PRIZEFIGHTING. Technically speaking, prize-fighting is any physical contest that offers a prize or "purse" to one or more contestants. In the common vernacular, it refers primarily to boxing, the only form of prizefighting in the United States to gain some measure of prestige as well as commercial success. Boxing is a sport where two opponents, chosen by weight class, fight with their fists, usually wearing padded gloves. Contestants are judged based on the number and quality of blows delivered to their opponent's head and torso. Boxing history in the United States has been dominated by heavyweight boxers, but in recent decades boxers from lighter weight classes have occasionally grabbed the spotlight. Because of its nature as an individual sport, the peaks and valleys of the boxing world have been largely dependent on the personalities of the players.
Imported from England
John Graham Chambers, a British boxing official, drew up the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in the 1860s. The new rules became part of the British tradition, adding prestige to a sport favored by wealthy gentlemen who wagered considerable sums on contests or "bouts." The Queensberry Rules included gloves, in contrast to the more lowly form of bareknuckle fighting, and the introduction of three-minute rounds. The American tradition, however, was more associated with bareknuckle grudge matches in saloons and rural gathering spots. In slave states, boxing could be particularly gruesome, with some bouts involving several black slaves in the ring while white spectators wagered on which would be the last man standing. Its unsavory reputation resulted in the widespread prohibition of prizefighting in the mid-nineteenth century, led by northeastern states such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York. Nearing the end of the nineteenth century, most states had banned prizefighting. Nonetheless, the sport remained popular and fights were still promoted and exhibited, especially in the western United States.
Patriotism and Race
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, some bouts between English and American fighters gained widespread attention, thanks in no small part to promoters encouraging nationalistic pride. Bill Richmond (1763–1829), the son of a Georgia-born slave, caught the attention of General Earl Percy, who took him back to England to fight in championship-level bouts. In 1910, Richmond beat English champion George Maddox in the fifty-second round, adding fuel to the rivalry between England and the United States. The same year, Tom Molineaux (1784–1818), a former slave from Virginia, fought England's Tom Cribb (and lost) in the first black-white title fight, gaining international attention.
Later in the century, as American boxing became legalized and more institutionalized, promoters catered to the dominant white culture, who wanted blacks barred from the more prestigious heavyweight contests. As a result, blacks and whites generally fought in different circuits. Perhaps the most famous boxer of the era was Boston's John L. Sullivan (1858–1918), whose charisma and talent made him a star on the exhibition circuit. Sullivan's celebrity status increased the popularity of the sport and helped establish American dominance over British fighters.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, however, patriotic rivalries were replaced by racial rivalries. In 1908, black fighter Jack Johnson (1878–1946) defeated Canadian Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title. Johnson openly taunted white opponents and inflamed racial tensions, and promoters grew desperate to find a white fighter to beat him. In 1910, Johnson defeated white former champion Jim Jeffries in fifteen rounds, sparking race riots in the United States that left twelve people dead. Johnson's success as a fighter was eclipsed by his reputation for creating trouble for promoters and did not make it any easier for blacks to compete in prominent contests. Championship bouts were again dominated by whites until the 1930s, after which came the ascendancy of black fighters and, later, Hispanics.
The Highs and the Lows
In the 1920s, American heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey (1895–1983) became an international celebrity whose fights made front-page news. After Dempsey's retirement in 1927, however, boxing went into a lull. For the next decade, the title went to good but less exciting heavyweights such as Max Baer, Primo Carnera (Italy), James Braddock, and Max Schmeling (Germany).
The boxing hero of the 1930s and 1940s was Joe Louis (1914–1981), a black American originally from Alabama. Louis's talent in the ring, paired with his polite demeanor, made him one of the best-known boxers of all time, the reigning champion from 1937 to 1949. His most embarrassing defeat, to Germany's Max Schmeling in 1937, was avenged in a 1938 re-match that lasted just over two minutes, making "The Brown Bomber" a popular symbol of American superiority over Adolf Hitler's Germany.
The 1950s saw the emergence of popular boxers from lighter weight classes, including Sugar Ray Robinson (1921–1989), the virtually unstoppable welterweight champion of the 1940s. Robinson moved up to capture and retain the middleweight title in the 1950s and became a national celebrity. Heavyweight bouts continued to be the most publicized and most prestigious events, however. Heavyweight champs from the era included Rocky Marciano (1923–1969), who retired undefeated, and Floyd Patterson (b. 1935), who held the title from 1956 until 1959, and then again from 1960 until 1962, when he lost to Charles "Sonny" Liston (1932–1970).
Bold and brash challenger Cassius Clay (b. 1942) was the light heavyweight champion of the 1960 Olympics who moved up to beat Liston in the 1964 title bout. Clay, a black Muslim, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and went on to become one of the most famous athletes of the twentieth century. In 1967, Ali made headlines outside the ring when he was stripped of his title and lost his license to box for refusing on religious grounds to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Ali was later allowed to box again and was vindicated by the Supreme Court in 1971.
Joe Frazier (b. 1944) won a tough decision over Ali in 1970, but lost to George Foreman in 1973. Ali defeated Foreman in Zaire in 1974 and regained the title in a media spectacle dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle." Ali's charisma made him a popular culture icon in both Africa and the United States, and the contest made the history books as one of the greatest comebacks in sports. Ali won in eight rounds by leaning against the ropes of the ring and taking punch after punch until, finally, Foreman exhausted himself. Ali called his strategy the "Rope-A-Dope," a term that immediately entered the popular lexicon. In another hyped bout in 1975, Ali fought Frazier in the Philippines—"The Thrilla in Manila"—one of the most brutal fights in modern history between two of the sport's most bitter rivals. Ali beat Frazier and held the championship title, but age was catching up to him. Ali lost in 1978 to Leon Spinks (b. 1953), regained the title briefly, then lost again to Larry Holmes (b. 1949) and retired in 1981.
Holmes won twenty straight title fights between 1978 and 1985, but never gained the superstar status of Louis or Ali, partly due to organizational chaos in the boxing industry. In the 1980s, the public turned its attention to lighter weight divisions and captivating personalities such as Sugar Ray Leonard (b. 1956), "Marvelous Marvin" Hagler (b. 1954), and Thomas Hearns (b. 1958), although big money matches were still the province of the heavyweights.
In 1987, Mike Tyson (b. 1966) became the undisputed world champion at the age of twenty, the youngest to ever hold the title. Short and stocky, "Iron Mike" over-whelmed opponents with strength and speed, but lost the crown in 1990 to James "Buster" Douglas (b. 1960) in one of boxing's biggest upsets. Douglas held the title for less than a year, then lost to Evander Holyfield (b. 1962) in a third-round knockout. Meanwhile, Tyson's most famous fights were outside the ring and inside the courtroom. After a brief marriage came a highly publicized divorce from actress Robin Givens, then a 1992 rape conviction that led to three years in prison. After jail, Tyson made a comeback, but in a bizarre incident, he bit the ear of Holyfield during a 1997 title fight. In spite of the controversy in his personal life and his strange antics in the ring, Tyson continued to generate millions of dollars for the boxing industry, thanks in large part to the advent of pay-per-view matches on cable television. In 2002, Tyson's last-ditch effort to gain respectability and the title fell short and he was soundly defeated by British champion Lennox Lewis (b. 1965), in what was popularly considered a contest between the gentleman (Lewis) and the brute (Tyson).
By the end of the twentieth century, professional boxing still hinged on the ability of fighters to excite the public, and heavyweight bouts continued to be the most publicized and the most lucrative. But the ascendancy of Hispanics, who generally fight in lighter weight divisions, helped hold the attention of fans in the absence of a captivating heavyweight fighter, and smaller fighters like Oscar De la Hoya (b. 1973) and Puerto Rico's Felix Trinidad (b. 1973) became stars in their own right.
Andre, Sam E., and Nat Fleischer, updated by Dan Rafael. Prize-fighting: An Illustrated History of Boxing. 6th rev. ed. New York: Citadel, 2001.
Mee, Bob. Bare Fists: The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2001.
Pacheco, Ferdie, and Jim Moskovitz. The Twelve Greatest Rounds of Boxing: The Untold Stories. Kingston, N.Y.: Total/Sports Illustrated, 2000.
Seltzer, Robert. Inside Boxing. New York: MetroBooks, 2000.
See alsoSports .
"Prizefighting." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/prizefighting
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Crime or Sport? Boxing was the most noteworthy sport of the era in terms of crowds and newspaper coverage. American pugilism had its origins in England. In the mid nineteenth century contestants fought under the London, or Broughton, Rules, first devised by the boxer Jack Broughton in 1743. Opponents faced each other in the middle of the ring, toeing a mark called the “scratch.” When the bell sounded, they proceeded to fight with bare fists. No hitting below the waist was allowed, and a fallen boxer could not be struck. A round ended as soon as a man went down; only thirty seconds separated each round. Moreover, there was no limit to the number of rounds in a fight. For example, the bout between John C. Heenan and Tom Sayers on 17 April 1860 lasted for forty-two rounds (two hours and twenty minutes) by some accounts. Each boxer had seconds to assist, and referees supervised the bout. As may be expected, an individual needed to be in superb physical condition to engage in such activity; the average lifespan of a bareknuckle prizefighter was forty-five years.
Manly Art. Although prizefighting was a bloody affair, it was far more than simple brutality. Boxing helped develop the manly virtues of physical conditioning, fair play, and athletic skill. The ring, it was said, taught a man “bulldog courage.” In addition, bare-knuckle fighting nurtured the American notions of individualism and self-reliance. With the advent of heavy industrialization in the mid nineteenth century, urban centers throughout the country started to grow in size and population. City dwellers found boxing a welcome diversion from long hours at the factory and crowded living conditions. Moreover, many viewed the manly art as an opportunity to rise above poverty, and the boxers became ethnic and neighborhood heroes. Pugilists also served a useful purpose for urban politicians, becoming “shoulder hitters” on election day, roughing up the rival candidate’s ballot-box stuffers and thugs. In return, politicians protected their muscular supporters whenever they were arrested (which was quite often).
Outcry. Boxing suffered from legal as well as religious opposition. Religious leaders opposed it on moral grounds, denouncing the violence and heavy gambling that accompanied the bouts. The New York Tribune described
Various blood sports, imported from England and easily conducted in alleys and taverns, had great underground appeal in the United States since the colonial era. Although the contests were illegal, they occurred on a regular basis throughout the country, especially in such major cities as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. The urban masses of the North enjoyed rat baiting. In the “classic” a fox terrier was placed in an eight-foot-long pit with one hundred rats. The object of the sport was for the dog to kill as many of the rodents as possible in a given time. The best trained terriers could dispatch all one hundred in twenty minutes. In the “handicap” a dog was timed in how long it took to kill its weight in rodents. Ratting occurred in saloons, livery stables, and private pits, with spectators paying twentyfive cents to $1.50 to see a handicap, and $5.00 for a classic. Sportsman’s Hall in New York City, owned and operated by Kit Burns, could accommodate 250 spectators for such events.
Cockfighting pitted two specially trained roosters against one another. During this era at least two or three cockfights were held in New York City every week, and one breeder had at least seventy birds. While Southerners openly advertised gamecock matches in newspapers, Northerners relied on word of mouth or handbills to spread the news of upcoming events. One contemporary described the typical contest: “It is amazing to see how they peck at each other, and especially how they hack with their spurs. Their combs bleed terribly and they often slit each other’s crop and abdomen with the spurs. There is nothing more diverting than when one seems quite exhausted and there are great shouts of triumph and monstrous wagers; and then the cock that appeared to be quite done for suddenly recovers and masters the other.”
Source: Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, A Brief History of American Sports (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993).
a typical fight scene as follows: “Probably no human eye will ever look upon so much rowdyism, villainy and scoundrelism, and boiled-down viciousness, concentrated upon so small a space.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was equally condemning: “A worse set of scapegallowses … could scarcely be collected; low, filthy, brutal, bludgeon bearing scoundrels.” The courts perceived prizefighting as a throwback to a less civilized
era, and classified it as an affray or a riot. As a result, promoters of the sport bribed and dodged police, holding events in wooded glades, barns, or on barges anchored in rivers and bays. Spectators of all ages and classes flocked to the events, their price of admission usually including boat or rail fare. At times, the violence spilled out into the audience. In 1863 at Virginia City, Nevada Territory, a thousand miners paid $2.50 each to watch Thomas Daly fight William McGrath. In the fourteenth round a disputed call of “foul” was leveled against McGrath. Rival betters then started to argue and in a few minutes five men had been shot, one of them fatally.
Champions. In 1850 one of the most popular American fighters was James Ambrose, an Irishman who came to the United States ten years previously after escaping from the penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia, and assumed the name “Yankee” Sullivan. In 1841 he fought Vincent Hammond for one hundred dollars, defeating him in eight rounds (ten minutes). The next year he battered Tom Secor in sixty-five rounds spread over one hour, earning $300. On 12 October 1853, Sullivan encountered John C. Morrissey in upstate New York. Morrissey won the match after Sullivan left the ring to slug a few hecklers between rounds; when the bell sounded to start the next round, he failed to get back into the ring in time. As the new champion Morrissey had no problem finding contenders. In fact the 1858 prizefight between Morrissey and John C. Heenan, the “Benicia Boy,” was probably the most famous boxing match of the era. Both men trained for several weeks and then boarded a train from New York City to Buffalo, accompanied by thousands of fans, some from as far away as New Orleans. From Buffalo, boats took the crowd to Long Point, Canada. The fight was short; after eleven rounds Heenan was so exhausted that he could no longer throw punches. Morrissey, showing more “bottom,” or endurance, knocked out his opponent. Some newspapers reported that in New York City alone more than $250,000 in bets changed hands. Another famous rivalry pitted Tom Allen against Mike McCoole. They fought on two separate occasions in Saint Louis, McCoole winning in 1869 and Allen in 1873. After 1877 John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strongboy,” would emerge as the new hero in the boxing world.
Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1986);
Jeffrey T. Sammons, Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
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