Professional boxing, or prizefighting, has had a fascinating history since it rise in popularity in America which came to fruition in the early 20th century. The rules have changed and the amount of money that could be earned has made it a lucrative industry. So much so, that fighters have willingly taken the potential physical and mental punishment which comes from being punished by a stronger, faster or more powerful opponent.
Until Jack Johnson’s rise to fame, which some say occurred in 1908 against the white titleholder Tommy Burns, Blacks had few options but to participate in amateur brawls sometimes as long as 20 rounds. Sometimes, Black boxers had no other option but to participate in fights in which five or 10 – sometimes more – boxers battled one another in the ring at the same time. The winner would be the last man standing.
And while all of that has changed, Black boxers have always had to contend with more than one opponent – the challenger in the ring and white-dominated society outside of the ring. And because boxing would be controlled by white promoters, some Blacks found themselves forced to cooperate and acquiesce to multiple forms of inequality and oppression.
Johnson, who became the first Black heavyweight champion, faced his own demons, some due to his own behavior, attitudes and refusal to be treated like a second-class citizen.
However, with each subsequent generation, new Black boxers would similarly find themselves fighting opponents seen and unseen. Even more, for those like Johnson, they carried the hopes and dreams of the Black community on their shoulders.
The list of fighters who have become heroes within the Black community continues to grow longer and longer. But there remain a few boxers whose victories and stories have ushered them into a pantheon of superhero-like figures.
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, counts as one of “the greatest.” And a new documentary, produced by Ken Burns and now appearing on PBS, takes us behind the scenes four an eight-hour ride that chronicles his life from segregated Louisville, Kentucky to the top of the world.
As this series continues, we will share an interview with Burns, who explains why he chose to examine Ali and describes what he learned about the iconic boxer.
In the early 1960s, the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston captured the public imagination with his one-sided destruction of two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. One of the last mob-connected fighters, Liston had his mystique shattered in two controversial losses to the brash upstart Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali after becoming champion.
Ali would become the most iconic figure in boxing history, transcending the sport and achieving global recognition. His refusal to serve in the Vietnam War resulted in the stripping of his title, and tore down the barrier between sport and culture.
After three years of inactivity, Ali returned to the sport, leading to his first epic clash with Joe Frazier in 1971, ushering in a “golden age” of heavyweight boxing. Ali, Frazier, and the heavy-hitting George Foreman were the top fighters in a division overloaded with talent.
The late 1970s witnessed the end of universally recognized champions, as the WBC and WBA began to recognize different champions and top contenders, ushering in the era of multiple champions, unworthy mandatory challengers, and general corruption that came to be associated with sanctioning bodies in later decades.
The end of this decade also saw the sport begin to become more oriented toward the casino industry. The Caesars Palace hotel in Las Vegas began to host major bouts featuring George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Muhammad Ali, Roberto Durán, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. Also, public broadcasts would be replaced by closed-circuit, and ultimately pay-per-view, broadcasts, as the boxing audience shrank in numbers.
Larry Holmes emerged in the early 1980s as the sole heavyweight talent in the division, so the more preferred boxing matchups began to be found in the lower weight classes and included Roberto Durán, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Aaron Pryor.
Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who fought Hearns at Caesars Palace on April 15, 1985 in the fight billed as “The War,” knocked out Hearns in brutal fashion. His victory even caused Ray Leonard to come out of retirement in 1987 for a fight that Hagler lost, albeit in a highly controversial decision.
Other Black greats would follow: “Iron” Mike Tyson, Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. have each made a name for themselves and a ton of money along the way.
Yet, in their efforts to “save the sport of boxing,” each have had to contend with many of the challenges that earlier boxers of color faced.
Who was the greatest? Why did Americans feel it imperative to identify a “great white hope” who could defeat their Black opponent and therefore secure generations-old beliefs of white supremacy? And would be fair to demand that Black champions serve as spokesmen for the injustices long heaped upon the Black community?
These serve as some of the questions we will explore as this series continues.
And we will begin in the next part with Muhammad Ali.