David Levinson, Stan Shipley, Edward R Beauchamp. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 1, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.
Boxing means fighting with one’s fists. Up until the twentieth century, the sport based on boxing was prizefighting in which two men fought bare knuckled for money. The modern sport of boxing is a sport rather than a form of entertainment or simply physical violence because it follows a set of predetermined rules that shape the nature of the fight and set forth criteria for determining the winner. The most important rule is the classification of fighters according to weight that helps ensure that fights will be fair. Professional boxing is now a global, multibillion-dollar industry centered in the United States. Amateur boxing, which both exists on its own and to prepare boxers for a professional career is also a worldwide sport, although it centers are in Russia, Cuba, and Eastern Europe.
Boxing has long been criticized for various ills including the level of violence, corruption, and racism. Nonetheless, it has remained extremely popular with its appeal crossing social class, gender, and ethnic lines. Perhaps its appeal is in the primordial nature of boxing. It is, in some sense, the basic sport. Two men, almost naked, use their strength, speed, agility, stamina, and courage to fight it out until one is too beaten to continue or gives up.
Although the attention of the public is on the boxers in the ring, there are other significant players in the boxing industry. Most important are the trainer, manager, and promoter. The trainer is responsible for getting the fighter physically and mentally ready for the bout, mapping out strategy and offering advice and encouragement from the corner during the bout. The manager is the fighter’s representative and as such negotiates contracts with promoters, seeks endorsement and other deals, and acts as the fighter’s press agent. The manager has a legal responsibility to act in the fighter’s best interest. The promoter is the fight producer. He or she arranges the fight, secures the venue, raises the money to pay the fighters and other expenses, and arranges for media coverage. The promoter’s interest is making money off the fight.
Despite the physical danger, boxing and training for boxing is unsurpassed at developing and maintaining physical fitness. In recent years some women have appreciated this and taken to the sport. Boxing feints, the movement of the feet, the skill in a rally, are all elements that can be appreciated by the aesthete, inside or outside the ring. Many boxing fans believe that the sport should be about hitting, stopping blows, and avoiding being hit. Today, however, the focus is more often on power and knockouts.
The roots of modern boxing are found in ancient Greece and Rome. Prizefighting emerged in Great Britain in the seventeenth century. The first written rules were published by Jack Broughton (1704-1789) in London in 1743 although most people learned the rules from personal involvement. In 1841 the editors of Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle began publishing a boxing yearbook called Fistiana, which soon modified Broughton’s Rules. Under the revised rules prizefighting could take the form of upright wrestling until either or both men went down. What we now would call a round might last a few seconds or forty minutes. The rest between rounds was thirty seconds. The fight continued until one contestant gave in or his second gave in for him. Fighters invariably bled, and spectators commonly laid bets on “first blood.” In the late eighteenth century the notion of science or “scientific boxing” entered the sport. It emphasized foot and hand speed and stopping or avoiding punches and made smaller men competitive with heaver and stronger men. It quickly became popular outside Britain. Its best-know practitioner was the British champion Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836).
Boxing became popular in Paris in the early twentieth century and replaced savate, which allowed blows with the feet. British and African-American boxers fought in France including the world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson (1878-1946). The first major French fighter was Georges Carpentier (1894-1975). He switched from savate in 1908 and boxed up to heavyweight division. In 1921 he lost to Jack Dempsey (1895-1983) before 90,000 fans in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Boxing, as opposed to prizefighting, used rules written by a Cambridge University athlete, John Graham Chambers (1843-1883) and published by Sir John Sholto Douglas (1844-1900), who was the eighth Marquis of Queensberry in 1867. These rules came to be known as the Queensberry Rules and distinguished between boxing competitions and contests. Competitions were for amateurs as well as professionals. These bouts were limited to three rounds in about ten minutes and were usually decided on points. Contests, on the other hand, were tests of endurance that continued until one man could no longer fight; they were confined strictly to professionals. Only in the latter code was it specified that new gloves of fair size and best quality be used, so Queensberry Rules assumed the superiority of contests over competitions. Amateurs sparred, professionals fought, and both boxed sportingly according to Queensberry. In both forms timed rounds were timed with a one-minute rest between rounds; gloves were to be used, and wrestling was prohibited.
Between the two world wars, boxing expanded—professional boxing became very profitable and both amateur and professional boxing became popular in Europe and the United States. At the same time, boxing started to become integrated. Joe Louis (1914-1981), an African-American, won the world heavyweight title in Chicago in 1937. But, black men were not permitted to win British professional championships until 1948.
Domination of early professional boxing moved back and forth across the Atlantic between Britain and the United States. By the early twentieth century, the United States had become the center of professional boxing with it ranks of fighters filled by poor immigrant men including Irish, Jews, and Italians, and African-Americans. Among the leading fighters as the century moved on were John Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano. By the 1960s the upper weight divisions were dominated by African-American men, most notably Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, George Forman, and Mike Tyson. Poverty was and is what brings many athletes into professional boxing. From the mid-twentieth century, boxers from less-developed countries began to replace white men, whose generally improved living conditions allowed them to choose less painful work and pastimes. From Mexico to South Korea, poorer countries have produced more and more boxers, especially at the lighter weights. And, in the United States, Latino boxers have entered the sport in significant numbers.
Central to the rise of boxing in the twentieth century has been the promoter—the person responsible for signing the fighters and officials, paying them, renting a suitable venue, attracting spectators, controlling betting, and generally maintaining order. The leading promoter in the history of boxing was George L. “Tex” Rickard (1871-1929), who with the help of leading sportswriters turned New York City’s Madison Square Garden into the “mecca” of professional boxing in the 1920s. Radio and then television increased the popularity of boxing even more and in the twenty-first century boxing is a staple of premium and pay-per-view television.
The first championships for amateurs were contested in western London. The Queensberry Rules were written for this occasion, but boxing was only part of a two-day open-air program of general athletics, bicycling, and wrestling for gentlemen from newly formed London sports clubs and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. A shortage of quality boxers led six of the boxers and the editor of a weekly newspaper, the Referee, to form the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA), which allowed workingmen to enter its annual championships each spring. The real amateur sport then developed, not among the comfortably off, but in boys’ clubs near factories, docks, and railway arches.
In the United States the integration of wealthy clubs with the hoi polloi came much later. The Golden Gloves tournament was started by the Chicago Tribune in 1926 and became annual a few years later. Boxing first appeared at the Olympics in 1904, was dropped for the 1912 Games, but returned in 1920 and has been on the program since. International amateur boxing was organized in 1920 with the formation in Paris of the Federation Internationale de Boxe Amateur. The 1932 results say much about the internationalization of amateur boxing with titles won by boxers from Hungary, Canada, and Argentina (two), South Africa (two), and the United States (two).The European titles (awarded to the European who placed best at the Olympics) went to men from Hungary, Sweden, France, Italy (two), and Germany (three).
When amateur boxing resumed after the war, the world was split into two hostile camps: capitalist and communist. Amateur boxing flourished in Communist nations, which rejected professional sport and supported their amateurs with state funds. Amateur boxing in capitalist countries largely lacked government support, but compensated with television fees and sponsorship from industry and business. In both systems excellence at sport was linked to national prestige. In market economies, professional boxing siphoned off gifted amateurs. Communist nations like Poland, the Soviet Union, and Cuba had an advantage in keeping fighters in the amateur ranks for their entire careers, as in the examples of the Cuban heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon.
Africa, Asia, and the Middle East became involved in boxing through the amateur version of the sport. The International Amateur Boxing Association was formed in London in 1946. Its congresses, held every four years, indicate the widening interest in boxing: the first congress outside Europe was held in Tanzania in 1974, followed by Madrid, Spain; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Bangkok, Thailand. Between the International Amateur Boxing Association World Amateur Boxing Championships and the Olympics, boxing produced winners worldwide. Tournaments organized by the Arab Boxing Union involve associations from Iraq to Algeria; and the Oceanic Federation, which includes Australia, has successfully staged its championships in Tahiti.
The sport was, however, disgraced at the 1988 Olympics, held in Seoul, South Korea, by chauvinistic judging and some crowd misbehavior. This led directly to changes in the scoring at all major international tournaments. Five ringside judges, equipped with computers for the first time, had to register points as they saw them scored, but only those points signified by a majority within a second of each other were counted toward the final result. The new system has rapidly gained devotees since it was used at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and the increased impartiality, with its low, measured scores is adjudged a triumph in the management of amateur boxing.
Women’s boxing at the organized, professional level is a recent development. It began on 16 March 1996 when Christy Martin and Deidre Gogarty stole the show on the otherwise boring Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno heavyweight championship card in Las Vegas. The Martin-Gogarty fight however, proved to the 1.1 million people watching on pay-per-view television that women could actually fight with skill, bleed, “get rocked,” and come back for more. Martin became the first woman boxer to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Women’s boxing differs from men’s in several ways. Breast protectors are mandatory for women, but groin protectors are optional. The woman must not be pregnant. Rounds in women’s fights are two rather than three minutes long; and women officials must be in charge of pre-fight weigh-ins, although the paucity of such officials means that male officials sometimes must be used.
Little is known about women’s boxing in the past. Most information comes from newspaper or magazine accounts of bouts in Britain, France, United States, and Australia that were usually more a form of entertainment than sport. These bouts seem to have been a working class entertainment frowned upon although ignored by the middle and upper classes. For example, in 1807 the Times of London described a fight between Mary Mahoney and Betty Dyson, commenting that at the end of forty minutes, both “Amazons” were “hideously disfigured by hard blows.” Part of the appeal and perhaps much of the appeal for spectators was that the women were sometimes bare to the waist or wore revealing clothing. During the 1890s women’s boxing was a popular form of entertainment in saloons and the vaudeville circuit in the United States despite calls in the 1880s to ban women’s boxing.
Women’s boxing enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Germany of the 1920s and 1930s. In the United States women’s boxing continued as a variety act. Still, there was more opposition than support and in 1933 Pope Pius XI condemned women who attended a boxing match as not helping to preserve “the dignity and grace peculiar to women.”
For fifteen years in the 1940s and 1950s, the best-known female boxer Barbara Buttrick, from Yorkshire, England who stood but 4 feet 11 inches, weighed in at about 100 pounds. Buttrick latter founded the Women’s International Boxing Association (WIBF).
A major impediment to the development of women’s boxing in the United States was the state boxing commissions, controlled by white men, who refused to license women. In the 1970s women brought legal challenges and women were licensed in Nevada, California and then New York. Women also won the right to enter the all-male Golden Gloves tournament. Women fighters during this period were a mix of a few with talent and many with little or none.
The 1980s saw a decline in serious women’s boxing with far more spectator interest in entertainment provided by partially nude “boxers” and tough women in brawls. At the same, legal challenges to restrictions continued and court rulings and Michigan and then Massachusetts created more opportunities for female fighters. In 1992 the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) officially recognized women’s boxing. Boxing training also became a form of exercise and fitness training for women with “boxercise” classes becoming popular in the 1990s.
Since 1996, however, not all has gone smoothly for professional women’s boxing. The biggest problem has been a lack of quality boxers that often produces matches that are embarrassing mismatches and which create a serious injury risk for the weaker boxer.This situation is not likely to change until there is a functioning amateur circuit for women boxers so they can learn to box and gain experience before turning professional.
Boxing and Society
Boxing has always been criticized and at times banned. The criticisms are many, some more serious than others. The great boxing writer, A. J. Liebling, is often cited as undoubtedly correct when he called boxing “the red light district of the sports world.”
One major criticism is of the physical dangers—short and long term—to the boxers. At least fifty boxers have died from injuries suffered during a bout since the 1950s and many others have been seriously injured. And the long-term neurological effects of taking repeated blows to the head over the years are well-documented by medicine. Champions such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali all suffered from serious neurological impairment later in life. The greatest risk is sustained by overmatched fighters who take a brutal beating over the course of a bout. A well-known example is heavyweight Chuck Wepner, known as the “Bayonne Bleeder,” who fought many of the leading heavyweights of the latter twentieth century and sustained considerable brain damage as a result.
Amateur fights have produced far fewer deaths, presumably because their bouts are shorter. And damage tends to be worse in the heavier divisions because the fighters hit with more force. Since the 1980s, head guards have been required in amateur fights, although they are unpopular with both boxers and spectators. It is not clear if the guards reduce brain injuries, but they do reduce the risk of facial cuts and detached retinas. Also significant is that fighters have no union and no health benefits and no pension.
Corruption in the Sport
Another major issue is corruption. One major appeal of boxing for fans is betting on their fighter. In the past the fixing of matches was a serious issue, although since the crackdown on organized crime’s control of boxing in the 1950s it is now less common. The issue now is the fixing of rankings by the competing boxing associations. Professional boxing matches are sanctioned and boxers ranked by three competing organizations—The World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, and the International Boxing Federation. Observers charge that these organizations corrupt the sport by ranking fighters and arranging fights on the basis of how much profit the federations can make. Fighters are forced to pay sanctioning fees and boxers who don’t pay are lowered in the ranking. Promoters play the role of both promoter and manager and look out for their financial interests first. All this produces a system where the best fighters may never have the chance to reach the top honestly, through victories in the ring.
Critics charge that corruption flourishes in the sport in the United States because there is no national control of boxing. Rather, boxing is governed by independent state boxing commissions which, except for Nevada and Pennsylvania, critics describe as ranging from incompetent to corrupt. Many state boxing officials are political appointees with limited knowledge of the management of the sport. Critics charge that it is their lack of oversight that leads to mismatches and the risk of serious injury and allows the exploitation of poor black and Latino fighters. There is currently an effort led by Sen. John McCain (R. Arizona) in the U.S. Congress to create central government control over boxing.
The third major criticism is racism. It is well-documented that in the nineteenth and first few decades of the twentieth century black men were either banned or discriminated against in professional boxing. Only toward the middle of the century when the number of white fighters coming out of immigrant communities declined were black fighters allowed in large numbers. However, racism did not end. Some commentators believe that racism entered into the decision of state boxing commissions to strip Muhammad Ali of his title when he declared himself a conscientious objector in 1968. And, since the 1960s when blacks and Latinos began their dominance in the ring, there has a search for the “Great White Hope”—the white boxer (like the fictional Rocky) who would win the heavyweight title. Several who have failed are Chuck Wepner, Frans Botha, and Gerry Cooney. Although professional boxing is now dominated by African-American and Latino fighters, many still feel that these fighters are not given their due. For example, the city of Philadelphia erected a statue to Rocky, the fictional white fighter, since the film takes place in the city. However, no such honor was given to the real-life world champion Joe Frazier who has spent most of his life in Philadelphia. Critics charge that racism today comes in the form of the exploitation of some of these fighters by managers, promoters, and sanctioning bodies.
Boxing in Popular Culture
Because of its broad appeal, boxing has spawned a large literature of novels, magazines, films, and several fights described as the “fight of the century.” Many experts agree that if there was a fight of the twentieth century it was Joe Frazier’s fifteen-round decision over Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Among the greatest boxing films are Golden Boy (1939), The Harder They Fall (1956), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Hurricane (2000), Girlfight (2000), and Million Dollar Baby (2004). And among literary figures drawn to boxing are Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Despite these issues and the large number of prominent critics of boxing in general or professional boxing today, boxing continues to flourish. It remains a popular amateur and Olympic sport around the world. Professional boxing also remains extremely popular with bouts shown regularly on television. Efforts to control corruption have usually failed, and current efforts seem to have little chance of long-term success. Boxing brings out a basic instinct in many and remains a path out of poverty for some.