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The Sweet Science

ISSUE:  Summer 1989
John L. Sullivan and His America. By Michael T. Isenberg. Illinois. $24. 95.
Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. By Jeffrey T. Sammons. Illinois. $24.95.

Not too many years ago, the “history” of sport meant the events themselves, the storied games and matches and personal achievements chiefly from baseball, football, and boxing. “Storied,” because there was no lack of books to keep these events fresh: anecdotal accounts of the heroic and the bizarre, inspiring “biographies” of Merriwellian stars, and record books of course, the raw data lying behind the legends. “You could look it up” when I was a kid in the 1950’s no less than in 1988, but what you found in the 50’s—or in the 60’s and even into the 70’s—was history of a very different sort from what you might find today.

While there has been no abatement of anecdotal and pop-biographical books (the currently popular warts-and-all version is not substantially different; warts have simply become a necessaiy part of the hero’s anatomy), within the last 15 years or so sport has also begun to receive the attention of serious historians. Sport history is a step-child of the 1960’s in two different ways: as anti-elitist study of popular culture and as social and cultural history. In studying sport, historians have been joined by sociologists, psychologists, literary critics, anthropologists, even philosophers. Each of these groups has its own journal and national organization; each has its methodological debates, its competing theories, its full cargo of disciplinary baggage. With the exception of the anthropologists, it also has its lingering sense of marginality.

Sport has long been recognized as a credible subject for cultural anthropologists; Gregory Bateson, Clifford Geertz, and Victor Turner have written major essays or monographs about sports or play. The gray eminences throughout the rest of the humanities and social sciences have found other topics more worthy of their attention. Those who write about the history or literature of sport are prone to a distinctive form of academic anxiety: the fear that they will be regarded as pedants of the frivolous. On the other hand, in my experience the young generation of sports scholars is also convinced that it has found the motherlode of scholarly gold. The assertions typically appear as defensive questions, usually some version of the following: given the central importance of sport in American culture, how can anyone deny the significance of studying it?

Michael Isenberg and Jeffrey Sammons are representative of the new generation of sport historians: assistant professors (at the United States Naval Academy and the University of Rutgers-Camden, respectively), whose revised dissertations on boxing have appeared in the series on Sport and Society published by the University of Illinois Press. This series, together with a similar one at Oxford University Press, is itself evidence of the emerging importance of sport studies in this country. And Isenberg’s and Sammons’ books illustrate the richness of sport as a subject for scholars. Isenberg’s life of John L. Sullivan is to the pop-biographies of boxing legends as Sammons’ account of boxing’s role in American life is to the anecdotal histories written by oldtime sports-writers between deadlines. Isenberg and Sammons have added solid studies to a body of writing—that includes Elliott Corn’s The Manly Art and biographies by Randy Roberts (of Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey) and Al-Tony Gilmore (of Johnson)—that is surpassed in quantity, if not quality, only by the scholarly writing on baseball. The primary appeal of baseball to writers, whether novelists or journalists or scholars, is by now a commonplace; but books like Corn’s, Isenberg’s, and Sammons’ are revealing the particular advantages of boxing for the historian. Given social historians’ interest in gender, race, class, and ethnicity, the appearance of three major studies of boxing within three years can be no coincidence. To Corn’s exemplary study of the bare-knuckle era— his detailed examination of working-class life in the middle of the 19th century through its patterns of leisure—can now be added Isenberg’s focus on the life and times of John L. Sullivan that picks up where Gorn left off, and Sammon’s sketchier survey of prizefighting in the 20th century, in effect completing a multi-authored triptych. All three authors simply by writing about boxing are necessarily interested in the effects of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization on the lower classes, in the often contradictory relations of the lower classes to their social “betters,” in the emergence of mass spectator sport (not the “toy department” in a dismissive sense but a central part of today’s culture of leisure and consumption) from outlawry in less than a century. Within their shared concerns Gorn emphasizes class, Isenberg gender, and Sammons race, while all three find in prizefighting not just a worthy subject for historical analysis but, in Isenberg’s terms, “a fascinating window into America as it powerfully emerged into the modern era.”

At the center of Isenberg’s biography of “the Great John L.” lies what the author calls “the cult of masculinity” in late 19th-century America. Sullivan was born in Boston within a decade of his parents’ emigration from Ireland, growing up in a world of intense ethnic consciousness and working-class struggle. But Isenberg emphasizes the aggressively and defiantly masculine nature of Sullivan’s world—a gendered enclave where immigrant met native, and lower class and middle shared some common assumptions. The saloon was its center, gender hostility and male camaraderie its social basis, alcohol its nourishment, the boast and challenge and brawl its ultimate sanctions. To be a local champion in “exhibitions” of pugilism, then “the Boston Strong Boy” in the New York sporting press, then the heavyweight champion of the world recognized in all 38 states and on three continents was to become the chief embodiment of the cult of masculinity for more than a decade. Isenberg is weak in explaining the origins and development of this cult, and is largely silent on its larger cultural presence and implications, but he documents its importance in the nether world of late 19th-century prizefighting in convincing detail.

A nether world it was. Isenberg begins his story with an account of Sullivan’s first major victory, over John Flood, the Bull’s Head Terror, in May 1881. The site was a barge on the Hudson River, which kept the fighters, their backers, and a small crowd out of the reach of the police long enough to stage the fight. Prizefighting was illegal almost everywhere in the United States when Sullivan began fighting; it remained illegal almost everywhere through the end of his career. In a bizarre scenario enacted over and over, fight articles would be signed and a site announced, then the fight crowd and local officials would play a widely publicized game of cat-and-mouse, with the fight eventually taking place in someone’s field across the river or state line until someone with a badge intervened. As the heavyweight champion of the world, “arguably the most popular man in the United States,” Sullivan could legally fight only “exhibitions”—a patent fiction that nothing was at stake and no violence would occur. When the blows landed too solidly or blood was spilled, a local official would stop the fight. When Sullivan fought more openly to defend his crown for a large purse and side bets—as in his most famous bout, a 76-round knockout of Jake Kilrain in 1889, the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship fight—he was arrested and convicted (but remained beyond the law in serving no sentence).

Such facts offer the historian wonderful material for examining contradictions in American culture during its formative periods. Isenberg repeatedly notes that Sullivan was a transitional figure between the pre-modern sporting culture that Elliott Corn examined and the world of modern sport in which we live today. Sullivan’s first bouts were held in places like Kit Burns’ saloon in New York, where other amusements included his famous “pit” in which dogs were set to kill as many wharf rats as they could in a certain time. His last championship bout—a loss to “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in 1892—was held in an electrified palace built in New Orleans expressly for the event. Through John L. Sullivan prize-fighting for the first time became accepted by significant elements of the respectable middle classes, despite its continuing illegality. The eminently respectable E.L. Godkin, writing in the eminently respectable Nation, noted that Sullivan’s victory over Paddy Ryan in 1882 received support not just from the “coarse and uneducated and vicious class” but also from “secret rills of sympathy which flow from higher sources” (this middle-class fascination with prize-fighting deserves much more attention). Sullivan was the first American to make a profession of prizefighting, his $25,000 purses earning 12 to 15 times the average laborer’s yearly wage. Sullivan was the first American sports hero with a truly national following—the product of both his own exploits and personality and the latest technology in communications and transportation. Sullivan was a creature of the press—not just of Richard Kyle Fox’s National Police Gazette but of the New York Times and the Boston Globe as well—in the period when the sport page first became an important part of the daily newspaper. Sullivan and his managers capitalized on and promoted his image with several national sparring tours (in 1883—84, Sullivan appeared in 163 cities and towns, 26 of 38 states plus the District of Columbia, five territories, and British Columbia; giving 195 performances in 238 days before more than 100,000 people—who for years afterward were greeted, “Let me shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan”). Sullivan anticipated later athletic stars not only by earning a fortune (more than $1 million from all sources) but also by spending a fortune-plus, by “writing” his autobiography at the height of his fame, by falling victim to alcohol, by presenting a public image as drunken bully as well as gaudy hero, and by finding a post-sport career in show business (touring in theatrical and vaudeville troups as a hog-fat ex-champion). At countless moments in Sullivan’s career one glimpses two worlds in collision: in his challenges to lick any man in the house for $250 (or $500, or $1000) dollars, when he became an urban version of the frontier roarer; in his sparring performances in towns like Leadville and Tombstone (in the latter case less than three years after the Earps and Doc Holliday met the Clanton gang at the OK Corral); in his touring as Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which version the hero Legree beats Tom in the climactic scene (“”Who owns your black body?” says I, sockin’ him again”) (Sullivan never unlearned the racism of his youth, refusing to fight black contenders like Peter Jackson, and he was later active in the movement to find a “white hope” to put Jack Johnson in his place).

Sullivan won the title in 1882 and held it for 10 years, but clearly his fame derived more from his physical presence and image than from his fight record. He was legendary for both profligacy and generosity; his public drunkenness, public divorce trial, and public brawls only fed the legend of his larger-than-life manliness. In an age that officially valued restraint and the work ethic, John L. Sullivan lived out of control—but that, apparently, only assured his stature. And Sullivan was more than a brute. In his noblest moment, after withstanding extreme punishment for 21 rounds from a younger, fitter Jim Corbett, Sullivan in a low voice, weakened by exhaustion and dehydration, stepped to ringside in order to address his fans one last time:

Gentlemen—gentlemen, I have nothing at all to say. All I have to say is that I came into the ring once too often—and if I had to get licked I’m glad I was licked by an American. I remain your warm and personal friend, John L. Sullivan.

Sullivan lived 26 more years after surrendering the crown, but he failed to anticipate future champions in at least one way: he never fell into the sorry state of the washed-up ex-pug. In 1905, having continued until then to live at or beyond the limits of a substantial income from the stage, Sullivan took the pledge, becoming both a temperance lecturer afterward and, from 1908 when he remarried until his quiet death in 1918, a sedate (and very large) country squire. In his attempt to separate facts from the fabrications of myth, Isenberg finds remaining more than enough material for both a lively narrative and an illuminating portrait of American society and culture in a period of profound change.

Sammons attempts to sketch a broader canvas, a portrait of boxing’s social role in the 20th century chiefly through its successive heavyweight champions. The result, perhaps necessarily, is a much less detailed treatment of boxing’s relationship to culture and class, a more disjointed topical book in which each figure from the prize ring provides the occasion for examining particular issues. Thus the discussion of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis centers on race, of Jack Dempsey on the commercialization of boxing (including a brief but valuable discussion of women’s relationship to the sport in the 1920’s), of Muhammad Ali on civil rights and politics. In discussing the game in the 1950’s, Sammons temporarily leaves the ring altogether to focus on what he calls the “unholy trinity: television, monopoly, and crime”—one of the most valuable sections of the book, for its working through thousands of pages of legal transcripts to explain how racketeers like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo came virtually to rule boxing in the 50’s (through the unwitting collusion of the new television industry), and how organized crime’s hold on boxing was (at least partially) broken by New York’s D.A. Frank Hogan and Senator Estes Kefauver. (The language in this section unfortunately becomes oddly tangled at times, resulting in a sort of “alleged” history of boxing and crime. Adverbial confusion is most striking when Sammons writes of a promoter who “allegedly received a phone call from Blinky Palermo, who was obviously acting on behalf of Carbo.”) Sammons also attends to the major promoters— from Tex Rickard to Mike Jacobs to Don King—who have been at least as responsible as the boxers themselves for the development of the sport (and whose financial rewards have been greater). King, the wild-haired black ex-con is a particularly interesting figure in the current fight scene. In a thoroughly corrupt “sport,” Sammons implies, King at last has gained for a black man outside the ring a share of the spoils.

Sammons’ book can be best appreciated for certain of its parts: the discussions of women and of organized crime, of the manufacture of champions’ images to match the public’s expectations or to satisfy its needs, and of Muhammad Ali in particular. In writing of recent boxing history, for which readers have their own memories, Sammons lacks the advantage of Isenberg, whose material is often exotic. But in discussing Ali Sammons skillfully reconstructs a whole life from the serial fragments of recent memoiy. What most strikingly emerges is a convincing explanation how the seemingly radical dissenter of the 1960’s became a spokeman for reaction in the 1980’s. Ali, Sammons points out, was not understood by the government officials who hounded him or the public that either loved or reviled him. Cassius Clay was converted to Islam by Malcolm X, but when Malcolm was cut off from the Black Muslims, the young fighter remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad and his largely non-racist, certainly non-violent, in some ways even mainstream American religious group. Thus, as Sammons explains it, the frightening bogeyman of many whites’ imagination in fact professed a non-threatening religion of self-help, hygiene, morality, and racial solidarity.

Ali’s refusal of induction in 1967, contrary to what everyone seemed to think at the time, was a religious act, not a political one. His willingness to fight in South Africa in 1972 and again in 1978 reveal not political reversal, then but continuing political naivete. He publicly supported Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 because, as Ali said at the time, “Reagan is the best man out of all of them because he’s trying to keep prayer in the schools.” (Sammons comments, “Did Ali think that Reagan and his Christian fundamentalist supporters would promote Islamic prayers in the schools?”)

In his preface Sammons writes of growing up black in the 50’s and 60’s, hearing stories of Joe Louis but finding his own cultural hero in “Brassius Cassius,” whom he defended from scorn with his own heartfelt poems. Sammons’ discussion of Ali, then, must in part represent a coming to terms with personal disillusionment, a point I raise in order to account for the surprising conclusion to Sammons’ book. It is no conclusion at all but a documented polemic against boxing’s abuses: not just its tainting by organized crime as described earlier, but its economic lies (even champions rarely have earned a living for their lifetimes) and its extreme physical costs (Bennie Paret, Duk Koo Kim, and Ali himself as recent reminders). One can admire Sammons’ eschewing the historian’s detachment when a moral issue is at stake but not his loss of an historical sense. The polemical conclusion simply contradicts and undermines much that preceded it, when in fact it could have more satisfyingly added an important dimension too easily missing from cultural and social histories of sport. Joe Louis’s personal loss has to be set alongside the gains for black pride he made possible, while those gains themselves must be set alongside a different kind of loss: the illusion Louis inevitably helped perpetuate—one shared by hundreds, even thousands, of black boys and young men— that the champion’s success could be theirs, too. If Ali became both an embarrassment and an object of pity during a crucial decade in American history, he had nonetheless been, in Sammons’ own words, “a deracinated, classless, alien, antiestablishment figure of broad appeal.”

Prizefighting as a social or cultural phenomenon and as personal experience are different things. Not just black athletes but all star athletes live a double existence as individual selves and cultural icons. Sammons acknowledges this fact, but instead of placing such tensions at the center of his study he separates them into irreconcilable parts. And he settles the matter too simply. On the one hand, the sport, however brutal, is not the villain; professional boxing in America has always been the consequence of the lack of options for the lower classes, predominantly black and Hispanic but also white (notably Irish, then Jews, then Italians in earlier generations). Prizefighting emerged from its working-class origins into a spectacle for the middle and upper classes, with the participants remaining lower-class. The atavism of the middle-class boxing fan is one subject worth exploring; the complex relationship of the prize ring to working-class culture is another. To denounce boxing as brutal is easy; the historian’s task is hard.

And Sammons in much of his book works impressively at the historian’s task. The book seems unfinished: not just the conclusion at odds with the preceding chapters, but an inconsistency in its theoretical underpinnings. Early on Sammons describes boxing’s appeal as compensatory; in the conclusion he suggests that it is maintained by “a culture that values physicality and manliness.” On p. 202, the concept of “hegemony” is suddenly introduced to make a point, then is dropped as quickly, not to return. The writing, too, is uneven. The copy editor of Beyond the Ring should be doomed to four rounds with Mike Tyson for allowing an appalling number of clichés to remain in the manuscript (“incredible,” “legend in his own time,” “a breath of fresh air,” “a shadow of his former self,” and so on). And Sammons’ narrative sometimes wanders without clear direction. But wherever it rests it finds interesting things to say about a “sport” that is less a metaphor for life as Darwinian struggle than the real thing; that is almost as ambiguously related to vice and virtue, legality and outlawry, as it was in John L. Sullivan’s time; that is in its essence primitive ritual combat packaged as show-biz spectacle for millions of highly civilized “fans.”

Sammons and Isenberg offer various explanations for boxing’s appeal, joining an impressive tradition of writers from William Hazlitt to A. J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates. Isenberg emphasizes a late 19th-century cult of masculinity and writes of the prize ring as an outlet for surrogate violence; Sammons’ concluding paragraph points to human nature, mythology, and social control without developing these notions. The answer remains elusive, finally. But John L. Sullivan and His America and Beyond the Ring bring us closer to understanding boxing’s strange place at the boundary between civilization and barbarism than we have been before.


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