Beston, Paul. The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring. Lanham (MD): Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. pp. 357.$36.00 Hardback.
Reviewed by Cian Manning.
Paul Beston, managing editor of the City Journal and contributor to the boxing website The Sweet Science, in his study The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring “tells the story of the heavyweight title in America, examining the lives and careers of the champions, with a special emphasis on the seven who have held a defining place in our culture: John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson” (p. xiv). Throughout the book, the theme of “race relations” is a recurring one that the author attempts to contextualize in both the public and sporting spheres. Each boxer who is analysed in detail in this book comes to embody the traits of the age/period in which their sporting career encompasses. It is a most interesting thesis, but the author often deviates from it to provide a broader history of the sport and the heavyweight division.
Beston explores boxing in the 20th century through figures he believes to have defined or redefined what it is to be a boxer, specifically a Heavyweight Champion. In profiling these figures the author evokes the words of Pierce Egan (a British journalist whose three volumes of Boxiana: Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism dating from 1813 to 1824, are the template with which many histories of boxing have followed) in his 19th century work Boxiana:
Have not our classic theatres […] possessing all the advantages of authors the most exalted and refined; actors the most inimitable […] scenes and decorations, in point of magnificence and splendour, unparalleled – invited PUGILISM to their boards, and the names of some of the first rate boxers enriched their play-bills; and the audiences (of whom no doubt can attach to their respectability) testified their approbation by loud plaudits, at the liberality of the managers in thus publicly displaying the principles of Pugilism!
If the world is a stage and we all are merely players on it, then boxing, once the most popular sport in the 20th century, the American century, is more than an appropriate sporting vehicle in which to explore issues of race, politics, etc. in the United States. The core seven figures that Beston explores are:
1) John L. Sullivan’s chapter is entitled “PROGENITOR,” with him being attributed by Beston as originating “the archetype of heavyweight champion as warrior king” (p. 22). The prototype in which all future heavyweights would follow and try to emulate, Sullivan is the man who makes the heavyweight championship a commercial property. The “Boston Strong Boy” is recognised as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing under London Prize Ring Rules. Sullivan manages to bridge the era of bare-knuckle bouts and the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.
2) Jack Johnson (section entitled “PARIAH”) is described as “probably the most complex” heavyweight champion (p. 51) whose “prominence in American social history has distracted from his formidable place in boxing history” (p. 52). Johnson was the first black man to win the championship. The story of Johnson is still as relevant today with the events of Black Lives Matter and Colin Kapernick and the NFL. Johnson defeated Jim Jefferies in the “Fight of the Century,” which saw racial tensions at a high with the resul meaning that Johnson was the undisputed champion of the world. The recent pardon of Johnson for his conviction under the Mann Act (which forbade the transportation of a woman across state lines which was certainly racially motivated) by President Donald Trump in May 2018 has brought Johnson again into the public consciousness.
3) Jack Dempsey (Chapter 3: “The Million-Dollar Hobo”) typifying the “lean, hungry fighter, stripped adornment – remains the defining one in boxing” (p. 78). Dempsey as a sporting symbol of the roaring twenties.
4) Joe Louis (Chapter 4: “Black Moses”) as “a light in black America’s darkness, and a generation would never forget him for it” (p. 124). Louis is presented as a figure whose contributions to racial tolerance and social progress transcended even his greatness in the ring.
5) Of Rocky Marciano (Chapter 6: “The Last White King”) Beston writes:
As the years passed, he stood as a symbol of whites’ lost prominence in boxing but also of the last era in American life in which whiteness held unquestioned cultural dominance. A famous shot showing Marciano standing with Joe DiMaggio at the White House, both flanking a beaming Eisenhower, is representative image of the time (p. 148).
Marciano is the personification of the American Dream. The figures of Dempsey, Louis, and Marciano spanned an era in which the United States becomes a world super power and through the exploration of their careers echoes the words of Liebling “I felt the satisfaction because it proved that the world is not going backward, if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like when you were really young.” Such youthful exuberance is in the belief in changing the world, and boxing would provide such a figure that not only encapsulated the golden age of the sport but ‘shook the world’ in Cassius Clay later known as Muhammed Ali.
6) Muhammed Ali bestrides three chapters of this work while exploring the Golden Age. These chapters are a joyous recounting of the well-known stories and anecdotes with fighters such as Joe Frazier and George Foreman as the sport crossed continents from Africa to Asia. One of the most iconic figures of the 20th-century, the reader will be more than familiar with the story that is presented by Beston.
7) Mike Tyson (Chapter 11: “Kid Dynamite”) is the figure in which society’s fascination with modern celebrity is explored. The most insightful assertion in Beston’s work is the detailing Tyson’s study as a boxing scholar, “…watching the black-and-white films by himself cemented the idea that he was destined to be a champion. The lineage seemed embodied in him: he was the bearer of its past and herald of its future.” Perhaps it is the life of Tyson that typifies the words of Joyce Carol Oates “Boxing has become America’s tragic theater.”
Beston’s study can be described as an admirable attempt of a hybrid between Egan’s Boxiana and the classic A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science. A difficult task which Beston succeeds in creating a study that could be used as a textbook in the history of the heavyweight championship in boxing. The blend of contextualising the place of the personalities in the boxing firmament with anecdote is a nod to the work of Liebling. Though one minor quibble would be in attempting to cover the entire history of the sport deviates from the stated premise of the work in analysing it through seven key figures. Nevertheless, in looking at figures such as Corbett, Schemling, and Floyd Patterson adds to a thoroughly enjoyable read. The beauty of this book is the reader can clearly see Beston’s passion for the sport in every page.
 Pierce Egan, Boxiana: Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, London, 1829).
 AJ Liebling, The Sweet Science (North Point Press, New York, reprint, 2004).
 Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing (Harper Perennial Classics, New York, reprint, 2006).
Cian Manning is an independent scholar who has contributed articles on sports history in Ireland to publications such Pog Mo Goal and more recently published in the study of the Waterford Greenway.