Growing up in the early 1950’s, one had a much more limited selection of shows to watch on TV. Also, the household had one TV and families watched together or you didn’t watch. As a result, children with lesser votes often watched what dad watched. For me, this often meant boxing, brought to us by Gillette razors.
As my wife and I rode a biking trail between Kalamazoo and South Haven, Michigan, cleverly named the Kal-Haven Trail, a couple of weeks ago, we came across several poster boards relating to the small towns that we were passing by. Out of interest, or perhaps for a rest, we stopped and read several.
One near Great Bear Lake caught my attention. Here were two pictures of Joe Louis training for a title fight in this lonely backwoods place. One promotional photo showed him sawing a huge log to “promote upper-body workouts.” Another was Louis running with his trainer, Freddie Wilson.
Seeing those photos brought back a memory of when Joe Louis came to Kankakee County to watch, or assist, Ezzard Charles train for a title fight himself in 1948. He invited my dad to play golf with him at the Elks. I wrote that story some eight years ago.
As I read on, I learned that Louis was training in this rather unknown place for a title fight himself in the spring of 1949. He would later fight and knock out Jersey Joe Walcott to retain his heavyweight championship of the world. I took a quick photo and resumed my sweaty 18-mile ride.
As I rode, I had an interesting thought. Who is the world heavyweight champion now? I had no answer. Prizefighting had faded into the past as had Joe Louis. I thought of the other such champions and could recall so many names. John L. Sullivan, the first. Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman of the famous grill, Mike Tyson of Shark Week, Leon Spinks, Evander Holyfield, and Muhammad Ali. What names. What memories. And now a complete blank.
Boxing was such a draw back then. When I was studying in England in 1962, I read that Floyd Patterson was to defend his title against Sonny Liston at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Because of the time difference, I set my alarm clock for the middle of the night and tuned in the BBC. As I was rubbing my eyes and listening to the Brit speak of the announcer, I realized that I could go back to bed. Patterson had been knocked out in the first round.
Then we struggled with the life of Muhammad Ali. We watched him under his first name, Cassius Clay, win an Olympic gold medal in boxing in 1960. Then he decided to become a Muslim with his name becoming Muhammad Ali in 1961, and became world champion by defeating Sonny Liston in 1964. But Vietnam was raging and his religion prohibited him from being drafted in his opinion. My roommate and I actually met him on Rush Street in Chicago in 1965 as he was walking the street and ministering to anyone who would listen. His crown was taken away when he was arrested for draft evasion in 1966. The legal battle went on and eventually he was allowed to fight again. There were many famous fights in his path, the most famous being the “Rumble in the Jungle,” when he fought George Foreman in Zaire as over one billion viewers watched the fight worldwide.
But slowly the passion of watching grown men pummel each other slowed. With that came some major changes in the various fight associations as early as the 1960’s. There became the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Council (WBC), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), and the World Boxing Organization (WBO). Each now had a champion in the heavyweight division. There was also The Ring that honored a multiple winner of these titles. So instead of a single world champion, we had possibly four different names.
Perhaps this helped kill to popularity of the sport. No longer were the names of the fighters commonly known. I did a brief search for an existing champion and came up with four: Anthony Joshua, Manuel Char, Trevor Bryan, and Tyson Fury. All were listed as world champions of the various associations, and I had not heard of one of them. I started a quiz among friends to see if anyone could name a world champion and came up totally empty. The luster of the title world champion was gone.
I often write of the past and history, not so much because I revere it, but more as it fascinates me how our country, our world, and our entire culture has changed in my lifetime. Certainly more change has taken place in the last 50 years than ever before in the history of man. Prizefighting did not lose its appeal just because it was uncultured to watch grown men fight. We now have different types of fighting in that same old ring, with no gloves, few rules, and crazy antics. We even have women fighting women. So we haven’t become more civilized, but we just have different entertainment interests.
At the same time, with minimal changes, baseball has endured the test of time, Football has never been stronger. Track and field has almost all the same events except when yards are changed to meters. So American sport watchers have changed and not changed. Even golf has had minimal modification since its earliest days in Scotland, save the drinking of the beverage on each hole. (For those who do not know what I mean, it is alleged that the reason golf was played over 18 holes is because the bottle of whiskey lasted 18 swallows.)
So we don’t know who the real heavyweight champion of the world is from time to time because most don’t care. So most of us watch other shows on TV, but we older generation do still revere those names from the past. Live on Joe, Rocky, Floyd, and Ali. We do not have to pick a favorite.