The Boxing Kings: book review

Gary Lucken
03/12/2017 2:20am

Gary Lucken reviews a new book which covers more than a century of heavyweight history...

Attempting to condense more than a century of heavyweight boxing champions into a single and cohesive narrative is a daunting task.

But that’s exactly what “The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring” sets out to do.

And it succeeds admirably.

Written by Paul Beston, The Boxing Kings traces the lineage of the heavyweight crown from the late 19th century pomp of John L Sullivan all the way through to the dying embers of Mike Tyson’s career.

For most of that time the richest prize in sport, as it was often dubbed, was the preserve of an American and the title bestowed, in the author’s words, a “quasi-royal authority” on its holder.

The men who stood atop the fistic kingdom held a special place in the nation’s psyche and their exploits, both in and out of the roped arena, generated extensive reportage which spread well beyond the sports pages.

Beston chronicles, in elegant but unpretentious prose, how the torch passed through the decades from champion to champion until finally, as the 20th century drew to a close, the United States lost its grip on the heavyweight throne with the arrival of Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers.

Particular emphasis is given to the lives and careers of seven legendary figures – Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Tyson, men who transcended boxing to become cultural icons.

But all the other champions are also there, taking their place in the unfolding story. Famous names such as “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, Gene Tunney, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman feature alongside the less celebrated fighters who reached the pinnacle of the heavyweight class. The occasional foreign interlopers - the likes of Bob Fitzsimmons, Max Schmeling and Ingemar Johansson - are not forgotten.

The level of detail is impressive, indicative of meticulous research and ranging from the backgrounds of the men involved to blow-by-blow accounts of key moments in certain bouts such as Johnson’s “Fight of the Century” with Jim Jeffries, Dempsey’s battles with Tunney, and Ali’s showdowns with Liston, Frazier and Foreman.

Beston even drops in various fascinating titbits of information which may surprise the most avid followers of the sweet science – a particular gem is the tale of how Tyson, in the aftermath of his stoppage of Larry Holmes, deliberately mimicked a pose by old-time lightweight king Battling Nelson.

The book is also more than just a boxing tome – along the way it examines how American society changed over time and reflects upon how the sport’s champions fitted into the era they lived in, giving an insight into issues such as race relations, civil rights and the Vietnam War.

The author’s passion for his subject is evident throughout – as one might expect from a writer who admits in his introduction that as a boy he memorised the Dewey decimal call number for boxing (the classification system used in libraries to organise books).

Simply put, The Boxing Kings is a delight - a comprehensive history that segues smoothly through the years and one which should appeal to both hardcore fight fans and those with little previous knowledge of the heavyweight division’s storied past.

An outstanding book. Thoroughly recommended.

Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring is published by Rowman & Littlefield.