Boxing: Knocking Out Racism and Inequality in America
Modern boxing is as old as America. They grew up together, and like America herself, boxing is as majestic as it is brutal. It’s as beautiful มวยสากล as it is primal. From the bloody and outlawed “exhibitions” in New Orleans to the “bare-knuckle” brawls in the shantytowns out West, boxing came of age with America. It has been called the “Sweet Science” and “the Manly Art of Self Defense,” but ultimately “boxing is a sport of confrontation and combat, a weaponless war,” pitting two warriors against each other to do battle in the squared circle.
We can trace the history of America’s poor and disenfranchised through the arc of boxing’s past. Prizefighting is a prism through which we can view the history and struggles of America’s most disenfranchised. Its heroes of legend often exemplify the social problems of the day. In many ways, the fight game serves as a means of “socioeconomic” advancement. Author and boxing historian Jeffrey T. Sammons states in Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society: “The succession [of great fighters] had gone from Irish to Jewish… to Italians, to [B]lacks, and to Latin[o]s, a pattern that reflected the socioeconomic ladder. As each group moved up, it pulled its youth out of prizefighting and pushed them into more promising… pursuits.”
Two fighters in particular epitomize the struggle of their people: the brash Irishman John L. Sullivan, and “The Black Menace” Jack Johnson.
Boxing has its origins in Ancient Greece, and was part of the Olympic Games in around 688 BC. Homer makes reference to boxing in the “Iliad.” Boxing historian Michael Katz recalls the sports primitive origins:
Much like the first American settlers, prizefighting made its way to the New World from England. And like the pilgrims, boxing’s early days were often brutish and violent. Sammons states: “Like so many American cultural, social, political, and intellectual institutions, boxing originated in England. In the late 1700s, when the sport existed only in its crudest form, prizefighting in Britain assumed an air of sophistication and acceptability.
The early Puritans and Republicans often associated game playing with the oppressive monarchies of Europe, but as American opponents of leisure lost ground, the sport quickly began to grow. In the 1820’s and 1830’s boxing, often called pugilism, became a popular sport amongst the American “immigrants who were unaccustomed to restrictions upon amusements and games.”
As the sport grew in popularity amongst the immigrants, so too did the myth of the individual. For better or for worse, the United States is a nation weaned on the myth of the individual. This is the American Dream, that fundamental creed that we can all “pull our selves up by the bootstraps” and become wildly rich, outrageously successful, and madly fulfilled. For nearly two hundred years the “Heavyweight Champion” was the crown jewel of the sporting world, and the physical embodiment of the American Dream. He was the toughest, “baddest man” on the planet, and commanded the world’s respect.
Sammons states: “[T]he physical man still stands for the potential of the individual and the survival of the fittest. He is the embodiment of the American Dream, in which the lowliest of individuals rise to the top by their own initiative and perseverance. The elusiveness of that dream is immaterial; the meaning of the dream is in its acceptance, not its fulfillment.” During the 1880’s, no one embodied the physical man, or the American Dream, more than boxing’s first great heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan.
John L. Sullivan and the Plight of the Irish
Sullivan, also known as “The Boston Strongboy,” was the last of the “bare knuckle” champions. The son of poor Irish immigrants, he was a brash and hard-nosed man who toured the “vaudeville circuit offering fifty dollars to anyone who could last four rounds with him in the ring.” Sullivan famously challenged his audiences by claiming, “I can lick any sonofabitch in the house.”
“The Boston Strongboy” became one of America’s first sports legends when he snubbed millionaire Richard Kyle Fox, owner and proprietor of the National Police Gazette and the National Enquierer. Legend has it that one fateful evening in the spring of 1881 while at Harry Hill’s Dace Hall and Boxing Emporium on New York’s East Side, Fox was so impressed by one of Sullivan’s boxing matches, that the newspaper tycoon “invited him to his table for a business talk, which Sullivan impolitely declined, gaining Fox’s hatred.”