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Champions of Place

from the magazine

Champions of Place

Great boxers have usually had strong connections to their cities. Autumn 2017
Arts and Culture

Muhammad Ali was just getting warmed up. “I want everybody from this moment on to recognize me as the scholar of boxing,” he declared in his steaming-hot dressing room in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo). “If you want to know any damn thing about boxing, don’t go to no boxing experts in Las Vegas, don’t go to no Jimmy the Greek, you come to Muhammad Ali—I am the man.” On that night, October 30, 1974, it was hard to dispute: he had just won his crowning victory, beating the seemingly invincible 26-year-old George Foreman (in his pre-grill-selling incarnation), regaining the heavyweight title taken from him in 1967, when he refused military service in the Vietnam War. The press had doubted the 32-year-old Ali’s chances, and now he was letting them have it.

Then, after a tribute to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and, of all people, Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner, the new champion offered thanks not often heard. “Hello to all my friends in Louisville, Kentucky! . . . where I started. I’m recognized all over the world now, but my greatness came and started in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the greatest cities in America.” It was sometimes hard to remember what American city Ali had come from—he seemed too big for any one place. But his tribute was a reminder that even citizens of the world start somewhere, and that the formative influence of these places usually stays with us.

Many say that globalism is eroding the distinctive character of American cities, but throughout our history, local identity, regionalism, and civic (and urban) pride have remained powerful forces. In sports, place has always been essential, defining rooting interests and giving professional teams distinctive identities: with so many movie stars watching courtside, the Los Angeles Lakers at their best naturally played a glamorous, fast-moving style of basketball; playing in sometimes-polar temperatures in a city known for plainspokenness and hard work, the Chicago Bears’ brand of football was characterized by brute force; and performing in the nation’s financial and media capital, the New York Yankees wore pinstripes, dominated headlines, and built monuments to their own greatness. But if the teams were local by definition, the origins of even prominent players could easily be overlooked. How many knew that the Yankees’ Derek Jeter grew up in Kalamazoo?

In boxing, the loneliest of individual sports, geographic identity is almost never trivial, if for no other reason than to shape promotional storylines—but usually it has meant more than that, offering crucial insight into a fighter’s background and personality. This was never truer than for the heavyweight champions, who were frequently prominent figures in American popular culture. Their evocative nicknames often incorporated place—the Boston Strongboy, the Galveston Giant, the Manassa Mauler, the Brockton Blockbuster, the Easton Assassin. Ali, before he became the Greatest, was the Louisville Lip. Even today in the United States, “Who are you?” doesn’t just mean “What do you do?” but also: “Where are you from?” Rising from humble and even destitute origins, the heavyweight champions had distinctive answers.

On the damp September night in 1952 that Rocky Marciano won the heavyweight title in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium, his rooters, many sitting up in the cheaper seats, where people usually watched football, came rushing down the aisles. Eager to get to the new champion, they overwhelmed cops, climbing over reporters and film cameras. It took 15 minutes to clear the ring. The same reaction prevailed several days later in Marciano’s native Brockton, a manufacturing town about 20 miles south of Boston, where more than 60,000 people—roughly equivalent to the city’s population—came out for the new champion’s victory parade.

“I promise you that I will defend my title honorably and often, and always in a manner that will reflect credit on you wonderful people and the city of my birth,” Marciano, born Rocco Marchegiano, told the crowd that day. His ascent made him an enduring hero in Brockton, where his memory remains strong. But devoted as Marciano was to his hometown, he also wanted to escape it. Brockton was sometimes called the Shoe City, for its many factories, and Marciano’s immigrant father, slight and sickly from the poison gas that he’d inhaled in the Argonne Forest in World War I, worked in one, as a laster. It was a hard life. “He never made any money and he never had any fun,” his son lamented. His father’s melancholy existence made Rocco desperate to distinguish himself, and the memory of poverty made him obsessed with money, especially cash, which, in retirement, he stuffed into pipes, curtain rods, and other hiding places around the United States. He neglected to tell his wife and daughter where any of it was, though, and after his untimely death in 1969 in a plane crash—his funeral drew thousands of mourners in Brockton—they spent years looking for it. Not a dollar was ever found.

Marciano was the only Italian-American to win the title; you can still find his photo displayed in many Italian establishments. But when boxing first took the big stage in the United States, it was the Irish playing the lead. John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strongboy, was born in Boston’s South End in 1858, the son of immigrants in the great Irish diaspora. Boston, the “Dublin of America,” teemed with newly arrived Irish, who already made up about a quarter of its population. They faced considerable prejudice but thrived in blue-collar trades, the priesthood, and the police force—and they also provided America’s first great stock of prizefighters. Though boxing was illegal during Sullivan’s time, the press eagerly followed his fights, and his fame brought new legitimacy, if not quite legality, to boxing. In 1887, Hugh O’Brien, Boston’s first Irish mayor, presented Sullivan with a championship belt made of 14-carat gold that would be the model for those worn by the fighter’s successors.

The so-called lace-curtain Irish, looking to leave the old stereotypes behind, lamented Sullivan’s prominence; but for most Boston Irish, the fighter was something like a god—his Dover Street barber even sold locks of his hair. Sullivan once considered a run for Congress, and he owned a bar on Washington Street. That may not have been the best business choice for Sullivan, once described as “the greatest souse that ever lived,” but condemnations from respectable quarters of his drinking and brawling never quite stuck. He was the first Irish-American to win money and fame on such a scale, and he became a vital figure in the evolution of American celebrity, representing a challenge to Boston’s Brahmin elite and the then-dominant WASP culture. If such a man could see his picture hung in parlors and taverns across the land, have his likeness rendered by artists like Charles Dana Gibson, and be written up by journalists and novelists, what hope was there to preserve the old prerogatives? Not much, it turned out.

Sullivan lost his title in 1892 to James J. Corbett of San Francisco, another ambitious Irish-American, who parlayed ring success into a long acting career. But no Irishman’s son ever had bigger dreams than James Joseph Tunney, known as Gene, who won the heavyweight championship by beating Jack Dempsey in 1926, in Philadelphia. Tunney grew up in Greenwich Village, when the neighborhood was heavily Irish. New York’s first claimant of the heavyweight title, Tunney came home to a hero’s reception: a police escort took him from Pennsylvania Station through the streets of his old Village neighborhood, on the way to a City Hall meeting with Mayor Jimmy Walker. His life was an American success tale so breathtaking that no New Yorker would have found it plausible as fiction: the son of a stevedore, he earned more than $1 million in the ring, married a Carnegie heiress, and retired to Connecticut and a life of culture and business interests, fathering a U.S. senator and maintaining an office near Grand Central Station until his last years. As if to mock the idea of summary, his gravestone, in Stamford, cites his service in two world wars but makes no mention of his holding the richest prize in sports.

No city would produce more heavyweight champions than New York. Once Gotham legalized boxing for good in 1920, the city quickly became boxing’s headquarters, the most common site for the biggest fights, whether in outdoor venues like Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds or at Madison Square Garden and other indoor arenas. Famous gyms, like Stillman’s and Gleason’s, nurtured great fighters aplenty, but two of New York’s most notable heavyweight champions—both from Brooklyn—learned their trade elsewhere. Floyd Patterson, champion from 1956 to 1959 and again from 1960 to 1962, got his start at the Gramercy Gym, near Union Square, where the trainer and manager Cus D’Amato molded him into a champion. This task took some doing: James Baldwin aptly described Patterson as the “least likely fighter in the history of the sport.” Cripplingly shy and tormented as a youngster, Patterson shunned school and hid out during the day in a tool room above the High Street subway station in Brooklyn Heights. He was sent to Wiltwyck, a school bankrolled by Eleanor Roosevelt for emotionally disturbed boys, in Esopus, in the Hudson Valley. There, he discovered boxing and soon found his way to D’Amato and stardom. He stayed in New York, though he had trouble with white neighbors in Westchester in the fraught sixties. He died in New Paltz in 2008.

New York City’s most famous heavyweight was also a reform-school kid. In 1979, 13-year-old Mike Tyson, a chronic juvenile delinquent, enrolled at the Tryon School for Boys, in Perth, New York. Born in Brooklyn’s gritty Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood but living as a child in harrowing Brownsville, Tyson was a hellion before age ten, an inveterate burglar, robber, and mugger. He found boxing at Tryon, though, and was so gifted that he won an audition in Catskill with D’Amato, whose tutelage put him on the fast track to ring greatness. Waging his early fights in places like Albany, Troy, and Poughkeepsie, Tyson won a heavyweight title in 1986, the youngest champion ever. He became a global phenomenon, and soon afterward, a cautionary tale of excess, serving a prison term for rape from 1992 to 1995. Before it all came crashing down, Tyson would walk his old Brownsville haunts, giving away money in huge denominations. Having rebuilt his life, Tyson now resides in Nevada, but the influence of New York’s most defiant borough remains in his blood. “There’s something about Brooklyn people,” Tyson told Larry King in 2010. “Every one of us feels different. . . . People are going to know our names, know where we come from.”

The New York metro area also produced New Jersey champions, including Bergen’s Jim Braddock, of Cinderella Man fame (though he was born in Hell’s Kitchen), and Pennsauken’s Jersey Joe Walcott. Braddock and Walcott shared inspiring stories of rising up from Depression-era hardship. Both spent time on relief when that was not viewed as an entitlement but as a last resort—and, some thought, a dishonorable one. Both paid back their local welfare offices when they got back on their feet.

The reimbursement of social-services agencies—not required, then or now—comes up again in the story of Joe Louis, who held the title longer than anyone else, from 1937 to 1949. Louis’s family came north to Detroit from Lafayette, Alabama, in the early 1920s, lured by work in Henry Ford’s plants, but when the Depression hit, his stepfather and older brothers lost their jobs and went on relief. Louis himself had worked for a time pushing truck bodies onto conveyor belts at Ford’s famous River Rouge plant. But his budding boxing career soon made such labor unnecessary, and once his pockets were full, Louis squared up his family’s welfare debt. He sounded every bit the proud Detroiter when he warned in 1940 that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was making “a lot of lazy people out of our people. They sit around waiting for the $15 a week [relief check].” Louis campaigned for Wendell Willkie that year.

Louis spent the last years of his life in Las Vegas, but his connection with Detroit remained deep. In 1980, the city opened the doors to the Joe Louis Arena, the hockey home of Detroit’s Red Wings. The Joe, as the arena came to be known, closed its doors this year, but Louis still has a Motor City presence: the monument to Joe Louis, a 24-foot-long, 8,000-pound sculpture erected in 1986 and commonly known as The Fist, stands in Hart Plaza.

Jack Dempsey in front of his iconic Broadway restaurant, 1963 (AP PHOTO)

It took a while, but Philadelphia finally erected a statue to its own heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier, in 2015—though too late for the boxer, who died in 2011, to see it. Cities don’t owe athletes, or anyone, monuments, of course. But Philly’s omission was glaring because it had earlier erected a sculpture of a fictional boxer: Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone’s famous movie character, for whom the actor drew upon aspects of Frazier’s career—including his pounding sides of frozen beef in a meatpacking plant and training by running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Frazier, a native South Carolinian from one of the poorest counties in the United States, proved loyal to his adopted home, where he ran a gym for many years. Devoid of pretense as a fighter and as a man, Frazier embodied the hard-nosed ethic that Philadelphia touts in its sports heroes, but it was his misfortune to come along at the same time as Muhammad Ali, with whom he had a defining rivalry. Even in Philadelphia, Frazier’s light was outshined by Ali’s—and then, in what must have seemed like a sucker punch, by Stallone’s celluloid creation.

Located less than two hours northeast of Philly, Easton, Pennsylvania (population 30,000), is home to the most locally rooted heavyweight champion of them all: Larry Holmes. Holmes has lived in Easton since the mid-1950s, moving there as a boy from Georgia. Easton was then an important steel-and-iron transport hub, though its days of industrial glory didn’t last. Growing up poor, with a single mother trying to support 12 kids, Holmes was a hard worker: at the Ingersoll-Rand foundry in Phillipsburg; at a rug mill; at a quarry; and as a truck driver. His trajectory to the top resembled that of most great champions, with years of sacrifice, but his attachment to Easton made him distinctive, as did his middle-class attitude toward family—he has been married for nearly 40 years.

He’s been responsible with money, too. Early in his career as champion, Holmes promised himself that he would invest portions of each fight purse in Easton, usually in real estate. In time, Easton became a Holmes fiefdom, and the town put up a statue to its champion—standing on a boulevard rechristened Larry Holmes Drive. For years, Holmes operated a restaurant and bar in town, along with other properties. Now approaching 70, he has divested himself of some holdings, but he’s in Easton for the duration: “I wanted to stay here, where I could be normal.” Perhaps the most poignant endorsement of his choice came from Ali, for whom the young Holmes worked as a sparring partner. “You know the smartest thing you ever did, Larry?” Ali asked. “You stayed in your hometown.”

Ali’s comment reflected his awareness of what he had lost in rootedness. It wasn’t all his doing: Louisville was a Jim Crow city when Ali grew up there in the mostly black West End—though the man who introduced him to boxing, police officer Joe Martin, was white. The city sometimes called the Gateway to the South was proud of Ali when he was Olympic gold medalist Cassius Clay, but the relationship soured when he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name—and especially after he refused military service in Vietnam. Ali spent most of his boxing career, and afterward, in other cities: in Miami Beach, Chicago, Cherry Hill (New Jersey), Los Angeles, Berrien Springs (Michigan), and, in his last years, Phoenix, Arizona. As times changed and Ali grew less polarizing, Louisville embraced him, opening the $80 million Muhammad Ali Center. In 2016, when Ali’s long battle with Parkinson’s finally ended, Louisville buried its prodigal son in ceremonies seen around the world. Tens of thousands lined the streets as his hearse passed, tossing roses.

The eleventh-hour rapprochement between Ali and Louisville could not obscure how the boxer had become a global champion, a figure at home less in any particular locale than in what W. H. Auden, writing about Freud, called “a whole climate of opinion.” He was not the only heavyweight champion, though, untethered from locality. Jack Johnson, whose career had compelling parallels with Ali’s, hailed from Galveston, Texas, where his family lost nearly everything in the 1900 flood. Johnson was sometimes billed as the Galveston Giant, but he and his hometown would become estranged—largely due to his consorting with white women, which made him one of the most hated Americans of his era.

Johnson spent a lot of time in Chicago and New York, where he ran nightclubs, but he was a man who preferred to be on the move. After being exiled from the U.S. on morals charges, he traveled ceaselessly, from London and Paris to Madrid and Moscow—where he lost a drink-off with Rasputin—to Havana and Mexico City. He died in motion, crashing his car on U.S. Highway 1, near Franklinton, North Carolina, in 1946. In 2012, more than a century after Johnson had won the heavyweight championship, Galveston dedicated a statue in his honor. The figure’s enigmatic expression fits well a man who never accepted limitations.

Ali and Johnson were Southerners who left the region, but two other sons of Dixie remained: George Foreman, from Houston, and Evander Holyfield, from Atlanta. Foreman, known to most today as a genial pitchman, preacher, and all-around good guy, started out as a darker figure, a menacing juvenile delinquent in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Growing up with little supervision, he briefly got caught up in mugging and thievery, but restlessness and shame made him renounce a life of crime. He enrolled in Lyndon Johnson’s Job Corps, where he found boxing, launching an odyssey that would include an Olympic gold medal, a heavyweight title, a dramatic loss to Ali, a Christian conversion, and a lucrative boxing comeback in middle age.

An early turning point in the teenage Foreman’s life came on a morning when he wanted to play hooky from school and slipped back into bed to sleep—until a cousin caught him. Foreman stammered for an excuse, but she waved him off. “Don’t worry about it,” she told him. “You’re never gonna be nothing. Go to sleep.” Her dismissiveness haunted Foreman, and a light went on; he got up—and has stayed busy ever since. For all his business success—one writer deemed the Foreman grill the most iconic American product since the Franklin stove—he still preaches the gospel every week in Houston at his Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which he opened in 1980.

Like most fighters, Evander Holyfield grew up poor—in his case, in Atlanta’s Bowen Houses, the last major housing project to be razed in the city’s pioneering effort to do away with the large complexes that concentrated generational poverty and dysfunction. He was surrounded by people who tossed their trash where they pleased. The Holyfields threw their garbage away properly. We live in the ghetto, but we’re not ghetto, his mother said, and she demanded upright behavior from her son, while pushing him to find something he could excel at. His Olympic boxing teammates, mostly Northerners, called him “Country,” and some mistook his politeness and Bible-reading ways for a lack of fire. Underestimating Holyfield proved as chronic as it was futile. His long career was marked by gracious public behavior and competitive perseverance. One can still hear the Southern lilt in Holyfield’s speech today and the impact of his mother’s example in the insights that he offers: “Disappointment—that’s the real fight. You want to see how strong somebody is? Have them get disappointed.”

A housing project in another city—Pruitt-Igoe, in St. Louis—was the origin point for the only American brothers to win the heavyweight title: Leon and Michael Spinks. By the time the Spinkses came of age in the 1960s, Pruitt-Igoe was notorious, as deadly as any urban environment in the country. Criminal gangs had effectively taken over, and St. Louis cops responding to calls wouldn’t enter without backup, which sometimes came and sometimes didn’t. The brothers learned their boxing at the nearby DeSoto Rec Center and went on to win gold medals in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, but Leon’s pro career, after a shock win over Ali, descended into tabloid ridicule. Michael, the more stable of the two, proved much more successful. Few boxers have had greater impetus to escape an environment than the brothers Spinks. Both settled far from the troubled city of their youth.

A few weeks before Ali defeated Foreman in Africa and gave his tribute to Louisville, an old fighter made a painful farewell in New York. After nearly 40 years as a restaurateur, Jack Dempsey was closing the doors of his Broadway restaurant, located in the Brill Building, after a rent dispute. On its final night, the restaurant—long a hangout for the sports crowd and Broadway figures but, above all, a tourist attraction (Dempsey usually sat at a table near the window and greeted guests)—was packed with well-wishers and souvenir-seekers. The space’s signature piece of decor, a wall-size James Montgomery Flagg painting of Dempsey winning the heavyweight title in 1919, had been packed off to the Smithsonian. “I’ve never seen him so broken up,” said Deanna Dempsey of her 79-year-old husband. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to him.”

He had traveled the country, but somehow he always came back to New York. One of the sporting heroes of the Roaring Twenties, William Harrison Dempsey, later “Jack,” was born in 1895 in Manassa, a tiny Mormon community in Colorado’s Conejos County. It was Damon Runyon who dubbed him the Manassa Mauler, for his attacking style in the ring. Manassa has as much claim on Dempsey as anywhere else, since he spent formative years there; the town (population 1,000) runs a small Dempsey museum today. But the fighter’s early life contained so much shifting from place to place that his truest “hometown” was the American West itself—he lived in places, some no longer on the map, with names like Leadville, Uncompahgre, Rifle, Meeker, and Creede. He spent time in Salt Lake City and Provo and Seattle and Oakland. Out on his own from age 16, he sometimes went hungry for days as he sought laboring work to supplement his then-meager boxing income. In those lean years, he got around by tying himself to the brake beams of locomotives and hanging on for dear life—“riding the rods,” as it was known. His freewheeling brand of fighting, in which he paid what could charitably be called casual attention to the rules, owed in part to the less regulated form of boxing out West; he was fighting for survival, and his desperation made him the greatest gate attraction in boxing history. After his boxing career was over, he opened Dempsey’s, a prototype of today’s sports bars. The restaurant’s famous marquee (it figures in a scene in The Godfather) became a Manhattan landmark, and generations of visitors spoke of the thrill of recognizing the old champion through the window or shaking his once-feared hands. Outside the ring, Dempsey said, “I was always nice to everybody; it costs you nothing.”

Dempsey died in the city that he called “my town” in 1983. He was a man from the West, but New York wanted him for its own, and got him. Look up to the street marker at the northwest quadrant of Broadway and 49th Street: Jack Dempsey Corner.

Top Photo: A son of Brockton, Massachusetts, Rocky Marciano returns home after another big victory. (BILL CHAPLIS/AP PHOTO)

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