Boxing’s Roots and One Man’s Extraordinary Rise to the Top

The traditional and true test of manliness: boxing. What started out as an event similar to wrestling and MMA, the Victorian Middle Class changed the sport into what it is today because of the introduction of the Queensbury rules, the mindset of muscular Christianity, and they put an influx of money into the sport to grow it worldwide. Then Jack Johnson came along and rose up through the ranks of boxing and changed the sport and American society forever.

Boxing before the Queensbury Rules was bare knuckle and very brutal
Boxing before the Queensbury Rules was bare knuckle and very brutal

One of the ways that the Victorian Middle Class shaped boxing in the 19th century was the rules they set with the Marquess of Queensbury rules. There were twelve rules ranging from stating that the fight would be done standing up, no hugging or wrestling, and that there would be gloves used (“Marquess of Queensbury rules”, 2014). Before these twelve rules, boxing was more similar to what MMA is today. There were no gloves and there was a lot more wrestling and fighting done on the ground. With no gloves, fighters were able to cut and gouge and the better fighters were the ones who could fight dirty and ruthlessly. With the introduction of the Queensbury rules, boxing started to form into the modern game we have today. The size of the ring was set at 24 feet, or as close as possible to those dimensions (“Marquess of Queensbury rules”, 2014) which became the standard size, players were required to wear gloves which made the game more civil and calculated and the fighters had to have a strategy, and there were several rules put in place to stop the foul play. If a fighter was struck while on the ground, they would be given the victory. Also, fighters could not have boots or shoes and seconds or back up fighters would not be allowed in the ring. The addition of the rules changed boxing from an uncivil game of dirty and foul play to a respected game with rules and regulations.

Secondly, there was the mindset of muscular Christianity and the idea that sports should be used to better a person physically and mentally. The Victorian Middle Class was very big on these ideals as well as the idea that the more and more proficient one became athletically then the more manly that person was. Manliness was such an important undercurrent to 19th century society that fire departments, police stations, and even churches were creating athletic clubs for their members to go to and work out (“Boxing: A Manly History of the Sweet Science of Bruising”, 2009). At every single one of these athletic clubs, there were several sports being played but the most common and prevalent sport was boxing. Almost every member of society was a part of some athletic club whether it was connected through church, work, or family ties. With so many people participating in these athletic clubs, boxing was able to spread like wild fire throughout the country and world as it became more professional. These early clubs practiced the original form of boxing that was more similar to wrestling but once the Queensbury rules were introduced, these clubs started spitting out competitors to fight other clubs and soon there were fights going on with competitors from the east versus the west. These competitors were looked up to as the best athletes of the day and John L. Sullivan was considered the best of the best (“Boxing: A Manly History of the Sweet Science of Bruising”, 2009) so when he made the switch to gloves, the rest of the country followed. From the early athletic clubs to John L. Sullivan changing the game, the final change to boxing given by the Victorian Middle Class was their influx of money to help grow the sport worldwide.

High ranking officials of the Victorian Middle Class helped pay for the growth of the sport. Even though the sport was illegal, many important members of society helped bring big boxing matches to their respective cities so that they could showcase the big fights. In the documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the mayor of Reno brings the big fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries to Reno in 1910 to put together the “Fight of the Century”.

Jack Johnson's legendary knock out of Jim Jeffries
Jack Johnson’s legendary knock out of Jim Jeffries

By bringing the fight to Reno, worldwide news poured into the city as well as fans from across the country to see the biggest fight of the century. Also, by keeping the fight clean, full of rules, and no cheating or bribery fans were given a true straight up fight that helped the sport grow immensely in the eyes of the elites of the country. What once was a sport for the common low life of the country who were known for cheating, stealing, and altogether dirtiness was now starting to grow into a nationwide, fully fledged sport. Newspapers started printing recaps and previews of big matches as more and more businesses put money into the sport of boxing and it continued to expand. Then there was the big fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia that turned Johnson and boxing altogether into an international affair (“Jack Johnson wins heavyweight boxing title”, 2014). Newspapers worldwide would have articles about the latest Heavyweight bout and readers worldwide were able to keep up with the sport.

The rise of Jack Johnson through the ranks of boxing delivered huge racial changes to society. Jack Johnson was never given a fair chance like other white boxers due to his skin color. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, white supremacy ideas were at a high and no matter how good Johnson got, white boxers did not want to fight him because he was black and they said that he had a “yellow” streak in him. Jim Jeffries was the heavyweight champion during Johnson’s rise and Jeffries eventually conceded his crown to Tommy Burns. With the pressure mounting on Burns to fight Johnson, Burns finally agreed to fight on December 26, 1908 (“Jack Johnson”, 2014). Johnson played with Burns the whole fight and when police finally stepped in, Johnson was victorious. Having a the first black heavyweight champion started to stir up the racial line in America and around the world.

Jack Johnson openly paraded around with white women which mocked white supremacy ideas
Jack Johnson openly paraded around with white women which mocked white supremacy ideas

All members of society started to get a little ruffled up as whites still didn’t see Johnson as the true heavyweight for their own reasons and blacks were upset that white fans didn’t recognize Johnson as the champion. Johnson finally got his shot at his long time nemesis Jim Jeffries who came out of retirement in 1910 in Reno for the “Fight of the Century”. Johnson once again dispatched his opponent and was now the undisputed worldwide champion. After this racial clash in the ring there were riots in major cities across the country. White mobs were going up against black mobs as blacks for once had something to claim and whites were not happy with it. There was a large amount of turmoil caused by Johnson’s meteoric rise up in boxing and he paved the way for black athletes across the whole board in sports and society.

Every sport that is played today started out differently and underwent several drastic changes. Boxing is no exception to that and the Victorian Middle Class introduced several things, ideals, and mindsets to shape boxing into what it is today. Because of those changes to boxing, people like Jack Johnson were able to make something of their lives, move up the ladder of the sport and society, and shake the very foundation of our nation where these after-effects can still be seen and observed today.




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