America’s Phantom Fighters

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Try to brainstorm some of America’s most celebrated athletes. Pete Sampras and Johnny Unitas come to mind. Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken Jr. in baseball; Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant in basketball. America typically cleans up fairly well at the Olympic games, too. But chances are John L. Sullivan or Jack Dempsey weren’t your first ideas–maybe Muhammad Ali was somewhere in the mix. Boxing is a sport that has fallen precipitously out of fashion with the American public, an unprecedented trend for a sport historically linked to our national identity.

“[F]ew Americans could name more than one or two current boxers, if that,” writes Paul Beston for City Journal, a quarterly publication known more for wonky economic propaganda than for creative writing. He continues:

Boxing has become a ghost sport, long since discredited but still hovering in the nation’s consciousness, refusing to go away and be silent entirely. There was a time when things were very different. For boxing once stood at the center of American life, and its history winds a thread through the broader history of the nation.

Beston’s intriguing article shows how the history of boxing intersects with larger social trends in American history, especially technological progress, international relations, and racial politics. My favorite anecdote came from the anxious years before America entered World War II:

At Yankee Stadium in June 1938, [boxer Joe] Louis met Germany’s Max Schmeling in what remains the most politically charged sports event ever held. Schmeling had become a favorite of the Nazis–not as eagerly as his critics insisted, not as reluctantly as his apologists would later claim–and they often cited his earlier victory over Louis as proof of Aryan supremacy. Here was one of history’s surprises: most of pre-civil rights white America rooting for a black man against a white boxer. Louis, though black, now became America’s representative, as confirmed by a White House visit with Franklin Roosevelt, who told him that the nation was relying on him. Almost half of America’s population–60 million people–tuned in to the radio broadcast. What they heard NBC announcer Clem McCarthy describe was probably the supreme example of an athlete executing under pressure. And “execute” is the right word: Louis finished Schmeling off in barely two minutes.

Source: City Journal

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