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.