27.11.05 – By Troy Ondrizek: Since boxing became mainstream during the first Roosevelt presidency. Boxing and its champions have influenced American culture. The primary division that helped America mature over the past one hundred years is the glamour division of boxing, or better known as the heavyweight division. However, several fighters from every division have helped mold us as a society. For every major advancement in our train of thought and heroics in sports and life started with boxing and spread to baseball, football, and our collective culture as a whole. Before there was Jackie Robinson and his breaking of the “Color Barrier,” there was Jack Johnson who did it first. Before George W. Bush battled terrorism, Joe Louis conquered pure evil.
Before Michael Moore struggled against the war in Iraq, Muhammad Ali said he had no quarrel. Before Jose Conseco and Raphael Palmeiro got in trouble for steroids, there was Vitali Klitschko. Before there was Terri Schiavo there was Emiliano Valdez. Boxers have fought many physical battles inside the ring, and fought our figurative social battles out it.
Boxing has always mirrored America’s mental progression and helped guide it along. Our current times have seen this guidance end, and I wonder when it happened and if boxing will ever be socially significant again?
Boxing’s marriage with our society started when boxing received its first true star in Jack Johnson. The “Galveston Giant” became World Heavyweight Champion in 1908. This achievement by Johnson was a huge slap in the face to American society. Johnson had the audacity to become champion by overcoming his seemingly crippling weakness of being an inferior race of human being, and being well, black. Johnson was the first black man to break into the great white man’s infrastructure of sports greatness. Johnson wasn’t a fluke either. He kept beating every white man sent to stop him for nearly seven years. Johnson might have been the first black man to crack into white society, but he had no dreams of opening the floodgates of sports desegregation. Johnson was in it for himself, and was very content sticking it to the man by beating their fighters, and sleeping with their women.
After Johnson the next social revolutionist was Joe Louis. The “Brown Bomber” arguably the best heavyweight to ever lace up the gloves. Louis helped ignite the fire of pride in America during a time of depression. As the world was on the cusp of war against the ultimate in tyranny, Louis stood up for freedom and democracy. In the summer of 1938, Nazi Germany sent their immortal son, Max Schmeling to America to fight another inferior black man, in their eyes, of whom Schmeling had already defeated. Max was not part of the Nazi party himself, but as he came to fight, he represented Hitler and hate to the world. Louis carried the strength of the country upon his shoulders and ushered out Schmeling and Hitler’s supremacy in a matter of two minutes and four seconds. Louis emboldened the country with confidence and pride that carried over into the war effort.
As WWII was a popular war in our society, because we had a definitive enemy and were fighting to save the world, literally. Vietnam came along, and Americans were confused about who and why we should be fighting these hated communist. As a nation was torn between patriotism and social responsibility, a young man named Cassius Clay forged himself into American folk lure. The Olympic Gold medallist took on the marginally popular champion Sonny Liston in February of 1964. America developed a loud conscience that day in Miami. The young Clay defeated Liston in seven rounds and declared himself the greatest afterwards. The next day during the post fight conference, we were introduced to Muhammad X, then later Muhammad Ali.
Ali was the new face of The Nation of Islam, and he terrified white America. His words and arrogance struck fear into society and strength into young blacks, Ali stated, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” He spoke out against the maligned war, his brashness made many angry, but the truth he spoke gave to speechless a loud and provocative voice. Ali refused to be drafted on the grounds he had no quarrel with the Vietcong. Ali was most outspoken man of his time on social change. Ali was jailed for refusing to fight in Vietnam, and lost three crucial years of his career.
After Ali, heavyweight champions didn’t have so much responsibility to carry. There were no segregation issues, the war was over, and America needed only to worry about the gas prices. Larry Holmes then entered the championship realm. Holmes wasn’t outspoken like Ali, he didn’t battle our government. He wasn’t the collective thought of the nation. In fact he was the beginning of the end for what we came to expect from socially relevant public figures. Holmes didn’t fight communism in the ring, the one true enemy of the country at the time. That was in part to the evils of capitalism and the refusal of communist fighters to turn pro. Holmes was a quiet champion when the country was led by “The Great Communicator,” there was no need for him to speak for us. Holmes had one battle for social equality. In the summer of 1982, the great white hope stepped into the ring to take back the heavyweight crown. Holmes for the only time had to battle more than just another fighter. He fought prejudice like a champion for one night. He knew for this one moment what it were like to be Johnson, Louis, and Ali. Poor Gerry Cooney didn’t have a chance. That was the last time that the Heavyweight championship stood more than just holding a belt.
Since the departure of Holmes as champion, there have only been two men that were true undisputed champions, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Tyson was the exact opposite of what a champion stood for. He was convicted of rape, bit another fighter’s ear off, and proclaimed his taste for eating children. He was a freak show when most other champions would try to uplift society, and sociological thought. Lewis was a better citizen, but proved to be just as useless to the plight of his fellow man during his reign. Granted there wasn’t as much for these men to stand for, but they never went out of their way to help the unfortunate of any kind.
Boxing has always helped poor and broken individuals to find guidance in their life. Boxing accomplished this at all times of its existence, whether or not there was a champion with social reform on his agenda. Stories of homeless and extremely poor fighters making a decent living off of boxing, riddles the landscape of personalities in the sport. Men and women who were in jail and boxing turned around their lives are great stories that are told time and again. However, these stories are becoming fewer and fewer. With basketball and football replacing boxing as ways to beat poverty, boxing is losing many strong hardworking characters. There are fighters destroying credibility for the sport. For every story of a reformed Bernard Hopkins, there is a Clifford Etienne.
I understand that there seemingly isn’t as much to stand up for these days. Fighters could use their celebrity to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Or they could stand out against the war in Iraq, or maybe even against the injustices against Northern Korea and China’s citizens. Anything at all would be acceptable; Lamon Brewster and Chris Byrd proclaim their Christianity, but fail to fight against world hunger or any social change anywhere. These fighters are in the game to make money, and that’s seems to be it. They announce their desire to be remembered as great champions. They fight to forge legacies that fans will talk about for ages. However, it is not the just the fighters that held claims to be champions that we talk about, or fighters with just impressive records. We still talk about Johnson, and Louis, and Ali, because of what they meant to our culture as well as to what they accomplished inside of the ring. If a person thinks only of themselves, then they will be the only person thinking of them.