Description: This is a revealing look at the history of race relations in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century portrayed through the lives and times of the first two African-American heavyweight boxing champions, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. Incorporating extensive research into the black press of the time, the author explores how the public careers and private lives of these two sports figures both define and explain vital national issues from the early 1900s to the late 1940s. period.
The main events -- the Johnson-Jeffries "fight of the century" in 1910, Johnson's Mann Act trial, Louis's two bouts with Max Schmeling in the 1930s, and his enlistment in the army -- are organized around the book's principal themes: the persistence of prejudice and segregation from the the early 1900s to the late 1940s; the two boxers' symbolic significance to black Americans; and the hopes that their success in the ring inspired.
Comment(s): "In The Fight of the Century, historian Thomas Hietala recounts the remarkable lives and times of two great boxing champions, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. More, he shows us how the lowly prize ring figured so prominently in America's struggles with racism in the twentieth century. As Hietala makes clear, each man fought not only for glory and fame, but also-wittingly or unwittingly-for racial justice and equality. Theirs was an extraordinary story, and Hietala tells it well." -- Elliott J. Gorn, Purdue University
"Anyone who hopes to understand race relations and African American culture has to come to terms with Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. Hietala's book is ideal for modern African American history courses, as well as courses on the history of sport in the United States." -- Randy Roberts, Purdue University
Review(s): "... the achievement of The Fight of the Century is in Hietala's meticulous establishment of the significance of the careers of the two fighters in the context of their times, which were often vicious and not infrequently murderous. Heitala is merciless in re-creating those times. Like all of the best sports books, The Fight of the Century is about a great deal more than a sport. Hietala has reconstructed the two eras in which a black man encouraged the pride of a race and, beyond that, the hope across races that times and people could change." -- The Boston Globe
"[Hietala] is an energetic historian whose range extends well beyond the boxing ring and the circles of celebrity and adulation and notoriety that grew up around first Jack Johnson and then Joe Louis. This is an ambitious and compelling book, and one that will appeal to any thoughtful reader, whether or not that reader has any interest in boxing or, for that matter, sports." -- Bill Littlefield, host of "Only a Game," NPR (online)
"...[Fight of the Century] represents a compelling, well-researched exploration into what confronted the two champions and the nation. Any reader who cares about the problem of racial discrimination, boxing, or the role of sports in society at large will find much to like in this book." -- The Tennesseean
"Well referenced and easy to read, the book makes a significant contribution to the literatures of sport, history and sociology. ... Highly recommended." -- Choice
"This excellent book explores the problem of racism during the first half of the 20th century through the lives of two pre-eminent black athletes: heavyweight boxing champions Jack Johnson, who was champion from 1908-1915, and Joe Louis, who was champion from 1937-1949. The result is an imaginative and compelling look at the overwhelming struggle of black Americans against segregation and discrimination. ... The Fight of the Century should appeal to anyone interested in American social, intellectual, and sports history." -- History: Reviews of New Books
"...a fascinating historical treatment of how two black boxing champions, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, affected and reflected racial attitudes in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. ...not only informative but also highly entertaining. ... Hietala's book is a powerful, readable, fascinating study of American race relations in the first fifty years of the twentieth century, suitable for scholars and readers of American History, American Studies, Sport History and Sociology, Ethnic Studies and boxing history." -- H-Net Reviews
"... The Fight of the Century maps the tumultuous course of American race relations throughout the twentieth century. Hietala's careful examination of press reporting provides a wide diversity of coverage within both black and white newspapers. His attention to the historical forces shaping white racial ideologies and the dimensions of symbolic meaning Johnson and Louis held for black Americans offers a fresh perspecitive on these frequently studied figures." -- The Journal of American History
"Other historians and journalists have covered the careers and lives of Johnson and Louis, but no other writer has provided such a rich background to those stories. ...Hietala writes with passion and precision. And he supports his contentions with a wide-ranging and impressive research... The result is a history of not only of two boxers but of African-American thought in the first half of the twentieth century." -- American Historical Review
" The Fight of the Century is well written, well researched, and makes impressive use of traditionally white as well as black newspapers. This book is essential reading for all those interested in United States race relations during the first half of the twentieth century." -- FHQ Vol. 82 No. 3
"...difficult to put down. ...a compelling work that will be of interest not only to scholars exploring symbolic identity but also to anyone interested in the history of racial politics in the United States." -- Rhetoric and Public Affairs Vol. 7 No. 1
"Hietala deepens previous analyses of these men in several ways: through his pairing of Johnson and Louis within a single study; in his more nuanced examination of the racism and shifting racial attitudes which framed their careers; in exploring the responses of both African Americans and white Americans to each man; and in his use of both "top rail" and "bottom rail" sources. It is a fitting approach to a sport that has served, Hietala observes, as "a bully pulpit, blurring lines between individual and group, private and public, sports and society, biography and allegory"...Indeed , The Fight of the Century is an engaging read for precisely these reasons." -- American Studies, Vol. 44, nos. 1-2