The U.S. men’s boxing team’s failure to medal in London reminds us how far the fight game has declined in American culture. One of the three most popular sports during the first half of the 20th century, along with baseball and horse racing, it now barely gets a mention on SportsCenter. While baseball may no longer be the national pastime, boxing is simply irrelevant.
In the late 19th and nearly 20th century, boxing was primarily a working-class sport, fought largely by immigrants in major cities. By the 1920s, with the decline of Victorian values and changing social mores, boxing became more respectable and popular among middle-class Americans. Furthermore, the emergence of radio allowed Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the era, to become a national figure, like Babe Ruth and other sports heroes of the time.
Boxing differed from baseball in that it was somewhat integrated. Malcolm X once noted that the boxing ring was the one place a black man could beat up a white man without getting killed. Jack Johnson became the first African American heavyweight champion in 1908 but the racism of the time eventually resulted in his criminal prosecution over his relationships with white women. It would be another generation before a very different black fighter, Joe Louis, got a chance to fight for the crown. His defeat of the German champion Max Schmeling in a title defense in 1938, at a time of tremendous tension between the U.S. and the Nazi regime, was one of the biggest sport events of the 20th century. This triumph, as well as his humble manner, endeared the “Brown Bomber” to blacks and whites alike, making him the first crossover sports star.
The sweet science, as some called it, remained popular into the postwar period. Champions like Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson were among the most prominent athletes in the country. And it was not just the championship battles that were important. Boxing remained a spectator sport at the local level as well; I once showed an episode of I Love Lucy in class where Fred and Ricky go on a boy’s night out to the fights, the way one might go to a basketball game today.
Though some date the beginning of the sport’s decline to the 1960s and 1970s, the heavyweight champion of the world was still one of the best-known people in the nation, if not the world, during that period. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman fought each other in battles that have still-legendary names like the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manila.” The “Rocky” film franchise began in 1976, helping to maintain the sport’s popularity.
Even with the charismatic and controversial Ali no longer on the scene, boxing still had some prominence in the 1980s. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, and Thomas Hearns, fought major fights in the welterweight and middleweight divisions that garnered national attention. Sportswriters cared enough to label heavyweight champion Larry Holmes an unworthy successor to Ali and to laud Mike Tyson when he unified the division in the late 1980s.
Over the last two decades, boxing’s popularity fell of the cliff and the Olympics played a key role. Once upon a time, the games launched the careers of a number of famous boxers, including Ali, Frazier, and Leonard, who won gold medals in 1960, 1964, and 1976, respectively. Michael Spinks, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones, Jr. and Oscar de la Hoya also received their first national exposure during the Olympics and it used to be one of the pre-games rituals to guess who would become the new boxing star. In recent years, however, network coverage has declined as NBC pursued the female demographic and boxing has been consigned to cable, depriving it of a mass audience.
Of course, there is no doubt that public revulsion at the corruption and physical costs of boxing caught up with the sport. Indeed, there is nothing sadder than the sight of the once-loquacious Ali, now silenced by Parkinson’s disease. Many other boxers have had long-term health problems and a few have even died in the ring.
Today, when I discuss Louis or Ali in class, I have to remind my students that the heavyweight champ was once a very important person. I ask them who the current champion is and there is usually a deafening silence. And not just from the students. The professor doesn’t know either.