Boxing and Other Sports: It’s Personal(ality)

“Sport is the chief share [men] have to-day in the drama of life. Even in France and Spain it has superseded politics as the predominant masculine interest.”

What else is new? It seems like every year professional sports are bigger than ever. No matter what is going on in the world, we can’t get enough of them. Things were pretty much the same in early 1930, except that back then “boxing [was] the innermost shrine of the cult.” (Bolitho 207) Other than the fact that women are much move involved in sports today and that we’re more interested in other sports like football and basketball than boxing, I think this quote is still pretty spot on.

Madison square garden
Madison Square Garden: A monument to athletics, entertainment, and spectacle. Photo credit: Billy Rose Theater Collection, NYPL.

In January 1930, the Italian boxer Primo Carnera fought his first fight in the United States against Clayton Peterson in Madison Square Garden. Though he wasn’t formally trained in boxing or very experienced, the “Man Mountain from Italy” won handily in just 70 action packed seconds. Carnera was 6’7″ and 275 pounds of muscle and struck Peterson down with punches that “would have shaken the Statue of Liberty.” (For a full description of the fight see here)

Photo Credit: George Arents Collection, NYPL.

After the fight was over (firefighters had to clear the arena because it was so crazy in there), Carnera relaxed in his dressing room with many celebrities and famous boxers like Jack Johnson. Also in attendance was New York World journalist William Bolitho. Bolitho is a really interesting writer who I’ve been getting into recently, and the article he published about the fight and his encounter with Carnera afterwards is fascinating. What I found most interesting about the article, though, is Bolitho’s discussion about what it takes to be a successful athlete. The secret, he claimed, was all about your personality:

Athletic figures like Carnera were popular subjects of cigarette cards and other memorabilia. Personality sells! Photo credit: NYPL.

“The heavyweight contender- that is the most common name for them- must be an embodiment of the strange and unusual, yet elemental, qualities, so that grown men of imagination may adopt him, and play with him. He must be material for folk lore, like Dempsey, Carpentier, Tunney, Johnson, Jeffries- a gorilla man, or a dude, or a terror, or a romance. Just a first class pugilist is not much use to the faithful. ” (Bolitho 208)

I can’t help but think about Muhammad Ali when reading this. In the days after his death earlier this month, there has been tons of discussion of his, and only half of all the talk was about his boxing skills. People remembered Ali for his electric personality and for much, much more. His refusal to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. His conversion to Islam and name-change. His involvement in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. I have to admit that I don’t know a ton about Ali other than what’s been going around in news and internet in the wake of his death, but its easy to see that his impact on American society went much farther than athletics.

Writing in 1930, Bolitho seemed to realize that the athletes who really resonated with the public had to have more than just pure talent. No, it was much more than that. They had to have personality. The early 20th century saw the rise of celebrity culture and stars began lodging themselves in the hearts and minds of Americans all over the country. Warren Susman, a historian I admire, wrote that the concept of “personality” changed a lot in the first few decades of the 1900s: “Personality was then changed to describe the attributes or qualities that make you unique. The quality of being ‘Somebody’ is emphasized. We live constantly in a crowd, how can we distinguish ourselves from others in the crowd? The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer. Every American was to become a performing self.” (Susman 221)

Personality was a serious business back then, and it still is now.

But, I don’t think Bolitho could see the political impact that celebrities and athletes could have on society. He seemed to be more wrapped up in the celebrity/entertainment side of personality instead of its ability to inspire people or bring serious issues up for discussion in society. Ali had his political views and impact on racial conversations, and he was preceded by athletes like Jackie Robinson and others who broke the color barrier in the middle of the century. These weren’t just athletes, they were inspirational political activists working in the public eye. Even in Bolitho’s time athletic organizations like the Negro Baseball League created some opportunities in an era when segregation and racism tried to squash any sense of pride or accomplishment in the black community.

Bolitho also wrote that:

The boxing cult depends on the still less predictable will of nature to produce a rare type of man. For your great prizefighter must not only have the strength, the skill, the courage. He has to have a specially dramatic or heroic personality, which experience has demonstrated is almost as rare as a poet, much less common than great captains of industry or statesman. The demi-gods of the ring have to have as many points, as seldom found together, as an avatar of Vishnu. We have to wait till nature is in a mood for artistic production. (Bolitho 207-208)

Looking back at the 20th century, I’d say that the greatest sports figures are memorable because of their personality. But I’d also say that these great ones aren’t just celebrity athletes; they’re often political, artistic, and vocal too. They can be a lot more than just entertainers and celebrities. I wonder if this wasn’t as apparent in the 1930s as it is today?

Two side notes before I finish this post. First, as I was doing a little research and digging, I came across a group of digitized films of Carnera fights on Internet Archive. I watched a few and then came across a 1933 film of a match between Carnera and Ernie Schaff, a promising heavyweight contender who was put into a coma after Carnera hit him with a powerful left-handed punch in the 13th round. Sadly, Schaff died a few days later. I thought it was a pretty sobering video and a good reminder about how deadly sports can be. Besides boxers like Schaff who were killed in the name of sports entertainment, I’m sure there were many others who suffered life-long injuries (I’m especially thinking about brain injuries and mental issues) too. Not quite as glamorous as Bolitho makes it out to be I think.

umd boxing
The NCAA dropped boxing after a competitor died in the 1960 National Championships. This well-attended match was in Ritchee Collesium at the University of Maryland, College Park. Photo Credit: University of Maryland Libararies.

Second, I have to give credit to Bolitho for being such a talented and descriptive writer. Here is how he described Carnera in his 1930 article:

His teeth are all shown, long and yellow like a horse’s, with receding gums and dark at their base. There is only an inch between his forehead and his eyes, and there is a red mark chafed on the bridge of his formless nose. The inordinate length of his face, the strange, unspeculative look in his stare, his great sensuous lips, would be familiar in decadent Rome; the Rome of Nero and Faustina. He is a gladiator such as they used to carve on the prow of their pleasure galleys in the days of Petronius.

It is wrong to say he has a beautiful or even noble body. It is red and hairless. His muscles are the plebeian masses that merge roundly into each other, with the look of fatness; the muscles of a blacksmith or stevedore, not the aristocratic flesh pure sport creates. His skin, too, is muddy. There was a large angry-red pimple on his shoulder, and his large feet are lamentable; bunioned, jointed, the feet of a poor waiter. On his left calf there are knotted veins and scars of boils or festered bruises.

As they photographed him I saw his manager beside him bend his knees, so that Carnera would look even taller. (Bolitho 210-211)

Carnera circa 1933. Think he matches Bolitho’s description? Photo credit: NYPL.

I finally finished reading a collection of newspaper articles by William Bolitho, an extraordinary writer who led a really exciting life that was cut short in 1930 at the young age of 39. I suspect that is why he is not so well known today, even though he was admired by writers like Noel Coward and Ernest Hemmingway back in the day. Shortly after his death, fifty of his articles were published in a book called “Camera Obscura.” I found an original copy in a bookstore by chance and after flipping through just a few pages was hooked. I’d like to write about some of the topics that Bolitho covers (radio, speakeasies, and predictions of technology in the future to name a few), so stay tuned for more!

Works cited:

William Bolitho, “Camera Obscura,” 1930

Warren Susman, “Personality and the Making of Twentieth Century Culture” from “Culture as History,” 1985


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