Professional prizefighters and sites for professional boxing matches are found all over the world. But the origins of modern boxing can be traced to one country and era: England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although protoforms of combat or blood sports existed in ancient Greece and Rome, they have little connection with the sport of boxing as practiced and understood today. The antecedent of modern boxing was bareknuckle prizefighting, which sprang up in England almost simultaneously with that country's emergence as a major capitalist world power.
To be sure, the less restrictive moral atmosphere accompanying the decline of Puritanism in the mid-1600s permitted a revival of the rough sports of antiquity. Early on, boxing had close ties to the city because it was supported by urban wealth when local squires migrated to the metropolis along with increasing numbers of working-class men. The rise of boxing came in large part from the growth of commercialized leisure and popular recreation.
Before the rules formulated by Jack Broughton, one of the earliest of the new breed of "scientific boxers" who appeared on the English sporting scene in the early 1730s, bare-knuckle fighting largely consisted of butting, scratching, wrestling, and kicking. Under the Broughton Rules, elements of wrestling remained, but there was more emphasis on the fists, on skilled defensive maneuvers, and on different styles of throwing a punch effectively. Broughton, for instance, developed the technique called "milling on the retreat," or moving backward while drawing one's opponent into punches, a technique Muhammad Ali used to great effect during his reign as heavyweight champion over two hundred years later. Broughton also used gloves or "mitts" for training his pupils, many of whom were among England's leading citizens.
Under the Broughton Rules, which were superseded by the London Prize Ring Rules in 1838, boxers fought for indeterminate lengths of time, a fight not being declared ended until one fighter could not come up to the scratch mark in the center of the ring. A round lasted until one fighter was felled; both men then returned to their corners and were given thirty seconds to "make scratch" again. London Prize Ring Rules governed the sport of prizefighting as a bare-knuckle contest until the coming of gloves
and the Marquis of Queensberry Rules. The first heavyweight championship fight under the Queensberry Rules was held between the aging John L. Sullivan and James J. "Jim" Corbett on September 7, 1892. Not only did the fight usher in the age of Queensberry, it also ushered in the age of American domination of the sport, as both Sullivan and Corbett were Americans.
The golden age of bare-knuckle fighting in England, overlapping with the Regency period, occurred between 1800 and 1824, an era captured by Pierce Egan, one of the earliest boxing journalists, in his classic work Boxiana (1828–1829). Records of the first black boxers of note date from this era. Bill Richmond was a slave who learned to box by sparring with British seamen. He was taken to England in 1777 by General Earl Percy, a commander of British forces in New York during the American Revolution. Richmond, known as "the Black Terror," became the first American to achieve fame as a prizefighter. He stood about five feet tall and weighed between 155 and 170 pounds. Richmond beat such established British fighters as Paddy Green and Frank Mayers. Among his losses was one in 1805 to the British champion Tom Cribb, who was a title aspirant at the time. Richmond, who died in London, is probably best known not for his fighting but for being a second to the first black fighter to challenge for the championship.
That man, also an American ex-slave, made an even bigger name for himself as a prizefighter. Tom Molineaux apparently came from a boxing family, as it has been claimed that his father was an accomplished plantation scrapper. Although there is no record of Molineaux's career before his arrival in England, it is well established that many planters engaged their more athletic slaves in sports. Given that most young planters had taken the obligatory European tour and discovered boxing to be the rage among British gentlemen, it is little wonder they imported it to America.
Molineaux, who became known in England as "the Moor," arrived in England in 1809 and quickly defeated Bill Burrows and Tom Blake. Molineaux was matched with Tom Cribb, the champion, for the first time on December 18, 1810, a bitterly cold day (during the bare-knuckle era, most fights took place outdoors). It was one of the most talked-about and eagerly anticipated sports events in British history. Molineaux apparently won the fight, knocking Cribb out in the twenty-eighth round. However, Cribb's seconds accused Molineaux of illegal tactics. During the pandemonium that ensued, Cribb was able to recover, finish the fight, and beat Molineaux, largely because the black boxer had become chilled by the damp cold. The two men fought a rematch in 1811, with Cribb the easy winner because Molineaux had failed to train and had generally succumbed to dissipation. He went downhill rapidly after his second loss to Cribb and died in Ireland in 1818, a shell of the figure he had been in his prime.
Despite the impact of Richmond and Molineaux, blacks did not constitute a significant presence in boxing until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the United States became the principal venue for professional matches. This era can be referred to as the pre-Jack Johnson age; the coming of Johnson signified a new epoch not only in boxing but in American sports history. The years 1890 and 1905 are considered among the worst in American race relations, when blacks experienced Jim Crow and American racist practices in their most virulent, oppressive, and blatant forms. Life for black fighters was far from easy: They often were denied fights against whites or, if permitted, found they were expected to throw the fight. They were paid less and fought far more often than did their white counterparts.
Among the important black fighters of this era were Peter Jackson, George Dixon, Joe Gans, and Jersey Joe Walcott. The latter three were all champions in the lighter weight divisions. Boxing under the Queensberry Rules had evolved to the point where there were now firmly established weight divisions, in contrast to the bare-knuckle days of Richmond and Molineaux, when boxers fought at "open weight" and there were sometimes great weight disparities between the contestants.
Peter Jackson was arguably the best heavyweight of his generation. Many experts felt he could have taken the measure of the then-champion, John L. Sullivan, had not Sullivan—in keeping with the intense racism of the times—drawn the color line and refused to meet Jackson. The "Black Prince," as Jackson was called, was born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. His family emigrated to Australia when he was twelve years old and returned to the Virgin Islands three years later. Jackson did not come back with them, opting to seek his fortune as a sailor. During his years as a sailor, Jackson developed his boxing skills. He became the Australian heavyweight champion, but on discovering that America was a place to make one's name, he emigrated in 1888.
At the age of thirty, in 1891, Jackson fought contender Jim Corbett to a sixty-one-round draw, but it was Corbett who fought Sullivan for the title the following year. Although Jackson enjoyed success as a fighter, he left the ring for the stage because he was unable to obtain a title match against either Sullivan or Corbett after Corbett defeated Sullivan for the championship. Jackson toured with a stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin for several years. At thirty-seven, out of condition and well past his prime, he tried a comeback against Jim Jeffries, only to be knocked out in three rounds. Despite the frustration Jackson endured, he was widely admired by many white sports enthusiasts for his gentlemanly demeanor, and he was idolized by blacks. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass in his old age hung a portrait of Jackson in his home. Jackson died of consumption in Australia in 1901.
George Dixon, known to the world as "Little Chocolate," was a smooth and cagey boxer who began his professional career on November 1, 1886. He first became bantamweight champion, although there was dispute about the exact weight qualification for this division. He eventually became the world featherweight champion, a title he held from 1892 to 1900. Dixon was a popular fighter who was often featured in white sporting publications such as the National Police Gazette, as well as being seen in the haunts of the black entertainment world. Life in the sporting world eventually wore Dixon down. He was knocked out by Terry McGovern in New York in 1900 and lost his last fight to Monk Newsboy in 1906. His health ruined, he died penniless in 1909.
Joe Gans, "the Old Master," is considered by many historians of boxing to be one of the greatest lightweights of all time. He was born in Baltimore on November 25, 1874, and launched his professional career in 1891. He
reigned as lightweight champion from 1902 to 1908. Gans was plagued by ill health, eventually losing his title to Battling Nelson in a rematch. In 1909 he tried to win his title back in another battle against Nelson, but he was sick and aging and easily beaten. Gans died in Baltimore a year later of tuberculosis. It has been suggested that Gans had become a follower of Father Divine, a black religious leader, who was also then living in Baltimore. However, at this stage in his career, Father Divine was known only as a healer; it is not clear whether his followers believed he was God, as they later did. Because Gans was afflicted with an incurable disease that was ravaging the black community, he may have been drawn to Father Divine as a last-ditch effort to seek a cure.
Joe Walcott was born in Barbados on March 13, 1873. Called "the Barbados Demon" because of his whirlwind punching power and ability to endure punishment (a style that can be likened to that of the popular 1970s junior welterweight champion Aaron Pryor), Walcott held the welterweight title from 1898 to 1906. He retired from the ring in 1911 and worked for a time as a janitor, winding up, as many black fighters did, with no money from his ring efforts. He was killed in an automobile accident in 1935.
In the twentieth century, three periods demarcate the history of blacks in boxing: the Jack Johnson era (1908–1915), the Joe Louis era (1937–1949), and the Muhammad Ali era (1964–1978). There have been many impressive and important black fighters aside from these heavyweight champions. Henry Armstrong, a dominant force in the 1930s, became champion of the featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight divisions simultaneously, the first fighter to achieve such a feat. Sugar Ray Robinson, welterweight champion and winner of the middleweight title on five different occasions, dominated his weight division in the 1950s and was one of the most stylish and influential boxers in history. Archie Moore, "the Old Mongoose," was champion of the light heavyweight division from 1952 and 1962. Floyd Patterson was Olympic champion
|Black members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Canastota, N.Y., modern inductees|
|Name||Birth country||Year inducted|
|Muhammad Ali||United States||1990|
|Wilfred Benitez||Puerto Rico||1996|
|Jimmy Bivins||United States||1999|
|Joe Brown||United States||1996|
|Charley Burley||United States||1992|
|Jimmy Carter||United States||2000|
|Jeff Chandler||United States||2000|
|Ezzard Charles||United States||1990|
|Curtis Cokes||United States||2003|
|George Foreman||United States||2003|
|Bob Foster||United States||1990|
|Joe Frazier||United States||1990|
|Wilfredo Gomez||United States||1995|
|Emile Griffith||Virgin Islands||2000|
|Marvin Hagler||United States||1993|
|Beau Jack||United States||1991|
|Harold Johnson||United States||1993|
|Ray Leonard||United States||1997|
|Sonny Liston||United States||1991|
|Joe Louis||United States||1990|
|Bob Montgomery||United States||1995|
|Archie Moore||United States||1990|
|Ken Norton||United States||1992|
|Terry Norris||United States||2005|
|Floyd Patterson||United States||1991|
|Aaron Pryor||United States||1996|
|Dwight Muhammad Qawi||United States||2004|
|Ray Robinson||United States||1990|
|Matthew Saad Muhammad||United States||1998|
|Sandy Saddler||United States||1990|
|Michael Spinks||United States||1994|
|Joe Walcott||United States||1990|
|Ike Williams||United States||1990|
|Albert "Chalky" Wright||Mexico||1997|
in 1952 and heavyweight champion from 1956 to 1962, one of the youngest men ever to hold that title. Sugar Ray Leonard, Olympic champion in 1976 and champion in the welterweight, junior middleweight, middleweight, and super middleweight divisions, was one of the most popular fighters in the 1980s. And the controversial Mike Tyson, who was imprisoned for rape, became the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight championship when he won the belt in 1986. Tyson was one of the most ferocious and unrelenting fighters ever to enter the ring.
These are a few of the notable black fighters of the twentieth century. But none of these men exercised the social and political impact on American society that Johnson, Louis, and Ali did. These three not only changed boxing, but their presence reverberated throughout the world of sport and beyond. People who normally had no interest in either boxing or sports took an interest in the careers of these three.
Like many black youngsters, Jack Johnson learned the craft of boxing as a child by participating in battles royal, where five, six, or seven black youngsters were blindfolded and fought against one another in a general melee. The toughest survived the ordeal and made the most money. It may be argued that battles royal were not necessarily more brutal than ordinary prizefights, but they were surely far more degrading.
Johnson fought his first professional fight at the age of nineteen, and the defensive skills he learned to survive the battle royal stood him in good stead when he challenged white fighters in the early twentieth century. Black fighters at this time were expected not to win many fights against white opponents; if they did win, they did so on points. Johnson was among three other black heavyweights who fought during this period: Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey, and Sam Langford, also known as "the Boston Tarbaby." Johnson became a leading contender for the title. After much wrangling and many concessions, he fought Tommy Burns for the heavyweight championship in December 1908 in Sydney, Australia.
Although the color line had been drawn against black challengers to the heavyweight title, Johnson succeeded in part because he was in the right place at the right time. Many in the white sporting public felt it was time to give a black a shot at the title, and Johnson was at that point well liked by the white sporting fraternity. Publications such as the National Police Gazette, not noted for any enlightened racial attitudes, campaigned vigorously for him to get a title fight. When Johnson defeated Burns, he became the first black heavyweight champion, the most prized title in professional sports.
Soon, however, the white sporting public soured on Johnson. His arrogance and his public preference for white women provoked a cry for "a great white hope" to win the title back for whites. In 1910 Jim Jeffries, a former champion, was lured out of a six-year retirement to take on Johnson in the Nevada desert, a fight that was the most publicized, most heatedly discussed, and most fervently anticipated sporting event in American history at that time. It was the first prizefight to take on significant political overtones, as many whites and blacks saw it as a battle for racial superiority. Johnson was easily the most famous—or most infamous—black man in America, and the fight occurred at the height of racial segregation and oppression of blacks in the United States. Johnson easily won the fight, and the victory caused race riots around the country as angry whites brutalized rejoicing blacks. This was Johnson's last great moment as a professional athlete.
In 1912 Johnson's first white wife, Etta Duryea, committed suicide at the champion's Chicago nightclub. In 1913, on the testimony of a white prostitute with whom Johnson had once been intimate, he was convicted under the Mann Act and sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison. His personal life now in shambles, with no future as a fighter because he was thoroughly hated by the white public, he fled the country for Paris.
Johnson lost the title to Kansan Jess Willard in Cuba in 1915, a fight Johnson claimed he threw in order to regain entry to the United States. In fact, he did not return until 1920, when he served his time in prison with little notice. Johnson went on to become a museum raconteur, an autobiographer, a fight trainer, and an occasional participant in exhibitions. He died in an automobile accident in 1946.
When Joe Louis defeated Jim Braddock in June 1937 to win the heavyweight title, he was the second black to become heavyweight champion, and the first permitted even to fight for the championship since the end of Johnson's tenure in 1915. During the ensuing twenty-two years, there were only three black champions of any division, and two had brief reigns: West African Battling Siki was light heavyweight champion from September 1922 to March 1923; Tiger Flowers was middleweight champion for six months in 1926; and Kid Chocolate was featherweight and junior lightweight champion from 1931 to 1933.
Joe Louis's father was institutionalized for mental illness and his mother remarried. The family relocated from Alabama to Detroit because of job opportunities in the automobile industry. Louis had little interest in school and was attracted to boxing. He had a distinguished amateur career before turning professional in 1934 under the management of John Roxborough and Julian Black, both African Americans. Louis's trainer, Jack Blackburn, a former fighter of considerable accomplishment, was also black. Mike Jacobs, an influential New York promoter, steered Louis toward big-time fights, and thus Louis's career was carefully guided to the championship in three years.
Image was everything for Louis, or at least for his handlers. In order to be accepted by the white public, he had to be the antithesis of Johnson in every respect. Johnson had bragged and consorted with white women publicly; Louis was taciturn and seen only with black women. Louis went about his business with dispatch, never relishing his victories or belittling his opponents. This latter was an especially sensitive point because all of Louis's opponents, before he won the championship, were white.
Louis came along at a time when blacks were more assertively pushing for their rights, unlike the era of Johnson. The labor leader A. Philip Randolph scored a significant victory when he achieved recognition for his union from the Pullman Car Company and achieved further gains when his threatened March on Washington forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Federal Order 8802 in 1942, integrating defense industry jobs. Louis came of age after the Harlem Renaissance and after Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association movement, both of which signaled greater militancy and race awareness on the part of blacks.
Louis's most important fight was his rematch against German heavyweight Max Schmeling in 1938. Louis had lost to Schmeling in 1936 and for both personal and professional reasons wanted to fight him again. Because Schmeling was German and probably a Nazi, the fight took on both racial and political overtones. Louis became the representative of American democracy against German arrogance and totalitarianism, as well as of American racial fair play against Schmeling's image of racial superiority and intolerance.
Louis won the fight easily, smashing Schmeling in less than a single round. As a result, he became the first black hero in American popular culture. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army and donated purses from his fights to the war effort. He retired in 1949, after holding the title longer than any other champion and defending it successfully more times than any other champion. Money problems, particularly back income taxes, forced him to make a comeback in 1950. He retired permanently after his loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951. In later years, Louis became a greeter in a Las Vegas hotel. He suffered from mental problems, as well as a period of cocaine addiction. He died in Las Vegas in 1981, probably the most revered black boxer, and arguably the most revered black athlete, in American history.
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay Jr., had a distinguished career as an amateur boxer, culminating in a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games. Always outgoing with a warm but theatrical personality, the photogenic young boxer spouted poetry, threw punches with greater grace and speed than any heavyweight before him, and was generally well received by the public. Although many people disliked his showy, sometimes outrageous ways, others thought him a breath of fresh air in boxing. The young Clay fought an aging but still intimidating Sonny Liston for the championship in 1964, defeating the older man in a fight in which Clay was the decided underdog.
It was after this fight that Clay announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam. Shortly afterward, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, probably one of the most widely and thoroughly discussed and condemned name
changes in American history. Ali's popularity among whites plummeted as a result of his conversion.
But he was not done provoking the white American public. In 1967 he refused induction into the armed services on religious grounds. His spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, had served time in prison during World War II for taking the same stand. Ali was stripped of his title, and his license to fight was revoked. Despite outcries from more liberal sections of the white public, Ali was in effect under a kind of house arrest for three and a half years. He was not permitted to fight in the United States and was not permitted to leave the country to fight abroad while his case was being appealed.
Ali was finally permitted to fight again in late 1970 in Georgia against journeyman heavyweight Jerry Quarry, whom he dispatched in a few rounds. During the interval of Ali's exile, the sentiments of the white public had changed significantly. Many turned against the Vietnam War. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy only two months apart in 1968 made many think the country was on the verge of collapse, and as a result there was a greater sense of tolerance and understanding. Ali's religious beliefs no longer struck the public as bizarre and threatening. Finally, blacks had achieved some political leverage in the South, and this was instrumental in getting Ali a license to box again. Ali eventually won his case in the U.S. Supreme Court when his conviction was overturned as one of a series of decisions that broadened the allowable scope for conscientious objection to war.
Ali lost his claim to the title when he suffered his first professional defeat at the hands of Joe Frazier in March 1971, the first of three epic battles between the two great fighters. But Ali eventually regained his title in 1974 when he defeated George Foreman in a shocking upset in Zaire. He lost the title again in 1978 to Olympic champion Leon Spinks, but regained it a few months later in a rematch, becoming the first heavyweight to win the championship three times.
Ali was by far the most popular champion in the history of boxing. His face was, and still is, recognized more readily in various parts of the world than that of virtually any other American. Ali has been particularly important in creating a stronger sense of kinship between American blacks and people of the Third World. He is the most renowned Muslim athlete in history.
Like many before him, Ali fought too long, disastrously trying a comeback in 1980 against champion Larry Holmes, who badly thrashed him over ten rounds. Ali's health deteriorated throughout the 1980s. Parkinson's disease, induced by the heavy punishment he took in the ring, took its toll. Nevertheless, Ali remained a formidable physical presence, an athlete who continued to be honored around the world for his courage both in and out of the ring.
With Ali's departure from boxing, the heavyweight division was dominated for a considerable period by Holmes, a formidable fighter but a man of little personality, wit, or engagement. Although Holmes enjoyed considerable popularity during his reign, it was fighters from the lighter weight divisions who attracted media attention and huge purses during the late 1970s through the 1980s. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Aaron Pryor, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Thomas "Hitman" Hearns, Marvin Johnson, Mike "the Body Snatcher" McCallum, Livingstone Bramble, and Michael Spinks were among the best and most highly publicized fighters of the day.
Relying on the popularity of several highly skilled Latin American fighters, including the redoubtable Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello, Pipino Cuevas, and Victor Galindez, which enabled fight promoters to once again use ethnic and cultural symbolism as a lure for a diverse and fragmented public, these black fighters were able to bring greater attention and larger sums of money to boxing arenas in the 1980s than ever before.
After Holmes, the heavyweight class fell into complete disarray, as it had during the 1930s before the coming of Joe Louis. A succession of undistinguished champions paraded before the public. Not until the emergence of Mike Tyson did the category reclaim its position as the glamour division of the sport. Tyson enjoyed greater financial success than any other heavyweight in history. However, he was poorly advised and surrounded by cronies who did not protect his interests or their own. Tyson pursued a self-destructive path of erratic, violent behavior and suspected substance abuse, and was finally imprisoned for an assault on a black beauty contestant.
Following Tyson's imprisonment the heavyweight crown remained split. However, Evander Holyfield was popularly recognized as heavyweight champion, especially after he scored a surprise victory over Tyson in 1996 and successfully defended the title in a rematch (following which Tyson was suspended for biting Holyfield's ear during the match) in May 1997. In 1998 Tyson's boxing suspension was lifted.
After Tyson's period in the limelight, no single boxer captured public attention. In the late 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century, no one fighter held on to the heavyweight title. Several black boxers were among the champions, including Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, and, in a startling comeback, George Foreman, by then in his forties. During this time, as during the period after Muhammad Ali's retirement, boxing's popularity was kept alive mainly by smaller fighters. Oscar de La Hoya became a big name, drawing a huge following, especially in the Hispanic community. Other popular boxers were the African-American fighters Roy Jones and Sugar Shane Mosley, and Felix Trinidad of Puerto Rico. These fighters became stars through television pay-per-view, through which viewers themselves generate the payouts for prizefights.
In 2001 two daughters of former heavyweight champions entered the ring, bringing a female angle to prize-fighting. However, many saw the match between Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila Ali, and Joe Frazier's daughter, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, more as a publicity stunt than a serious fight.
In the late 1990s and early twenty-first century, boxing suffered from scandal and confusion, including criminal convictions of several prominent fighters, squabbles among boxing organizations over the authority to sanction fights and proclaim champions, injuries and deaths in the ring, and claims lodged by lower-class fighters of exploitation by promoters. Nevertheless, boxing continues to be a big-money sport, winning huge audiences through closed-circuit television.
Ashe, Arthur R., Jr. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Fleischer, Nat. Black Dynamite: The Story of the Negro in the Prize Ring from 1782 to 1838. 5 vols. New York: C. J. O'Brien, 1938.
Gorn, Elliott. The Manly Art: Bare-knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Hauser, Thomas. The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. Reprint, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
McCallum, John D. The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship: A History. Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Company, 1974.
Mead, Chris. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. New York: Scribner, 1985.
Oates, Joyce Carol. On Boxing, expanded ed. With photographs by John Ranard. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1994.
Reid, J. C. Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1971.
Roberts, Randy. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. New York: Free Press, 1983.
Rotella, Carlo. Cut Time: An Education at the Fights. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
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Ward, Geoffrey C. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. New York: Knopf, 2004.
gerald early (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
Today the sport of boxing is associated with a variety of racial stereotypes. In the late twentieth century these included the belief that no white man would be able to contend for the world heavyweight championship. This idea results from the general racial stereotype circulating in the Western world that persons of African descent are simply better athletes compared to persons of European descent. In addition, stereotypes concerning the innate violence of the African American male support the notion that Africans or African Americans should dominate boxing, which is by nature a violent sport.
In the early 1990s both the in-ring and out-of-ring behavior of then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson contributed to bringing these disturbing images to the forefront of European American consciousness. Tyson was convicted of raping Desiree Washington, then Miss Black Rhode Island, as well as being in possession of twenty-nine pounds of marijuana and cocaine. Tyson served three years of a six-year sentence. In 1997, in his match with Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson’s ring behavior sank to a new low. In the third round, Tyson clinched Holyfield, biting off a piece of his ear. This display feeds into the modern idea that violence and blackness are associated. For example, in 1995 President Bill Clinton stated that “violence for white people too often comes with a black face” (Hutchinson 1995).
The history of boxing does not indicate that Africans or African Americans per se dominate it. Rather, this history shows that participation in professional boxing is multiethnic and mostly associated with poverty rather than socially defined race. This becomes more apparent as one examines boxing participation across weight classes as opposed to just the heavyweight category. Also, virtually every cultural group has some form of boxing, including the Eastern martial arts and Latin American forms such as Brazilian capoeira.
The sport we know today as boxing probably began in ancient Greece and was included in the first Olympic Games. In ancient Rome, the sport was part of gladiatorial contests, and the boxers often wore a metal-studded leather hand covering called the cestus. Serious injury or death often resulted from these contests. The sport came to England with the arrival of the Roman Empire (Fleisher and Andre 1993). Modern boxing began there in the eighteenth century. In 1719, James Figg was recognized as the first heavyweight champion, and he is now recognized as the father of boxing. Figg openly advertised exhibitions of his skill and taught the sport. He was also a master swordsman, and thus he attracted the patronage of the English “bloods,” the socially well-to-do sportsmen of the country. His boxing exhibitions were held on a stage with wooden rails; the referee called the bouts while standing outside the ring. In 1734, another English champion, John Broughton, formulated the first set of rules and invented the boxing glove, though boxing gloves were used only at sparring exhibitions. Boughton’s rules governed boxing until 1838 and eliminated the practice of hitting opponents when they were down or grabbing opponents by the hair.
In 1838, the Original London Prize Ring rules were devised. Soon after, these were modified to form the Revised London Prize Ring rules (1853), and finally, at the turn of the century, the Queensberry rules were adopted. John Graham Chambers authored these rules under the patronage of John Sholto Douglas, eighth marquis of Queensberry.
Boxing in eighteenth-century England was dominated by contests of brute strength. Champions tended to be men who both could inflict great bodily harm on their opponents and withstand such harm themselves. Daniel Mendoza, a man of Spanish-Jewish descent, is credited as being the first boxer to change this model. After sustaining significant injuries in his first victorious bout, he spent three years developing a system of guarding, sidestepping, and effective use of the straight left (today called the left jab). Mendoza utilized these tactics to be crowned English champion in 1794. However, this victory was not without a price. Many boxing critics of the day characterized his tactics as “cowardly,” as opposed to standing up in the true “British bulldog” style (Fleisher and Andre 1993). Yet it was fighting in this style, as well as the adoption of the Queensberry rules, that would establish boxing as a legitimate sport as opposed to its prior image as a barbaric spectacle.
Bill Richmond was the first person of African descent to make a mark in English boxing. During the occupation of New York by the British in 1777, Richmond was noticed by General Earl Percy after he routed three English soldiers who accosted him in a tavern. Percy took Richmond into his household as a servant, and later that year sent him to England to apprentice as a carpenter. There he developed a style of fighting similar to that of Mendoza. Richmond stood 5 feet 6 inches and weighed 170 pounds. He listed among his most important victories those over George Moore, Paddy Green, and Frank Mayers. His prowess in the ring earned him the nickname “The Black Terror.” In his later years, Richmond ran a boxing academy in London, dying in that city on December 28, 1829, at the age of sixty-six.
Tom Mollineaux was born in Virginia on March 23, 1784. He arrived in England in 1809 and was trained by Bill Richmond. A year later, Mollineaux fought in the first international title involving a person of African descent. His opponent was Tom Cribb. The bout, which took place in December, lasted thirty-nine rounds, after which Mollineaux collapsed from exhaustion. English boxing correspondent Pierce Egan described Mollineux as “the tremendous man of colour” and wrote that he had “proved himself as courageous a man as ever an adversary contended with” (Fleisher and Andre 1993). Egan was also impressed with both Mollineaux’s strength and knowledge of the science of boxing. Cribb and Mollineaux fought a rematch in September 1811 before a crowd that swelled to more than 25,000 spectators. Once again Cribb was the victor.
Molllineux would defeat William Fuller in 1814. These fights made Mollineaux a celebrity in England. He lived there for the rest of life, engaging in periodic sparring bouts. He died in Dublin, Ireland, in 1818.
At this point in history there seemed to be no specialized racial theory of boxing, apart from the general racial theories of the time. The ability of non-Europeans in any sector of social endeavor was always viewed through the prism of the existing racial ideologies, which uniformly viewed such persons as inferior. Successful non-European individuals were exceptions to the general racial norms of day.
In 1816, Jacob Hyer and Tom Beasley fought the first publicly acknowledged boxing match in the United States, in New York City. In 1849, the first heavyweight championship fight was held, pitting Jacob Hyer’s son Tom against “Yankee” Sullivan at Still Pond Creek, Maryland. Yet, it is important to understand that prize fighting was still considered illegal throughout the United States. In 1849, most states had enacted “prize fight statutes.” In 1876, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that “Prize fighting, boxing matches, and encounters of that kind serve no useful purpose, tend to breaches of the peace, and are unlawful even when entered into by agreement and without anger or ill will” (Sammons 1988). That same year, organizers of the reputed world heavyweight championship fight between Englishman Joe Goss and American Paddy Ryan chose Colliers, West Virginia, so that if the fight was raided by hostile police officers, the participants would be able to flee quickly across state lines to Ohio or Pennsylvania.
The illegality of the sport meant that it stayed popular with the urban masses, many of whom were immigrants who saw it as a way to work themselves out of poverty. This is also a characteristic of modern-day boxing and to some degree accounts for the racial stereotyping associated with it. The Social Darwinists of the period supported boxing as consistent with Darwinian laws. William Graham Sumner declared that a society with “no-holds” business competition was in consonance with Darwinian law and that boxing was the reduction of “survival of the fittest” to its simplest and most tangible terms (Altschuler and LaForse 1983). These views explain why many early boxing contests revolved around the theme of “native-born” Americans pitted against Irish immigrants. Animosity against the Irish, both in America and England, was great in this period. For example, Professor Edward Freeman of Oxford, a devotee of the Count de Gobineau, carried out a successful lecture tour in the United States between 1881 and 1882. His lectures decried the corruption of the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic bloodlines by the Irish, Jews, and Negroes. The solution Freeman offered the Americans was that every Irishman would kill a Negro and be hanged for it (Chase 1977).
The final sixty years of boxing in the nineteenth century was dominated by Irish Americans. The most notable was John L. Sullivan, who first began to garner national attention in 1879 with impressive victories over Joe Goss, John Donaldson, and John Flood. In February 1882, Sullivan fought for the U.S. heavyweight crown at Mississippi City against Paddy Ryan. The public’s interest in the fight attracted major media attention, with newspapers hiring famous journalists and authors to record their impressions of the fight. Henry Ward Beecher, Reverend Thomas De Witt Tallmage, Nat Goodwin, and Oscar Wilde were among those who covered the fight (Fleisher and Andre 1993). Sullivan dispatched Ryan in nine rounds.
Sullivan, now dubbed “the Boston Strong Boy,” took on all comers in the heavyweight ranks for the next ten years. Sullivan fought and won the last sanctioned bare-knuckle fight in 1889, against Jake Kilrain. The fight was held in Richburg, Mississippi, and lasted seventy-five rounds.
Sullivan’s willingness to fight all candidates did not extend to persons of African descent. Sullivan consistently refused to fight Peter Jackson, an Australian boxer of African descent, even though most considered Jackson a serious contender for the heavyweight title (Ward 2004). Jackson was born in the West Indies in 1861 and began his boxing career in Australia in 1882. In May 1891, Jackson fought a sixty-one-round draw with Jim Corbett in San Francisco. It was Corbett’s success against Jackson that led to calls for a championship match with Sullivan. That match was held on September 7, 1892, in New Orleans, which had become the capital of American boxing. This fight was conducted with gloves under the Queensberry rules and Sullivan lost. This event also featured, in the featherweight division, George “Little Chocolate” Dixon against Jack Skelly. Dixon’s victory against Skelly, and the violently negative European American reaction to that victory, led to “interracial” fights being banned in that city (Sammons 1988).
Sullivan’s decision not to entertain bouts with persons of African descent can be linked to his manager, William Muldoon. Muldoon wished to spare his champion the humiliation of being defeated by a Negro. Given the symbolic role that the heavyweight boxing champion had taken on as the “emperor” of manhood, it was inconceivable for them that this mantle would be held by a Negro (Ward 2004). However, within sixteen years of Sullivan surrendering the belt, Jack Johnson, an African American born in Galveston, Texas, would be declared heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson began his boxing career in contests called “battle royals,” which pitted several African American men in the ring until the last man standing was declared the winner. European Americans would then throw coins into the ring as payment for the bout. Johnson turned professional in 1897 and amassed a string of impressive victories, until finally he forced then world champion Tommy Burns into a bout in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, Australia. The fight promoter, Snowy Baker, had to guarantee Burns $30,000 for him to agree to the match. Johnson greatly outclassed Burns, and the police stepped in to end the bout in the fourteenth round. The new heavyweight champion won a string of impressive victories within the year, and the search for “a great white hope” began, with fight promoters all over Europe and the Americas hunting for a “Caucasian” challenger to win the title back for the “white” race.
Johnson’s victories dispelled a variety of racist theories in boxing that had developed over the nineteenth century. It is argued that Johnson pursued the Burns fight in a way to expose the fallacies that black fighters
were weak in the stomach, that they betray a yellow streak under pressure, and that they were unable to think on their feet like white fighters (Ward 2004). All of these stereotypes were consistent with the general nineteenth-century racial views of the Negro. However, it was not Johnson’s behavior inside the ring that aggravated European Americans; it was his personal life. Johnson defied every racist convention of the early twentieth century. Most significantly, it was his romantic affairs with a series of European American women that turned both the African and European American public against him. For example, on March 12, 1909, Texas authorities threatened to arrest Johnson if he brought his white wife with him to that state. He was going to Galveston to attend a parade in his honor. D. A. Hart, the African American editor of the Nashville Globe, chastised Johnson for not marrying a member of his own race, thus insulting Negro women and placing others of his race in mortal danger (Ward 2004).
Shortly after the Burns defeat, Anglo-Saxonist author Jack London implored Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement to take the crown back from Johnson. The Jeffries–Johnson match, fought in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, had all of America’s attention. Twelve hundred African Americans prayed for a Johnson victory in Hutchinson, Kansas, and a special telegraph line was installed at Tuskegee Institute to receive round-by-round reports of the fight. Booker T. Washington disapproved of Johnson and prize fighting, but he allowed the fight to be broadcast to Tuskegee. In the ring, the band began with “Just Before the Battle Mother,” “America,” and “Dixie.” Johnson demolished Jeffries in fifteen rounds, so much so that Jack London could not bear watching the finish. African Americans in Chicago swept Johnson’s mother on their shoulders and carried her around the south side. At every stop on the return train ride to Chicago, Johnson was greeted by cheering crowds, including 1,000 members of the all-African American 9th Calvary (Buffalo Soldiers) in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Not everyone was happy; race riots broke out over the Johnson victory in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Clarksburg, West Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles; Manhattan; New Orleans; Norfolk, Virginia; Pueblo, New Mexico; Philadelphia; Roanoke, Virginia; Uvalda, Georgia; and Washington, D.C. It is estimated that from eleven to twenty-six people died, and hundreds were wounded, the vast majority African Americans.
Johnson maintained the heavyweight championship until April 5, 1915. The pressure of being the champion as well as the disorders of his personal life combined to defeat him at the age of thirty-seven. He lost the championship to the last of the great white hopes, Jess Willard, in Havana, Cuba. In 1920 he would surrender to federal authorities for violation of the Mann Act (which prevented the transportation of white women across state lines for “immoral” purposes) and spent eight months in prison. After he was killed in a car accident in 1946, he was buried in Graceland Cemetery next to Etta Duryea Johnson, the European American woman who had been the love of his life. For his courage against insurmountable odds, many rank Johnson as the most significant African American athlete of the twentieth century (Ward 2004).
The next notable heavyweight champion was Jack Dempsey (“the Manassa Mauler”), who took the title from Jess Willard on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Dempsey was a European American born in Colorado, one of eleven children, and started fighting as a matter of survival. He rode the rails looking for work in assorted mining towns. Dempsey amassed sixty wins, fifty by knockout, over his career. Dempsey lost the title to Gene Tunney on September 23, 1926. Tunney, also European American, grew up the son of a longshoreman. He also learned how to fight to survive on the brutal streets of New York City. He won the armed forces title while a member of the expeditionary force in France during World War I. Tunney’s lifetime record was sixty wins, forty-five by knockout. Dempsey’s and Tunney’s championships occurred at a time when America had locked the African-American athlete out from competition for the world heavyweight title. This reaction was a direct response to the success of Jack Johnson.
With Tunney’s retirement, the heavyweight championship passed over to Europe. A series of contenders vied for the belt, but on June 30, 1931, German Max Schmeling was declared world champion after a bout with Jack Sharkey. Schmeling’s victory came at a time when boxing had completely moved out of its former criminal/sideshow atmosphere into the mainstream of respectable public entertainment (Bathrick 1990). Indeed, boxing in general and Schmeling in particular took on tremendous importance in the cultural transformation of German society during the Weimar period (1918–1933). This transformation involved the glorification of the human body. In the 1920s, Germany, which had labored in the corset and stiff collar, moved to embody a new cult of nakedness in cultural venues from vaudeville to sport (Bathrick 1990). This was also the period in which racial hygiene ideas were gathering strength throughout German society. The eugenics (racial hygiene) of the Weimar Republic was mainly concerned with preventing the decline of the German “volk,” or “rasse” (Weiss 1990).
In this way, achievement in sport represented the antithesis of racial degeneration. The one-time European heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier (a Frenchman) stated that boxing had done more to improve the moral and physical character of the younger generation than had previous centuries of physical and moral teaching. He also stated that there was reason to hope that France’s military prowess would increase because of boxing (Carpentier 1926). Carpentier’s claims about the value of boxing seem to be at odds with modern science. A 2005 study of 477 boys in Norway found that participation in boxing was associated with a significantly greater probability of being involved in violent or antisocial behavior outside the ring (Endresen and Olweus 2005).
Bertolt Brecht, considered by many the most important German playwright of the twentieth century, also became enamored with boxing in the Weimar period (Bathrick 1990). In the same years, Adolf Hitler wrote of the importance of boxing in Mein Kampf: “There is no sport that cultivates a spirit of aggressiveness, that demands lighting-quick decisiveness, that develops the body to such steely smoothness.” Further, Hitler argued that had Germans studied boxing instead of etiquette, then the deserters, pimps, and rabble responsible for the Weimar Republic could have never taken power (Margolick 2005).
Schmeling became the world heavyweight champion on June 11, 1930, defeating Jack Sharkey before 79,222 fans in Yankee Stadium. Schmeling met Sharkey again for a second defense of his title in June 1932, losing by decision in fifteen rounds. Four years later Schmeling would be matched against Joe Louis (nicknamed “the Brown Bomber”) in Yankee Stadium before 39,878 fans. The term “Brown Bomber” had been developed by the American press to stir up racial animosity in preparation for the Louis-Carnera fight of 1935. Louis was portrayed as symbolic of Ethiopia, fighting off the Italian fascist invasion, symbolized by Primo Carnera (Sammons 1988). The cultural significance of the Louis–Schmeling bouts will always be intertwined in the context of American and German racism and the international political situation culminating in World War II. This is ironic, since neither fighter was particularly racist or anti-Semitic; for example, Schmeling’s manager, Max Jacobs, was of Jewish descent. Schmeling, however, would become the darling of Nazi sports culture, especially after he defeated Louis in the first fight. He would support the Nazi Party throughout his career, although there is no conclusive evidence that he agreed with its anti-Semitic and genocidal policies. Schmeling was a man of the period, and before Louis–Schmeling I, American newspapers were still portraying Louis using racist Sambo stereotypes. One newspaper showed Louis trembling with fear of Schmeling, after the Mantan Moreland character “feets don’t fail me now,” while another represented him as a chicken-stealing thief in farmer Max’s henhouse (Wig-gins 1988). German caricatures of Louis were just as bad. A cartoon that appeared in Der Kicker on June 23, 1936, portrays Schmeling spanking a Sambo caricature of Louis (Margolick 2005). Response to the Schmeling victory followed racial and ethnic lines: Jews, African Americans, Africans, and other colonized populations were plunged into immediate depression, while southern whites, Germans, South Africans, and other European populations in racially stratified societies jumped for joy. Films of the first Schmeling–Louis fight were rapidly made available throughout the United States. This was in contrast to the ongoing ban of films from the fights that Joe Louis had won against white opponents (Margolick 2005).
Louis–Schmeling II was undoubtedly the greatest professional fight of the twentieth century. This was not because of the technical mastery that either fighter showed in the ring but rather the social significance of the fight. No one was neutral. Aryanists, German Bundists in the United States, South African colonialists, and American white supremacists were all pulling for Max Schmeling to win again. American Jews, as well as the Communist Party, had originally opposed the fight to protest treatment of Jews in Germany. However, both groups realized that a Joe Louis victory would be a crushing blow to the theory of Aryan supremacy. African Americans were divided. Many were worried that Louis would lose again, but all of them were praying for the Brown Bomber. W. E. B. Du Bois sat listening to the fight with a group of academicians in Atlanta, Eleanor Roosevelt sat by the radio, and the owner of the Hope diamond, Evalyn Walsh McLean, had a ringside seat. The fight was carried live over German radio from New York. No one had to wait long; Louis defeated Schmeling by technical knockout (TKO) at 2:04 in the first round. Schmeling was knocked down three times, the last ending the fight. After the fight, to save face, Schmeling claimed he was fouled, but no one believed him.
Despite the abuses that occurred during some of the celebrations following, some argued that the Louis victory did more to improve race relations in America than any event since the Civil War. One writer wrote that the decline of Nazi prestige began with a left hook delivered by a former unskilled autoworker who had never read Neville Chamberlain’s policies (Margolick 2005, p. 322). Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels distanced himself from the Schmeling loss immediately, as did Nazi Germany as a whole. The United States entered the war against the Nazis with a segregated army. Louis served the war effort more as an icon than as a soldier, although he later served in the U.S. Army.
The Johnson–Jeffries and Louis–Schmeling fights illustrate all of the racial themes associated with boxing. When fighters from socially subordinated groups win, their victories are attributed to natural athleticism or innate animal-like savagery. Conversely, if the victory goes to fighters from socially dominant groups, it supposedly resulted from their greater courage and intellect. Try as it may, professional boxing has always had an unsavory reputation. Its appeal has always been to the poor and disenfranchised, who often barter their physical health and sometimes their lives as a way out of their social situation. In addition, this peddling of human flesh was consistently connected with various kinds of greed and crime (organized and individual). Yet boxing has seen its fair share of great athletes, and these individuals have originated from all portions of the formal racial spectrum.
Boxing and sports in general have given the public the idea that it is possible for individuals to better their condition by exemplary achievement in the professional ranks. This idea has been particularly popular among African Americans in the latter twentieth century. Sport has been one of the few industries where African Americans seemed highly mobile, visible, and their accomplishments consistent with the general racial theories of the twentieth century (all brawn, but no brain). Role models such as Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson through to Michael Jordan in the modern era are taken as a sign of physical superiority and increased social acceptance of all African Americans.
However, it is difficult to make a case that athletic excellence has had an overall positive effect on race relations in the United States or that it has played a significant role in the social mobility of African Americans. First off, achievement at the highest ranks in professional sports is statistically very rare. For example, in 1972 a high school athlete of any color had the following chances of making it into each of the following professional sports: 1 in 4,000 for baseball, 1 in 3,750 for the National Football League, and 1 in 10,000 for the National Basketball Association. The situation in boxing was not any better. Between the 1930s and 1950s, of 127 active professional boxers, only 7.1% received national recognition, 8.7% achieved local headlines, and the vast majority (84.2%) never achieved anything beyond warm-up bouts (Reiss 1990). Today it is still true that only boxers who are major contenders have a chance to make the “big money.” Also, even those who make a high salary may not keep their money for long. Most of these athletes, black or white, don’t have the background in money management or the support system required to handle their fortunes. In boxing, as in other sports, this combined with the lavish lifestyle that is expected of professional athletes, as well as the unscrupulous character of many of the fight promoters and managers associated with sport has led many top champions to squander their fortunes or retire bankrupt (Joe Louis, Ike Williams, Mike Tyson).
If professional sports has historically had any positive impact on the social mobility of oppressed groups, it must have occurred indirectly. There is some evidence that the Irish and Jewish communities may have been positively impacted by their period of dominance in professional boxing—in part, because several individuals used the sport to launch business ventures associated with their prominence in prize fighting. Athletes might also contribute to the social mobility of others by donating their wealth to help charitable ventures, such as the Muhammad Ali Institute at the University of Louisville or The Tiger Woods Foundation. The NBA Cares Foundation was launched in 2005, and since that time has raised over 50 million dollars for various charity initiatives. But all these laudable efforts must also be viewed in the light of the false ideology of guaranteed riches for poor youth who excel at sport. Statistics show that the
vast majority of such youth would stand a better chance of achieving social mobility (what little is actually possible in the United States) by focusing their time on their education, as opposed to athletic activity.
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Bathrick, David. 1990. “Max Schmeling on the Canvas: Boxing as an Icon of Weimar Culture.” New German Critique 51: 113–136.
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Chase, Allan. 1977. The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism. New York: Knopf.
Endresen, I., and D. Olweus. “Participation in Power Sports and Antisocial Involvement in Preadolescent and Adolescent Boys.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 46 (5): 468–478.
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Margolick, David. 2005. Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmelin, and a World on the Brink. New York: Knopf.
Reiss, Steven, A. 1990. “Professional Sports as an Avenue of Social Mobility in America: Some Myths and Realities.” In Essays on Sport History and Sport Mythology, ed. A. Guttman, R. D. Mandell, S. A. Reiss, D. Hardy, and D. G. Kyle. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
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Ward, Geoffrey C. 2004. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. New York: Knopf.
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Joseph L. Graves Jr.
From John L. Sullivan, the last of the bare-knuckle champions and the first of the gloved, to "Iron Mike" Tyson, the world's youngest heavyweight champion, the sport of boxing has been consistently dominated by American fighters since the beginning of the twentieth century. No other sport arouses the degree of fascination and distaste as the "Noble Art," nor has any sport been so consistently vilified. The "Sweet Science" is a world unto itself, rich in tradition, ritual, and argot. Boxing generated a genre of Hollywood film all its own and its implicit drama has been assayed in loving detail by some of America's greatest writers. While nowhere near as popular now as they were before World War II, championship fights still draw celebrities in droves to Las Vegas and Atlantic City for often disappointing matches. Although a prize fight can still muster some of the frisson of boxing's heyday, by late in the century the sport was in a period of decline, its status angrily contested.
Boxing traces its roots back to ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphics dating to 4000 B.C. show Egyptian soldiers engaging in a primitive form of the sport, their hands protected by leather straps. From the Nile Delta, boxing spread along the trade routes, south to Ethiopia and along the Aegean coast up to Cyprus, Crete, and the Greek mainland. The Greeks took readily to boxing, including it in their olympic contests, refining the leather coverings for the fist, the cestus, and later, adding a spiked metal attachment to it—the murmex, or limb piercer—that could inflict terrible, often fatal damage. Indeed, bouts went on until one opponent died or was no longer able to stand. Boxers figure heavily in Greek mythology. Theseus, who killed the Minotaur, was a boxing champion as was Odysseus, hero of the Trojan Wars and Homer's Odyssey, and said to be undefeated in the ring.
The Greek, Aeneas, brought the sport to Rome where it grew in popularity and brutality until with the decline of the Roman Empire, the decadent sport waned in popularity, and then disappeared for a little over a millennium, resurfacing finally in seventeenth century England. Its resurrection has been attributed to the England's republican form of government as well as the English people's affection for the backsword contest. For whatever reason, even before 1650 the blind poet Milton, author of Paradise Lost, was advocating the practice of boxing as indispensable to the education of the young gentleman in his Treatise on Education. It was the eighteenth century champion, Jack Broughton, who refined boxing into roughly the form of the modern fight. In 1742, Broughton erected an amphitheater for the promotion of bare-knuckle contests and to instruct contenders. The following year he published a rule-book which explicated the proper conduct of fighters and their seconds. Broughton also invented the boxing glove, which he patterned after the Roman cestus, filling a leather glove with soft batting. The glove was only used in training; bouts were still fought with bare knuckles, and would continue to be until the end of the nineteenth century.
Boxing first came to America by way of the aristocratic Old South, as a result of that cultural fealty wealthy families paid to England. According to John V. Grombach, author of Saga of Sock, "No family who took itself seriously, and these all did, considered its children had acquired the proper polish unless they were educated in England…. These youngsters went to prizefights and were taught boxing in the fast and fashionable company of which they were part…. Naturally, when these young dandies returned home they had to show off all they had learned abroad, so they boxed against each other. However, since distances between plantations were great … they turned to their personal young slaves." In fact, many of the early professional boxers in America were slaves freed by their masters after the latter had made a considerable fortune off their chattel. In the early nineteenth century, for instance, Tom Molyneux, the son and grandson of boxing slaves, was defeated by the British champion Tom Cribb. Molyneux can be thought of as an anomaly of boxing history, however, for it would be nearly a century before a black fighter, the heavyweight Jack Johnson, was allowed a shot at a title fight.
Although Grombach assigns the beginning of modern boxing to 1700 A.D., the American era begins with John L. Sullivan, the last of the bare-knuckle fighters. His reign as champion, from 1881 to 1892, saw the introduction of the Marquis of Queensbury rules, which called for gloves, weight classes, and three-minute rounds with one minute intervals of rest in between. His losing bout to "Gentleman Jim" Corbett was held under these new provisions. A flamboyant personality, Sullivan was the first boxer to promote himself as such, touring in theatrical productions between matches. Consequently, his fights drew tremendous crowds; seemingly no one was immune from the desire to witness a loudmouth's disgrace. Typical of his time, he was violently racist and refused to fight a black man, thus depriving the worthy Peter Jackson, the Australian heavyweight champion, of a chance at the title.
It would take Jack Johnson's 1908 capture of the heavyweight title from Tommy Burns to overcome the color barrier. After his 1910 defeat of James J. Jeffries, a white heavyweight champion who came out of retirement to vanquish the Negro upstart, the novelist Jack London publicly sought "a great white hope" to challenge Johnson. Johnson's victory was greeted with public outrage, inflamed by the new champion's profligate lifestyle. The moral character of a fighter has always been a part of his draw. Johnson drank, caroused, and lived openly with a white women, inflaming public sentiment already predisposed against him. He was finally indicted on a morals charge, and fled the country to avoid prosecution.
"To see race as a predominant factor in American boxing is inevitable," writes Joyce Carol Oates in her thoughtful book On Boxing, "but the moral issues, as always in this paradoxical sport, are ambiguous. Is there a moral distinction between the spectacle of black slaves in the Old South being forced by their white owners to fight to the death, for purposes of gambling, and the spectacle of contemporary blacks fighting for multi-million-dollar paydays, for TV coverage from Las Vegas and Atlantic City?" Over time, the parameters of the racial subtext have shifted, but in 1937 when Joe Louis, a former garage mechanic, won the heavyweight title from James J. Braddock, his managers, leery perhaps of the furor Jack Johnson had caused, carefully vetted their fighter's public persona, making sure Louis was always sober, polite, and far away from any white women when in the public eye. The colorful "Sugar Ray" Robinson was a showman in the Johnson tradition, but he, too, was careful not to overstep the invisible line of decency.
Black boxers up to the present have been made to play symbolic roles in and outside of the ring. Floyd Patterson, the integrationist civil-rights Negro (who was, incidentally, forced to move from his new house in New Jersey by the hostility of his white neighbors) played the "great white hope" role against Sonny Liston, an unrepentant ex-con street-fighter controlled by the mob. Muhammad Ali, who refused to play the good Negro/bad Negro game, was vilified in the press throughout the 1960s, unpopular among reporters as much for his cocky behavior as for his religious and political militancy. Perhaps race was never quite as crucial an issue in boxing following his reign, but as recently as Mike Tyson's bouts with Evander Holyfield in the 1990s, racial constructs were still very much a part of the attraction, with Holyfield's prominently displayed Christianity facing off in a symbolic battle against the converted Muslim and convicted rapist Tyson.
Class is as much a construct in modern boxing as race. Since before the turn of the century, boxing has offered a way out of poverty for young toughs. For 30 years after Jack Johnson's reign, boxing champions were uniformly white and were often immigrants or sons of immigrants, Irish, Italian, or Eastern European. Boxing's audience was similarly comprised. The wealthy might flock to a championship match at Madison Square Garden, but the garden variety bouts were held in small, smoky fight clubs and appealed to either aficionados, gamblers, or the working class. This provided up-and-coming fighters with the chance to practice their skills on a regular basis, and more importantly, made it possible for fighters, trainers, and managers to make a marginal living off the fight game. As entertainment whose appeal marginally crossed class lines, boxing's status was always contested, and the repeal of prohibition would only exacerbate matters. Organized crime, looking for new sources of income to replace their profits from bootleg liquor, took to fixing fights or controlling the fighters outright (Sonny Liston's mob affiliations were out in the open, adding to his suspect moral rectitude). In the 1940s and 1950s, Jake LaMotta, for example, a contender from the Bronx, was denied a chance at a championship bout until he knuckled under to the demands of the local Mafia patriarch.
Nourished by the many boxing clubs in the New York area—the undisputed capitol of boxing (to fighters and managers, out-of-town meant anywhere not within the five boroughs of New York)—controlled by the mob, the city was the center of a vital boxing culture. Legendary gyms like Stillman's Gym on Eighth Avenue were home to a colorful array of boxers and managers. Fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake "The Bronx Bull" LaMotta, and "Jersey Joe" Walcott were the heroes of the sport. Trainer Cus D'Amato, the Aristotle of boxing, became a legend for discovering new talent among the city's underclass and resisting all incursions from the mob. D'Amato specialized in saving up-and-coming delinquents from the vagaries of the streets. He would discover heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and, towards the end of his life, Michael Tyson. Legend has it he slept at his gym with a gun under his pillow. New Yorker scribe A. J. Liebling covered the fights and the fighters, leaving an especially vivid portrait of the boxing culture from this time. In his portrait of Manhattan's boxing milieu, he chronicled not only the fights but the bars, the gyms, and the personalities that made boxing such a colorful sport. Stillman's (dubbed by Liebling the University of Eighth Avenue), The Neutral Corner, and Robinson's Harlem Club, Sugar Ray's, its walls festooned with collaged photos of the flamboyant middleweight, all appear in Liebling's many boxing pieces. With his characteristic savoir-faire, he chronicled the last great era of live boxing, or as some would say, the beginning of its decline. Television had killed the small boxing clubs. Fighters who showed promise were pushed up through the ranks too quickly, and without the clubs, their inexperience was sadly apparent on the small screen. Championship bouts still drew large crowds, but for the small time managers, let alone boxers, television could not sustain the vibrant culture so characteristic of boxing up to World War II.
Perhaps to fill this void, a string of boxing pictures started to issue from Hollywood starting in the 1940s. Because of boxing's physicality, moral and psychological truths can be presented in stark contrast. The drama is enacted on the boxer's body, the repository of truth and deception, and the fighter's failure/success is inscribed upon it. Aside from the standard boxing biopic (Golden Boy, 1939; Body and Soul, 1947; Champion, 1949; Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956; Raging Bull, 1980), two myths predominate: the triumph of the underdog through perseverance, and the set-up, in which the boxer (the innocent) is undone by the system. The Rocky films are perhaps the best known of the former category, recasting the myth in an unabashedly sentimental light. Among the latter, Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954), while not technically about boxing, manages to depict the frustrating position of the boxer, dependent on the vagaries of luck and the cooperation of organized crime for a successful career. (Marlon Brando's "I shoulda been a contender" speech immediately entered the popular lexicon, as has his portrait of the paradox of the gentle boxer, murderous in the ring, good-natured outside it). Other films in the latter category include Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), The Harder They Fall (1956; based on the preposterous career of Italian circus strong-man, the giant Primo Carnera), and The Set-Up (1949), as is Martin Scorcese's triumphant Raging Bull, perhaps the most psychologically penetrating of any boxing film.
Boxing has also inspired some great writing. From the chronicler of the English Prize Ring, Pierce Egan, author of Boxiana (frequently quoted by Liebling) to Norman Mailer's celebrated book of essays on Muhammad Ali, boxing, being a wordless sport, invites others to define it, to complete it. Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Budd Schulberg, Nelson Algren, Jack London, and many others have written stories on boxing, and some of the best American journalists, not necessarily sports writers, have devoted considerable cogitation to the sport. The locus of modern boxing writing is Muhammad Ali, who was as much a cultural phenomenon as a sports figure, but this does not begin to describe the reason why an anthology of essays was published chronicling his career, nor that writers of the stature of a Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson have felt it incumbent to weigh in on the subject.
Perhaps it is because boxing is such a personal endeavor, so lacking in artifice, that one cannot hide, neither from one's opponent or from oneself. "Each boxing match is a story—a unique and highly condensed drama without words," writes Joyce Carol Oates. "In the boxing ring there are two principal players, overseen by a shadowy third. The ceremonial ringing of the bell is a summoning to full wakefulness…. It sets in motion, too, the authority of Time." This then, is boxing's allure: In the unadorned ring under the harsh, blazing lights, as if in an unconscious distillation of the blinding light of tragedy, the boxer is stripped down to his essence. In other words, boxing "celebrates the physicality of men even as it dramatizes the limitations," in the words of Oates, "sometimes tragic, more often poignant, of the physical."
There can be no secrets in the ring, and sometimes painful truths the boxer is unaware of are revealed before the assembled audience and spectral television viewer. In the three bouts that destroyed Floyd Patterson's career—two against Sonny Liston, and one against Muhammad Ali—Patterson was so demoralized, his faults and emotional weaknesses set in such high relief, that it is a wonder he didn't retire immediately following the 1965 Ali bout (he was already known for packing a fake beard in his luggage, the better to flee the arena). More vividly, Mike Tyson's frustrated mastication of champion Evander Holyfield's ear during their 1997 rematch revealed not only Tyson's physical vulnerability but confirmed an emotional instability first hinted at after his 1993 rape conviction.
Boxing, it would seem, is a sport that runs through periodic cycles. Recently, it has been taken up by women—who have begun to fight professionally—and affluent professionals who have taken up the sport not so much to compete as to train, a boxer's regimen being perhaps the most arduous of any sport. New gyms have sprung up to accommodate this new-found popularity, but they are more often franchises than owner-run establishments. Already a new generation, nourished on Rocky pictures, seems to have taken to the arenas to enjoy the live spectacle of two men—or women—slugging it out. But in essential ways, boxing has changed. There are now four different federations—the WBC, the IBF, the WBA, and the WBO—and 68 World Champions, as compared to eight in "the old days." The cynic would attribute this fragmentation to economics: the more championship bouts, the more pay-per-view cable TV profits (the money from box-office revenues comprises only a small fraction of the net profit). Consequently, championship bouts have lost much of their inherent drama inherent in a unified championship match, and the quality of the matches have also decreased, since fighters have so few chances to practice their craft.
Regardless of the devitalizing effects of cable television and multiple boxing federations, boxing still retains a powerful attraction. No sport is so fraught with metaphorical implications, nor has any sport endured for quite so long. Boxing, as Oates points out, aside from going through periods of "crisis" is a sport of crisis. Its very nature speaks to someplace deep in our collective psyche that recognizes the paradoxical nature of violence. Managers and promoters may cheat and steal, matches may be fixed, but when that rare bout occurs where the fighters demonstrate their courage, skill, and intelligence, the sport is redeemed. Boxing is a cyclical sport, rooted ultimately in the vagaries of chance. When will a new crop of talented contenders emerge? That is something no one can predict. The public awaits the rising of new champion worthy of the name, and the promoters await him just as eagerly.
Brenner, Teddy, as told to Barney Nagler. Only the Ring Was Square. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1981.
Delcourt, Christian. Boxing. New York, Universe, 1996.
Grombach, John V. The Saga of Sock: A Complete Story of Boxing. New York, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1949.
Isenberg, Michael T. John L. Sullivan and His America. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Liebling, A. J. A Neutral Corner. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1990.
——. The Sweet Science. New York, Penguin Books, 1982.
Lloyd, Alan. The Great Prize Fight. New York, Coward, McCann &Geoghegan, 1977.
Oates, Joyce Carol. On Boxing. Hopewell, The Ecco Press, 1994.
Schulberg, Budd. Sparring with Hemingway: And Other Legends of the Fight Game. Chicago, I.R. Dee, 1995.
Weston, Stanley, editor. The Best of "The Ring: The Bible of Boxing." Revised edition. Chicago, Bonus Books, 1996.
From its origins as an illicit and disreputable pastime followed primarily by a small number of enthusiasts, the sport of boxing emerged as a significant cultural phenomenon throughout the United States by the turn of the twentieth century. First imported from Great Britain in the late colonial period, the spectacle of organized prizefights—often bloody, loosely regulated brawls fought with bare knuckles—catered to a curious assemblage of working-class participants, wealthy bachelors, and professional gamblers. Together, these socalled gentlemen of the fancy comprised a widespread, loosely organized network supporting occasional bouts and gloved sparring exhibitions as well as other athletic displays and contests. The evolution of professional boxing from the somewhat shadowy realm of the bare-knuckle prizefight resulted from the Progressive Era's extraordinary confluence of class and ethnic struggle, emergent consumer culture, a perceived crisis of masculinity among white, middle-class men, changes in newspaper publishing, and urban growth in the post-bellum period. Furthermore, the appearance of dynamic figures from John L. Sullivan to Jack Johnson provided commanding personalities who helped define the role of the modern sports hero. While boxing as a subject suitable for literary endeavors would remain somewhat marginalized throughout much of the twentieth century, the emergence of literary naturalism and its embrace of atavism, brutality, and the urban milieu, as well as the increasing acceptance of boxing into the mainstream of American society in general, would contribute to the literary exploration of the boxing ring in this period, most famously in the work of Jack London.
THE RISE OF BOXING AS A PROFESSIONAL SPORT
Among the many dramatic consequences of the economic and demographic changes in the mid-nineteenth century were the growing popularity of amateur athletics and the establishment of professional athletics, most notably baseball, as a commercial enterprise. Growing numbers of both native-born and immigrant men helped create a "bachelor subculture" in large American cities, often based around the neighborhood saloon and enlivened by sporting contests, from billiards to cockfighting to boxing, in which men participated either as combatants or gamblers. Such semi-clandestine activities served as an urban, working-class counterpart to the more public athletic spectacles, such as baseball, collegiate football, or yachting. For Irish Americans, in particular, pugilism proved an attractive means by which to assimilate into the increasingly masculine culture of the American city. By the late nineteenth century, other ethnic communities, including Italians, Jews, and African Americans, would also seek to identify their own efforts at assimilation with success in the boxing ring, with varying results.
Although usually outlawed by local or state statutes, boxing matches gained a broader audience through the extended reach of specialized publications catering to the bachelor subculture. Newspapers, such as prizefight impresario Richard Kyle Fox's Police Gazette and the New York Clipper, often sold in corner saloons, featured sensationalized accounts of public scandals and lurid crimes as well as news from the worlds of theater and sports. Before the widespread adoption of the "sports page" in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer by the 1890s, more genteel, mainstream papers such as the New York Herald and the New York Times, which frequently editorialized against the inhumanity and indecency of boxing, offered detailed accounts of prominent prizefights, ostensibly published as crime news. In this way, both conventional and specialized journalism contributed to a growing public fascination with, if not acceptance of, boxing as both a profession and a form of entertainment.
JOHN L. SULLIVAN
The single most important figure in the evolution of boxing from illicit crime to legitimate entertainment was John Lawrence Sullivan (1858–1918), known as "the Boston Strong-Boy," a second-generation Irish American whose reign as heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892 bridged distinct eras and served to popularize and institutionalize the sport. Beginning his career at a time when boxers and their managers negotiated over prize money, rules, and opponents on an almost entirely ad hoc basis, Sullivan retired after losing his crown to James John "Gentleman Jim" Corbett (1866–1933) in the first heavyweight title fight fought under the Marquess of Queensberry rules. These guidelines dictated strictly timed rounds and the donning of padded gloves, and promoters and regulating bodies have continued to use similar regulations ever since.
In John L. Sullivan and His America (1988), biographer Michael T. Isenberg called Sullivan "the first significant mass cultural hero in American life" (p. 13). He served as a galvanizing icon for Irish Americans, working-class men, and a culture increasingly anxious about a supposed "feminization" of American society. Signaling the breadth of his significance as a cultural hero, Sullivan's name, and his legendary fight with Corbett, are invoked by Jake, the protagonist of Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896). The novel's author, Abraham Cahan (1860–1951), uses Jake's identification with Sullivan to show how his character assumes typically "Yankee" characteristics as he struggles with cultural assimilation and class friction.
BOXING IN LITERATURE
Within the broader category of sports literature, relatively few examples of boxing literature exist until the mid-twentieth century. Early representations of athletic themes and settings in literature are confined largely to the sporting subgenres of boys' books, dime novels, and pulp paperbacks that first appeared in the 1890s. Prominent among authors specializing in these types of heroic sports fiction were Ralph Henry Barbour, Albertus True Dudley, T. Truxton Hare, and Gilbert Patten (1866–1945). The latter, writing as Burt L. Standish, established the template for the college athletic hero with the Frank Merriwell series of novels (1896–1913), which celebrated an idealized combination of ingenuity, intelligence, cultivation, and athletic prowess in its Yale-educated protagonist. The dime novel formula, however, focused on sports such as baseball and football rather than boxing, which was rarely a part of collegiate athletics and was seldom practiced by the middle- and upper-class audiences for whom these stories were intended. Exceptions to this formula were provided by pulp biographies of prominent fighters, often more fictional than otherwise, such as those published by Street and Smith's New York Five Cent Library in the 1890s.
Literary naturalists, whose work reflected the growing influence of post-Darwinian scientific discourse and offered glimpses into the gritty, urban environment rarely depicted in polite literature, found in boxing a motif that suited both their thematic and contextual purposes. Frank Norris (1870–1902), for instance, extolled the virtues of prizefighting and other sports in his literary columns and published several athlete-hero stories in the San Francisco journal The Wave, including one about boxing titled "Shorty Stack, Pugilist" (1897). As an important part of the urban landscape, boxing forms part of the backdrop for works such as Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), written by Stephen Crane (1871–1900), in which small-time rounder Pete first meets Maggie when he and her brother Jimmie are on their way to watch a boxing match in Brooklyn. For characters caught in the crucible of the city, the prizefight and its surrounding culture offered a sense of identity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and nationality.
By far the most significant fictional use of boxing in this period can be found in the work of Jack London (1876–1916). His extensive knowledge of the sport and commitment to its place in American culture inspired several works of fiction focusing on the world of boxing, including two novels and a large body of journalistic writing. London's novels The Game (1905) and The Abysmal Brute (1913) both feature boxing protagonists and explore the workings of the professional prize ring. The former book tells the story of Joe Fleming and Genevieve Pritchard, two "working class aristocrats" (p. 45), and their ill-fated love affair, which unravels as Joe pursues his deep, almost spiritual, commitment to "the Game"—boxing. He is killed in the ring by a "swarthy" rival named John Ponta, a "beast with a streak for a forehead, with beady eyes under lowering and bushy brows, flat-nosed, thick-lipped, sullen-mouthed" (pp. 117–118). With its clash between idealized, yet doomed, working-class Anglo-Saxons, both male and female, and the seductive and corrupt urban melting pot, embodied by the forbidding presence of Joe's nemesis in the boxing ring, The Game intermingles widespread cultural fears of immigration, unfettered capitalism, and the modern city.
In Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868–1980 (1982), Michael Oriard claims that London "created the classic stereotype of the natural in sports literature" (p. 82) with The Abysmal Brute. The novel's hero, Pat Glendon, like The Game's Joe Fleming, is an idealized figure, pure and incorruptible, who possesses instinctive skills as a fighter. Unlike Joe, however, Pat is a product of the wilderness of the American West, a displaced Leatherstocking in the corrupt world of San Francisco. Whereas Joe's tragic fate looms inevitably on the horizon, Pat draws upon his instinctive resources to win both the climactic boxing match and Maud Sangster, his pure female counterpart, before escaping the sinister city for a cleaner life in the unspoiled mountains.
Whereas London's boxing novels underscore the notion of the prizefight ring as an appropriate metaphor for the crucible of the modern city, his best-known short story involving the sport, "A Piece of Steak" (1909), is different. It employs pugilism in the pursuit of a theme often found in his Klondike tales—the inevitable and cyclical triumph of youth over old age. In this story, aging boxer Tom King, returns to the ring for a last fight with a young contender, only to be knocked out, a conclusion that affirms the irrevocable laws of nature.
JACK JOHNSON AND BOXING'S CULTURAL IMPACT
Among the events described in London's vast body of journalistic reporting, none proved more culturally significant than the heavyweight championship bout between Jack Johnson (born John Arthur Johnson, 1878–1946) and James Jackson Jeffries (1875–1953) on 4 July 1910. London himself had called on the retired champion Jeffries to return to the ring to defeat Johnson, the first African American to hold the title and a particularly controversial and polarizing figure in the history of American sport. Beginning with John L. Sullivan's firm declaration, "I will not fight a Negro. I never have and I never shall," an unofficial prohibition had been firmly established that barred black contenders from a title bout, most conspicuously the outstanding boxer Peter Jackson (1861–1901), who was born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix and later won championships in Australia and England. Subsequent champions, including Gentleman Jim Corbett, Robert Prometheus Fitzsimmons (1862–1917), and James Jeffries, maintained Sullivan's color line. Upon witnessing Johnson's assumption of the heavyweight crown in 1908 in a decisive victory over Jeffries's unimpressive Canadian successor, Tommy Burns, London himself insisted that "Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson's face" (Jack London Reports, p. 264).
When Johnson defeated an unprepared and humiliated Jeffries, touted as America's "Great White Hope," in Reno, Nevada, before an estimated crowd of up to twenty thousand, Johnson forced white Americans, including London, who viewed Jeffries as a prohibitive favorite, to confront their casual assumptions about athletic prowess and racial dominance. The towering Johnson, an imposing figure inside and outside the ring, not only assumed a public role reserved for white heroes but also flaunted racial conventions of Jim Crow America, dressing ostentatiously, driving expensive automobiles, and marrying a white woman. Johnson's transgressive attitude, as well as his consummate skills as a boxer, earned him a nearly legendary role within the African American community, and songs and stories quickly circulated that raised Johnson to the status of folk hero alongside such mythical figures as Railroad Bill, John Henry, and Stack-o-lee. While members of the African American intelligentsia remained somewhat wary of Johnson's apparent confirmation of white racial fears of black men, his cultural impact ensured a place in subsequent literary texts. Among contemporary writers, author and political activist James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), in particular, offered unapologetic praise for Johnson. In a piece published in The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson (1995), the author notes that Jack Johnson "not only looked the white man in the eye, but hit him in the eye" and concludes that "his pugilistic record is something of a racial asset" (p. 126). Jack Johnson would serve as a symbol of black pride and resistance throughout the twentieth century: among many examples across the cultural spectrum, his name is invoked prominently in the novel Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison; his life story serves as the basis for the play The Great White Hope (1967) by Howard Sackler; and his mythic resonance permeates the 1970 film soundtrack recording A Tribute to Jack Johnson by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
With the rise of Jack Dempsey (born William Harrison Dempsey, 1895–1983) to the heavyweight championship in 1919, boxing began a period of further commercialization and consolidation. Eager to avoid the perceived embarrassment of another African American at the top of the sport, promoters and regulatory commissions exerted tighter control over the prize ring, and Dempsey, known as the "Manassa Mauler," proved a popular white champion whom the boxing establishment could use to market boxing to a wider, more respectable audience.
As the sport entered the mainstream of American society, so did it gain legitimacy within the literary world. London's early advocacy of boxing in literature and his association of boxing with the cult of the masculine writer, as well as the growing body of literary texts about other sports, foresaw the plentiful examples of boxing-related texts later in the century. These included the short stories "The Battler" (1925) and "Fifty Grand" (1927) by Ernest Hemingway; Never Come Morning (1942) by Nelson Algren; The Harder They Fall (1947) by Budd Schulberg; and Fat City (1969) by Leonard Gardner. As a unique combination of ritualized combat and athletic display, boxing has continued to fascinate observers of American culture, and its rise during the Progressive Era epitomizes the volatile convergence of race, gender, and commerce that would help define this period in American history.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson. Edited by Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
London, Jack. The Game. New York: Macmillan, 1905.
London, Jack. Jack London Reports: War Correspondence, Sports Articles, and Miscellaneous Writings. Edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970.
Betts, John Rickards. America's Sporting Heritage: 1850–1950. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1974.
Early, Gerald. The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prize-fighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1994.
Gorn, Elliot J. The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Isenberg, Michael T. John L. Sullivan and His America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Oriard, Michael. Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868–1980. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982.
Riess, Steven A. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Roberts, Randy. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. New York: Free Press, 1983.
Sammons, Jeffrey T. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Fighting of one sort of another appears so "natural" a part of the history of the United States that it would be hard to quarrel with eminent boxing writer A. J. Leibling, who once observed that "the Sweet Science [of boxing] is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder" (Rotella, p. 597). While it is generally perceived as one of the more "traditional" and taken-for-granted of masculine pursuits, boxing, like other sports, did not assume its generally recognizable form until well after the first settlers washed ashore during the colonial era. Nor, despite its popularity throughout the twentieth century, is there any guarantee that it will continue to thrive in the twenty-first.
Boxing in the current century has changed so much that some people may have trouble recognizing the sport. For instance, it may be difficult for some of those people to imagine a time when African Americans did not command a strong presence at the top of the boxing world (while serving as icons of the country's societal troubles or national ascendance, no less). Others may find it equally curious that boxing clubs were once a visible part of the urban landscape, or that radio and television (of the pre-cable variety) regularly featured boxing matches as part of their broadcasts. For still others, it may be hard to conceive of a time when women did not participate in aerobic boxing or take part in sanctioned amateur or professional bouts. All of these statements speak to the historicity of boxing as well as to the ideas, issues, and relationships it speaks both to and for.
Though occasional boxing matches did occur in the eighteenth century, such fistic engagements were rare. Even the championship bout between Briton Thomas Cribb and the free black American Tom Molineaux, held in England in 1810, drew little attention from the American press. More common forms of fighting at this time included cockfights and honorific gouging matches in the southern backcountry. The difference between gouging and boxing hinged on the inclusion of referees, and seconds to monitor the action in the ring. Ring codes adopted at this time attempted to define and refine the etiquette of fighters and spectators alike, ranging from prohibitions on eye gouging, hair pulling, head-butting, making offensive remarks, and hitting below the belt, to guidelines for creating the ring itself. But while bare-knuckle prizefighting by the 1840s was beginning to emerge out of the everyday textures and enmities of male working- and lower-class urban culture, historians Elliott Gorn and Steven Riess suggest that it remained a local, sporadic affair most evident in cities with larger ethnic communities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans. Although patterns were developing, the lines demarcating everyday grievances from battles fought in the ring, or from the combatants and their audiences, remained permeable.
The intensification of certain trends in the 1850s—the growth of cities and immigrant populations, expanding consumer markets and leisure time, and developments in transportation and communications, especially—allowed for matches to be arranged through newspapers and information about these bouts to circulate in advance, thus creating a more regular menu of bouts and a paying audience to witness these burgeoning spectacles. John Morrisey's victory over Yankee Sullivan for the American championship in 1853, for instance, elevated Morrissey to the status of Irish folk hero and reflected many of these transformations. The Civil War, which gathered men of a similar class standing and shared male culture from across the country, widened the spread of boxing and deepened the bonds of toughness through a regimen of sparring and regulated matches that contained the internal conflicts that flared up in the midst of real combat.
Yet while these more structured exhibitions helped to channel the tensions of wartime and seemed to put the sport on firmer footing, prizefighting remained illegal in many states well into the early twentieth century. Bouts were frequently held in saloons or dance halls in order to avoid police interference. Though contests of particular interest were often announced in the National Police Gazette, by this time the most important source for sports information, news of upcoming bouts usually spread by word of mouth so that participants and spectators alike gathered hastily at a designated location.
By the late nineteenth century, however, a confluence of forces altered the course of pugilism and elevated both the sport and its practitioners to a prominence that would last for nearly half a century. The social, economic, and technological forces that gave rise to factory production, transformed the nature of work and working-class life, provided opportunities for immigrants, and reshaped relations of class, gender, and race crested at the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, more efficient and streamlined methods of production reconfigured the meaning of work, increased leisure time, and recast notions of masculinity for men of both the managerial and laboring classes. For those who worked primarily with their minds (the new managerial class) or their hands (who were losing control over the work process), new outlets and mediums had to be found for exercising, asserting, or imagining a new relationship to one's body; one's masculinity.
Alongside, then, the newer amusements appearing near the century's end—whether dance halls, movies, fairs, or attractions such as Coney Island—boxing assumed a starring role in the commercial entertainments that would dominate the urban-industrial landscape. The Marquis de Queensbury rules adopted in 1892 mirrored many of the rationalizing tendencies and rhythms of the industrial age. The new codes dictated an end to bare-knuckle fighting, as combatants would now wear thinly padded gloves in the ring; created rounds of three minutes with intervals of rest lasting one minute; dispensed with holding or wrestling moves; created a new knockdown rule of ten seconds; continued the tradition of fighting to the finish by refusing to set a limit on the number of rounds in a match. These rules also smoothed some of the sport's rougher edges, thus making it somewhat palatable and comprehensible to a broader, more "respectable" audience.
Perhaps more than anyone, the mighty John L. Sullivan ushered in the age of boxing celebrity. His career bridged the end of the bare-knuckle era and the beginnings of the Marquis de Queensbury generation. His magnetic physique, Irish American working-class background, and forceful ring prowess translated into a persona that appealed to people within and beyond the working class. The increasing circulation of newspapers, in addition to new promotional techniques within the sport of boxing, nourished and cultivated this appeal with a broader audience. Sullivan's loss at the hands of a more slender, technically proficient James Corbett in 1892 marked, for many, the beginning of the "modern" generation—in boxing and U.S. history. In their differing styles and roles as "fighter" and "boxer," Sullivan and Corbett also embodied a contrast that would continue to mark the most riveting championships of the twentieth century.
Fighting styles were not the only differences that made for a compelling match: race had become a factor as well. While Steven Riess has noted that five African Americans held championships between 1890 and 1908, none of these men were as famous or infamous as Jack Johnson, the first black man to win the heavyweight title. Johnson's proficiency within the ring and his seemingly brash, confident demeanor outside it offended the sensibilities of many who were particularly troubled by his relationships with white women. Johnson's championship match with Jim Jeffries in 1910 drew intense media scrutiny both before and after his victory, which touched off racial skirmishes in as many as fifty cities. Johnson's reign—which lasted until 1915—also initiated a pattern whereby African American heavyweights throughout the twentieth century—including Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, and Mike Tyson—would alternately serve as princes of the nation's loftiest ideals or emblems of its most worrisome disorders.
In a broader sense, Johnson's title run intersected with and was embedded within a host of social transformations that would dramatically reshape the significance of boxing generally and of individual fighters specifically. The exploits and personalities of heavyweight champions during the first half of the twentieth century were packaged and marketed in such a way as to make them celebrities on the order of movie stars. Indeed, boxing and film grew up together, as clips from boxing matches were some of the first and most popular moving images displayed on screen. Both were part of the same constellation of forces—an emerging visual (film), sonic (radio), and more standardized print culture—that reshaped the production and consumption of images.
It is because of these changes, in part, that Jack Dempsey's title run (1919–1926) drew some of the largest crowds to ever witness live sporting events, including the estimated 150,000 who packed Soldier Field in Chicago to "see" Dempsey fight Gene Tunney in 1927—a fight that was also heard by millions on radio. The sophisticated use and circulation of such images helped to raise Joe Louis's fighting prowess and personal qualities into the embodiment of national virtue during the 1930s and World War II era. In addition to these iconic figures, local boxing clubs flourished during the industrial era and provided an alternative form of labor, recreation, or bodywork for many young men, whether Irish, Jewish, Italian, or African American.
By the end of Louis's career in the late 1940s, television was already beginning to supplant radio as the primary medium for gaining access to national and local fights. While televised fights proved immensely popular initially, they eventually led to the diminished attendance at, and demise of, local boxing clubs.
Television also became intertwined with growing evidence of, and concerns about, the role of organized crime in fixing the outcomes of particular matches. While such activity had always existed, sustained efforts to regulate the sport were launched in the post–World War II era in an effort to curtail such practices. Well-known fighters such as Rocky Graziano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, and others, were asked to provide information about racketeering and the Kefauver Commission held hearings in 1960 to investigate these and related problems. Though several bills were proposed in response to the findings of this commission, no legislative action was taken until an amendment to Title XVIII of the U.S. Code was adopted in 1964 during President Lyndon Johnson's administration.
The timing of that amendment coincided with Cassius Clay's/Muhammad Ali's ascendance during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history. If there is any one thread that can be woven through Ali's remarkable twenty-year career, it is Gerald Early's insistence that "like all great heroes," Ali embodied the "incendiary poetics of actual self-determination" (Early, p. 14). Able to glide among and between various constituencies without being captured by any of them, Ali remained true to his religious principles in refusing to serve in Vietnam, losing three and a half years of a luminous career and remaking himself upon his return. In reclaiming the championship he lost, Ali also absorbed a great deal of punishment and later developed Parkinson's disease, rekindling concerns about the brutal effects of such a nakedly violent sport.
As contrasted with more recent developments in the heavyweight division—which has always buoyed the sport generally—Ali was pushed throughout his career by other African American heavyweights, including Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Though many expected the young and ferocious Mike Tyson to continue this tradition when he won the title at the age of twenty in 1986, his career was derailed by violent episodes outside and within the ring, incidents that effectively rewrote the narrative of greatness predicted of him.
While the heavyweight division was nearly dormant by 2004 and waiting for the "next" great heavyweight to appear—if he will appear—good boxers could still be found in the lighter-weight divisions, where a host of Latino and African American fighters, among others, kept interest in the professional side of the sport afloat. Those who make it to the top can expect paydays in the millions, their fights viewed on cable television channels such as HBO.
Equally interesting—if not more compelling, in fact—is a quieter, more recent development among women who are taking up the sport at the amateur and professional levels in the postindustrial era, honing their craft in boxing clubs nestled imperceptibly in the urban landscape. Well-known fighters such as Christy Martin and Laila "She-Bee Stingin'" Ali represent only the most visible side of this general movement. They, and other men and women who practice the sport as a way of reclaiming the body and physical labor in a society radically different from the one that nurtured boxing early in the twentieth century, may be reshaping the manly art while still drawing on its finer traditions of craft, skill, and bodywork. As Carlo Rotella has observed, reflecting on the masculine heritage of boxing, "The sweet science, still joined to the past like a man's arm to his shoulder, can only sustain itself if it remains joined to its traditions and accumulated lore. But boxing may also find itself joined to the present, and the future, like a woman's arm to her shoulder" (Rotella, p. 598).
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——, ed. Muhammad Ali: The People's Champion. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
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——. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. New York: Free Press, 1983.
Rotella, Carlo. "Good with Her Hands: Women, Boxing, and Work." Critical Inquiry 25, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 566–598.
Sammons, Jeffrey. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Boxing is a physical contest between two combatants who use their fists to achieve supremacy over their opponent. Like wrestling, boxing has ancient roots, as it was well known to the cultures of Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea before it was first included in the Greek Olympics in 688 BC. Boxing was later known as pugilism, a derivative of the Latin term for a fighter, from which comes the slang term "pug." Paradoxically, the often brutal and unsophisticated thuggery of the boxing ring earned the affectionate title "the sweet science," as the sport became increasingly popular throughout the world in the twentieth century.
In England, boxing was an underground activity into the 1700s. Fighters fought with bare knuckles, and the contests were wars of attrition, rarely decided by a single blow or flurry of punches, but through the cumulative effect of many rounds of combat. Deaths were not uncommon, and boxing, or prize fighting, was banned until the mid-1850s. A similar situation persisted in the United States during the nineteenth century, as many cities banned boxing matches.
Two developments served to legitimize boxing to a significant degree. The first was the work of the Eighth Marquees of Queensbury, a member of the English aristocracy, who in 1865 published his now-famous Rules. The 12 Rules of the Marquees have since remained the essence of boxing competitions throughout the world. The key elements of the Queensbury rules are the division of a boxing match into three-minute rounds, followed by a one-minute interval; permitting a boxer who is knocked to the surface of the ring an interval of 10 seconds to resume the fight; having each fighter wear proper-sized gloves; and ruling down a fighter that has been knocked to one knee.
The second development to boost the public profile of boxing was the emergence of John L. Sullivan of Boston, the first world heavyweight champion in 1885. Sullivan was beaten for his title in dramatic fashion in 1892 by American "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, the first of the reputed scientific fighters, who relied on speed and finesse to exploit an opponent's weaknesses.
Boxing made its debut in the modern Olympic Games in St. Louis in 1904. It has remained a sport where the competition is organized along weight classification lines, as it is presumed in boxing, like wrestling and judo, that the heavier competitor is generally the stronger competitor. With some variations as to categories, all professional boxing, as well as amateur competition, is determined by weight class.
The governing body of international boxing and Olympic boxing is the International Boxing Association (AIBA; the acronym includes a reference to the term amateur that is no longer used by the AIBA).
The only significant differences between professional and Olympic boxing are the use of protective gear and the length of the rounds in each bout. In Olympic competition, all fighters must wear protective headgear and each round is two minutes in duration, with one-minute intervals, and four rounds in total. Professional bouts can last from between eight and 15 rounds, depending on the weight classification and the sanctioning organization. (Professional boxing has a number of organizations, each of which claims to be the official authority regarding the rules of the sport.)
Scoring in the sport of boxing is similarly varied between Olympic, amateur, and professional bodies, but the general principles are consistent across the sport. A knockout is the result of a legal blow delivered by a fighter that sends the opponent to the surface of the ring (often termed the canvas, in reference to the material used on the floors of early boxing rings), when the opponent cannot regain his (or her) feet within 10 seconds of going down. A technical knockout is one of a number of circumstances in which the referee determines that the fight cannot continue, including a fighter not being able to continue at the end of a round ("answer the bell"); or when the fighter has been knocked down repeatedly and the referee forms the opinion that the fighter cannot safely continue.
Boxing matches are scored by the referee who is in the ring to maintain order and to enforce the rules of the sport, as well as by three judges stationed outside the ring who assess the fight based on a scoring system. Each punch that, in the opinion of the referee, lands on the opponent's head or body will score a point. In Olympic competition, the gloves used by the fighters have a target area marked across the area of the fighter's fists; only blows delivered with that part of the glove to the body or head will score. Penalties may be imposed in the scoring system for such items as a low blow, which is a punch delivered below the belt line of the opponent; a head butt; or any other type of contact that is not permitted by the rules. When the fight is not concluded with either a knockout or a technical knockout at the end of the last round, the fighter with the highest number of points will be deemed the winner. If the points total is equal, the fight is declared a draw.
There is no question that an elite-level heavyweight fighter, who may weigh as much as 240 lb (110 kg) or more, will possess the physical capability to deliver a powerful punch. No matter how strong a fighter may be, all boxers seek to develop a range of punches and corresponding tactics in which all types of punches are employed. All boxers typically assume a fighting stance throughout the course of a match. The fighting stance is similar to the traditional athletic stance common to the execution of many sports, with the knees bent and the hips flexed to permit agility and the establishment of a stable position. In the fighting stance, the boxer's hands are maintained in a defensive position in front of the head, to protect against punches aimed there.
The jab is a punch in the arsenal of every boxer. It is a blow delivered from the shoulder, the fighter square to the opponent, with the fist snapped forward. The jab is used as a punch to establish a tactical base from which other punches may be thrown. The hook is delivered from an angle to the opponent's body, with the blow transcribing an arc, usually targeted to the opponent's head. A cross is a shorter punch, delivered at an angle across the head of the opponent. An uppercut is a punch that begins with the hand positioned below the fighting stance being driven upward in a short arc toward the head of the opponent. There are a multitude of variations on these basic boxing blows.
A counterpunch is a blow delivered in an immediate response to one received from an opponent. A combination is a series of two or more different punches thrown consecutively. The boxer's footwork is of critical importance to the delivery of a strong punch from a balanced position. Footwork that permits the boxer to maintain balance as the blows are delivered and absorbed is the base on which an effective punch can be delivered; an ability to move gracefully and with agility will often permit a boxer to escape dangerous encounters with the opponent.
The tactics employed in a boxing match are a combination of a particular boxer's strengths, the opponent's perceived weaknesses, and the status of the fight at a given time. When a fighter believes that he or she is "behind on points" as the fight enters the last scheduled round, the fighter will be compelled to go on the offensive and seek a winning knockout. The opponent, believing to be in the lead, will fight a correspondingly conservative fight, seeking to protect that lead.
Boxing training is a very physically demanding process. Boxing is a sport that is anaerobic, in terms of the intervals of high intensity activity contained within each round; it is also aerobic in its requirements that the boxer build a powerful physical recovery mechanism, to assist the body in returning to its natural balance between each round. Effective boxing programs will make ample provision for the development of both energy systems. Boxers have traditionally employed skipping and running (road-work) to enhance their cardiovascular proficiency.
Boxing, with its emphasis on stability in delivering and absorbing a punch, requires outstanding core strength development. The abdominal, gluteal, lumbar, and groin muscles and connective tissues are areas of particular attention in a boxing training program. Abdominal crunches, Swiss ball exercises, and back extension work are examples of these core strength exercises.
Agility, lateral quickness, and hand-eye coordination are fundamental to boxing success. Many boxers employ different types of plyometrics exercises to maintain quickness and explosive power. The mechanics of the delivery of a punch require the instant coordination of footwork with arm action; when the blow is attempted on an unstable base, the blow will result in an off-balance body position for the fighter at the end of the delivery, compromising both the fighter's defensive position as well as the power that can be transferred to the target.
Unless the boxer is a heavyweight and therefore not limited by the rules of a weight division, all other boxers must organize their weight training in accordance with the maximum size permitted by the rule. Weight training aims to reduce the percentage of body fat in the fighter to the lowest healthy level possible to permit greater muscle development.
The physical risks of boxing are many; the larger the fighters and the more power with which they are able to throw a punch, the correspondingly greater risk of injury to the opponent. Lacerations to the face, fractured noses, damage to the ear cartilage ("cauliflower ear"), and similar injuries caused by punches to these areas are common to boxers. The most serious boxing injuries are those caused by a blow or a series of blows to the head, most commonly concussion and subdural hematoma. Concussion is a brain injury in which the brain is violently moved within the fluid that supports it within the skull. The expression "punch drunk" describes the effects of repeated concussions on boxers: headache, nausea, disorientation, and reduced ability to reason. Sub-dural hematoma is a bleeding of the brain caused by the application of force; such injuries have similar symptoms to those of concussion.
That said, modern boxing appears almost genteel alongside its prizefighting predecessor in which bareknuckled pugilists fought to exhaustion, with fights often lasting several hours. A round ended only when one combatant was floored; he then had half a minute's respite before placing his toe on a line scratched across the centre of the ring and resuming battle. Not until one fighter failed ‘to come up to scratch’ was a result declared: no wins on points in those days, just the objective test of an inability to continue. Early rounds were often hard slogging contests but the real physical damage came in the later stages when tiredness slowed defensive reflexes. Imagine too the state of even the winner's hands, protected only by having been soaked in brine.
With their combination of boxing and wrestling moves, early contests were literally ‘no holds barred’; grappling, punching, tripping, and throwing all being used to floor an opponent. The widely-adopted Broughton's Rules of 1743 eradicated some of the barbarism by outlawing the hitting of a man when he was down, and the seizing of hair or the body below the waist, but they still permitted butting. Yet it was not the brutality of the prize-ring which brought its demise, but the corruption with which it became associated.
The revival of the sport as boxing in late Victorian Britain saw several changes designed to render it more civilized. Although some of the old practices continued for a while — even the famous Queensbury Rules initially allowed endurance contests — by the turn of the century the general picture was one of boxing in gloves, limited-time rounds, points decisions after a fixed number of rounds had elapsed, and weight divisions, though the latter have accentuated problems of dehydration as fighters struggle to ‘make the weight’.
For much of the twentieth century the history of boxing has been one of crumbling resistance to changes intended to protect further the brains and bodies of participants. Between 1984 and 1993 eight boxers had died soon after fights in the UK; bantamweight Bradley Stone was added to the list in 1994. Following a report from a medical working party, which included neurosurgeons, the British Boxing Board of Control subsequently introduced mandatory annual magnetic resonance imaging scans for all boxers to replace the less sophisticated computerized tomography which had been compulsory only for those fighting eight rounds or more. Additionally, any boxer knocked out must wait 45 days (previously 28) before he again enters the ring competitively, and he must also have a hospital check. Ringside doctors may advise referees on a fighter's condition between rounds and may recommend that the contest be stopped. Doctors also examine each boxer at the conclusion of fights and paramedic teams must be on hand at all boxing bills.
The medical profession in several countries has increasingly adopted an anti-boxing stance, citing irreversible brain damage as its major objection to the sport. This is a key point for, in absolute terms of deaths and serious injuries, other sports such as horseracing, mountaineering, rugby, and even cricket appear more dangerous, but in none of them is deliberate and repeated striking of an opponent part of the rules of the game. In contrast a boxer has a licence for physical assault. The evidence is clear that repeated pummelling to the head can cause cumulative damage to the brain: here time is no great healer. Occasionally, acute brain injury can occur during a fight. The greatest danger comes towards the end when a tired man with a loose neck has his head flipped back rapidly by a punch. This can tear a vein outside or inside the brain, which then leaks blood, causing pressure on the brain and eventually leading to a coma. Only if the clot is removed rapidly can the fighter survive. Fighters now train harder; their bod-ies are fitter — but their brains are no more resilient than in the past. Some nations, notably Sweden, have already banned boxing on medical grounds.
So far the British government has been reluctant to follow the Swedish lead and since 1981 five private members' anti-boxing Bills proposed in parliament have failed to reach the statute books. Most schools, both state and public, however, have dropped boxing from their physical education curriculum. Yet it should be noted that amateur boxing is exceptionally well regulated: not more than four rounds are fought, headguards are worn, and the referee is allowed to stop a fight to prevent serious injury. However, headguards, whilst absorbing energy from punches, present an even larger target to be hit and thus the number of blows striking home may well increase. Indeed, studies have shown that non-boxing sportsmen outperform even amateur fighters in neurological tests and, notwithstanding the safety precautions, three amateur fighters have suffered serious brain injury in British rings since 1988.
For centuries boxing has been the epitome of overt masculinity, a demonstration of manliness and its embodying characteristics of courage, toleration of pain, and self-discipline. Women were merely ornaments displaying the round cards. This continues, but women have successfully demanded equal rights in the ring. In Britain, girls from the age of 10 are now allowed to spar in amateur boxing gyms, and recently professionalism, too, has been recognized for women — significantly later than its acceptance in the US where fights for women have appeared on the undercard of world championship events.
The moral dilemma of boxing is that it provides an honest opportunity to escape poverty, but it also means for some a legal beating and for all the threat of permanent damage. Hitting below the belt is outlawed to protect the genitals, but surely the brain deserves even more protection, by reducing the concussive power of the boxing glove, developing safer headgear, excluding the head as a target — or by banning the sport altogether. The issue is not how hazardous boxing is but whether the hazards are acceptable.
BMA (1993). The boxing debate. British Medical Association, London.
Boxing, traditionally a sport of the least advantaged, proved a requirement for working class youth, who often settled ethnic, religious, and racial rivalries with their fists. African-American slaves who fought for the pleasure of their masters were among the first professional prizefighters. Even after Emancipation black youths were often forced or coerced into battles royal or group fights, sometimes blindfolded, while a surrounding cordon of white onlookers offered money to the winner.
By the latter nineteenth century boxing gained a slight measure of respectability as the sport became more organized with weight class championships under the sponsorship of Richard Kyle Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette. More importantly, boxing offered a cloak of masculinity for men during this period who perceived an increasing feminization of American culture.
Working class youths saw the sport as an opportunity for social mobility as middle-class athletic clubs, newspapers, and even religious groups supported amateur teams and tournaments in the twentieth century. Successful fighters often progressed to the professional ranks where a series of ethnic immigrant groups enjoyed success. Irish, Jewish, and Italian champions won fame and symbolized a greater degree of assimilation in American culture.
Boxing was a controversial sport, and for a time was banned in many states. New York only legalized the sport in 1920. Three years later the Chicago Tribune sponsored a major boxing tournament, eventually known as the Golden Gloves, to challenge the New York team. Both cities became centers for the sport. By 1930 the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) joined the ranks of national boxing enterprises. The CYO team proved especially popular during the Depression, as it supplied its members with a full suit of clothes as well as medical and dental care. CYO fighters who opted for the professional ranks received guidance from program affiliated management teams. Others got jobs through the Catholic social and commercial network.
While the CYO and individual municipalities invoked age restrictions, usually age sixteen, professional boxing had (and still has) no age limitations. Wilfredo Benitez won a world championship at age seventeen. Teenage boys became heroes on local, civic, national, and international teams, often finding the esteem and recognition denied them in other spheres of life. The amateur bouts produced members of the Olympic teams and the professional ranks for the remainder of the twentieth century.
By the 1930s African-American boxers began to displace the white ethnics atop the ranks, joined by Hispanic fighters at mid-century. Girls, too, joined the amateur boxing ranks by the 1980s in training programs offered by park districts, police athletic associations, and private gyms. While most engaged in the activity in pursuit of personal fitness, a very visible minority joined the annual Golden Gloves tournaments for competition, with a select few attaining professional status in televised bouts. Though few have found material success in the pastime, boxing has assumed both historic and symbolic value in the physicality and toughness required and admired by working-class youth.
See also: Organized Recreation and Youth Groups; Sports.
Gorn, Elliott J. 1986. The Manly Art: Bare Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sammons, Jeffrey T. 1990. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Gerald R. Gems
J. A. Cannon