The pre-history of boxing — Homer’s Patroclus to Jack Johnson’s defiance

Though boxing is today a sport commonly associated with the working class and poverty, it wasn’t always. History reveals that its original practitioners stemmed predominately from the upper classes, the elites in societies in which combat and war were considered noble pursuits (hence ‘noble art’), the highest purpose to which man could aspire.

In Homer’s epic poetic account of the Trojan War, the Iliad, Mycenaean warriors honoured their fallen comrades with a series of athletic competitions that included an early form of boxing, and specifically boxing was among the games that were held in tribute to Achilles’ slain friend Patroclus. In fact it was in honour of Patroclus that boxing was introduced into the Ancient Greek Olympic Games in 688 BC. Fighters trained on heavy bags and wore leather straps over their hands to protect them.

In ancient Rome boxing was a popular mass spectator sport. And it wasn’t only gladiators and slaves who fought for the entertainment of the crowd in the Arena in boxing bouts, but also free men and even aristocrats. It was, however, also in Rome that an early attempt to ban the sport was made. Christian Emperor Theodoric the Great in 500 AD proscribed boxing on the grounds that it disfigured the face, created it was believed in God’s image.

The rules of boxing and first heavyweight title fight

But boxing survived, doing so over the centuries up to its modern incarnation, when it was codified with the rules that govern it to this day. The man credited with drawing up those rules in 1867 is John Douglas, better known as the Ninth Marquess of Queensberry. The modern rules of boxing were in truth written by a Welshman, John Graham Chambers, to which Douglas later lent his name. However the fact that a member of the British aristocracy was willing to do so — endorse this most primitive of sports — should not beguile anyone into believing that boxing was any kind of social leveller during this period. On the contrary, Queensberry and his fellow aristocrats were interested in the sport for the opportunity it provided to make large sums of money gambling.

In England the sport had already experienced growing popularity, supported by the rich as a blood sport to rank with any other. King George I, for example, arranged for a ring to be erected in Hyde Park to host a bareknuckle context involving the nation’s first champion of note, John ‘Jack’ Broughton. Broughton enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Cumberland at a time when it was customary for members of the aristocracy and nobility to give patronage to specific fighters, financing their training and placing large bets when they fought.

In fact it was Broughton, England’s most famous and popular fighter in an era when its practitioners fought bareknuckle, who drew up the first ever set of codified rules of prizefighting. He did so in 1743, over a century before the Queensberry rules were established.

Broughton’s rules stipulated how a round should start and how it should end. They designated the roles of seconds and umpires; and also how the prize money should be divided. Most significantly, they stipulated that a fight was over when one man couldn’t be brought back to the ‘scratch line’ in the centre of the ring. Three years later, at the instigation of the men who followed and sustained the sport via gambling, boxers were divided into weight categories for the first time — light, middle, and heavyweight — though only one boxer could be the overall champion (for obvious reasons, this was usually the heavyweight).

Broughton went on to establish himself as a promoter outside the ring, promoting bareknuckle affairs that included what were referred to as Battles Royal, involving the champion taking on multiple challengers at the same time.

The first world title fight — as acknowledged by most boxing historians — took place at Capthall Common in Sussex on 18 December 1810. It brought Tom Molineux, a former slave from Virginia in the United States who began boxing when he arrived in New York as a freeman at the age of twenty, face to face with the English champion Tom Cribb. The stakes involved have been preserved for posterity in the writing of the most popular English sportswriter of the period, Pierce Egan, who wrote, “The pugilistic honour of the country was at stake…the national laurels to be borne away by a foreigner — the mere idea to an English breast was afflicting, and the reality could not be endured — that is should seem, the spectators were ready to exclaim…”

The fight lasted thirty-five rounds. In the 19th round the crowd rushed into the ring and attacked Molineux, the former slave, who’d made the mistake of daring to outbox his opponent. According to accounts the assault resulted in a broken finger for the American. Regardless, in the open and in the rain the fight continued and Molineux continued to dominate, until by the start of the 28th round (yes you read that right, the 28th round) Cribb appeared out for the count. However the judicious employment of time wasting by the Englishman’s cornermen, who brought proceedings to a halt on the back of allegations of foul play by the American, allowed Cribb to recover. The Englishmen subsequently emerged victorious after Molineux hit his head on one of the corner posts, forcing him to concede seven rounds later.

Racism was of course key in the ill treatment meted out to Molineux. The former slave alluded to it in the open letter he published after his defeat challenging Cribb to a rematch…“expressing the confident hope that the circumstances of my being a different colour to that of a people amongst whom I have sought protection will not in any way operate to my prejudice.” The rematch took place the following year before a crowd of 15–20,000 people. Tom Cribb again emerged victorious; this time over eleven rounds.

America in the era of Jack Johnson

A century later and another champion whose life and career was defined by racism was Jack Johnson. Born on March 31 1878 in Galveston, Texas, Johnson was to have a profound impact not only on the sport of boxing but American society as a whole. Being a black man in America in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century was to be guaranteed a life of menial work and second, even third class citizenship. In the South, where the lynching of blacks was a regular occurrence for even the most minor of infractions of a racial code as rigid as it was cruel, it could also mean a death sentence.

Jack Johnson’s parents were former slaves — his father Henry of direct African descent — who both worked long hours to support their nine children. Jack was their third born and the bulk of what little education he received came at home. School he attended only sporadically until starting work on the docks as a labourer in his early teens. It was here, on the docks — the kind of environment where manhood and fighting are one and the same — that Johnson was first introduced to prizefighting. Realising he had talent for it, he began taking on fellow workers and local toughs in specially organised match ups for the money offered by spectators in return for a good fight.

The exact number of fights Johnson had in his career remains a matter of conjecture. Boxing was still largely an underground sport and illegal in many parts of the country. The least number of fights cited is seventy-seven, with other sources stating he fought over 100 times. Considering that boxing bouts in the early part of the twentieth century could go on for thirty rounds and more, there is no disputing the immense physical ordeal he endured in a career that ended at age 60 in 1938. By this point, having lost seven of his last nine bouts, Johnson was inevitably a shadow of his former self.

Jack Johnson’s significance in the social and cultural history of the US is rooted in his unflinching defiance of the racial hierarchy that underpinned the nation’s dominant cultural values. Under those values blacks were expected to know their place. In Jack Johnson this racial hierarchy bumped up against a proud and defiant black man who refused to accept his prescribed station. He openly cavorted with white women, dressed like a dandy, and was the epitome of flamboyance outside the ring. In many respects Johnson foreshadowed the arrival on the scene decades later of another brash young black heavyweight, Muhammad Ali, who was also destined to have a considerable social and cultural impact and who cited Jack Johnson as an early inspiration.

After spending years being denied the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title for no other reason than the colour of his skin, Johnson’s chance finally came against the champion Tommy Burns in 1908. Burns, from Canada, took the title after it was vacated by James Jeffries when he retired undefeated in 1905 and who while champion had continually spurned Johnson’s attempts to challenge him in the ring. Getting Burns to face him was no easy task either. Johnson in fact spent two years chasing the Canadian, taunting him in the press and so forth, before the champion finally relented and agreed to face him. The fight took place in Sydney, Australia in front of a hostile crowd of 20,000 spectators.

Even Johnson was unprepared for the wave of racial hatred that was unleashed back home in America in response to his ‘crime’ of winning the title in a one-sided fight. The heavyweight title was deemed the exclusive property of the white Anglo-Saxon race and thus Johnson attracted the venomous hostilityof every sector of US society apart from his own. Famed novelist, Jack London, put out the call for a white champion to wrest the title back from the supposedly black impostor now holding it. Thus was the era of the ‘great white tope’ spawned, a term that was coined by the novelist to his eternal shame.

Johnson was forced to fight a series of white contenders as a racist US boxing establishment set out to find someone to prove the physical and fighting superiority of the white race. Of the series of fights that followed the champion’s encounter with Stanley Ketchel in 1909 has gone down in history. The fight lasted twelve hard rounds, until Ketchel connected with a right to the head that succeeded in dropping Johnson to the canvas. As he got back to his feet, Ketchel moved in to finish him off. But before he could unleash another punch he was met with a right hand to the jaw that knocked him spark out. According to legend, the punch was so hard some of Ketchel’s teeth ended up embedded in Johnson’s glove.

In 1910 one of the biggest heavyweight fight in the history of the sport took place in Reno, Nevada. Billed as ‘the fight of the century’, it was held in an outdoor arena that was built specially for the event. It brought undefeated champion, James Jeffries, out of a six year retirement to take on the challenge of defeating Johnson and thereby redeem the title on behalf of white America. Such were the times, Jeffries was completely unabashed about the fact too, announcing in the run-up that he felt “obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.”

Johnson proceeded to disappoint both Jeffries and the white establishment when he knocked the former champion down twice on the way to eventual victory in the fifteenth, when the referee stopped it. The aftermath saw race riots erupt across the country, in the course of which 23 people were killed. In black communities there were also celebrations. Indeed Jo hnson’s victory was so significant it was commemorated in prayer meetings, poetry, and forever preserved for posterity in black popular culture.

No matter, dogged by an establishment that was determined to put him in his place, Johnson’s personal life saw him tried and convicted for violation of the Mann Act, prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. Perhaps as a consequence of his being so maligned and rejected by mainstream society, the first black heavyweight champion was a man who sought solace in the company of prostitutes, another maligned sector of society. Regardless, the champion was fined and sentenced to prison by an all-white jury. However, defiance running through his veins, instead of meekly accepting his sentence, Johnson skipped bail and fled to Canada; and from there across the Atlantic to France.

For the next seven years he remained outside the US, moving between Europe and South America. He continued to defend his title, though only sporadically, until finally losing it to Jess Willard in Havana in 1915. Incredibly, the fight went 26 rounds before Willard KO’d the champion. Returning to the US in 1920, Johnson was arrested and sent to prison to serve out his sentence. It was only in May 2018, after a long campaign, that he was finally awarded a posthumous pardon — and this by of all presidents, Donald Trump.

Jack Johnson was married three times, on each occasion to a white woman. At his funeral in 1948, a reporter asked Irene Pineau, his third and last wife, what she’d loved about him most. “I loved him because of his courage,” she replied. “He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.”


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