Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

By Dan Streible | Go to book overview

Preliminaries
History, Prizefighting, Early Cinema

Late on the night of July 19, 1996, the opening ceremonies for the centennial Olympic games in Atlanta culminated with a stunning moment. A series of famous athletes relayed the Olympic flame to the enormous torch atop the stadium. The identity of the final torchbearer had been kept secret. When television cameras revealed it to be Muhammad Ali, humbled by the palsy of Parkinson’s disease, onlookers first gasped, then cheered and wept at the sight. The most celebrated athlete of his era, the irrepressible “Louisville Lip” had fallen silent, his famous powers of speech stolen by disease and the apparent ravages of dementia pugilistica. His appearance in Atlanta was a glorious comeback, offering the sight of a fallen fighter bravely and stoically overcoming his infirmity. Ali ignited the Olympic flame with a steady right hand, while his left shook uncontrollably. The sense of physical decline was made all the more apparent by the ceremony’s earlier celebration of the body beautiful, highlighted by a giant tableau vivant of silhouettes replicating the statuesque physiques of the athletes of classical Greece. Although Ali’s athletic skills had gone, he had come to represent the transcendental values of courage, determination, and international goodwill.

That the world would embrace a prizefighter as a legitimate representative of sport, much less a sporting icon, would have been unimaginable a century before. Perhaps, indeed, only a figure as storied and exceptional as Muhammad Ali could confer prestige on a sport as inglorious as prizefighting. Yet his appearance at the Olympic centennial invites comparison to the image of the boxer a hundred years earlier. How did the nineteenth-century criminal act of prizefighting, attended by only a small constituency, become the mainstream modern sport that draws millions of spectators and created twentieth-century legends such as Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Jack

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