Boxing history affords many fascinating ways to consider twentieth-century American history, including the evolution of attitudes about race, numerous boxers’ indirect and direct challenges to racist structures, and, of course, many remarkable achievements against the odds.
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, here are several recommendations of books about boxers and much, much more.
Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a defiant disregarder of racial stereotypes, is the subject of at least two exceptional biographies, Papa Jack by Randy Roberts and Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward. (I relied on both of these, among other sources, when readying my presentation at the 100th anniversary commemoration of Johnson’s 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries, which appears in the fall 2010 edition of The Nevada Review.) By the way, this month would be a great time to renew the call for a posthumous pardon for Johnson, who suffered a patently unjust 1913 conviction for violating the so-called White Slave Traffic Act (a.k.a. the Mann Act). Senator John McCain unsuccessfully pushed multiple times for such a pardon, which should be granted before the centennial of this miscarriage of justice arrives.
Thirty years after his death, it’s hard to imagine a boxer having the social impact that Joe Louis did. During his climb up the heavyweight ranks and his long, record-breaking (and still record-holding) reign as champion (1937-1949), he inspired pride in millions of people. His defeat of Max Schmeling, a boxer popularly associated with the Nazis, soon before World War II (in which Louis served as a soldier) became an event of profound national and international importance. David Margolick offers an exhaustive account of Louis’s two fights with Schmeling in Beyond Glory. Chris Mead and Roberts, among others, penned solid biographies of Louis. (I write at length about these and other books about Louis in an essay disseminated by Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture.)
Sugar Ray Robinson, who like Louis grew up in Detroit, garnered much admiration for his style both in and out of the ring during the 1940s and 1950s, when he won titles as both a welterweight and a middleweight. In Sweet Thunder, Wil Haygood looks at Robinson’s life, along with the lives of peers such as trumpeter Miles Davis, poet Langston Hughes and singer Lena Horne. Looking back on the 1940s, Davis notes in his autobiography that “Joe Louis had been heavyweight champion of the world for a long time by then, and he was every black person’s hero – and a lot of white people’s, too. Sugar Ray Robinson wasn’t far behind him in popularity.” The jazz giant takes these boxers’ eminence as indication that “things were beginning to happen for black people in this country.”
Though usually regarded as an anti-hero rather than a hero, Charles “Sonny” Liston, the mob-backed devastating puncher who preceded then-Cassius Clay on the heavyweight throne, has a story worth telling, and Nick Tosches tells it in colorful fashion in The Devil and Sonny Liston. (Looks like this one is out of print, but it’s worth seeking out.)
I’ve heard it said that more has been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other president, and I would not be surprised if Muhammad Ali generated more ink than any other boxer. This makes it difficult to name just a few worthy books, but The Muhammad Ali Reader, edited by Gerald Early, gives a good sampling of numerous authors’ take on the man and his significance, and Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times remains the unbeaten biography.
Of course, many more boxers and many more books deserve attention, this month and year round. In the list of sources in the back of Fighters & Writers, I name more essential works of literature and history.