By Barry Lindenman
Recently, I started thinking of the most important figures of the boxing world of the past century. More importantly though than coming up with this list is how to honor these historic individuals. When you hear the word “rock,” or more specifically, the word “rocky,” what sport immediately comes to mind? Boxing, of course. Rocky Graziano, Rocky Marciano and of course, the “Rocky” movies. How about honoring these great individuals in a way that would evoke a connotation fitting of the sport itself: in rock, similar to Mount Rushmore? Now I’ve got it: a Mount Rushmore of boxing. Here’s the hard part (no pun intended). What four individual’s would be immortalized forever on my Mount Rushmore of boxing?
To come up with my list, I first had to delve into history and read about the intent of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore and how he decided on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as the four men who would grace the Black Hills of South Dakota. Borglum wanted to create a memorial in commemoration of the foundation, preservation and expansion of the United States. His vision for Mount Rushmore was a formal rendering of our government’s philosophy into a granite mountaintop. Similarly, my Mount Rushmore of boxing should represent the men whose careers transformed boxing into the great sport that it is, or used to be!
Borglum’s first choice of subjects, George Washington almost seems like a no brainer. Washington was after all, the first President of the United States. Besides that though, he also happened to be the commanding leader of the Revolutionary forces that fought and won freedom against the British. He was by virtue of his place in history, the first man to symbolically represent the United States and all that it stands for. Similarly, I contend that my first choice of boxing immortals to be chiseled into boxing’s version of Mount Rushmore should be none other than John L. Sullivan. He was after all the first heavyweight champion recognized under the Queensberry rules. His nickname, “The Boston Strong Boy” connects him geographically to the site of the first great American show of defiance, The Boston Tea Party. And his famous quote that “he can lick any son of a bitch in the house” is consistent with the arrogant attitude that Washington and his contemporaries had against the mighty British.
Next to George Washington on Borglum’s masterpiece is Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Included in this historic document are the famous words that “all men are created equal.” If ever there was a champion boxer who echoed this belief, it was Joe Louis. Louis was the first Black man to hold the heavyweight crown since the rebellious Jack Johnson. Two things made Louis’s reign as heavyweight champion more accepted than Johnson’s. First and foremost, Louis’s behavior as champion was more in line with the way the public expected a heavyweight champion, white or black, to behave. Secondly, because of the nationalism associated with the Second World War, Americans of all races symbolically rallied alongside Louis against Max Schmeling and anything German. The classic description of Louis as being “a credit to his race, the human race” echoes Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about equality among all men.
Third in line as part of Gutzon Borglum’s masterpiece was Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. Roosevelt was a man whose ideas and vision made him way ahead of his time. He was the father of progressive ideas like conservationism and business reform long before it was fashionable to be associated with them. As well as being one of the best pound-for-pound fighters ever, Sugar Ray Robinson was also the originator of such forward thinking ideas as the entourage and contract negotiation. During his time, Robinson’s direct involvement with his own career outside the ring was viewed as unique. Today however, an athlete’s entourage and renegotiation of contract terms is recognized as commonplace. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Robinson’s ideas have stood the test of time.
Last in the line of great American leaders on Mount Rushmore is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s legacy in the turbulent 1860’s will forever be remembered as the man who ended slavery after the Civil War. Similarly, Muhammad Ali’s legacy in the 1960’s will forever be remembered as the man who embodied the ideals of the Civil Rights movement. His political stance of standing up for one’s freedom of beliefs made him a great champion of human rights causes outside the ring just as he was a great champion inside the ring.
There you have it in words. My Mount Rushmore of boxing consists of the following: John L. Sullivan, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Now without further adieu, here is the final unveiling of my monument. If Gutzon Borglum had been a boxing fan, I think he would have been proud.
By Barry Lindenman can be contacted at [email protected]