Magazine | April 2, 2018, Issue

The Age of Fighters

Ingemar Johansson (left) and Floyd Patterson, 1961 (George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring, by Paul Beston (Rowman & Littlefield, 374 pp., $36) A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age, by James Lawton (Bloomsbury Sport, 304 pp., $28)

As the big fight approached last year, I was lying in bed, following the predictions on Twitter. My wife was sleeping already, and my infant son, too. In the very last ten minutes, my better judgment left me, and through a Showtime app on my tablet, I contributed my dollars to watch what was called “The Money Fight.” It was ten rounds of the two fighters’ trying to make customers like me feel as if they weren’t suckered into a gimmick.

Conor McGregor, the fun North Dublin trash-talker and mixed martial artist, turned in a slightly better-than-expected boxing performance against Floyd Mayweather, a true disciple of the sweet science. McGregor was there because he’s a star, not because he deserved a shot at the title. Each man represented the other’s greatest potential payday. Mayweather let him hang around for ten rounds and even land a few punches. The Irishman is reported to have earned over $100 million, all counted. Mayweather took perhaps four times that amount. Mayweather has since commissioned an enormous painting of MacGregor that hangs in his Beverly Hills home. Feeling like a sucker is now an exhaustive description of being a boxing fan in the current day.

But there is relief on the way, at least in books. Paul Beston’s The Boxing Kings approaches the sport’s champs in the premier division the way a historian would examine a kingly succession. James Lawton’s A Ringside Affair is a journalist’s reflection on an age that began with a 1977 fight between Muhammad Ali and Earnie Shavers and ended in a 2002 fight between Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis.

Boxing brings out greatness in writers, from Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak” to Joyce Carol Oates’s encounter with the subject of Mike Tyson in On Boxing. Beston’s book has that magic, and he deftly calls upon his predecessors to fill out his book with beauty and authority. His description of the fight between Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis is compact, swift, and efficient — but he turns to the old copy filed by Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune to summarize this fight that left many in the crowd in tears. “An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide,” Smith wrote. “Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.” There’s nothing that good in the New York papers today.

I especially enjoyed the seventh chapter, “Freudian Floyd, the Swede, and Sonny,” about Floyd Patterson’s rise and his three fights with the hard-punching Swede Ingemar Johansson, while Charles “Sonny” Liston waited in the wings. Liston, the product of a violent and deprived childhood, had problems with the law. Beston passes on the lore properly: “It was said that all Philly cops kept a photo of him pinned up in their cruisers.” (Beston comments that the cops’ low view of Liston was at least partially self-fulfilling.)

Beston finds another American belletrist, James Baldwin, writing about a fight that transfixed the country and seemed to speak to the emerging civil-rights movement. Baldwin finds Patterson gentle and complex, an unlikely fighter. And he finds Liston to be not the thug of popular imagination, but a man whose hardness was developed to disguise a more fundamental loneliness. Liston tells Baldwin: “Colored people say they don’t want their children to look up to me, well, they ain’t teaching their children to look up to Martin Luther King, either. . . . I wouldn’t be no bad example if I was up there.” Beston deftly tells us how important a heavyweight title fight between two black men could be in 1962. There was a record gross, and closed-circuit broadcasters put it in theaters nationwide, while “separate lines were patched in to the White House and to the home of Frank Sinatra in Hollywood.” While Beston keeps the focus on the fighters, his narrative includes asides about various gangsters and opportunists who exerted some influence on boxing; I found myself longing for him to chase every digression, to write a secret history of the sport.

Lawton’s A Ringside Affair has a brisker journalistic pace as it traces the history of heavyweight and welterweight boxing in the closing decades of the 20th century. There are many unflattering things to note about Mike Tyson and his life in the 1980s, when he was at the height of his career, but the image of the indulged and lazy heavyweight champion who had to be dragged to Japan to face Buster Douglas is among the most pathetic and disturbing. Tyson was a fighter of terrifying brutality and power, but in the run-up to his most infamous loss, he could hardly be bothered to train. He was enslaved to his appetites for alcohol and women. Lawton’s portrayal of Douglas, fresh off a divorce and haunted by familial trauma, is no less compelling. Before the fight, Douglas told reporters the story of his mother’s teaching him to man up to the challenge of a bully in school. “She told me to quit crying and either stand up to that kid or fight her,” he said, and added, rather grandiloquently, “Something great must be about to happen to James Douglas because something out there is definitely trying to deter me.”

Douglas’s upset of Tyson was so unthinkable that it took the fight’s announcers almost eight rounds even to contemplate the reality unfolding before them. Douglas had been beating Tyson from the opening bell; really, he had been beating him mentally and in preparation long beforehand.

Lawton’s accounts of the ups and downs of Evander Holyfield, and of Tyson’s infamous mid-fight snack on Holyfield’s ear, are loaded with details half-remembered by this young fight fan.

Near the end of the book, Lawton recounts the awful injustice done to British heavyweight Lennox Lewis in his 1999 fight with Evander Holyfield in Manhattan. The fight was scored as a draw even though, by the end of the fight, Holyfield looked like a casualty of war, and Lennox looked like he was fresh from a long brunch at Tavern on the Green. It was a monstrous foul-up, one that cried out for a rematch. Rematches are almost always good for boxing, except when they are obviously the result of greed, corruption, or simple incompetence in judging. At the end of this age of boxing, it was becoming clearer than ever that the fighters and fans were all losing, while the cable networks, and the large coterie of gangsterish promoters, were winning.

In a sense, Beston and Lawton are acting as eulogists, one for the greatness of American heavyweight boxing, the other for a more compact Golden Age. But soon another eulogy is coming, for the entire sport of American boxing. As I write, Mayweather and McGregor are ginning up rumors of a $1 billion rematch, this time in the octagonal cage of MMA. Symbolically, Mayweather’s entry into that ring would mark something like the end of American boxing. It was a sport born in gimmickry, sometimes distasteful ethnic rivalry, and opportunism; it will die of the same. But, as these two books so hauntingly remind us, boxing captured the imagination of the country when it transcended its origins, when its crowns and belts made these rough, charming, and violent men into kings.

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