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 Biography Review    

 

 

The Pussycat of Prizefighting:
Tiger Flowers and the Politics of Black Celebrity
by Andrew M. Kaye
University of Georgia Press, 2004
Hardcover, $26.95 (207 pages) 
ISBN: 0-8203-2590-2
 
 
 

From time to time there comes along an athlete whose life and career transcend sports. Theodore “Tiger” Flowers, “the fighting Deacon,” who won the world middleweight championship in 1926, became the best known black fighter before Joe Louis to overcome the racial prejudice of his time and acquire a following in both white and black America. British historian Andrew M. Kaye has produced a perceptive biography of the first black prize fighter to be permitted a title shot since Jack Johnson’s public scandals had prompted an intensification of racial segregation in sports. 

A native of Camilla, Georgia, Flowers’s modest, deferential manner and reputation as a family man earned him the designation “the whitest black man in the sporting world,” and it was this persona that enabled him to breach the color line in boxing to become world champion. Kaye’s life of Flowers makes for poignant reading: having won the title he promptly lost it to a white fighter in a dubious match that Flowers may in fact have been persuaded to throw, only to die before the scheduled rematch during minor surgery for boxing injuries. As many as seventy five thousand mourners, white and black, paid their respects to his coffin and another ten thousand were present at his Atlanta funeral. 

Between 1918 and 1927, Flowers fought in one hundred fifty seven bouts, winning fifty seven by knockout and losing only fifteen. Kaye draws the important distinction in post bellum America between boxing, which was associated with manly vigor and encouraged as a necessary antidote to Victorian effeminacy, and prize fighting, condemned by cultural authorities as barbaric and connected with lower class lawlessness and violence. Prominent black leaders like W.E.B. Dubois and the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier criticized the emphasis on sports and sports figures within the black community as detrimental to higher cultural pursuits. For white America, “manliness” was the racially coded male virtue, a combination of masculinity and restraint that in theory only whites possessed, bearers as they were of the burden of empire and civilization. Flowers’s gifted athleticism in the ring and his exemplary behavior outside the ring disturbed this theory, just as Jack Johnson had significantly challenged the premise of white physical supremacy by winning the heavyweight championship in 1910. Flowers bridged white and black Atlanta with his appeal. For whites, his conduct and bearing posed no threat to the racial status quo, and he set an example for other blacks by returning to Atlanta to live when the flight of black labor to the north was a source of great economic anxiety. For blacks, “Tiger” Flowers was a model of black success and their symbolic champion in the ring against oppressive white racism. 

Flowers’s life remains an enigma. Suspicions of foul play hovered over his premature death, and rumors of a double life kept out of the newspapers remind us of another squeaky clean celebrity black athlete, Kobe Bryant, whose reputation has taken a beating quite recently. Kaye’s book wonderfully illuminates black Atlanta of the period and offers up a primer on boxing in America. The Pussycat of Prizefighting is a must read for boxing aficionados and students of American culture.        

 

Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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