Oliver Goldstein examined the meaning of the biggest and tallest heavyweights in history
WHEN Tyson Fury miraculously righted himself after being collapsed by Deontay Wilder for a second time in the dead hours of December 1, 2018, all six feet and nine inches of his massive frame somehow re-arranged into fit and proper condition, so too did boxing’s largest division seem once more to resemble itself as it once stood at its zenith. There were giants once — or so the old saying goes. Now they have seemingly returned.
With Anthony Joshua, Fury and Wilder make for the largest, most significant contingent of heavyweight champions in decades. Yes, Nikolay Valuev and the Klitschko brothers were collectively taller — the Russian behemoth with the hairy chest and cartoon face wins any competition on the vertical (if not much more). Yet the division had lain dormant throughout their respective reigns. Only with Joshua, Fury and Wilder has some sense of the social and cultural significance once vested in the figure of the giant returned to the heavyweight class.
Their predecessors, Valuev and the Klitschko brothers, were huge men in a post-modern world. Their fights happened and some people turned up in Germany and nobody outside of there much cared. They were physically massive but symbolically small. Among them, only Vitali resembled in character and outline the heavyweight giants as they once were — and even then only sometimes. But lacking a challenger worthy of the name after returning to the sport against Samuel Peter in September 2008, even he was diminished by the end in stature if not size.
Thus, the heavyweight giant has become a more and more common figure since the 1990s. Now the three leading heavyweights are all above six feet six inches. Even a fighter as talented as Oleksandyr Usyk is reckoned too small for the division, at a still towering six-feet-three. David Haye and Alexander Povetkin were the last junior big men to win versions of the gold. Both were thrashed with something approaching ease by the always reticent Wladimir Klitschko. But with this increase in prevalence has come about a waning of esteem. The diminution of the mystery of the big man has been proportionate to his increased ordinariness. There is no mystery in the everyday occurrence.
Heavyweights were not always so big in size yet they were once far bigger in stature. The idea of the giant — figurative or literal — previously exercised huge significance in the global political imaginary. The history of the 20th century could be read through its heavyweight champions, nearly all of whom, up to and including Mike Tyson, were freighted with an immense cultural and political significance. What engendered this significance was not only the literal size of the division itself, but the figurative mystery that its biggest practitioners possessed.
Not until Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and resisted going to war in Vietnam did an American heavyweight so torment America’s historically racist unconscious as Jack Johnson. It should come as no surprise that Johnson advertised himself as “The Galveston Giant.” Born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, Johnson was not necessarily a physically huge man — at just over six feet tall, he was six inches smaller than the “Pottawatomie Giant”, Jess Willard, against whom he would finally lose his belt in 1915. But Johnson’s figurative enormity, and his willingness to parlay that symbolic significance into a form of defiance against white violence which verged on protest, makes him one of boxing’s most important heavyweight giants.
The former champion John L. Sullivan, whose protégé Charles Cutler was unmanned by Johnson in 1907, knew instinctively of Johnson’s significance at the time. “Shame on the money-mad champion,” Sullivan is meant to have declared in the course of a racist diatribe in 1908, upon learning that Tommy Burns would defend his championship against Johnson on Boxing Day in Sydney, Australia. “Shame on the man who upsets good American precedents because there are dollars, dollars, dollars in it!”
Johnson was still considered a taboo subject for American whites in 1936, according to the novelist Richard Wright—along with Jews, the Pope, Communism, and the entire northern part of the United States. With his white chauffeur and his fondness for white women, Johnson represented a perpetual form of dissent against the sanctimony of white America in the 1910s and 1920s. Dressed as a dandy, Johnson’s name would be claimed by numerous black men who challenged and subdued white authority after 1910. Although his loss of the title in 1915 would result in a furious series of attempts to retain white hegemony, with the next black champion delayed until Joe Louis triumphed over Jim Braddock in 1937, Johnson’s reign would forever transform the sociopolitical significance of the heavyweight championship.
Before Louis’ second fight with Max Schmeling in June 1938 was absurdly transformed into a medium for a contest between civilisations, another giant emerged through which a different political movement could channel its own nascent energies. Now Primo Carnera looks like an augury of things to come — massive and ungainly, Carnera was modern heavyweight boxing arrived premature in early 20th century form. But for the first time, with the exception perhaps of Willard’s late reprise of the part of the ‘Great White Hope,’ the gigantic figurative significance of the heavyweight division was realised in the body of a literal giant.
Born in Sequals in 1906, Carnera was six feet seven inches and not much more. Practically illiterate, he moved to France and joined a travelling circus in his early twenties, for whom he boxed, wrestled and lifted weights under the pseudonym of “Juan the Unbeatable Spaniard”. But when Carnera was re-directed towards full-time boxing, first by the former French heavyweight Paul Journée and then by manager Léon Sée, a new life began. Now fighting in Paris, Carnera won fourteen fights in the space of a year — albeit Sée would later confess to having fixed the lot. Transported to America in 1930, Carnera’s management would change in name if not in character—from the small-time villainy of Sée to the full-time criminality of the mob.
Eventually booked to fight for Jack Sharkey’s title, Carnera shockingly became heavyweight champion when he won by sixth round knockout in Long Island, New York, on June 29, 1933. Already associated with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party in Italy, Carnera would return to his homeland as an oversized symbol of nativist triumph. In 1933, he would appear alongside Mussolini on the balcony of the Piazza Venezia in Rome, dressed in the blackshirt get-up of the fascist militia. Carnera’s fight against Paulino Uzcudun a few months later took place at a makeshift arena in the Villa Borghese, before 70,000 spectators and Mussolini himself. When Carnera entered the ring he revealed a blackshirt under his robe.
The fascist sportswriter Adolfo Cotronei confirmed the symbolic significance of the Italian giant, as Simon Martin has shown in his history of Italian sport, for L’illustrazione Italiana. “Carnera has confirmed our skill, definitively consecrating the esteem of the Latin athlete,” Cotronei wrote after his victory over Sharkey. “And in the country of ultra powerful and outstandingly strong champions, he was the unbeatable giant… who surprised experts and the ignorant with his intelligent aggression.”
Yet when Carnera was destroyed by Louis in 1935, on the eve of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, his nationalist credentials were rapidly revoked. By 1937 he was no longer permitted to fight abroad, so tarnished was his reputation at home. Defeated by a Yugoslav gypsy, even former booster Cotronei would promptly disown him at the end of his frequently fraudulent career.
“The ex-lumberjack couldn’t really be one of ours, he couldn’t be Italian,” wrote the fascist Cotronei. “He was too big, too round, too much in the body and too little in the mind.”
With the demise of “The Ambling Alp” Carnera, it was not until Sonny Liston eviscerated Floyd Patterson that the heavyweight championship was imbued with such flammable political material again. Then Liston was transmogrified into “the big black negro in every white man’s hallway,” according to LeRoi Jones, or else “a mural-sized American myth,” as William Nack wrote in Sports Illustrated. Once again Liston’s huge size — “a larger-than life John Henry with two hammers, an 84-inch reach, 23 knockouts (in 34 bouts) and 19 arrests” — saw his championship reign freighted with an absurd and yet very real sense of significance. “Tales of his exploits spun well with the fight crowd over beers in dark-wood bars,” Nack wrote. “There was the one about how he used to lift up the front end of automobiles. And one about how he caught birds with his bare hands. And another about how he hit speed bags so hard that he tore them from their hinges, and ripped into heavy bags until they burst, spilling their stuffing.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that the division’s most recent revivification has coincided with the return of politics in its angry and turbulent mode, even if the days of heavyweight giants bearing the weight of the political world on their shoulders are thankfully long gone. But hindsight suggests that the Klitschkos and Valuev were the right champions for an era of relative stability in the wider world. Their fights were quiet and sleepy — in the case of the Klitschkos, cosmopolitan, even.
Perhaps every era gets the heavyweights it deserves. The aberrant but articulate Fury seems in particular to embody something distinctively real about our contemporary situation. Only a time as unsettling as the present could produce a fighter quite like Fury, whose combination of apocalyptic with confessional, honesty with abjection, makes him at times legitimately unnerving. Perhaps the heavyweights, in their symbolic and literal enormity, somehow reflect our own image more clearly to ourselves.
Heavyweight boxing may never again be as huge as it previously was, not least insofar as it was once weighed down with all measure of symbolic significance. But the giants are awakening from their slumber. Something different is ahead. Fury and Wilder looked for all the world like the huge heavyweights they are on December 1, yet in their styles they represent a kind of archaising twist on the tedious orthodoxy of the Klitschko era.
Fury combines massiveness on the vertical (and occasionally on the horizontal) with a daintiness that never ceases to surprise. Wilder looks like an athlete and yet his best shot is always when boxing gives way to the bar-room brawl. They are making it new by making it old. With Joshua in tow, the heavyweight giants are emphatically back in town.