City Journal managing editor Paul Beston joins Matthew Hennessey to discuss Paul’s new book, The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring.
For much of the twentieth century, boxing was one of the country’s most popular sports. Even long after the sport’s heyday, the men who dominated the ring still hold a place in American culture.
The Boxing Kings chronicles the history of the heavyweight championship in the United States, from 1882 to 2002, examining the lives and careers of 34 champions, with special emphasis on seven legends: John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson.
Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal and author of The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Rule the Ring.
Matthew Hennessey is associate op-ed editor at the Wall Street Journal and the author of Zero Hour for Generation X, to be published in 2018 by Encounter Books.
Matt Hennessey: My name is Matthew Hennessey and my guest is Paul Beston. You know Paul as the managing editor of City Journal, and his new book is called The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring. Paul, thank you for joining me.
Paul Beston: Hi, Matt.
Matt Hennessey: When you’re talking about the heavyweight champions as you do in this book here, you’re talking about an American most of the time in the 20th century, aren’t you?
Paul Beston: Almost all the time, yeah. In fact the book starts late in the 19th century, but it basically covers the whole 20th century during that time there we just a couple foreign champions. But almost everyone holding the title was an American.
Matt Hennessey: Now you say in the introduction that you spent so much time in the library as a kid hunting for books about boxing and checking them out, that you memorized the Dewey Decimal system classification for boxing books.
Paul Beston: Well I think my poor mother is still trying to figure the answer to that, but boxing just captured me as a kids. I was growing up in the late 70s, it was on television a lot, watching all the traditional sports, but boxing was in its last great heyday at that time. And it was on television an awful lot. Muhammad Ali was still around so I was catching the end of his career. And a whole bunch of other great fighters, both in heavyweight and at lower weights. And something about the individual nature of the sport just really attracted me. And that interest drove me to the library, started pulling out these books and reading about these guys like Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis and people who are obviously before my time.
Matt Hennessey: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but what is the Dewey Decimal system number for boxing?
Paul Beston: 796.83
Matt Hennessey: As far as I know, that’s correct. Did you do any boxing?
Paul Beston: I boxed for some years with my older brothers. We never did it in any formal way, we never went to a gym or any formal competitions.
Matt Hennessey: But you punched each other in the face?
Paul Beston: We had a pretty good basement set up for such things, and we just started collecting the various boxing equipment. The gloves, the bags, and training bags, and jump ropes, and all this business. We also had an instructional manual that was very helpful. And we just kept at it for a good while.
Matt Hennessey: I love this book in part because I am in my early-40s and I feel like I should know more about boxing than I do. I think I’m not alone, I think that;s a blind spot for a lot of sports fans. So I know the names, or some of the names: like John O. Sullivan, Joe Louis, or Jersey Joe Walcott. But I don’t know more than their names. And there’s so many great and unexpected stories in this book, and I’m wondering: What are some of the names, and some of the obscure fighters that you researched in this book who really grabbed your attention in a way you didn’t expect? We know Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and those guys, at some extent we’re familiar with their stories. What were some of the stories you weren’t expecting that really grabbed you?
Paul Beston: Well one little pattern of story that I did not know about that was quite interesting: Some listeners will have seen that movie “Cinderella Man” with Russell Crowe from some years back. He plays a Depression era named James J. Braddock who was nicknamed the “Cinderella Man” Braddock is in the book because he did become heavyweight champion briefly in the mid-30s. And there’s that famous scene in the movie where Braddock, after having been on relief, as they called welfare back then. A lot of men were out of work during the Depression. After having gotten back the money and his fortunes had changed and he started to win fights, he goes to the relief office and pays back the money that his family had gotten from the relief office. I knew that story since I was a kid, what I didn’t know when I worked on the book was that two other heavyweight champions did the same thing: Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Louis, who is obviously famous for a million other reasons - that’s probably why people don’t know about it. So two other heavyweight champions during that same period, when they got themselves back on their feet, paid back the relief office. It really tells you something about the social milleu of that time
Matt Hennessey: Well not only that, but it seems so fantastic and so from Hollywood, to hear you say that about those guys and to recognize how very much times have changed underscores the theme of your book, which is that the heavyweight championship isn’t what it used to be.
Paul Beston: No my book had a kind of convenient ending point for me because basically almost like in a movie, the Americans just drop out of the frame. It’s not quite fade to black because the title goes on and it still goes on today. But the American presence basically vanishes right around the turn of the century, very very neatly. That would end with people like Mike Tyson, who everyone knows, and Evander Holyfield. Those guys battling it out in the late-90s. And then from then on Lennox Lewis, a guy from Great Britain held the title for a while, and then it went international. And today it is held by another British fighter, a guy by the name Anthony Joshua. So it hasn’t been an American presence in the heavyweight title for close to two decades now.
Matt Hennessey: What do you think would happen if an American did somehow manage to bring the title back here. Do you really think there’s an appetite for boxing in American sports?
Paul Beston: Well I don’t think it will ever get back to where it was in the 40s and 50s, and it’s not entirely its fault. So much has changed in America and there’s so many other sports. Then again boxing has had a good couple of good years, it’s had some fights that has gotten people very interested. I can’t answer that question but if there was an American did emerge who fought Joshua in a big fight and maybe even beat him, brought the title back to the United States, at least we would have a test case. Because that’s usually what drove public interest in the United States, the heavyweight title.
Matt Hennessey: I want to dig into three heavyweight fights that are really at the heart of this book. Those are the fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the 70s. Now, most people my age or younger remember Ali as this sort of kindly, older gentleman and ambassador for sports and peace and goodwill, lighting the torch at the Atlanta Olympics. In the early 1970s, when this first fight, Ali-Frazier 1 happened in 1971. He wasn’t thought of in quite that way. Can you talk about how Ali was viewed at that time?
Paul Beston: Yeah, 1971 the Vietnam War was still going on. The 1960s were gone on the calendar, but there was still a lot of discord and a lot of division. Ali had just gotten back in the ring because he had been suspended from boxing for 3 and a half years because he refusal to served in the Armed Forces in Vietnam. So that made him a hugely divisive figure, but he was a divisive figure before that because he joined the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist organization led by Elijah Muhammad. And most famously represented by Ali’s former mentor and friend, Malcolm X. But when Malcolm X broke with the group, it didn’t live much longer. So Ali was bound up in two things: rejection of integration and the civil rights movement, this extreme group. And in this movement to resist the draft and oppose the Vietnam War. This made him a figure of enormous controversy in 1971. So he was not at all regarded in that kindly way that you described.. He was loved, certainly by some but he was hated by many.
Matt Hennessey: And by 1971 he had not been fighting because of this issues with the draft board, correct?
Paul Beston: Right, he had a couple of fights before he got in the ring with Frazier.
Matt Hennessey: He had a couple of warm up fights, Frazier is the champion, everyone is waiting for Ali to fight Smoking Joe Frazier. How was Frazier known in the culture at this time?
Paul Beston: Frazier had the great misfortune of coming along the time that he did. He had a background that would have made him probably in that time we had talked about earlier, when men to the relief office to pay them back, he would have probably be champion far and wide. He had an incredible up-from-the-bootstraps story, he grew up in terrible poverty in South Carolina and fought his way to success and prosperity. He was a no-nonsense man in every way, he was void of pretension. He was a great fighter. But like most fighters, really, he wasn’t political. He didn’t have time for politics, he had children, had very little education, he was just trying to advance himself. He was bewildered by the currents that swirled around this fight, many of them generated by Ali. Frazier, through no fault of his own, became painted as representative of white America and of conservatism and of pro-war outlooks. And this was largely Ali’s doing, painting him in that fashion.
Matt Hennessey: What kind of fighters were these guys? Can you talk a little about that?
Paul Beston: They had contrasting styles that is just the dream of boxing fans. The oldest model in all of boxing is the boxer versus the slugger. There’s the guy who uses defense and skill and moves, and is able to hit without getting hit. Then there’s the slugger who’s trying to throw a knockout blow and is willing to take a couple of hits for his trouble. These guys fit that mold exactly. Ali obviously the boxer, the incredible speed, beautiful physique skills and reflexes, everything. Every possible advantage. Joe Frazier, shorter and shorter arms, tireless, and the slugger coming forward at all times.
Matt Hennessey: At this time, they’re both really at their physical peaks. They’re both in great shape, ready to rock. The fight was at Madison Square Garden, 1971? Huge spectacle, as big as they come. What went down?
Paul Beston: In the book, I call this fight the greatest fight there ever was. Some people say the third fight, which was held a few years later, Ali dubbed the “Thrilla in Manilla”, was the greatest fight. But I really differ with that. The first fight is really unmatched because as you just said, they are as close to their physical peaks. They were younger men. The fight is just extraordinary. If you ever want to watch any fight, just watch that first fight. It was just nonstop go for 15 rounds. Boxing matches were 15 rounds back then, there are only 12 now. It was a seesaw battle, tremendous momentum shifts. But it culminates in the 15th round when Frazier knocks Ali down with a left-hook that he later said came all the way from South Carolina.
Matt Hennessey: So, Ali wins by knockout or by decision?
Paul Beston: No, Frazier wins by decision. Frazier knocks Ali down in the 15th round. Ali remarkably gets up from that, and lasts out the round. It goes to the judges scorecard and Frazier is the winner.
Matt Hennessey: So Frazier wins the first fight. But then, he doesn’t fight again for a while, right? People thought that maybe he got hurt by that punch you talked about.
Paul Beston: Frazier expended incredible physical resources winning that fight. There’s pictures of his face, his eyes are puffed beyond belief. Looks there’s been bee stings around his eyes. He really gave everything he had to defeat Ali in that fight. He didn’t have that much left so he did take a long layoff from boxing.
Matt Hennessey: And in the following years, Ali fought a few times and lost.
Paul Beston: Ali lost a second fight later against a guy named Ken Norton. Some people might remember that. Both Frazier and Ali in a few years after that first fight were looked upon as starting to decline.
Matt Hennessey: When Frazier got back into the ring, he got into the ring with George Foreman. In the famous “Frazier goes down” fight.
Paul Beston: Never a good idea to get into the ring with George Foreman.
Matt Hennessey: When Ali and Frazier meet again in the rematch, they’re both sort-of fading champions at this point. There’s still a lot of interest.
Paul Beston: Tons of interest. Even though they’ve diminished, it’s still Ali and Frazier. And again, by now the relationship between the two men is just tremendous animosity.
Matt Hennessey: And really polarized in the culture, in terms of who you’re pulling for in this fight really says a lot about who you are and what you believe in.
Paul Beston: And Ali really put it out there that if you’re essentially a black person of any integrity and you’re out for black progress, you have to root for him. If you root for Frazier, you’re rooting against black progress or whatever you want to call it. Again, very polarizing categories and they fought for a second time in New York and this time Ali won. It was not as good as the first fight.
Matt Hennessey: So after that, Ali goes to Zaire to fight Foreman. And that’s the “Rumble in the Jungle,” we’ve all seen the movie, we know that exciting story. To get back to Joe Frazier for the tie-breaker here, it’s the “Thrilla in Manilla” as you mentioned earlier. Just talk a little bit about how that fight happens and who wins.
Paul Beston: Yes this is the third and final fight. Ali is now the champion because he “shocked the world” as he liked to say by beating Foreman. Now he’s going to fight his old adversary Frazier in the “rubber match.” The fight gets put together in the Philippines. Ali another amazing thing about his career were these incredible locales for fights. They end up in Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines for this fight. Again Ali ups the ante on the animosity. This time time deriding Frazier’s looks, ugliness and calling him a gorilla. And created rhymes around “gorilla” and “Manilla.” Frazier at this point after five years of abuse from Ali, and having to hire private security guards to protect his home and his children from various threats. Not from Ali but from crazy people stirred up from this stuff. Frazier is basically ready to put his life on the line for this fight, and he basically does. It may not be the greatest heavyweight fight ever. But it’s the most bruising and the most savage. It’s about 100 degrees in that ampitheatre in Manilla. Humid and just awful. In fact, their gloves start to get waterlogged with sweat and water.
Matt Hennessey: You have a great detail in the book about Imelda Marcos, sitting ringside, and turning away in horror at the sound of the thwomping of the wet gloves on the flesh.
Paul Beston: Yes, kind of ironic. If you watch the tape of that fight, you can hear by the middle rounds the gloves are making this thwacking sound which is just sort of grotesque. It’s just a savage fight, it’s grueling for both men. And Ali seems to be near the end in his corner, telling his cornerman that he wants to quit, but he goes on somehow. Finally, Frazier’s eyes are close, again he cannot see. And Ali rallies and surges at the end. And before the final round, Frazier’s corner stops the fight and Ali is the winner.
Matt Hennessey: And there was some debate about whether Ali was even asking to stop the fight.
Paul Beston: Ali himself says that he wasn’t going to come out. I don’t really believe that, I think Ali would have come out. And if he didn’t come out, Angelo Dundee, his great trainer, would have pushed him out.
Matt Hennessey: Did Ali ever really atone for his behavior, or account for it, or apologize for it in any kind of a public way? I mean he was really terrible to Frazier.
Paul Beston: He did in years later. It’s funny, it was almost a generation passed before kind of began reconsidering all this. Some books appear and people started to say “remember all this? Wait a minute. What was it all about? What was really awful.” And there were some people saying it at the time, but they were getting drowned out. These fights were such spectacles. Ali and Frazier. I was just a kid at the time but everyone was talking about it. And it just became overwhelmed by the spectacle. And it was only years later, with reflection, that people began speaking up on Frazier's behalf. Ali did give apologies saying he regretted it, I don’t know if they were satisfactory to Frazier. I’m just not sure at a certain point that anything would have done. I don’t think he ever did let it go, unfortunately.
Matt Hennessey: Do you see parallels that played out in the culture around these fights and what’s going on with the NFL protests now? Just in terms of how people respond to it? Obviously it’s very emotional and polarizing. Does it reflect what was going on at this time?
Paul Beston: Ali certainly aroused. The fans who are angry at the NFL players, and there seems to be many, that was generally the response to Ali when he did not take the step forward with the draft board. And I think that’s easily forgotten today, because so much time has passed. It was 50 years ago. And as you said, Ali in the interim just became this kind of twilight figure, loveable, all about kindness and love and the rest. But the reactions are actually fairly similar, 50 years apart. When you’re living in the moment, people don’t like this too much. A lot of people wanted Ali, he would’ve served a ceremonial role in the Army like Joe Louis, he would not have been out there in the front lines. So yeah, I see some similarities. And a lot of players probably cite Muhammad Ali for their political activism.
Matt Hennessey: Well, Paul. You’ve written a book that takes readers breezily and depthly through more than 100 years of heavyweight boxing and brings to vivid life what for me was previously just a lot of names. Things that I should have known. And I recognize that I didn’t. But it also captures something really truthful and essential about the unique eras in which these champions fought. For me, The Boxing Kings is a work of history with the fight-game as a backdrop. Paul Beston, thanks for talking with me.
Paul Beston: Thanks, Matt, good talking with you.
Matt Hennessey: Paul’s book, The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled, is available now, wherever books are sold.
Brian Anderson: You can subscribe to this and other Manhattan Institute podcasts in the iTunes store. The audio edition and transcript is available on our website, www.city-journal.org. This is City Journal editor Brian Anderson. Thanks again for listening to the 10 Blocks Podcast.