The history of boxing is a history of man. From the beginning of time, men have used their fists to settle scores. Ironically, Mother Nature never intended our hands to be used as offensive weapons. If they were, the bones in the hand and wrist would be tougher and the tendons would be more flexible to allow for expansion at the point of inertia. Yet, our inclination when faced with conflict is to ball up our fists and smash them into another man’s head, which frequently breaks our instruments of force. It’s a design flaw.
Relics dating as early as 4000 B.C. indicate fist fighting in North Africa and Mesopotamia. The first written record of a prize fight is Homer’s timeless work The Iliad, circa 800 B.C. Boxing’s premiere as a sport occurred during the early Greek Olympics, but it probably wasn’t nearly as popular as its sister sport, pankration, which allowed all forms of striking and submissions. (Boxing was more primitive at this time: no rounds, ring, weight classes, rest periods, or points systems—just striking.)
The ancient Romans enjoyed a form of pugilism, but it’s a stretch to call it boxing. Performed by athletes wearing leather-wrapped hands and forearms that were sometimes studded with metal shards (called a cestus), the contestants didn’t stop after a knockout. The contestants fought to the death. But as the sordid Roman Empire fell, boxing did as well for nearly 1,500 years.
As soon as the Duke of Albemarle got wind that his butcher and butler were at odds in 1681, he set up a ring for them to “Duke” it out. By 1700 another Briton named James Figg had fully revived bare-knuckle fighting in England and was the leading teacher of the sport at his London school. Figg believed men should fight until one of them had obviously won, so his venue didn’t provide rest periods or time limits.
In 1743, wagering on fights was becoming more prominent (as was death in the ring), so Englishman Jack Broughton established rules and guidelines for a match. Broughton’s rules gave referees standards of conduct, made it illegal to hit a man when he was down, and ended a fight when a man could not coherently get himself into a chalk square in the middle of the ring within 30 seconds of being knocked down. Broughton also introduced padded gloves at his school so gentlemen of distinction would not have to court women with black eyes and bloody teeth.
By 1780 boxing was waning in popularity when England’s war with France sparked a resurgence in the “manly arts.” A series of fights between Richard Humphrey and Daniel Mendoza helped bring back interest in “The Sweet Science,” so coined by Pierce Egan in the 19th century. It was Mendoza who first used footwork to create angles of attack on his opponent, which was seen as ungentlemanly until this point, as fights were normally contested toe-to-toe. Humphrey and Mendoza are also credited with starting trash talking. The pair taunted each other in local papers to build hype around their fights.
Boxing during this pre-Victorian era was embraced by the British pubic for several reasons: it was seen as a safer alternative to dueling when a man had to defend his honor; it offered a means of self-defense against the unruly patrons of London’s streets; and it leveled the playing field among men of all social standings since no special weapons were needed to fight. While boxing continued to gain in popularity, it failed to more fully evolve until 1867 when The Marquess of Queensbury established a set of rules that changed boxing forever. Until this time, Broughton’s rules (adopted in 1838) were standard in England,but the Queensbury Rules introduced a limited number of three-minute rounds, banned gouging and wrestling during the match, and made gloves mandatory.
The padded gloves allowed boxers to hit harder and more frequently, whereas bare-knuckled fighters had to pick and choose their shots to avoid breaking their hands. The Marquess’s rules also forced boxers to learn defensive techniques like bobbing, weaving, slipping, blocking, and footwork. Two decades later, boxer James Corbett defeated bare-fisted fighter and pugilistic legend John L. Sullivan in 1892, sounding the death knell for bare-knuckled fighting.
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses
Ironically, Sullivan bridged the gap between bare-knuckled fighting and gloved boxing. Although British journey man fighters and Irish immigrants brought boxing to America and spurned railroad encampments into fighting frenzies, Sullivan’s prowess in the ring and colorful personality made him a national sports hero and awakened boxing in the hearts of millions. But just as MMA struggled with acceptance, boxing took many years to fully capitalize on its popularity and to become completely legal. Opposition to sanctioned boxing was rabid in the early 20th century, prompting illegal fight clubs to flourish in urban cities in the same that way speakeasies popped up to resist prohibition. Jack Johnson’s career probably didn’t help.
Although Johnson was the best heavyweight of his day, his life was riddled with controversy, confrontation, prison time, and racial tensions due to his being an African-American. Johnson won many epic fights between 1903 and 1915, some resulting in race riots that ended with people being murdered in the streets. Johnson’s 1910 fight against former champion James Jeffries caused prize fighting films to be banned by the U.S. Congress for the next 30 years for its brutality. Johnson was also imprisoned for violating the Mann Act (transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes), but his conviction was flimsy at best, and a Presidential pardon is currently pending. During Johnson’s time, the same stigma of brutality that haunts MMA today hung heavy over boxing, and the presence of gambling and corruption influenced lawmakers’ opposition to it. As a sport, boxing needed a visionary to make it accepted and help turn an honest profit in the pre-Depression era. Enter George “Tex” Rickard.
As millions of dough boys came home from World War I, Tex was working tirelessly to overcome the negative perception that boxing had rightfully earned and promote it as a legitimate sport. Rickard promoted his first fight in Goldfield, Nevada, in 1906. By the 1920s Rickard was putting on the biggest fights, including several in New York’s Madison Square Garden, and was growing boxing by leaps and bounds throughout the decade. By teaming with a poor man from Colorado named Jack Dempsey, Rickard grossed more than $8 million from just five fights between 1921 and 1927. Rickard promoted the first live radio broadcast of a boxing event (Dempsey versus George Carpentier in 1921) and was the first to draw more than $1 million dollars at the gate when he promoted Dempsey versus Gene Tunney in 1926, a feat he accomplished again in 1927.
This was the Golden Age of boxing. Its objective was clear: hit the other guy without getting hit. It was so easy to understand that it crossed socioeconomic lines, appealing to all classes. Rickard touted boxing as the everyman’s sport, stressing its appeal by noting how each man developed a personal style based on his strengths and weaknesses. In essence, Rickard encouraged men to find their own inner pugilist. He made them believe they could be Jack Dempsey. Dueto Rickard’s genius, boxing grew, and in 1927 the National Boxing Association (NBA) was formed to provide a fair, governing body for the sport.
The Man in the Mirror
In the 1930s, Joe Louis (a.k.a. Brown Bomber), a second-generation son of a slave, ascended to heights not before seen in sports. As Brett and Kate McKay say in Boxing: A Manly History of the Sweet Science of Bruising, “The Brown Bomber’
;s bouts are arguably the best examples of the way in which boxing can transcend the confines of mere sport to take on greater cultural meanings.” After winning his first 27 fights, Louis lost to Max Schmeling, a man considered the poster boy for Nazi fascism. Two years later, Louis enacted revenge, destroying Schmeling in the first round. In the process, Louis became the first African-American to achieve sports hero status previously reserved for whites. Jack Johnson could never do the same because of his unpopularity with white fans and the perfect timing of Louis’s rise during the pre-war era.
During World War II, almost all sports declined due to a lack of manpower. Nearly all fighting-aged men joined the Armed Services, including Joe Louis. Of those who remained stateside, Italian fighters like New York tough man Rocky Graziano,Willie Pep, and the Raging Bull Jake La-Motta were the biggest ticket draws.
At the end of the decade and a long,hard-fought war, the group of men,deemed the “Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw, returned home. However,there was no Tex Rickard to bring boxing back to the forefront, and the talent pool lacked depth. On top of these problems, boxing had to battle against an apathetic view of fighting that developed after along war. Americans were fatigued with all kinds of fighting.
By the mid-1950s, great Italian fighters like Rocky Marciano were making way for talented African-Americans like Sugar Ray Robinson and Floyd Patterson, who pushed the pace of boxing.
“Fighters were more active in a contest,” boxing historian Tracy Callis says. “[There was] more punching, less watching. Today, there is more watching—like a batter in baseball looking for that pitch in the strike zone before swinging.”
Training methods were partially the reason for the speed. “More dynamic exercises and drills, such as running, chopping wood, carrying rocks, and even wrestling were favored to strength training,” Callis adds.“As a result, fighters had better wind and were more maneuverable, so active punching lasted longer into a fight.”
Boxing as a sport was also transforming. The dominant organization, the National Boxing Association, split and formed the World Boxing Alliance and the World Boxing Council and promptly started competing with each other. In the early 1960s, as the counter culture revolution was polarizing America, a brash kid from Louisville, Kentucky, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee changed the sport of boxing, along with all other sports, forever.
In 1964 Cassius Clay rendered Sonny Liston, one of the greatest punchers of all time, helpless to win the WBA and WBC Heavyweight titles. Though it was widely believed to be a set-up fight that Liston was instructed to lose, the image of Clay standing over the downed Liston remains one of the greatest sports photos of all time. Soon afterward, Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali and embraced the role of villain in nearly all of his fights. But his villainy wasn’t limited to running his mouth. A devout Muslim, Ali objected to the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted into service, igniting a firestorm of hate mail and crimes against him.
Ali was despised in his day, but his braggadocio was genius self-promotion that compelled the lovers and the haters to watch him. With the introduction of television in every home, Ali set the standard for marketability, which became a necessary evil in every fighter’s career. By 1971, Ali had taken boxing to new heights when he fought fellow undefeated heavyweight Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden. Labeled “The Fight of the Century,” the Ali-Frazier bout was Ali’s first loss.
Enter the King
After Ali lit a bonfire under the public’s interest in boxing, Don King made it a raging inferno. A Cleveland bookmaker, King harnessed the jet airplane and home television and used them to place boxing on an international stage, rivaling the ambition and skill of Tex Rickard. King promoted massive fights in the 1970s, including “The Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire and “The Thrilla in Manila” between Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines.
“The ‘70s marked the transition from network TV and closed circuit fights at movie theaters to bouts shown exclusively on cable or direct TV,” says James Carney, boxing historian and author of Ultimate Tough Guy: The Life and Times of James J. Jeffries. “Live gates were growing less and less significant, but purses continued to grow.”
By 1976, heavyweights (including Ali) were fading from the limelight, making way for smaller weight classes to become the sport’s focus. Welterweight Sugar Ray Leonard capped off an impressive amateur boxing career with an Olympic gold medal that year, while the explosive Panamanian Roberto Duran reigned as the WBA lightweight champion with a combined record of 56-1. Nicaraguan Alexis Arguello, the WBA featherweight champion, and other Latino fighters were enjoying major success. Hector Camacho from Puerto Rico and Mexican Julio Cesar Chavez were working their way up the ladder, while Cuban boxers were dominating World Boxing Championships and the Olympics.
The reason was simple. Boxing offered the have-nots from barrios around the Latino world an escape from their destitute socio economic situations. “In a boxing gym, nine times out of ten you don’t have to pay,” says Olympic boxing gold medalist Howard Davis Jr. “A kid who wants to train will usually box because he can afford it. It doesn’t take much. Just a pair of shorts and some worn-out gloves.”
“It’s a poor man’s sport, no matter how you look at it,” adds boxing historian and trainer Irvin Bounds. “When races rise in boxing, it’s a reflection of the times.”
The Dark Side of the Street
As the sun set on the 1970s, training methods changed once again, creating the unintentional side effect of making weight gaining and weight cutting easier. “Weight training and general strength training made a comeback,” says Carney of the ‘70s. “Nutrition itself evolved as a science with boxers, and trainers [were] beginning to study it and take it seriously. Heavyweights almost overnight were bigger in the ‘80s. Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Max Baer, Jim Jeffries, and Sonny Liston would have been below average size. Some fighters were getting bigger the wrong way, via steroids and other performance enhancers.”
Larry Holmes’s stoppage of Muhammad Ali in 1980 was a rare bright spot in the overall decline of the heavyweight division, which opened the door for smaller fighters to take center stage. In 1980 Roberto Duran defeated Sugar Ray Leonard, only to lose to him in a rematch, during which he uttered his infamous verbal submission, “No Mas.”
When 1982 rolled around, the sport was once again making an intimate bed fellow out of controversy. In one of boxing’s greatest fights, Aaron Pryor defeated Alexis Arguello. Afterward, it was discovered that in the 13th round, Pryor’s trainer gave him a tainted water bottle containing crushed antihistamine tablets for greater lung capacity. That same year, Korean fighter Duk Koo Kim died after a match with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, prompting the Journal of the American Medical Association to write two editorials that called for a ban on boxing. As a result, all boxing federations reduced title bouts to 12 rounds, but the damage was done.
Corruption, bribery, and criminality have been boxing’s dirty secret for decades. With fight purses becoming more lucrative, the rewards frequently outweighed the risks and pushed once reputa
ble men to compromise their principles. The victim of backroom deals and payoffs was the honest boxer, fighting and relying on the merits of his skill to get ahead, while those who made an alliance with shady agents or promoters bought an opportunity to excel. It’s an individual sport replete with selfish agents, managers, and fighters who only seek to advance their wallets ahead of the sport. One of the most tragic victims was champion Joe Louis, who was paid less than one-fifth of his $4.5 million career earnings.
Despite a three-round battle between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns and the emergence of the youngest ever heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson (managed by Don King), boxing was in decline in the mid-80s. The decline was exacerbated by further splits of the WBA into the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization in 1983 and 1988, respectively. The split generated opportunities for some, but ultimately made the sport more schizophrenic.
“Having different organizations is good because it allows lots of unknown fighters to become champions and make money,” says Davis. “It’s bad because we don’t know who the real champion is. When Ali was champ, everyone knew it. When Roberto Duran was champ, everyone knew. It’s not like that with multiple organizations.”
I Went to a Fight and a Circus Broke Out
In the 1980s, boxing was unremarkable. In the 1990s, The Sweet Science was reduced to a chaotic disaster. Heavyweights like Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and an aging George Foreman were household names built by pay-per-view, but as fast and sure as their slug fests thrilled fans, the shenanigans that followed alienated those same paying customers. The seemingly indestructible Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas in 1990 and was imprisoned for rape. Julio Cesar Chavez defeated Meldrick Taylor with two seconds remaining in the 12th and final round, shocking the boxing world and prompting renewed calls for reform. A powered parachute landed in the middle of Evander Holyfield’s fight with Riddick Bowe. Bowe’s camp got into a gang fight with Andrew Golota’s entourage after their match. Oliver McCall had a nervous breakdown while fighting Lennox Lewis. And the most infamous moment in all of boxing occurred in 1997 when Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield’s ear.
By the end of the decade, boxing was hemorrhaging fans when two events damaged its reputation irrevocably. In 1999 Lennox Lewis dominated Evander Holyfield, but only earned a draw from the judges, prompting an investigation into the scoring. That same year, Oscar De La Hoya lost a decision to Felix Trinidad that shocked anyone who knows anything about fist-to-face contact. “That fight was when people really started getting sick of boxing,” says historian Bounds. “De La Hoya decisively won that fight, and then the judges told him he didn’t. That was a turning point for a lot of people, because you start to wonder who’s paying whom and then the questions come up of payouts and corruption.”
For the Love of Money
At its heart, boxing is a business, and no other sport is as deeply entrenched in gambling, marketing, and money as prizefighting. “Boxing knows how to draw people in even during times of depression and recession,” says Bounds. “There are guys who are 40-3 but we’ve never heard of them. Why? Because a guy isn’t marketable. He didn’t have the right stuff to make money, so you don’t hear about him until he’s built up this huge record of wins and can finally be on TV.”
Growing up as a boxer, UFC president Dana White knows the sport’s pitfalls. “Boxing promoters are killing their own sport,” he says. “They pocket all the profit and don’t do anything to grow it. I hope boxing has learned that it can’t keep doing business the way it is. MMA has proventhat there’s competition out there for their entertainment dollars … that their future isn’t guaranteed. They have to evolve their sport and grow it in a positive way or they’ll go belly up.”
“I thank MMA for waking us up,” says former boxer and current boxing promoter Bernard Hopkins. “MMA showed us that we have to offer the public something or they’ll watch something else.” As a result, superfights between massively marketed fighters have made a return. Just the rumor of boxing legend Manny Pacquiao fighting loudmouth Floyd Mayweather Jr. has the general public salivating.
“Fighting is in us,” White says. “Youcan be in Peru flipping around the TVand see a fight. You may not understandthe language, but you sure as hell knowwhat’s going on. It’s a fight, and you wantto watch it.”