Boxer Joe Louis
Boxer Joe Louis

The brilliant economist and columnist Thomas Sowell writes beautifully of a time when even men paid to beat each other up in public conducted themselves as gentlemen, in “Old Boxing Matches,” on National Review Online.

Key passage:

The first thing I noticed about the boxers back in the era of Joe Louis, from the 1930s into the 1950s, is that they all wore regulation boxing trunks and they didn’t have tattoos. There was no trying to outdo each other with garish trunks or wild tattoos. They didn’t try to stare each other down when the referee was giving them instructions before the fight.

Seldom did any of these boxers go in for showboating during the fight, and there was no denigrating the other fighter, before or after the fight.

After Joe Louis knocked out an opponent, any comment he made was usually along the lines of “He’s a good fighter and very game.” Sometimes Louis would add, “He had me worried for a while,” though there was seldom any real reason to worry.

One of the few fighters who did give Joe Louis a real battle, and who was ahead on points when Louis knocked him out, was Billy Conn. But when Conn lost his balance in their much anticipated rematch, Louis simply let him regain his balance before continuing the fight. How many boxers today would do that, especially against someone who was a real threat?

Although Joe Louis was widely respected as a model of sportsmanship, he was by no means the only one who behaved like a gentleman in the ring. That became a norm that heavyweight champions after him tried to live up to, until the 1960s.

Sowell observes that this regime of gentlemanly behavior was overthrown in the 1960s:

The loutish, loudmouth, and childish displays that have become all too common today in boxing, as well as in other sports, began in the 1960s, like so many other signs of social degeneration.

I have previously observed that the real transvaluation of all values in the United States started just after World War II and that what happened in the ’60s was that the immense social and cultural changes of the previous two decades suddenly reached the point where the differences from the prewar era became undeniably obvious, but Sowell’s point is a sound one: the decline of manners indicates a loss of morals that leads inevitably to social degeneration.

Whereas the 1960s generation argued that good manners were a manifestation of hypocrisy and that individuals should simply be “honest” by indulging their least generous impulses, their ancestors knew that acting decently inspires others to respond in kind and helps put people in the habit of thinking decently toward one another. Good manners make for good people and a good society.

Read the full article here.