Podcast #386: The Rise & Fall of the American Heavyweight Boxer

With boxing on the wane in America for the past twenty some odd years, it’s easy to forget how much of a cultural juggernaut it was for much of the 20th century. Boxing was not only a common recreational pastime and athletic pursuit for young men, and a wildly popular spectator sport, it was a metaphor for manhood and other American cultural struggles as well. When two men stepped in the ring, it wasn’t just two men fighting. The bout could become a battle of white vs. black, nativist vs. immigrant, or democracy vs. fascism. 

My guest today, Paul Beston, explores the cultural history of the heavyweight boxer in his latest book: The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring. Paul and I begin our conversation discussing the man who created the archetype of the American heavyweight boxer, John L. Sullivan. From there, Paul takes us on a vivid historical tour of many of boxing’s all-time greats, including Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, James Braddock, Joe Lewis, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. Along the way Paul provides insights how each of these heavyweight greats became conflicted symbols of masculinity in America. We end our conversation discussing why boxing has declined in America and what Paul has learned about being a man from writing about boxing. 

Even if you think you’re not interested in boxing, you’re going to find this show fascinating.

Show Highlights

  • How did John L. Sullivan set the archetype of the American heavyweight boxer? What was Sullivan like as a fighter and sports hero? 
  • How is the heavyweight champ determined? How has that changed over the decades?
  • The complex history of black boxers  
  • The crossover of literature, music, and theater with boxing and famed boxers  
  • How does this showmanship connection influence their boxing?
  • Why Jack Dempsey was a character “straight out of a Jack London novel”
  • How the Great Depression affected boxing, and why it in fact became a golden age for the sport  
  • Joe Louis’s rise, and how he came to symbolize democracy during WWII
  • The ways in which Muhammad Ali fulfilled the Sullivan archetype, but in an even bigger way 
  • How Ali changed sport and celebrity in America 
  • The last truly great American heavyweight 
  • The aspects of Mike Tyson that people don’t know about, including his love of boxing history 
  • What led to the demise of the heavyweight boxer in American culture?
  • What Beston learned about being a man while writing about the lives of these complex masculine figures 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With Paul 

Paul on Twitter

Paul’s website

Paul on Facebook

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