Boxing’s Last Golden Age?

George Kimball, Four Kings.

Review by Vernon Frazer


McBooks Press, Inc.
339 pages. $22.95

Boxing has experienced a number of “golden ages,” beginning with its bare-knuckle origins in the eighteenth century. As a youth watching the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, I considered the early 1950s a “golden age” and the later 1950s an era dominated by all-time greats such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore and Carmen Basilio while none of the sport’s weight divisions contained more than two or three serious contenders. In Four Kings, longtime boxing writer George Kimball asserts that 1981-1989 was boxing’s last “golden age,” a time when all-time greats Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran waged nine memorable bouts with each other, several of them ranking among the greatest bouts in boxing history.

Although many “golden ages” exist in the eye of the beholder, the facts underlying Kimball’s perceptive chronicle make a convincing case that my own observations support.

In his preface, Kimball states that at the time they had completed their last bout of the nine, Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran had compiled an aggregate record of 229 wins, 15 losses (eight of them against one another) and 4 draws, numbers that compare favorably with the career records of such all-time greats as Sugar Ray Robinson (173-19-6) and Willie Pep (229-11-23), which they compiled in an era when boxers fought far more frequently than in the present day. Between 1981 and 1989 most of boxing’s weight divisions contained at least five, sometimes as many as seven, contenders who presented legitimate challenges to the division champions. While focusing on the development of Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran, Kimball offers incisive commentary on the period’s supporting cast, including boxing hall of famers Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor, Mike McCallum and Michael Spinks.

Four Kings contains eleven chapters, one short of the number of rounds in a modern-day title bout. Kimball opens with a chapter that describes the origins and development of the four boxers, devotes a chapter to each of the nine bouts in chronological order, then wraps the era with an eleventh chapter, as though the next “golden age,” should there be one, will become the twelfth chapter or round.

Writing in a clean, literate style that rivals the great Jimmy Cannon, Kimball offers an entertaining, no-holds-barred account of the period, revealing the wheeling and dealing and complex relationships of boxing’s unique subculture with an honesty and depth of insight that daily newspapers and fan magazines don’t reach. If the nine bouts, taken as a whole, tell four separate stories of success, failure and redemption, Kimball’s commentary explains the psychological workings of each boxer, the boxing politics that made each bout possible, or nearly impossible, and the big money bouts that led the era’s major boxing organizations, the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council and, later, the International Boxing Federation, to override their own rules.

Kimball chronicles the careers of the four champions virtually from the first day each entered the gym. As welterweights, Leonard and Hearns virtually turned professional on a collision course. But several barriers to the bout existed: the respective stages of their development and Roberto Duran, already established as one of boxing’s greatest lightweight champions, rising to welterweight with automatic contender status. Hagler’s blue-collar battle through years of bad paydays and worse judges earned him the unified middleweight title and the likelihood that Leonard, Hearns and Duran would rise in weight to fight for the middleweight title, as Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio did in the 1950s.

Kimball’s reveals the gamesmanship the four boxers employed to gain an edge over each other. Before their first bout, for example, Duran’s slurs against a young Leonard’s manhood pulled Leonard out of his boxer’s game plan and into a brawl that cost him his welterweight title. A savvy Leonard scheduled the rematch as quickly as possible, so that Duran, bloated from his extended victory celebration, would enter the ring weakened from losing too much weight too quickly.

Kimball also analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the four, noting Hearns’ weak chin and lack of stamina, as well as his devastating power and superlative boxing skills. In the first Hearns-Leonard bout, Emmanuel Steward, Hearns’ trainer, tried to diminish the stamina problem. But a headstrong Hearns overtrained for the match and fell to Leonard in the fourteenth round, as much from exhaustion as from Leonard’s power. Kimball notes that in 1987 an intoxicated Ray Leonard observed Hagler’s decline in skills during a title defense against John Mugabi and immediately telephoned his management to say that he knew how to beat Hagler and that he wanted to come out of the latest of his several retirements to make the match. If Kimball seems too extreme in saying that Hagler let the Leonard fight “slip away from him” he is nevertheless correct that Hagler’s fight strategy made the bout close enough for Leonard to win a close decision that fans still dispute two decades later.

By 1989, the four kings had reached or passed the zeniths of their careers. Hagler retired to Italy. Hearns redeemed his loss to Leonard with a twelve-round draw in which he decked Leonard twice. Duran lost to Leonard in a plodding rubber match. As happens all too often with boxers, all but Hagler stayed past their best years. Leonard won a light-heavyweight title before losing to Terry Norris and, after a six-year retirement, falling to the feather-fisted Hector Camacho. Roberto Duran won the WBC Middleweight and Super-Middleweight titles against lesser competition, before succumbing to age. Hearns won and lost the WBA Light-heavyweight title, and retired in 2006. All but Hearns, who won’t be eligible for induction until 2011, are members of the Boxing Hall of Fame. Although some battled personal problems after their retirement, none of them went broke the way many former boxers have. Financially speaking, Kimball’s in-depth portrait of the four major figures of boxing’s last “golden age” ends on a more positive note than many of the participants of previous golden ages.

Kimball, however, leaves the question of whether boxing’s “last golden age” will become boxing’s “final golden age” dangling in the winds of the future. While a number of great boxers have emerged since 1989, Kimball notes that the proliferation of sanctioning organizations has prevented many match-ups that would have tested their character and skills in the ring the way the four kings tested each other’s. While citing the rise of other sports as a reason for the public’s declining interest in boxing, he only touches on the economic changes that moved boxing out of the reach of the working man, such as the absence of quality matches on television networks other than HBO and Showtime, and the $50 for pay-per-view fee charged for the most competitive bouts. The average income fans now gravitate toward mixed martial arts on basic cable television channels and in affordable public venues. At the time of this writing, light heavyweight champion Joe Calzaghe declared boxing a dying sport.

If boxing is truly a dying sport, George Kimball’s Four Kings offers a perceptive and entertaining account of one of its last and greatest eras. Readers who lived through it will remember the excitement one more time and readers who didn’t will learn what made the sport and its practitioners memorable. While we wait for the Chapter Twelve that will herald boxing’s next “golden age,” we can hope that Chapter Eleven doesn’t mean bankruptcy for the sport. Through his love, understanding and dedication for boxing. George Kimball has created in Four Kings a memorable work that celebrates one of boxing’s most memorable eras. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the sport.