him a surly bruiser, but during the buildup to the fight he showed himself to be well spoken, personable, somewhat shy, and surprisingly intelligent. He became the first of the five great athletes—along with Babe Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in football, Bill Tilden in tennis, and Bobby Jones in golf—who established themselves as celebrities in the 1920s and began the American tradition of regarding sports heroes as demigods.
This was the beginning of the star system in professional sports, especially in the nonteam sports of boxing, tennis, and golf. An overwhelming personality, like an Arnold Palmer, a John McEnroe, or a Muhammad Ali, will put money in everyone’s pocket. When there is no one dominating figure, as is the situation in all three of these sports today, the gate receipts shrink.
Coupled with Dempsey’s popularity was the removal of the last serious restrictions on legalized boxing in several states, most notably New York. So while boxing had been growing steadily in the United States since the 185Os, the real boom took place in the early 1920s. The sport came out of the back rooms for good. Fight clubs were established in every major city. In New York you could see live boxing every night of the week. For the next three decades fighters had to serve an apprenticeship of several years in these small clubs before they went on to the big time (hence the term club fighter , meaning a young boxer with more enthusiasm than skill).
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.
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.
I it was a bout that didn’t need much promotion; everybody could see that this was high drama. There was the grudge aspect. Louis felt that Schmeling had humiliated him in the first bout. Schmeling, for his part, resented the fact that Louis had been given first crack at Jimmy Braddock the year before. Politics had a lot to do with it too: it was 1938, and Schmeling was vehemently pro-Hitler. It was clear that the majority of the fans in Yankee Stadium on the night of June 22, 1938, were in Louis’s corner.
Louis didn’t disappoint them. He’d spent two years planning his revenge. The fight lasted exactly 124 seconds. Schmeling was knocked down four times and was hospitalized afterward with internal injuries. For sheer devastation, there was never a fight like this one. And when it was over, Louis wasn’t just a champion; he was the allAmerican hero who’d whipped the Nazi.
This bout didn’t affect only boxing. Eventually it affected the entire American spectator-sports industry. This one fight finally established that black athletes could—and must be allowed to—compete with whites on equal terms. The National Football League was integrated soon thereafter, and major-league baseball admitted its first black players in 1947.
Louis held the title from 1937 to 1949, the longest uninterrupted reign in history. He kept building his image. Twice, during World War II, he fought for nothing, donating his entire purse to the Army and Navy relief funds. He was not so much admired as adored. He fought many more great fights, but the last of his bouts to have a major historical impact was one of his poorer efforts.
On December 5, 1947, Louis defended his title at Madison Square Garden in New York City against lightly regarded “Jersey Joe” Walcott. Walcott, a kind of black Rocky Balboa, shocked the world by knocking Louis down twice and losing the fight by the narrowest of decisions. It was a surprising, tension-filled bout with a controversial ending, but what made it so important was that it was the first world heavyweight title bout to be telecast nationwide. As such, it was the harbinger of a whole new era in boxing.
Boxing had been televised before, of course. But in the late 1940s the W set was just starting to come into its own as a basic household necessity. By the early 1950s most families had one. And every weekend the Gillette Friday-night fights were beamed into several million living rooms. This was good for boxing in a way. TV revenue brought more money to the sport, meaning bigger purses for fighters. Televised boxing turned fight night into a family ritual. Instead of Dad’s going down to the fight club for an evening with the boys, he stayed home and watched the fights with Mom and the kids—who also became fans.
But television hurt boxing severely by killing the small clubs. With the sport available free on TV at least once a week, only the very dedicated fans would pay to see it live. There were so few of these that by the end of the 1950s, neighborhood boxing clubs had largely disappeared. Today there are only a handful left. In New York City and Philadelphia, once America’s two main fight towns, there’s very little live boxing anymore. The big fight towns now are Las Vegas and Atlantic City, because to induce a large crowd to show up at a fight these days, you have to offer other recreational options.
Many experts believe that the death of the clubs led to a decline in the quality of boxing. There’s some truth to this. Fifty years ago a fighter had to work his way up through the ranks, slowly perfecting his craft. By the time he got a shot at a title, he’d be a seasoned veteran. Immortals like Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Fritzie Zivic, and Archie Moore all were products of the club era, and all had more than two hundred fights and knew every trick of the trade.
Today, with the sport almost entirely dependent on television, there are fewer boxing venues, thus fewer fights. Where a boxer might have fought twelve times in 1941, he might fight twice in 1991. A fighter challenging for a world title in 1941 might have already had eighty fights. Today it’s routine for a fighter to land a title shot with fewer than twenty pro bouts under his belt. And less experience means proportionately less skill.
Television and its variations—closed circuit, cable, pay per view—have hurt boxing in another way. With the death of the small clubs, there are no more local heroes. There are few fighters who can attract constituencies in their hometowns and fill the arena whenever they fight. Today a fighter has to be nationally known or he’s nothing. The TV-viewing public has been spoiled; it just doesn’t appreciate a good club fight between two willing youngsters who may never be champs. It’s hard to hype a fight unless it’s billed as a world-championship contest. So, to inflate the significance of any given boxing show, promoters have created an incredible number of dubious “championships” for which fighters can contend. It’s almost reached the point where there are more championship belts than there are fighters to wear them.
New weight classifications like “cruiserweight” and “super middleweight” have brought the number of classifications to sixteen, as compared with eight a generation ago. A mere three pounds differentiates “flyweight” from the next classification, “junior bantamweight.” There are also, at last count, four separate organizations—all hostile to one another and denying the others’ authority, like competing sects of a religion—that claim to govern boxing worldwide. The World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council, International Boxing Federation, and the World Boxing Organization each recognize a different champion at each weight. That adds up to sixtyfour championships—which means that in the past thirty years there has been an eightfold increase in the number of people who can style themselves “Champion of the World.” Boxing has come full circle to where it was in the early years of the nineteenth century, when nobody in America knew who the champ was, and didn’t care. Today the sport runs almost entirely on individual personalities. There are a half-dozen or so fighters who are well known enough to attract a big closed-circuit or pay-per-view audience, and if they don’t actually hold a championship, one will be created for them.
“Those various governing bodies have changed the public perception of boxing,” Nigel Collins charges. “The multiple ‘champions’ have created a cynical attitude on the part of the public. There are fewer writers and broadcasters who are really dedicated to the sport, so people know less about boxing now. The talking heads on TV only get interested if it’s a megafight.”
This all didn’t happen overnight, of course; it was a gradual process. But there was one match that truly did begin the descent into the confusion of today. It took place on the night of November 30, 1956, when Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore fought for the heavyweight championship of the world, left vacant when Rocky Marciano retired undefeated.
This bout was no great promotional coup. Financially it was somewhat of a disappointment. But with the exception of Corbett-Sullivan, no other fight so clearly ushered in a new era. In just about every way imaginable, this was the definitive clash between the old order and the new. Moore was two weeks shy of his forty-third birthday; Patterson, three weeks shy of his twenty-second. Moore, who’d been fighting since the early 1930s, had worked his way slowly through countless small clubs all over the world, fighting anyone, anywhere, anytime, but had been studiously avoided by various world champions. (Ray Robinson, for instance, once remarked, “I’ll only get into the same ring with Archie if they let me bring a baseball bat.”) Patterson, a 1952 Olympic gold medalist, had been groomed for success right from the get-go, with a showy record established against carefully selected opponents. Moore had a scientific style of fighting that the true boxing fan loved but that the peripheral fan found too deep to be of interest. Patterson had been taught to box in a flashy, spectacular style specifically calculated to look good on television.
Moore was the Grunt, Patterson was the Glamour Boy. The only real similarity between the two men was that they both took a highly intellectual approach to the game. (Moore, trying to explain his complicated style to a mystified fan: “You’re thinking about boxing . What I do is philosophy .” Patterson, on what made him fight: “I am a coward. My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. You can be a winning fighter and still be a coward. … I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at.”) So perhaps they both knew that this fight was a passing of the torch.
Maybe the knowledge had a psychological effect on “Ancient Archie.” Although Moore was favored to win, Patterson flattened him in the fifth round. Patterson was only one remove, in the succession of champions, from Muhammad Ali. He held the title until 1959, lost it to Ingemar Johansson of Sweden, won it back the next year, and lost it for good to Sonny Liston in 1962. He was the only two-time heavyweight champ. Ali, the only three-time champ, won the title from Liston on February 25,1964, and didn’t lose it for good until 1980.
Ali (who then, of course, was known as Cassius Clay) made a splash as soon as he arrived on the boxing scene. He recalled that at the beginning of his career, he observed the wrestler Gorgeous George in action and noticed that George performed to packed houses every night because he was a loudmouthed villain whom the public loved to hate. “And I said, ‘Hey, that’s for me!’”
Ali, as you see, was nothing new after all. In effect he was the reincarnation of many great names of the past, all blended into one man. His glamour-boy image wasn’t much different from that of the handsome, cocky Jim Corbett. His incredible instinct for showmanship? Tex Rickard. His bad-guy act? Jack Johnson sold tickets exactly the same way. And as a national icon—well, Joe Louis had been there before.
As for Don King, he’s certainly a remarkable man. A former racketeer who once did a stretch in prison for killing a man in a street fight, King in 1974 was an obscure fight promoter who became a major power in boxing when he convinced the president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, that Mobutu could generate great publicity for his country by bankrolling a fight between Ali and George Foreman to the tune of ten million dollars. The Ali-Foreman bout was certain to take place eventually, but King stole a march on all other possible promoters by approaching a Third World nation whose leader was significantly more prosperous than his country.
And as Goldfield, Nevada, was the making of Rickard, so Kinshasa, Zaire, was the making of King. The bout came off on October 30, 1974; Ali, in a stunning upset, regained the title by wearing Foreman down and knocking him out in eight rounds. King has been involved in promoting all but a handful of the dozens of heavyweight championship bouts since then. A good many King-promoted fighters have accused him of cheating them, but he continues to be the most powerful man in boxing.
Whether or not his fighters actually end up as wealthy as their contracts promise, it’s clear that somebody is making more money on a single evening at the fights today than past champions and promoters could hope to make in a career. Boxing didn’t become a fabulously lucrative business the day Muhammad Ali declared, “I am the greatest!” Ali, Don King, and their contemporaries have built on the fortune their forerunners had been accumulating for a century.