U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward a “Boxing in U.S. History” Reading List: Open Thread

In a few hours Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao will square off in the boxing ring for a much-ballyhooed bout that has been years in the making.

While this fight is a big deal in the world of boxing, it probably doesn’t count as a world historical event (though, of course, one never knows – far be it from this historian to predict the future.) Nevertheless, one need not be a fan of boxing to recognize its enduring (though perhaps now diminishing?) significance in American cultural and intellectual life. John Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali – these were not just great fighters, but iconic (and sometimes ironic) cultural figures.

In other words, from a purely professional standpoint, I have a perfectly good excuse for an open-thread post on boxing. Moreover, it will come as a surprise to no one who regularly reads the USIH Facebook page that there are, in fact, quite a few U.S. intellectual historians who not only recognize the cultural significance of boxing but who also happen to be fans of the sport – which is also, I think, a perfectly good excuse for an open-thread post on boxing. And I am headed into championship rounds on a current chapter, which I need to finish before Tuesday – hence the open thread.

So I would like to ask my fellow historians (as well as my fellow boxing fans) to help me out here and crowdsource a reading list for “Boxing in U.S. Cultural and Intellectual History.” My list would start with Gail Bederman’s Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. What would you add?

And if you want to add any remarks to the effect that boxing is not, in fact, an appropriate object of inquiry for an intellectual historian, or that it’s not an appropriate sport to follow or admire or be a fan of – well, put up your dukes, and let’s get down to it!

28 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A good place to start is Jeffrey Sammons, “Beyond the Ring: Boxing in American Society” (Illinois, 1988). There’s alos Elliott Gorn’s “The Manly Art (Cornell, 1986).

    There are a bunch of books on Jewish boxers, not necessarily scholarly. The best one is supposed to be “Barney Ross: The Life of a Jewish Fighter” (Random House, 2009) though I haven’t read it. Others have titles like “When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport” or “The Jewish Boxing Hall of Fame.” But there is one scholarly work on this topic, Peter Levine’s “From Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience” (Oxford, 1993) which has significant boxing content.

    I wrote a paper on Joe Louis in college. I’ll try see if there are any interesting sources I used.

  2. No boxing reading list can be complete without The Boxing Register: International Hall of Fame Official Record Book, A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science, W.C. Heinz’s The Professional, and Nick Tosches’s The Devil and Sonny Liston.

  3. Amy Koehlinger has a book coming out sometime soon on Catholics and boxing. From her faculty page: “Her next monograph, Rosaries and Rope Burns: Boxing and Manhood in American Catholicism, 1890-1970 (for Princeton University Press) explores the historical significance of the sport of boxing among American Catholics, particularly boxing’s relationship with religious ideas about the redemptive value of physical suffering and blood, and the sport’s effect on performances of manhood among particular racial and ethnic groups of Catholics.”

  4. Joyce Carol Oates, a collection of her essays in On Boxing (1987), in her “acknowledgments you’ll find a handful of titles worth including as well as a good encyclopedia on the sport; and Norman Mailer’s The Fight (1975). I see no reason why the sport should not be an appropriate object of inquiry for an intellectual historian,” but I would hope such an inquiry would like into the political economy and ethical dimensions of the sport, presaged in some of Oates’ writings, as well as in the second volume of Sartre’s posthumously published Critique of Dialectical Reason (1985 in French, 1991 English tr. by Verso 1991, and a later edition by Verso as well): See: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2013/12/boxing-the-brutal-agon.html

  5. I forgot: I bought a book of essays called “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing” (Library of America, 2011) edited by George Kimball & John Schulian that is a great compendium of essays which I guess can be both primary or secondary sources, from Jack London’s 1910 coverage of Jack Johnson vs Jim Jeffries to Carlo Rotella’s 2002 article “Champion at Twilight” about Larry Holmes vs Butterbean.

  6. Another American author who has written extensively on boxing is Katherine Dunn, of “Geek Love” fame. Many of her essays on the topic can be found in her collection “One Ring Circus.”

  7. I feel like no one is taking the low hanging fruit… Theresa Rundstedtler’s “Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner,” (UC Press, 2012); Mike Marqusee’s “Redemption Song” (Verso, 2005); Dave Zirin’s “What’s My Name Fool” (Haymarket, 2005). The last two probably not the most scholarly, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

  8. Read my diss director Lewis Erenberg’s book, The Greatest Fight of Our Generation (Oxford, 2006) on the Louis-Schmeling bouts. It’s fantastic.

  9. Who Killed Davey Moore?
    By Bob Dylan

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not I,” says the referee
    “Don’t point your finger at me
    I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
    An’ maybe kept him from his fate
    But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure
    At not gettin’ their money’s worth
    It’s too bad he had to go
    But there was a pressure on me too, you know
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not us,” says the angry crowd
    Whose screams filled the arena loud
    “It’s too bad he died that night
    But we just like to see a fight
    We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death
    We just meant to see some sweat
    There ain’t nothing wrong in that
    It wasn’t us that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame us at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says his manager
    Puffing on a big cigar
    “It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell
    I always thought that he was well
    It’s too bad for his wife an’ kids he’s dead
    But if he was sick, he should’ve said
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says the gambling man
    With his ticket stub still in his hand
    “It wasn’t me that knocked him down
    My hands never touched him none
    I didn’t commit no ugly sin
    Anyway, I put money on him to win
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says the boxing writer
    Pounding print on his old typewriter
    Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame
    There’s just as much danger in a football game”
    Sayin’, “Fistfighting is here to stay
    It’s just the old American way
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says the man whose fists
    Laid him low in a cloud of mist
    Who came here from Cuba’s door
    Where boxing ain’t allowed no more
    “I hit him, yes, it’s true
    But that’s what I am paid to do
    Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
    It was destiny, it was God’s will”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

  10. If you didn’t like the last one try this one:

    Boom Boom Mancini
    By Warren Zevon

    Hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon
    Hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon

    From Youngstown, Ohio, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini
    A lightweight contender, like father like son
    He fought for the title with Frias in Vegas
    And he put him away in round number one

    So hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon
    Hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon

    When Alexis Arguello gave Boom Boom a beating
    Seven weeks later, he was back in the ring
    Some have the speed and the right combinations
    If you can’t take the punches, it don’t mean a thing

    So hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon
    Hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon

    When they asked him who was responsible
    For the death of Du Koo Kim
    He said, “Some one should have stopped the fight
    And told me, it was him”

    They made hypocrite judgements after the fact
    But the name of the game is, be hit and hit back

    So hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon
    Hurry home early, hurry on home
    Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon

  11. I would probably start with Randy Roberts essay in the the June 2014 Journal of American History state of the field on Sports History, ““The Two-Fisted Testing Ground of Manhood”: Boxing and the Academy” (pp. 188–91). Roberts is regarded by many as the foremost boxing historian. His article “Eighteenth Century Boxing” in the Journal of Sport History vol. 4, no 3, 1977 is also a really good non-monograph to read.

    Below is a pretty standard reading list on boxing (not including many of the excellent titles mentioned in the comments above). There are a few prolific journalists worth reading, such as Thomas Hauser and Jack Newfield. The major of the books in the list below are scholars, with the exception of one or two.

    Michael Isenberg, John L. Sullivan and His America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
    Randy Roberts, Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
    Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, (New York: The Free Press, 1983).
    Randy Roberts, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
    Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, (New York: Verso, 2005).
    Michael Ezra, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009).
    David Remnick, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, (New York: Random House, 1998).
    Russell Sullivan, Marciano: The Rock of His Times, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005).
    Charles Samuels, The Magnificent Rube: The Life and Gaudy Times of Tex Rickard, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957).
    Barney Nagler, James Norris and the Decline of Boxing, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).
    Norman Mailer, The Fight, (New York: Vintage, 1977)
    E.C. Wallenfield, The Six-Minute Fraternity: The Rise and Fall of NCAA Tournament Boxing, 1932-1960. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994).
    Doug Moe, Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).
    Richard O. Davies, The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada From the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip, (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2014).

    • I forgot to mention, a forthcoming book that will definitely be of interest to this crowd: Randy Roberts and John Matthew Smith, Blood Brothers: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and the Ring of Hate, (NY: Basic Books, forthcoming 2016).

  12. For movies, since I suggested that to LD on Twitter and she mentioned that on the FB post, I’ll take up my own challenge. These are some I like (in no particular order):

    The Knockout: a 1914 short with Roscoe Arbuckle and an a newcomer called Charlie Chaplin. This is on TCM tomorrow night if you’re interested.

    Here Comes Mr. Jordan: the classic 1941 fim about a boxer, played by Robert Montgomery, who dies before his time and spends the rest of the movie trying to get a new body.

    The Champ: the original version with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper from 1931. Made a child star out of the latter and won the former the Oscar for best actor.

    Somebody Up There Likes Me: Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano (1956). Newman’s breakout role.

    The Set-Up: this stars Robert Ryan as a journeyman pug who falls afoul of mobsters who want him to throw a fight. Both this and the previous movie were directed by Robert Wise. (1949)

    The Harder They Fall: Humphrey Bogart’s last movie. He’s a sportswriter who turns against the corruption in the fight racket. (1956)

    Gentleman Jim: a highly fictionalized biopic about “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, who defeated John L. Sullivan and became the second undisputed heavyweight champion of the gloved-era of boxing. Very entertaining, helped in no small measure by Errol Flynn’s performance as Corbett.

    Kid Galahad: the original 1937 version with Edward G. Robinson as a fight promoter, not the 1962 remake with Elvis Presley. The original also stars Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. It’s a typical 1930s Warner Bros. flick, fast-talking and fast-moving.

    The Milky Way: Harold Lloyd’s best talkie. He’s a milkman who winds up mistaken for a champion boxer. Hilarity ensues. (1936)

    These are all good movies first, and boxing movies second. All of them are on TCM from time to time, so if you’d like to check them out, it’s not hard to see them.

  13. This is a wonderful, wonderful thread. I’d like to add to this an article from the “Sport History Review” journal about Joe Louis:

    “Joe Louis, the Southern Press, and the ‘Fight of the Century'” by Robert Drake, “Sport History Review,” 2012, vol. 43, p. 1-17.


  14. This is a great list of books on boxing. I would add a few others.

    Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram

    Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Will Haygood

    Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing

    Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story by Peter Heller

    Blood Season: Mike Tyson and the World of Boxing by Phil Berger

    A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring 20s by Roger Kahn

    Tunney by Jack Cavanaugh

    Serenity: A Boxing Memoir by Ralph Wiley

  15. I would add any books by Bert Sugar. Few knew the sport of boxing better than him.

    Bert Sugar’s Boxing Encyclopedia by Bert Sugar

    100 Greatest Fighters of All Time by Bert Sugar

    Boxing’s Greatest Fighters by Bert Sugar

    Bert Sugar on Boxing by Bert Sugar

  16. A website on boxing that I would recommend is Cox’s Corner run by Monte Cox. He has a variety of interesting articles and profiles of legendary boxers. He clearly has a preference for the older, classical fighters. http://coxscorner.tripod.com/

  17. Thanks all. It is interesting to consider how one might divide this list into primary and secondary sources — for example, I’m wondering if some of the works mentioned above (perhaps especially as they shade toward the hagiographical/celebratory) might be better regarded as primary sources evincing the cultural significance of boxing rather than secondary sources analyzing/contextualizing that significance. In any case, this is turning out to be quite the list! Please feel free to keep adding titles.

  18. Within the next few years, someone must put together a good boxing panel at a history conference. Maybe at USIH, maybe AHA or OAH, wherever, but it has to happen. I would be glad to be a part of that.

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