Racial Progress Killed American Boxing

Racial progress killed American boxing

Floyd, Manny and Al cash in on its (brief?) revival.

“We should see a classic fight on a classic night,” predicts former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver. “It should go down in boxing folklore as one of the greatest fights of all time.”

BY BRANDO SIMEO STARKEY WITH REPORTING BY JUSTIN TINSLEY

ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARK SMIT

Death haunts boxing. Its combatants die in the ring. Its chroniclers call for the sport’s burial. Its critics exaggerate prizefighting’s demise.

Can boxing be dead when Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are just days from staging the most lucrative fight of all time? When celebrities and millionaires tussle over the right to purchase $100,000 ringside seats? When millions fork over $100 on pay-per-view to see past-their-prime warriors stage the real Grudge Match? When Las Vegas Strip hotels from the Luxor to Circus Circus charge Venetian and Bellagio prices this weekend?

“We should see a classic fight on a classic night,” predicts former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver. “It should go down in boxing folklore as one of the greatest fights of all time.”

How can boxing be dead if Mayweather-Pacquiao is the sport’s most important fight?

“Muhammad Ali was always my greatest fighter, OK?” observes Hall of Fame referee Richard Steele. “But Muhammad Ali lost five times. If Floyd wins this fight, he’s the all-time greatest because he’s never lost.”

How can boxing be dead if its consequences are the direst in sports?

“A lot of people are afraid of boxing because boxing is not a game. You can play any other sport you want to play, but you cannot ‘play’ boxing,” explains former champion Thomas Hearns. “This hurts. You got to be fearless.”
How can boxing be dead?

This is life after American cultural death.

This weekend’s spectacle is Al Haymon resuscitating boxing for one last shot at glory. This is Floyd Mayweather turning in the lottery ticket he inherited from Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Ali. This is nostalgia and celebration and, ultimately, the funeral for a sport that derived nearly all of its cultural relevance from barbarically arguing America’s black-white racial dilemma.

Death killed boxing. Three deaths in particular: Charlie Mohr, Benny Paret and Jim Crow.

On April 9, 1960, in front of 10,000 screaming fans at the annual NCAA national boxing tournament, San Jose State’s Stu Bartell unleashed a devastating right hand to the temple of Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr. Mohr woozily climbed to his feet before the referee stopped the fight. He returned to his dressing room and fell off a bench and into a coma. Mohr died a week later at the University of Wisconsin hospital.

The NCAA promptly canceled its boxing tournament.

On March 24, 1962, inside Madison Square Garden and on ABC’s wildly popular “The Fight of the Week,” Emile Griffith cornered Benny “Kid” Paret and pummeled his skull with nearly 30 blows in 20 seconds. When the referee finally stopped the fight, Paret’s body folded like a wet towel to the canvas. Surgery to remedy blood clots surrounding his brain proved fruitless. Paret was the fourth boxer to die in three months.

Paret’s slaughter undermined the popularity and marketability of boxing on national TV. Over the next 10 years, in terms of televised exposure, the sport shrank into the shadows.

When it returned to televised prominence, another, more lethal weapon began attacking boxing’s foundational soul: integration.

The opportunities afforded African-Americans in the aftermath of the civil rights movement gutted boxing’s talent pipeline and detached the sport from the black-versus-white narrative seducing this country’s top sports pundits and intellectual voices. America’s elite and working class loved, tolerated and mined boxing’s importance when it represented something profound about the African-American struggle.

When its gravitas faded, when Ali’s feet and mouth slowed, when poor black boys figured out football and basketball offered quicker, safer routes out of the ghetto and toward fame and the mainstream, boxing slid off the New York Times front page, off the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and out of the teleprompters of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings.

Boxing as an American cultural force expired during Ali’s penultimate fight, the night Larry Holmes accelerated The Greatest’s descent into Parkinson’s disease with a barrage of punches that made Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee plead with the referee to save his fighter.

Holmes, Hearns, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Roy Jones acted as boxing’s CPR for the next 25 years, with their brilliance between the ropes serving as the sport’s life-support system as the talent after them chose football and basketball.

At ages 38 and 36, respectively, and after ducking each other for six years, Mayweather and Pacquiao will shake the sport from its terminal slumber as Haymon, the new Don King, desperately applies defibrillators.

Ready to Lie

Boxing broadcaster Max Kellerman argues boxing is the lone popular, mainstream sport that is a literal imposition of will.

“If Steph Curry breaks Chris Paul’s ankles and drains a jumper, Curry metaphorically imposes his will. The ball serves as proxy for will,” Kellerman explains. “But if Lennox Lewis hits Mike Tyson with a right hand and Tyson goes down, Lewis literally imposes his will on Tyson by detaching Tyson from his own will.”

To varying degrees, white America has used its institutions and laws to impose its physical, mental and emotional will upon black America for hundreds of years. At its birth, prizefighting played a symbolic but significant role in white America’s imposition of white supremacy will.

The legalization of boxing coincided with this country’s second industrial revolution, a time in the late 1800s when stereotypical machismo defined the American identity and white supremacy. Therefore, dominance in boxing served as a key piece of evidence in the subordination of blacks.

Myths abounded about black inferiority. Bigots labeled black fighters weak-stomached cowards, vulnerable to body shots. Another warped belief held at the time: Only athletes with ancestral links to cold climates had the requisite endurance to retain their power throughout a long, grueling match.

John L. Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, emerged as America’s first sports hero. His larger-than-life persona and bravado catapulted him into the country’s zeitgeist. “I can lick any man in the house,” Sullivan bragged through a handlebar mustache. He refused to fight black fighters, though, once telling a reporter, “I kept the color line drawn.”

Jack Johnson benefited greatly by using boxing’s racial narrative for his financial gain.

Jack Johnson obliterated it.

Johnson first fought in battle royals, racist events in which up to 10 black men, often blindfolded, entered a ring and fought medievally for a prize given to the last man standing. American slave owners, corralling as many as 30 burly field hands, staged such spectacles on plantations for entertainment and gambling. The Roman Empire had outlawed these events, but in the 19th century, they frequently functioned as amateur boxing for black pugilists.

The colored champion did not get a title shot against a white man until 1908. But when he did, Johnson beat the heavyweight crown from Tommy Burns’s grasp, so thoroughly the police came into the ring, stopped the fight and turned off the cameras filming the beatdown, thereby preventing the world from seeing video of a black man standing over a defeated white opponent.

Whites, stunned by the result, rejected the victory’s importance and insisted James J. Jeffries, not Burns, was the true champion. When Johnson beat Jeffries on July 4, 1910, whites rioted and lynched black men.

Johnson’s victory marked the beginning of the Great White Hope era, when white promoters scoured the globe, looking for big white men who could reclaim sports’ — and white supremacy’s — most coveted prize.

Whites harbored special ire for Johnson. He beat up white men in the ring, bragged about it afterward and ended his nights with a white woman’s arms and legs wrapped around him.

As white promoters looked for white fighters, Johnson did also, enforcing a color line against his own. He knew black fighters most threatened his reign atop boxing and said, “I won’t box any of these colored boys now. I’ll retire still the only colored heavyweight champ.”

More than that, Johnson understood the importance of the black-white narrative. The arc of the interracial fight bends toward money. Johnson knew he could generate more cash by fighting white men, when he could tease whites with the idea that they should plop down their money to see whether white supremacy in boxing could be restored.

By playing the heel and provocateur, he elevated boxing and became America’s first black superstar.

He held the title for seven years, until Jess Willard dethroned him in April 1915. The boxing establishment spent the next two decades ensuring no black heavyweight received a title shot. In 1913, the federal government prosecuted and convicted Johnson under the Mann Act for sleeping with and traveling across state lines with a white prostitute. He escaped incarceration for seven years before serving his one-year and one-day term in 1920-21. Jack Dempsey eventually ascended to the heavyweight throne and held the title from 1919 to 1926. Thanks to Dempsey, boxing rivaled baseball in popularity.

“Babe Ruth was the biggest of his time, and Jack Dempsey was more popular than him and made a heck of a lot more money,” boxing historian James Curl said.

Boxing’s importance at the time as a symbol of white supremacy cannot be exaggerated. It took Joe Louis and Adolf Hitler to make white America comfortable with a black champion.

The Brown Bomber’s handlers molded him into the antithesis of the Galveston Giant, Jack Johnson. Joe Louis played the role of America’s most palatable black man.

“He was the first black man on the front page of the paper who hadn’t committed a crime,” quips his son Joe Louis Barrow Jr.

“He was forced to live a lie,” believes former New York Times columnist Bob Lipsyte, who made his reputation covering Ali. “He was manipulated and misused.”

Louis fought 32 bouts before getting his title shot against James Braddock in 1937. Louis knocked out Braddock in the eighth round, sending black folk to the streets in celebration. By 1938, when Louis stepped into the ring against Germany’s Max Schmeling, Hitler’s proxy for a master race, black America and white America were uniform in their support of Louis. The Champ avenged his 1936 loss to Schmeling with a first-round knockout.

“Joe Louis,” HBO boxing broadcaster Larry Merchant notes, “changed the map, and suddenly promoters were interested in black fighters of every weight and saw the opportunities to make integrated fights and how that would attract fans, and then you get fighters like Henry Armstrong and Sugar Ray Robinson, and that’s what led to the black era of boxing.”

Promoters saw an opportunity to make money selling racial and ethnic narratives, particularly the black-white one. They matched and built promotion around Irish versus Polish, Italian versus Jew. The black fighters did not need an identifier. Sugar Ray Robinson versus Jake LaMotta sold itself.

“Boxing was sold in a racist fashion,” states Lipsyte. “Boxing was a corrupt, unhealthy stain on America. Most of the narrative people got excited about was bullshit. Very little good ever came out of boxing.”

Joe Louis’s last fight, at age 37, pitted him against the last undisputed white American heavyweight champion, Rocky Marciano, the winner by knockout. America’s financial recovery and the GI Bill after World War II produced economic pathways for poor white men that slowly and steadily depleted boxing of Caucasian talent.

Two decades later, the civil rights movement and integration would give poor black men access to those same pathways and eventually drain boxing’s black pipeline.

But first, Cassius Clay would propel prizefighting to an unprecedented level of cultural importance by turning his black rivals into symbols of white establishment.

Muhammad Ali became the world’s most recognizable athlete during America’s most racially tense period of the 20th century.

Born Again

Muhammad Ali rode boxing to eternal fame at the most volatile time in American history since the Civil War. Assassins killed a sitting president, his brother, the country’s most influential religious leader and its most frightening black firebrand. The United States sparred with its communist nemesis, fought an unpopular war and liberated its mind with drugs and its body with sex. All of this occurred while the nation jailed, water-hosed, bombed and lynched freedom fighters seeking racial equality.

Cassius Clay opened a window to all these stories of upheaval. He is essential to the story of the 1960s and ’70s, a boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, who discarded his slave name, joined a religion that called white people blue-eyed devils, refused entry into the military, and made boxing science sweet and poetic.

At a time when America raced toward the moon and white supremacy abandoned the debate over physical might and relied more heavily on intellectual capacity and moral integrity, Ali made boxing central to the country’s narrative with Malcolm X-style rhetoric and the teachings of the Nation of Islam.

Every sports writer, journalist, cultural critic and broadcaster seeking relevance and fame flocked to Ali’s gym, news conferences and fights. Howard Cosell grabbed Ali’s coattails and soared to fortune and immortality. So did Don King. Ali was a kingmaker.

Ali held even more power over his opponents. In a cruel mix of emotion and exploitative capitalism, he recast them as betrayers of black people and spokesmen for the white establishment. With his tongue and charm captivating the white media, Ali browbeat Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston, Ken Norton and countless other challengers, thus placing them on the opposite side of the moving color line Ali enforced as passionately as John L. Sullivan administered his.

Floyd Patterson suffered Ali’s wrath first. Patterson insisted on calling Ali by his former name, Cassius Clay, and criticized the Nation of Islam. An enraged Ali visited Patterson’s training facilities and taunted Patterson.

“You white man’s Uncle Tom. I’ll jump right in there on you now,” Ali threatened. “… Going to put him flat on his back so that he will start acting black.”

During their fight, Ali pummeled and taunted Patterson and called him “white American” and the “white man’s n—–.”

Ali perfected the routine against Frazier, a friend who supported Ali during his government-imposed exile from boxing. Before their first bout in March 1971, Ali turned Frazier, the son of a sharecropper, into a Stepin Fetchit caricature. “Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom. Everybody who’s black wants me to keep winning,” he boasted. Throughout their legendary trilogy, Ali unmercifully attacked Frazier and labeled him a “gorilla,” among other pejoratives.

While Ali dazzled in the ring and stirred racial animus out of it, the seeds of progress planted by the civil rights movement and the victories eventually won in the Cold War attacked boxing’s foundation — black talent and Olympic boxing.

 

“Muhammad Ali was always my greatest fighter, OK? But Muhammad Ali lost five times. If Floyd wins this fight, he’s the all-time greatest because he’s never lost.”

– Richard Steele

Just as the post-WWII economy and the New Deal alleviated the poverty and desperation that produced great white boxers, the civil rights movement and integration did the same for blacks.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson shoveled dirt on the grave of Jim Crow, they dug American boxing’s resting spot. After the passage of civil rights legislation, desperation waned and opportunities for advancement burgeoned.

“The bridge is not as narrow as it was before,” says Harold Weston Jr., former welterweight boxer and matchmaker for Madison Square Garden. “Boxing is a tough sport, and to even do it physically with all the other craziness going on — just get into condition and learn the sport — is really tough. So a lot of young men don’t want to go through all that aggravation and it’s no guarantee that you’re going to make it.”

During the 1960s, big Southern colleges began to integrate their athletic programs. The number of scholarships available to black athletes exploded. Blacks gradually obtained full access to all major state universities, and the possibility of at least getting a college scholarship took away the central rationale to pursue boxing: the desperation to climb out of the basement of American society.

“When people ask me, ‘Where are all the American heavyweights?'” Merchant says, “I tend to respond, ‘They’re all playing linebacker.’ There are thousands of them.”

Kellerman agrees, adding: “I would argue that the heavyweight title is still contested on free television between Americans, but it’s contested on the blind side of the quarterback.”

The post-WWII economic boom, the New Deal and integration have operated together to produce an American society bereft of boxers. Between 8,000 and 10,000 professional boxers were licensed in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s. That figure fell in the 1950s to 5,000-6,000. By 2006, the numbers had tumbled further and only 2,850 fighters were licensed in the U.S.

Boxing’s decline is logical. It’s a boom-or-bust endeavor, a sport without a safety net. If an underprivileged athlete chooses football or basketball, at age 18, he’s immediately transported out of the ghetto to an idyllic college campus. His network of associates and friends improves economically and socially. He is offered an education and a path to a career beyond sports. Even if he never makes it to the professional ranks, an athlete’s life can be significantly improved by going to college.

Boxing can’t compete. It requires a person to live in a gym and remain in poverty until the real money comes. Boxing, most important, offers hopefuls far fewer spots. Football teams have 22 starting positions and another 30 to 50 backups.

The decline in boxing’s popularity in America is evident in referee Richard Steele’s own Las Vegas amateur program. “I have 75 kids in my gym. Out of 75 kids, I only have about 20 black. They found they can do other things.”

The 1960s and 1970s, especially in the heavyweight division, produced innumerable classic bouts, mainly between black American fighters from impoverished backgrounds, men reared in an America where hopelessness defined the black experience and when pursuing boxing still made some logical sense.

“Some” is the keyword. Boxing has never been logical or strategically organized. Shaped as a tool of bigotry, best combated by society’s hopeless and corrupted by venture capitalists looking for a place to earn money free of tight oversight and restrictions, boxing has been devoid of leadership since its birth.

The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry provided a much-needed dose of excitement in the NBA in the 1980s.

America’s best sports employ commissioners and establish central intelligence and guidance. Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue turned this country’s other violent, gladiator sport into the national pastime. Larry O’Brien and David Stern exploited Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s arrival to the NBA, which, coincidentally, coincided with Ali’s exit from boxing. O’Brien and Stern reshaped the image of a league dogged by a perception of drug abuse and uninspired play with a black-white plotline that, once again, enthralled pundits and intellectuals.

“Boxing is the wild, wild West,” Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood says. “We don’t have anyone who looks after the long-term interests of boxing. The interest in boxing is all short-term.”

Promoters — aka agents for the fighters — run the sport, and their moves are focused on snatching as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Imagine Drew Rosenhaus, Scott Boras and World Wide Wes lording over pro football, baseball and basketball. Don King, Bob Arum and Tex Rickard operated as de facto commissioners and manipulated the sport’s corrupt sanctioning bodies.

Agents protect the interests of individual clients, not the overall health of the league.

The lack of leadership devastated the sport when the Olympic Games lost a significant amount of their relevance.

Cassius Clay (’60), Joe Frazier (’64), George Foreman (’68), Sugar Ray Leonard (’76) and a host of other American fighters starred at the Olympics before taking flight as professional box-office stars. U.S. fighters once used the Summer Games as their “American Idol.” President Jimmy Carter and General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko crippled the show by leading boycotts, respectively, of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.

The good-versus-evil battles between capitalists and communists drove interest and financing in the Olympics and elevated the importance of the Games. By 1988, the Soviet Union spiraled toward complete collapse, taking U.S. Olympic boxing with it. After training with their coaches for just one month before the London Games amid USA Boxing’s administrative clown show, U.S. men’s fighters failed to medal in 2012.

Excellent amateur training produced nearly every top-tier boxer. The health of the U.S. amateur boxing program, however, has been put in the hands of inattentive practitioners. In former Soviet Bloc countries, where poverty and desperation rule, kids showing boxing promise are snatched up at an early age and given consistent, high-quality training.

“The amateur program [in America] is not what it used to be,” explains Steele. “The Olympic program is not what it used to be. A lot of people have lost interest in the Olympics, and that really has a lot to do with why our pros are not being developed.”

The last collection, or generation, of great African-American fighters, a group represented by Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Holmes, Tyson and Roy Jones Jr., staged some of the most memorable fights in boxing history. Hearns and Hagler produced a three-round bloody heirloom in 1985 that many experts consider boxing’s greatest eight minutes. No one will forget the 91 seconds Tyson spent stalking Michael Spinks or Buster Douglas’ shockingly staining Tyson’s unblemished record. Leonard’s wars with Hearns, Hagler and Roberto Duran defined the era. Before Mayweather, Jones challenged the all-time greatest throne occupied by Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson.

In his prime, Holmes took everyone apart, and in 1982, he faced the last legitimate “Great White Hope,” undefeated Gentleman Gerry Cooney, a slugger who captured the imagination of the mainstream media and President Ronald Reagan. The president allegedly had a phone installed in Cooney’s dressing room — but not Holmes’ — so he could personally congratulate the would-be champ for the homecoming of sports’ most coveted title.

Reagan never placed the call. Holmes floored Cooney early and late. Cooney’s cornerman threw in the towel and stopped the fight in the 13th round.

“I don’t care if they had 900 phones in his dressing room, they would not have worked for him,” chides Holmes remembering the bout that made him 40-0. “That’s their mistake. That’s Reagan’s loss for not congratulating me or wishing me the best. That’s their mistake.”

Rock Newman, a prominent promoter a quarter century ago, recalled the racial significance of June 11, 1982: “That’s the classic case of everyone maintaining that it wasn’t about race but actually playing the race card at every turn. Sports Illustrated had Cooney on the cover and Larry Holmes on the inside fold. If anybody wants to be honest and candid, part of the reason that fight was sold, so highly promoted and well-received and intriguing was because there was a possibility of a white heavyweight champion.

“It was truly sold as a ‘white hope’ who had a chance.”

After 100 years, boxing’s black-white narrative died, to the disappointment of our president, boxing promoters, and fans both ardent and casual. Their desires would not be satiated for another two years, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird met in the NBA Finals. The Magic-Larry rivalry and the rise of the NBA signified a dropping of the gloves as the black athletes most capable of defining the African-American struggle moved to team sports. They now run the pick-and-roll or the spread-option offense. They wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts and hoodies and pressure owners to sell their teams.

Floyd Mayweather — a marvelous showman devoid of cultural substance or much human dignity — now drives boxing.

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