By Thomas Gerbasi
Paul Beston insists that he didn’t write his book, The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring, to make us all feel bad that there is no Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey or Rocky Marciano around anymore.
“No, I wasn’t,” he laughs. “I’m well aware that boxing lives on and I still watch it myself, but I’m trying to write from the perspective of how it once enveloped the broader culture.”
And that is the sad part of reading this engrossing 374-page history of the heavyweight championship in America. As each champion’s story is recounted, the greater impact of the legends on the culture of the time is revealed to be much more than just as a sportsman. Of course, Ali as an example is a given. But what about John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Dempsey, Louis or even Mike Tyson? These were transcendent figures in many ways, and it’s just not something that still exists in the boxing world, heavyweight or not.
“I told my wife, if you asked your friend Angela 25 years ago who Mike Tyson was, she would know,” Beston said. “And 25 years later, she would know. If you ask her who Floyd Mayweather is, she won’t know. That’s what different to me. It’s that kind of all-encompassing presence that these guys had that I feel like a lot of the sport has lost, even though there are still great fights going on and there are still great fighters.”
What Beston does brilliantly throughout the book is give us both sides. Yes, the sociological impact is important, but for the diehard boxing fan, it’s the fights that have to take center stage, and his exhaustive research brings us ringside through his own observations of old fight films and the accounts of the reporters of the day. And while instant access to footage these days makes fight reports almost obsolete, back before the internet took over, newspaper reporters were often the only game in town.
“When I was reading old newspapers for this book, I was continually struck at how long the articles were,” he laughs. “It was incredible how long they were. And people wanted them long because that was it. You were describing what was at the fight because there was no video. So they were telling you everything, and all these social pictures emerge almost off-handedly in a lot of those old fight articles.”
A particular highlight is Beston’s retelling of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries bout of 1910, which features the ongoing banter between the combatants, as well as former heavyweight champions James J. Corbett and John L. Sullivan. It’s compelling reporting that educates as well as entertains, and for fans of the sport, both the new and the hardcore, it’s a must-read.
Yet Beston’s goal isn’t just to provide answers, but to provoke some questions as well.
“From a boxing standpoint, in terms of importance, maybe it provokes the question, ‘What is it that the sport isn’t doing now that it was doing then that reached the average fan who wasn’t a devoted boxing fan?’ And what is the answer to that question? Maybe it doesn’t have as much to do with boxing as we think.
“Maybe it has more to do with the culture because part of boxing’s heyday did come in that era when there were far less sporting competitions,” he continues. “There was really boxing and baseball for a long, long time, and that suited boxing just fine. And it got pretty complicated once the NFL and NBA became big things. And all of them became very well run, super corporate, competent sports leagues. I know they have their controversies, but they’re run like super corporations, and one of the analogies I use with my friends is, could you imagine if the Patriots got to the Super Bowl and the team from the other conference was Dallas and the Patriots said, ‘Well, we’re not gonna play Dallas; we’re just gonna play Green Bay.’ Nobody would tolerate that kind of thing and yet that goes on in boxing all the time.”
Having four major sanctioning bodies with their own champion doesn’t help. Then there’s the prevailing sentiment that if an athlete is 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he’s an NFL tight end or an NBA shooting guard, leaving boxing in the dust as an option for heavyweight-sized sportsmen. And in a world with so many entertainment and sporting options, Saturday nights are not often spent at a heavyweight title fight or in front of the television watching one.
Beston would add that over time, the title itself, one that once bestowed on its holder the moniker of “Boxing’s Mr. President,” also lost its luster.
“In the older days, a guy like Marciano – quiet, humble and respectful – he could be every bit as big a champion as the other guys who had come before him because the title meant so much to people then,” he said. “And when Tyson came along, half the time, especially after he got out of jail, he was fighting for these ridiculous titles against people like Bruce Seldon, and 90 percent of the people watching had no idea what the lineal title was. It almost didn’t matter to people because when people thought of Tyson, they thought he was the champion, when a lot of the time he wasn’t anymore.
“It’s the Super Bowl analogy again,” Beston continues. “You can’t mess with the Super Bowl. No matter how popular the Patriots are, if they lose, they’re not the champs. Whoever wins the Super Bowl, they’re the champs and nobody questions that. But somewhere along the line with the heavyweight title, with the sanctioning bodies being a big part of it, the personalities took over. It muddied things for people because the idea of who really was the best became less important to the general public.”
At the moment, the United States’ Deontay Wilder holds one version of the heavyweight title. England’s Anthony Joshua has a pair of belts, while New Zealand’s Joseph Parker has the fourth title. A glance through the rankings shows little reason to get excited about an American heavyweight outside of Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, who is charismatic but still a work in progress. In other words, are the days Paul Beston writes about in The Boxing Kings gone forever?
“I have to say that at the level that the book chronicles, I’m very skeptical,” Beston said. “I don’t see how it could. I don’t think all of that really has to do with boxing. Some of it certainly does, but I don’t think all of it does. The one part that could change a little bit and could bring some semblance of it back, in my opinion, is if an American heavyweight who was captivating and magnetic came along and started winning fights in exciting fashion. I do think that would create some excitement.”
Then he talks of a possible Wilder vs. Joshua bout and the interest that would produce, and as scholarly and no nonsense as his book is, you can detect the hint of optimism, proving that deep down, Beston is a fan like the rest of us.