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The Little Book of Boxing
By Graeme Kent
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Graeme Kent
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The Marquess of Queensberry Rules
The Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which brought boxing into the modern era, were not devised by the Marquess. They were the brainchild of a newspaper writer and former amateur boxer and oarsman, John Graham Chambers (1843–83). They were formulated in 1867 and revolutionised the sport. They introduced the use of gloves and stipulated three-minute rounds, with a minute's rest between rounds, and a ten-second count to decide a knockout. John Sholto Douglas, the eighth Marquess of Queensberry, a keen follower of boxing, allowed his name to be used for the rules, which remained in force until 1929, when they were updated. The Marquess went on to achieve notoriety when he hounded the playwright Oscar Wilde after the latter had conducted a homosexual affair with Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde sued Queensberry for libel, eventually lost, and was sentenced to two years' hard labour.
Chambers, the real architect of the Queensberry Rules, also helped to organise the Boat Race and the first FA Cup Final and was the champion road-walker of England.
From the first days of boxing, the sport was brought to remote areas by travelling booths. These provided exhibition contests and challenges from the booth fighters to all-comers. George Taylor, a travelling showman who claimed the bare-knuckle title in 1735, was the first title-holder to tour in this manner. Since then many future champions learned their trade in the booths. Fighters like Jimmy Wilde and Freddie Mills served their apprenticeships with itinerant fairs.
Life on the booths was hard. Up to 20 shows a day were scheduled. One fighter, middleweight Len Johnson, once fought on every performance for three days, a total of 60 bouts. In the late 1950s, the British Boxing Board of Control banned licensed boxers from working on the booths, hastening their closure. Most of the travelling booths finally came to an end in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some of the first bare-knuckle contests attracted crowds of only a few hundred patrons. By the end of the twentieth century, however, boxing was an extremely big business, attracting vast crowds and television audiences in the millions. The largest recorded paying crowd at an outdoor competition occurred on 20 February 1993 at the Estadio Azteca football stadium in Mexico City. There were five world title fights on the bill that night. Between 130,000 and 136,000 people paid to watch the undefeated champion Julio César Chávez fight American Greg Haugen in a WBC light welterweight title match. There had been ill-feeling between the two since they had fallen out during a Las Vegas sparring session several years earlier. Haugen, the official number two contender, said disparagingly of the champion's undefeated record after more than 80 contests, '60 of the guys he fought were just Tijuana cabdrivers.' Chávez stopped Haugen in five rounds and then informed his beaten opponent, 'Now you see I don't fight with taxi drivers.'
A promoter's lot is not an easy one. Many have lost their shirts on overambitious tournaments. In 1914, New York lightweight Jack Bernstein was signed up for a contest promoted by a local butcher. The evening was a total disaster and the butcher lost everything. He had to pay his fighters off in kind. As a bottom-of-the-bill fighter, Bernstein received half a salami for his efforts.
The Great Champions: 1 – Jimmy Wilde: 1892–1969
Main weight: flyweight
Contests: 152 Won: 137 (KO: 99) Lost: 5 Drew: 2
Variously known as 'the Ghost with a Hammer in his Hand' and 'the Mighty Atom', the scrawny and emaciated Jimmy Wilde always weighed-in considerably below the flyweight limit and gave away weight in most of his contests. He never scaled more than 8 stone in weight and was usually far lighter. Nevertheless, in addition to being fast and elusive, he possessed an incredibly heavy punch in either hand and won most of his bouts on knockouts. He was born in Merthyr Tydfil and then moved to Tylorstown, Mid-Glamorgan. Like most of his contemporaries he started down the mines, but by 16 he was taking on all-comers in a travelling boxing booth. At first he was regarded as a physical freak, but, after remaining undefeated in his first 101 fights, his boxing skills made him a headliner. In 1910 he left the booths under the tutelage of a shrewd manager, Ted Lewis. Lewis saw to it that whenever possible Wilde's opponents had to reduce their weight and come in at a weakened state.
In 1914 Wilde took the European title from Frenchman Eugene Husson. He then claimed the world title when he stopped the Young Zulu Kid.
He was stopped in an upset decision by the Scottish fighter Tancy Lee in 11 rounds, but won the return contest. After his seconds had thrown in the towel after the first encounter with Lee, Wilde ordered them never to do so again, no matter how badly he might be getting beaten.
He defeated Joe Conn in 12 rounds in 1918 and after a dispute over the purse, the promoter gave his wife £3,000-worth of diamonds. After serving as a Physical Training Instructor in the First World War, Wilde defeated a number of highly rated American fighters, although he was stopped by former world bantamweight champion Pete Herman, giving away a great deal of weight in the process.
In his last fight in the ring he was knocked out by Pancho Villa in 7 rounds at the New York Polo Grounds. He retired to write a newspaper column, where his system for predicting winners was 'You can't close your eyes to the fact that it's always the wallop that wins.'
When he was an old man in 1960, he was set upon by a thug at Cardiff railway station and badly beaten. He never really recovered. He spent his last days in a nursing home and died in 1969.
College Boys: 1 – Sir Wilfred Thesiger
Boxing has tended to be a working-class sport, but a number of undergraduates and graduates have taken it up with varying degrees of success. Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003) was one of the last of the great explorers, travelling through the notorious Empty Quarter of the southern region of the Arabian peninsula and the marshlands of southern Iraq, as well as parts of Iran, Africa and Pakistan. He wrote best-selling books about his exploits and won the DSO in the Second World War. He boxed for Oxford University as a light heavyweight from 1930 for three years, becoming captain of the team in the last year.
An aesthetic loner, Thesiger was guarded about his sexuality. When someone once asked him if he was gay, the explorer floored him with a single punch.
Vote for Pinky!
In 1922, Mike Collins, editor of the Minneapolis weekly Boxing Blade, decided that there was too much of a gap between the lightweight limit of 135lb and the welterweight maximum of 147lb. He set out to establish a new weight class half-way between, with a top weight of 140lb. He called it the junior welterweight division and asked his readers to write in with suggestions for the first champion in this weight class. A Milwaukee fighter called Pinky Mitchell received the most votes and was declared by Collins to be the new division's first champion, thus adding a whole new meaning to the term 'newspaper decision'.
'Hey, Ma, your bad boy did it!'
A delighted Rocky Graziano, a former juvenile delinquent, in a radio interview after taking the world middleweight title from Tony Zale.
Dave 'Boy' Green upon recovering consciousness after being knocked out by Sugar Ray Leonard in Landover, Maryland, in 1980.
'I got too goddamned careless!'
Tami Mauriello explaining his one-round knockout loss to world heavyweight champion Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium in 1946. The broadcasting authorities were so shocked by the use of the expletive that they took the interview off the air and returned to the studio.
'Ask me how I feel. Go on, ask me how I feel.'
'How do you feel, Terry?'
Terry Marsh interviewed in the ring after winning the vacant European light welterweight title from Alessandro Scapecchi at Monte Carlo in 1985.
'Honey, I forgot to duck!'
Former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey explaining his battered face and title loss to Gene Tunney to his wife Estelle in Philadelphia in 1926.
'I am too young. I should have known better. But I will beat him yet.'
The Michigan Chick after losing a 67-round contest in Montana in 1868.
'I have $100,000 and a farm in Kansas!'
Mantra muttered continuously by a shell-shocked Jess Willard after his third round stoppage loss to Jack Dempsey at Toledo in 1919.
'Was it a good fight?'
The first question James J. Braddock asked when he came round after being knocked out by Joe Louis in Chicago in 1937.
'I have no excuse to offer. I was beaten. I was in fine condition, but never boxed more miserably. After the fifth round I could do nothing with my right. I do not know what was wrong. It simply would not work. Wade is certainly a clever and hard boxer. He deserves credit and I give it to him.'
Kid Oglesby after losing his Montana lightweight championship to Jack Wade in Butte, Montana, 1901.
'From now on match me with one fighter at a time!'
Middleweight Harry Greb to his manager after he had been outsmarted by the fast Mike Gibbons, 'the St Paul Phantom', in 1919.
'Nobody ever lived as strong as this guy!'
Jack Britton after fighting Benny Leonard in 1918.
'Lead me out there; I want to shake his hand.'
A half-blinded Jack Dempsey to his corner men after losing his first fight to Gene Tunney in 1926.
'I have fought once too often.'
John L. Sullivan addresses crowd after losing to James J. Corbett.
An Actor's Life for Me! 1 – Canada Lee
Many fighters have enjoyed using their fighting fame to become actors. Sports writer Bob Edgren pointed this out in 1923, 'All fighters, just after winning the title, like to take a little rest and accumulate the soft currency for a little while. Some of them grow so fond of the footlights that they talk about being natural-born actors, and tell the world how sorry they are they ever took up anything so crude as fighting for a living when they had unsuspected talent for better things.'
Canada Lee was a leading welterweight who lost to ex-champion Jack Britton during a career that encompassed 77 fights in the 1920s and '30s. Forced to abandon the sport when he suffered a detached retina in one eye during a bout, he drifted into acting, becoming a member of Orson Welles' celebrated stage company and appearing on Broadway in the lead in Richard Wright's Native Son. Opportunities for black actors were limited in the 1930s, but Lee scored in Alfred Hitchcock's film Lifeboat. His most famous role was that of the former champion who befriended and trained John Garfield in Body and Soul. Lee's acting career came to an end when he was denounced as a Communist sympathiser in Senator McCarthy's notorious witch hunts of the 1950s. Lee died in 1952. His friend, fellow actor Ossie Davis said, 'Lee couldn't find a job anywhere and died of a broken heart.'
Over the years questions have been raised over the probity of some major fights. As Jake LaMotta, who admitted to losing a bout deliberately, sighed, 'You win some, you throw some!'
On 31 August 1900, the former world heavyweight champion James J. 'Gentleman Jim' Corbett was scheduled to meet a wily character known as Kid McCoy, whose real name was Norman Selby. For some time before the bout, rumours had been circulating that the result had been fixed in advance. All the same, 8,000 spectators turned up at Madison Square Garden to see what was scheduled as New York's last professional boxing match before the sport was to be banned in the city by politicians.
The contest, a 'no decision' one, proved to be very dull, reinforcing the rumours. To add fuel to the fire, the wives of both Corbett and McCoy, who were having marital problems with their respective spouses, agreed that the contest had been 'fixed'. Both fighters denied the charge, but one prominent New York newspaper published a banner headline announcing 'McCoy Fight Fixed'.
In 1948, a rated American heavyweight called Lee Oma was knocked out in the fourth round by the British heavyweight champion Bruce Woodcock. Oma, a noted playboy and drinker who had been paid $100,000 for his lack of effort, made few attempts to hit his opponent and succumbed to the first hard punch the British champion threw. As Oma lay in a crumpled heap on the canvas, the irate crowd chanted 'Lie down! Lie down!' to the tune of 'Bow Bells'. A headline in the Daily Mirror said simply 'Oma! Aroma! Coma!' Promoter Jack Solomons denied that there had been anything underhand about the bout but admitted that the evening had been 'a fiasco.'
In 1951, smart-boxing Billy Graham lost a controversial split decision to Kid Gavilán for the world welterweight title. There were rumours that mobster Frank Carbo had been involved in arranging the result. Before the fight he had approached Graham's manager and told him that Graham could have the title if Carbo was cut in for 20 per cent of his future earnings. Years later, one of the judges for the match summoned Billy Graham's manager to his hospital deathbed and confessed that he had been ordered to cast his vote for Gavilán, no matter how well Graham fought.
On the Run
Several boxing champions who showed great courage in the ring did not display the same amount of fortitude when it came to serving their countries during the war. At least two of them deserted.
Freddie Mills had been a promising young West Country boxer when he had been conscripted into the RAF. He was made a physical training instructor and was allowed to continue with his boxing career. In 1942, at the age of 22, he fought a fellow serviceman, Pilot Officer Len Harvey for the latter's British light heavyweight title and knocked his superior officer out.
It should have been a good time for Mills but he found that he could not cope with his RAF duties, his boxing career and his new-found fame. Only a few days after beating Harvey, the new champion deserted from his unit. He hitchhiked to London and spent an aimless week as a tourist, visiting St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London. Then he went back to his unit and gave himself up.
At first it looked as if Mills would face a court-martial. However, a decision was made at the highest levels in the Air Ministry that such bad publicity would not reflect well on the RAF. Instead, Mills was sent hastily to India, where he spent the rest of the war fighting exhibitions for troops.
After the war Mills resumed his fighting career. He won the world light heavyweight championship at his second attempt and retired with a record of only 17 defeats in 97 bouts. He appeared in films and on television and opened a nightclub. He died by his own hand in 1965.
In the USA, Rocky Graziano (Rocco Barbella) was a street hoodlum who had served terms in reformatories and prison before he was drafted into the US Army. On his first full day in the service, Graziano floored a corporal and an officer and deserted. He kept alive by boxing until the military police caught up with him. During this period he took part in seven contests, including one in front of a crowd of 2,000 soldiers. Graziano was court-martialled, dishonourably discharged and sent to a military prison for a year. He became a star of the inmates' boxing team. In 1943 he resumed his boxing career and soon made a name for himself. He took part in three thrilling contests with the world middleweight champion Tony Zale, winning one of them and thus briefly becoming the champion.
When he retired from the ring he had engaged in 83 contests, winning 67 of them, with 52 knockouts. He became a television personality and after-dinner speaker and lent his name to a best-selling ghosted autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me. Rocky Graziano died in 1990.
Excerpted from The Little Book of Boxing by Graeme Kent. Copyright © 2013 Graeme Kent. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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