Client: Zuri Media
Topic: The History of Boxing
Content Types: Article, Book Chapter
CLIENT NEEDS: Zuri Media needed a book chapter—a lengthy, comprehensive, authoritative, and interesting history of the sport of boxing.
DELIVERED: After thorough research using a plethora of sources, a compelling, original, 4,500 word chapter–the text of which can be read below.
A Liberational History Of Boxing
Fighting In the Ring and In A Racist America
IF THERE’S, FOR SOME AT LEAST, a perversely appealing reductiveness to a boxing match—a pair of humans, in a compact ring, pummeling each other until one (very nearly) destroys the other—the sport itself, as seen through the prism of its fighters, but as well its enthusiasts, can be understood as a story of society. And while hand-to-hand combat as competition dates to ancient Mesopotamia, it’s in America where boxing finds its most potent expression as societal and cultural catalyst—as both the locus for explosive, discrimination-fueled class conflict and mechanism and showcase for individual liberation and broader social change.
In the US in the 1800s, as millions of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants were squeezed into shantytowns and denied employment, if not offered the least desirable and most dangerous of jobs, some seized upon boxing as a way to earn money and to circumvent pervasive discriminatory practices based on religious and culutural identity. And where Anglo-Saxon Protestants played gatekeeper to various underclasses of immigrants, Irish, Italian, and Jewish fighters, trainers, managers, and promoters found in the industry of boxing considerably less restrictions and greater opportunity for swift self-promotion. And, yet, it was these very immigrants who’d for many years succeed, through serial acts of racial discrimination, in keeping African Americans out of the sport.
Well before black Americans were on the cusp of breaking into an urban boxing world dominated by Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, they were fighting each other, often in chains, and as entertainment for white, Southern, plantation owners, who’d, on occasion and once they’d won enough money through gambling in cross-plantation fights, release their strongest fighters to sail to England to challenge British champions. This is exactly the fortune that fell to Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux, who became the first black men to compete for the heavyweight title. And while both lost under dubious circumstances to Tom Cribb, as officials averted their eyes when the white champ’s corner propped up a knocked-down Cribb and as the bloodthirsty and racist crowd, in turn, attacked Molineaux, a barrier of inclusion had indeed and at the very least been broken.
Still, for many decades after the Civil War, the knot of laws known as Jim Crow prevented racially mixed bouts from taking place in the South, and even in the twilight of the 19th- century it remained difficult for ambitious black boxers to enter the ring with white opponents anywhere in the country. After being forced to face the same black boxers over and over, fighters like featherweight George Dixon, welterweight Joe Walcott, and lightweight Joe Gans finally broke through in both competing against, and beating, whites, each going on to claim titles in their respective divisions. Others such as Peter Jackson, Harry Wills, and Sam Langford, all fighters in the more visible and socially significant heavyweight division, were ignored by longstanding champ John L. Sullivan and other whites and eventually resorted to fights in France, Australia, and Mexico. Meanwhile, victory stateside often proved perilous for black boxers in the lighter divisions. Believing black athletes to be mentally and physically inferior to their white counterparts, outraged white fans from coast-to-coast embarked on compaigns of violence and intimidation whenever black fighters triumphed, as happened in 1906 after Gans’ defeat of Billy Nolan for the lightweight crown in Nevada.
Maverick To Champion
Shortly after the turn of the century, a man named Jack Johnson would forever alter the boxing landscape. Holder of the Negro heavyweight title, Johnson, from Galveston, Texas, believed he was the best heavyweight fighter in the world and loudly campaigned for the opportunity to prove it. A succession of white heavyweight titleholders and officials bent on enforcing the color line shirked the taunts of Johnson and his aggressive manager, Sam Fitzpatrick, at least until 1908, when sportswriters and ex-champions propped up Tommy Burns as their white fighter of choice to whip this loudmouthed colored man. A crowd of 26,000 in Sydney, Australia watched as the 6’2” Johnson toyed with the smaller Burns, talking the whole way through, battering and bloodying the white champ until the fight was stopped in the 14th round. Johnson had done what was unthinkable to white society: he’d become the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
The new champ was nevertheless not to be embraced by the majority of the American public. Besides taking “their” crown, he refused to play the role of the humble, deferential Negro they so desired. With a broad smile that flashed a shiny gold tooth and velvet robes he’d don climbing into rings, the flamboyant Johnson further infuriated Caucasians by marrying three white women and by generally wagging his tongue, as he did when he claimed to have “forgotten more about fighting than Burns ever knew.” But Johnson, a pariah to white Americans, was a hero to thousands of oppressed blacks who celebrated his ascension as their own.
Newspaper columnists, including Call of the Wild author Jack London, stirred the pot in further asserting white supremacy and attempting to lure ex-champ Jim Jeffries out of retirement for an act of racially-inspired retribution. In Reno, Nevada on Independence Day, 1910, with the chant of “Kill the nigger” ringing through the air, it was instead Johnson who brutalized Jeffries, knocking him down for good with a jarring right uppercut in the 15th round and, in case anyone had missed his fight with Burns, publicly and dramatically exploding the myth of white superiority.
White America, which had systematically oppressed black baseball, football, and tennis players, as well as black cyclists and jockeys, proved ill-equipped to deal with the reality facing them in boxing. In outbursts of nationwide rioting, whites killed thirteen blacks and wounded hundreds more as punishment for black celebration and in their lamentation of the failure of the Great White Hope. Authorities seized upon other means to undermine Johnson, culminating in his conviction on absurd, trumped up charges in a Chicago courtroom in 1913. He ultimately fled the country and remained in exile for seven years in order to avoid the jail term; the great Jack Johnson’s career quietly wilted as, in what many presumed an attempt to appease white America, he took a dive against white challenger Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. The gatekeepers of sport and society would block the way for another black heavyweight champion for the next twenty years. Black heavyweight contenders Sam Langford and Harry Wills fought each other no less than eighteen times, but were to be denied chances at knocking down the likes of Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. In the wake of World War I and despite widespread American anti- Semitism, Jewish boxers were accorded more opportunity than their black counterparts, and came to outnumber those from any other racial or ethnic segment at the time. This didn’t stop the press and public from deriding fighters like Benny Leonard and Maxie Rosenbloom for their language, looks, and for being “clowns.”
Max Baer won the heavyweight title in 1934—a first by a Jew—but lost it in a decision a year later in what many suspected to be a fix meant to satisfy the anti-semitic public.
From Racism To Nationalism
Amidst general economic turmoil in the form of the Great Depression and a severely weakened talent pool stemming from indemic discrimination, boxing as a sport was suffering by the mid- 1930s. Its would-be redeemer, Joe Louis, the grandson of a slave, hailing from Detroit via Alabama, had proved himself an electrifying fighter in the recently established, and particularly black- friendly, realm of amateur boxing. Upon turning professional, Louis assembled a team of black managers and trainers determined to make sure he would run the racist gauntlet better than Jack Johnson. Under their tutelage, Louis built himself for knockouts to avoid risking fixed decisions, improved his diction through English lessons, and abided a strict set of behavioral rules addressing public celebration and even smiling, and, of course, having his picture taken beside a white woman.
And yet, Louis could only manipulate his image so much; something else would be necessary to change public perception of a black athlete in such a racially combustible country. That something became nationalism. In 1934, as Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini insinuated his military might internationally, Louis knocked out Italian ex-champ Primo Carnera in New York, an outcome celebrated as a victory for American democracy. “The Brown Bomber,” as Louis became known, was subsequently touted as the sport’s emerging savior and he furthered his case for a title shot by fighting a series of top white heavyweights. Despite suffering a politically-tinged 12th round knockout to German Max Schmeling, Louis delivered two early round KOs of his own to ex-champs Max Baer and Jack Sharkey. The whole world sensed it would now be difficult to deprive Louis of a shot at the title. As plans to pit current champ James Braddock against Schmeling disintegrated, boxing officials were compelled to stage Braddock vs. Louis in its place in Chicago in 1937, the first title fight involving a black man since 1915. When Louis put Braddock down for good in the eighth round, blacks in Detroit, Boston, and Chicago were openly jubilant while those in Southern cities celebrated quietly. It wasn’t until a year later, however, that Louis solidified his stature both professional and culturally. With Adolf Hitler’s Nazis exterminating Jews in Germany and on the verge of embarking on World War II, the New York rematch of Louis vs. Schmeling was billed on the world’s stage as, quite literally, Good vs. Evil. In a massacre lasting merely two minutes and four seconds, Louis destroyed the German, symbolically fought off the Nazis, and was transformed into an American hero. The general public had never held an African-American in higher regard.
While Louis had reopened a door for blacks that would never again be closed, discrimination in boxing and in other sports continued. As a striking contrast to Louis’ good fortune, black track legend Jesse Owens, who’d won four gold medals in the Nazi Olympics of 1936, was told by his own sport’s administrators to hang up the cleats upon returning home, where he took a job as a bathroom attendant. Likewise, Jackie Robinson wouldn’t break the color barrier in baseball until ten years after Louis won the title, an event predicated by the boxer’s own breakthrough. Louis himself garnered even greater acclaim by enlisting and serving in the (segregated) U.S. Army as well as through his generosity to various World War II funds. Other black heavyweights, like Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Floyd Patterson would, buoyed by Louis, fight through society’s ills to wear the crown in the 1950s.
A Deepening Legacy
Although white America maintained its stance of segregation and oppression in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, a tonal shift would emerge from the black minority, which increasingly saw black athletic triumph as engendering little change in social equality. Heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson’s accommodation of the white establishment—a stance he’d learned from Louis—now branded him an “Uncle Tom” amidst the more confrontational approach of the ascendant black militancy and the NAACP. In 1962, a massive slugger named Sonny Liston dethroned Patterson to the approval of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, who thought Liston a better representative of black struggle. However, as an illiterate, mob- connected felon who generally terrified white America, Liston failed to convince much of black America that his unwholesome image would best serve them. It was like this that the centerpiece of boxing—the heavyweight crown—remained at odds with the enduring elements of the deepening civil rights movement; that is, until Ali.
Just months before the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the attendant racial violence of the summer of ‘64, Cassius Clay “shocked the world,” in part by knocking out Liston, but perhaps more so by announcing, the very next day, his name change to Muhammad Ali, his rejection of Christianity, and his association with the separatist, rather than integrationist, Nation of Islam. Nicknamed “The Louisville Lip” because of his prodigious verbal talents, Ali embodied a generation of black struggle against oppression—fearless, direct, intelligent, and ambitious. The new champ was nevertheless quickly demonized by the white press, who in their refusal to acknowledge his chosen name—printing instead his slave name, Clay—illuminated their own distaste for a black man’s show of defiance and as well as their intolerance of non-Western religions.
Because of his religious and militant identity, the World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his title—a move ignored by the more relevant World Boxing Council and other boxing bodies—and mainstream America embraced the Ali vs. Patterson fight of 1965 as a Muslim vs. Christian “Holy War,” with the victorious Ali squarely in the role of villain. Two years later, the New York State Athletic Commission also stripped him of his title and his boxing license, and the federal government continued his persecution by “making an example” of Ali’s refusal to go to war in Vietnam, convicting him of draft evasion and handing him a five- year prison term and a $10,000 fine. Facing jail and robbed of his crown and livelihood by an oppressive, reactionary white regime, it was Jack Johnson all over again.
But civil rights activism had set off a chain of events, and now a generation of young, freethinking whites had focused their adversarial energies in protest against the Vietnam War, governmental lies and corruption, institutionalized poverty, sexism, and racism; Ali, a visible and powerful symbol of dissent, had become an inspiration for young blacks and whites alike. As support for Vietnam sputtered and positive social change blossomed on the homefront, Ali’s New York license was, in 1969, reinstated, and his draft evasion conviction overturned, in 1971, by the Supreme Court. Mainstream America would still consider him the “black menace” and search for worthier fighters for their idolatry until the Watergate scandals diverted their attention and Ali again showed remarkable courage in rematches over Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Ali would later be considered by people of all races as arguably the greatest boxer ever and an American hero. In the decades following Ali’s heyday, black fighters like “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr., and Lennox Lewis have reaped great rewards—success in the ring, millions of dollars in earnings and sponsorships, widespread popularity, human dignity, and personal freedom— gained in no small part from centuries of struggle by men like Tom Molineaux, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis.
The sixties would prove as liberating for Latinos in America as they were for blacks, as before Cesar Chavez and others like boxer/activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales raised public awareness to their plight, Latinos suffered the same loss of civil and constitutional liberties. An international group of legendary fighters in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s such as Mexicans Salvador Sanchez and Julio Cesar Chavez, Nicaraguan Alexis Arguello, Panamanian Roberto Duran, and Puerto Ricans Carlos Ortíz, José Torres, and Wilfredo Gómez continued the traditions of Mexican- Americans Manuel Ortiz and Bert Colima in the 20s and ‘30s. By the end of the 20th century, there was perhaps no active boxer more popular than Mexican-American Oscar De La Hoya, and fellow Mexican- American John Ruiz had become the first Latino to win the (WBA) heavyweight title. Notably, only once since 1959 has there been a non-Latino, non-black boxer named as Ring Magazine’s “Fighter of The Year.”
The sport now has a truly international reach with white, African-American, and Latino boxers sharing the ring with Filipino, Korean, Japanese, and Ghanaian boxers. Surely, discriminatory conditions still exist for many fighters, as evidenced by the recent aggressive and hateful crowds surrounding some Muslim boxers like “Prince” Naseem Hamed and Hasim Rahman in England.
A cause for celebration lately has been yet another barrier being broken in boxing: that of the female boxer. Occasionally a novelty act in 18th and 19th century England, female boxing was a demonstration event at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri, and Barbara Buttrick became famous for pioneering boxing in a nationally televised fight in 1954. After years of legal battles, USA Boxing admitted women’s amateur boxing into its program in 1993, and female professional boxing got a shot in the arm when, as a Mike Tyson undercard, Christy Martin fought in a gritty, six-round bout against Deirdre Gogarty in 1996, easily upstaging the men’s fight. In recent years, high profile fighters Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde (daughters of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier) have commanded big purses and televised bouts with 100,000 pay- per-view buys, garnering unprecedented attention to women’s boxing and sparking increased gender diversity in sparring gyms around the world. As the 21st century begins, a revolution in the sport is again in full swing.
Constellations: Selected Fights From The Modern Era
BOMBER TO CAVEMAN, COME IN CAVEMAN
(Ezzard Charles—Billy Conn—Joe Louis— Rocky Marciano—Max Schmeling—”Jersey” Joe Walcott)
Having spent his pre-war years demoralizing Schmeling and other fascist emissaries en route to claiming the heavyweight division for himself, the great Joe Louis trailed big after twelve rounds against Conn in one of his last fights before enlisting in WWII. Needing a KO, The Brown Bomber lured the usually evasive Conn into a slugfest, landing a stinging right to the head as Conn wound-up a long left hook, then firing with both hands as the Irishman collapsed, a victim of his own foolishness. Those twelve rounds, though, were a kink in Louis’ armor post-war; the ex-longshoreman Walcott knocked him down twice, but was ultimately robbed by a uncharitable split decision, in their 1947 fifteen round NYC brawl. Louis retired, Charles assumed his title with back-to-back decisions over Walcott before the 37 year old wonder’s hammering left hook KO’d Charles in their third battle in ‘51. The same year, Louis emerged from retirement for a costly payday versus the short-armed, bone- crushing caveman Marciano, who, albeit teary-eyed, ended a legend’s career with a right to the jaw in the 8th. 1952’s title fight of Marciano vs. Walcott was tough guy vs. tough guy. A first-round Walcott hook put Marciano on the canvas for the first time in his career, and both fighters traded massive blows, spraying their bodies, the ref, and the ring with their blood in the hard-fought match. With Walcott ahead on points entering the 13th and Marciano’s eyes swollen shut, one of the Italian’s jackhammer rights disfigured Walcott’s face for dozens of flash bulbs and a spectacular KO. Marciano would later hang ‘em up as the only undefeated heavyweight champ in history.
POUND FOR POUND, BLOW BY BLOW
(Carmen Basilio—Laurent Dauthuille— Gene Fullmer—Jake LaMotta—”Sugar” Ray Robinson)
Heavyweights usually get the headlines, and while Robinson may not have escaped the shadow of Louis in the ‘40s, he’s since been remembered as the greatest “pound for pound” boxer (a term created for him) of all time. In his first 208 fights as an amateur and professional, he lost only once, to LaMotta in Detroit in 1943. In that second of six epic fights between the two, the gritty Bronx brawler took the sixteen pounds lighter Robinson, a lightning quick consummate fighter, out of his game, memorably knocking him through the ropes in the eighth. After taking a dive against Billy Fox in return for the mob granting him what became a successful middleweight title bout, LaMotta was a loser through most of a title defense against Dauthuille in 1950 until, faking an injury, LaMotta tricked the contender into a barrage of blows and his demise. Having vanquished every welterweight challenger and beaten LaMotta a total of four times, Robinson moved up to take LaMotta’s new crown in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1951. LaMotta chased Robinson with left hooks and used his bend and weave to get inside; Robinson stung LaMotta with sharp counters and exhausted him with murderous body blows. It was even after ten, LaMotta nearly ended it in the 11th with the Sugar Man on the ropes, but in the 12th and 13th Robinson made LaMotta’s face his punching bag with uppercuts and triple left hooks until the ref put a stop to the massacre, and the rivalry. LaMotta, his head looking like it had been run over by a truck, still gloated: “You couldn’t put me down, Ray.” Past his prime, Robinson would nevertheless go on to win the middleweight title five times after wins and losses in courageous fights with Fullmer and Basilio.
“THE GREATEST” OF ERAS
(Muhammad Ali—George Foreman—Joe Frazier—Sonny Liston—Ken Norton)
By the mid ‘60s, the Beatles were yeah yeah yeah-ing it all over America, and Ali, an equally transformative cultural force, was becoming the headliner for a group of boxing’s biggest and baddest heavyweights to date. Funny, because the public had fitted him for a coffin before his first fight with Liston, the most menacing of champs, in 1964. But with his welterweight speed and his unconventional lean back move to avoid jabs and hooks, Ali had Liston dog-tired and swinging at air. Ali showboated, casually letting his hands hang at his sides, resting a glove on Liston’s head before peppering him with jabs, and was ecstatically crowned the new champ when Liston, claiming injury, refused to come out for the bell in the 7th. The rematch had all the hype and almost none of the payoff: Ali landed some solid rights before, using the ropes like a slingshot, delivering a phantom knockout anchor punch 1:42 into the 1st. After his exile, Ali took too many left hooks from Frazier in ‘71 and fought with a broken jaw in a loss against Norton in ‘73, the same year a hulking future TV frydaddy named Foreman knocked Frazier down six times for a 2nd round TKO. The stage was set for The Rumble in the Jungle (Zaire), where Ali surprised everyone by playing rope-a-dope until Foreman had punched himself out. With the “invincible” Foreman wobbly in the 8th, Ali threw four crushing left-right KO combinations to the jaw to reclaim the title. Don King’s verbal panache also concocted 1975’s The Thrilla in Manila, often considered The Fight of the Century: Ali vs. Frazier III. Ali taunted Frazier as a dumb “gorilla” pre-fight, danced around him in the 1st, staggered him in the 2nd and 3rd with whiplash left jabs and hammering rights, but soon wilted in the sweltering heat as Frazier punished the champ in the corner with thumping hooks to the kidneys and ribs through the 10th. Ali’s second wind made for a battle over the final rounds, when his combinations left Frazier’s face malformed and swollen; his body lifeless, Frazier’s corner stopped the fight before the 15th
THOSE FABULOUS VEGAS ‘80s
(Roberto Duran—”Marvelous” Marvin Hagler—Tommy Hearns—”Sugar” Ray Leonard)
Projected on the cinemas’ big screens, the Rocky Balboa fairy tale threatened to set back boxing to both the 1950s (white, Italian heavyweight champs) and 1750s (flat-footed, defenseless slugging), but on small screens across America in the 1980s, audiences were treated to a drama of astonishing technique in the Vegas-glitzy, four-way battle for the welterweight and middleweight crowns. In Leonard’s 1980 revenge match with the former lightweight Duran, Leonard popped Duran’s head silly with quick jabs and hard rights and used his speed to stay out of Duran’s fearsome wheelhouse, regaining his WBC welterweight title. Famously, Duran quit in the eighth, uttering the words no Panamanian ever thought he’d hear: “No mas.” A year later, Leonard was chased and outboxed by Detroit’s hard-hitting, and unbeaten, Hearns but, with twenty four unanswered punches in the 13th, put the “Hit Man” on the ropes for good. Two knockout punchers, Hearns and Hagler staged in ‘85 perhaps the greatest round of the century, as, from the opening bell, a flurry of Hagler’s left hooks and Hearns’ battering rights smacked nearly every slab of flesh intended. His face smeared with his own blood, Hagler stalked Hearns around the ring like a shark chasing chum until three ferocious rights sent the power-sapped Hearns to the canvas in the third. In ‘87, after retirement No. 2, Leonard showboated his way—the Ali shuffle, the blinding (but no longer punishing) flourishes of hand speed, the elusive retreat —to nab the WBC middleweight crown in a controversial split decision over Hagler, who instantly retired in disgust. Smart—the remaining threesome dragged out ill-fated comebacks for another decade.
YOUNG AND DANGEROUS
(Riddick Bowe—James “Buster” Douglas— George Foreman—Evander Holyfield— Lennox Lewis—Mike Tyson)
After Ali, the heavyweight division was in the doldrums until, in the mid-80s, a squat, sculpted Brooklynite named Tyson shot through the ranks with unprecedented violence. By the time he took Trevor Burbick’s title in 1986, at twenty becoming the youngest champ ever, he was 28-0 with twenty six KOs, fifteen of those the result of furious 1st round decapitatings. Fighting from the crouch and eluding opponents with quickness and a peek-a-boo head bob, he also proved quite difficult to hit. That all changed when the seemingly invincible Tyson, bullied for much of a 1990 bout with Douglas, took an uppercut to the chin and a five punch combination for a KO in the 10th. Subsequently convicted and incarcerated for rape, Tyson’s void in the boxing world was filled by Holyfield, a bulked-up cruiserweight, who easily dispatched with Douglas en route to losing two out of three spectacular fights with the 6’5” Bowe. In their first and most exhilarating matchup in 1992, Bowe tested Holyfield’s limits in the 9th and 10th with a frenzy of jarring left jabs and overhand rights before Holyfield defied exhaustion with an angry series of uppercuts and hooks but ultimately failed to prevail. Sure, a renegade paraglider landed in the ring during their 1993 rematch, but big George Foreman upstaged them all in ‘94, amazingly knocking out Michael Moorer to capture the WBA crown a full twenty years after losing it to Ali. A reinvigorated Holyfield welcomed the slower, less-disciplined Tyson back to the ring in ‘96 by thoroughly outboxing him, dropping him in the 6th and again, for good, in the 11th. After being exposed as a has-been through two rounds of the rematch, Tyson was disqualified and stripped of his license for viciously biting off Holyfield’s ear. Lewis, holding the WBC belt following impressive KOs of Oliver McCall and Andrew Golota in ‘97, capably won the second of two fights against Holyfield in ‘99 and became Britain’s first undisputed heavyweight champ of the century.