The Role of Boxing in American Society

By Jeffrey T. Sammons

University of Illinois Press. 318 pp. $24.95

Because there is so much work to be done in the young field of sports history, Jeffrey T. Sammons' "Beyond the Ring" generates great expectations. Sammons is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, and the book grew out of his dissertation at the University of North Carolina. The book's subtitle -- "The Role of Boxing in American Society" -- reveals that Sammons started with great expectations as well, along with a graduate student's fever for big ideas. The results should caution readers to be patient with young historians in an uncharted field.

In his preface Sammons says he set out to write a sustained history of boxing, and narrowed his time frame to 1930-1980. There is a crying need for a scholarly history of modern boxing, but it would require an examination of obscure and diffuse sources from state athletic commissions, local boxing clubs, university boxing teams, business records from various arenas and promoters, federal and state investigations into corruption and organized crime, and a thorough study of media coverage of the sport.

Sammons chose an easier, and less valuable, route. He narrowed his subject to a study of the heavyweight division, and after throwing in 72 pages of "background" on the period from 1882 to 1930, ultimately produced an episodic rehash of the careers of the best-publicized heavyweight champions -- John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali.

With good biographies available for almost all of these famous heavyweight champions, Sammons often digests information available in better detail elsewhere. He then tries to use his digests as a springboard for the larger ideas that really interest him.

Although Sammons is bright and sometimes provocative, the lack of detail in his narrative and research often results in weakly grounded conclusions. For example, he emphasizes a psychological need for individual accomplishment as a determining factor in the growth of modern sport, but he spends little space discussing other contributing factors -- urbanization, immigration, increased availability of leisure time and the creation of a national media culture. The lack of a detailed study of the promoters who controlled boxing in the 1930s leads him to describe "promoters" and "boxing officials" as an improbably monolithic conspiracy orchestrating the heavyweight championship.

Because Sammons' ideas pass over such well-traveled ground, the book's value lies in its digressions into more obscure events, such as court cases over interracial matches in the South during the '50s. Sammons devotes his best and longest chapter to an account of the International Boxing Club's monopoly over boxing in the '50s and its ties to organized crime. That account is particularly valuable because Sammons reviewed transcripts of testimony before congressional committees and local athletic commissions.

But even his digressions sometimes suffer from a lack of detailed research. Sammons parlayed a few statements by boxing promoters about female fan interest and two articles by women about attending boxing matches into a conclusion that women "played no small part" in winning support for legalized boxing in the 1920s. He needs far more evidence of actual female initiative to draw such a counterintuitive conclusion. Sammons writes in some depth about Sonny Liston's ties to reputed crime figures, but never follows through with an account of Liston's collapse under Muhammad Ali's invisible punch in their second fight.

The book's treatment of Ali further reveals the faults inherent in his survey approach. It is probably too soon to write the story of Ali's impact on America, but any historian who attempts it must do an exhaustive review of media attitudes toward black militancy, the Vietnam war and Ali himself. Sammons did not do that work, and relies on his own generalizations about the war and racism. For example, he makes the incredible statement that after Ali converted to the Nation of Islam, "Boxing promoters, politicians, and the media all sensed that the time was not right for a blatantly racist campaign to neutralize Ali."

The final paragraph sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the book. The author concludes that boxing is part of an upper-class conspiracy that obscures the real problems of society with compensatory distractions. It is an interesting idea. The problem is that Sammons has never clearly discussed or supported that idea in the preceding 256 pages.

The reviewer is a Washington lawyer and the author of "Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America."