Boxing in America

The sport of boxing came to the United States from England in the late 1700s and took root in the 1800s mainly in large urban areas such as Boston, New York City, and New Orleans. English and Irish fighters starved of opportunities at home traveled to the states in search of new opportunities, many of these early American fights were billed as English versus Irish or native “American” versus Irish.

While initially boxing was viewed as illegal and many fights and fighters had to hide to avoid arrest, the sport of boxing found advocates during the latter 19th century in the “muscular Christianity” movement, a religious group that viewed sport as a way of increasing both physical and moral strength. Theodore Roosevelt was also a vocal advocate; he continued boxing into his presidency until a blow left him with a detached left retina, leaving him blind in one eye.

John L. Sullivan became the first American heavyweight champion in 1882 under bare-knuckle rules and again in 1892 became the first heavyweight champion in the beginning of the gloved era. Sullivan began a hundred-year streak of heavyweight boxing champions coming from America.

By the 20th century America became the center of professional boxing. The sports economic incentive rose as popularity brought larger purses and commercial success. This rise in success saw a rise in minority participation in boxing with the first successful non-white champions coming at the beginning of the 20th century, even as severe racism plagued minority attempts to gain, and hold, championship titles.

Boxing continued to be popular throughout America and by the 1960s and 70s, the sport reached a golden era in America. Television brought the sport to new audiences and introduced a new revenue stream and casino gambling raised the stakes for audiences. Talented boxers such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Dick Tiger fought storied bouts again and again.

Boxing’s popularity in American has waxed and waned over its long and storied history, but the characters, dramatic fights, mythical feats of endurance and strength, and cultivation of boxing as the pinnacle of masculinity have made boxing a constant presence in American society.

Sonny Liston
Charles Liston (born in 1932, exact date unknown) grew up in a family of 25 children, the son of an abusive and alcoholic tenant farmer in Arkansas, before leaving home at the age of 13 for St. Louis, Missouri. He was in trouble often as a young man, arrested more than 20 times for petty crimes before being convicted of robbery 1950 and being sent to the Missouri State penitentiary for two years. It was there he first learned the sport of boxing.

At over 6 feet and weighing in around 200 pounds, he was nicknamed "The Bear" for his size and slow but powerful style. Liston began his official fighting career in 1953, though it was interrupted due to another brief incarceration. After his release, he relocated to Philadelphia where his boxing career flourished, winning 26 consecutive fights. On September 25, 1962, Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round to take the world heavyweight title.

Liston was branded as an unsavory character due to his criminal record and his manager’s connections to organized crime. This sour reputation made fighting opportunities difficult to obtain; Patterson refused to fight Liston multiple times before they finally met in 1962. The white media, already prone to using stereotypes when describing black athletes had a field day with Liston, often referring to him as a "jungle beast" or "gorilla."

Liston held the title for two years until his withdrawal after the sixth round due to an injury against Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali). Throughout his career Sonny Liston was known for his durability and punching power, winning 39 of his 54 fights by knockout and losing only 4.

Jack Johnson
John Arthur Johnson was born March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas, the son of former slaves with eight brothers and sisters. He had limited schooling and worked most of his childhood. He began boxing in amateur fights for small purses when he was still a teenager, though at 6'2" with a broad frame, he had his eye on the heavyweight title. For many years, the white boxers who held the title refused to fight him. In 1908, then champion Tommy Burns finally agreed to a fight in Sydney, Australia, and, after fourteen grueling rounds, Jack Johnson was ruled the winner and heavyweight champion.

Throughout his career, Jack Johnson was a target for discrimination as he was outspoken and braggadocios, flaunting his success, spending money freely and dating white women. Johnson’s victory in 1908 resulted in a huge outcry for a “Great White Hope,” a white boxer to defeat Johnson and regain the title. He held the title until his 26-round defeat by knockout against Jess Willard in Havana on April 5, 1915. Racism and discrimination marked his seven years as heavyweight title-holder with limited opportunities to fight and meager purses. Johnson was the first black boxer to win the heavyweight championship of the world and is considered by many to be one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time.