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In Defense of the Sweet Science
J. P. Heinz
August 16, 1971
Considering boxing's rich history, its artistic and wholesome nature, it is difficult to understand how the moral entrepreneurs regularly manage to stir up so much righteous indignation
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August 16, 1971

In Defense Of The Sweet Science

Considering boxing's rich history, its artistic and wholesome nature, it is difficult to understand how the moral entrepreneurs regularly manage to stir up so much righteous indignation

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"Of course, it happens now and again that a white man and a black man are matched, and there is an outcry against the 'brutal exhibition.' But that is a peculiar instance, and boxing has little to do with the trouble. The feeling of a section of the public runs very high; not in the excitement of sport, but in the fever of racial antagonism. It is infinitely preferable that white and black men should not be pitted against one another. Apart from this racial feeling, it is unsuitable. Negroes are not physically built like us."

Lynch reflected the feeling of his time but, even as he wrote, a black man—Jack Johnson—was heavyweight champion of the world. This was 35 years before Jackie Robinson was admitted to the major leagues. A great deal is still made of Arthur Ashe in tennis. There was always discrimination in boxing, but fights of the type Lynch found troublesome took place frequently.

Boxing has been integrated since at least the late 18th century, when a black American named Bill Richmond became a popular boxer (and subsequently a promoter and publican) in England. Richmond's prot�g� Tom Molineaux, another American black, fought two famous battles with the English champion Tom Cribb in 1810-11. Later, in Lynch's time, it became fashionable for champions to draw "the color line," especially to avoid formidable black challengers. John L. Sullivan used the principle for years against Peter Jackson, the great Australian black. Experts believe that Sullivan showed sound judgment. But Jackson did fight many whites, including both Corbett and Jeffries before they won their titles.

Boxing's audience was also affected by the latter-day popularity of racial segregation. Among the pugilistic prints hung in my home are two scenes of boxing crowds in London done almost a hundred years apart. The first, The Interior of the Fives Court, 1821, shows two white fighters sparring before a large crowd of spectators, among whom are at least a few blacks, probably boxers or former boxers. George IV is said to have had a copy of this print on a wall of his chambers.[12] The second print, a scene at the National Sporting Club in 1917, shows a lily-white crowd in fancy dress.

But all-white boxing crowds were a temporary phenomenon largely confined to the first half of the 20th century. Over the last couple of decades, in a fine example of the historical dialectic, they have been replaced by black and Latin audiences; the whites have lost most of their interest. When the supremacy of Joe Louis could be challenged by white hopes like Billy Conn or even Tony Galento, the whites could be enthusiastic. The last white American heavyweight champion, Rocky Marciano, had a great advantage over his black successors—even if he fought the best challengers there would be at least one white man in the ring to please white society. The next titleholder, Floyd Patterson, was forced to fight nonentities like Tom McNeeley in an attempt to keep the Irish interested. (The stratagem failed.) Heavyweight champions since Patterson, such as the current titleholder, Joe Frazier, have largely given up on the whites. They have adopted a policy of fighting the best-qualified man, which results in most contests being all black. Much the same thing has happened in the other weight classes, with blacks dominating the heavier divisions and Latins the lighter ones. Boxing promoters are not lacking in sociological insight, and their perception of this trend no doubt brought about the Marciano-Ali confection. So long as all of the ethnic groups serving their social and pugilistic apprenticeships were white, no matter of what exotic cast, the bourgeoisie could identify with the sport. Boxing now is of little interest in the same circles and for the same reason that drug addiction was of little interest so long as it was confined to the ghetto.

This indifference clears the political paths for the reformers who would declare boxing illegal. A colleague of mine has called these reformers "moral entrepreneurs": they want to sell their morality to as wide a market as possible, and the most efficient marketing device is a state-sanctioned monopoly. Since Anglo-Americans have great faith in the power of law to bring about moral uplift, such enterprise is often successful here. In our effort to perfect the human animal through legislation, we have declared illegal, at one time or another, liquor, marijuana, gambling, publications that are likely to be popular, rock festivals, any sort of sexual practice that might be more pleasant than procreative, and professional boxing.

Prizefighting was outlawed in most of the United States until the early 20th century. Then, through the efforts of such modern statesmen as the Hon. James J. Walker of New York, more enlightened legislation was enacted which permitted professional boxing under the supervision of state regulatory commissions. But the illegality of boxing during the 19th and early 20th centuries did not prevent the realization of the genius of Jackson, Sullivan, Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Jeffries and Johnson; it is characteristic of this sort of law that it be enforced whimsically. Thurman Arnold observed that laws like these are "unrepealed because we want to preserve our morals" and "unenforced because we want to continue our conduct."

Even the judges went out of their way to be lenient to the fighters. Mississippi vs. Sullivan is a case in point. John L. Sullivan had been convicted of the crime of prizefighting as a result of his heavyweight championship bout with Jake Kilrain. The indictment charged that Sullivan "on the 8th day of July, A.D. 1889, in the second judicial district of Marion County, Mississippi...did then and there enter a ring, commonly called a 'prize-ring,' and did then and there, in the said ring, beat, strike and bruise the said Jake Kilrain, against the peace and dignity of the state of Mississippi" (not to mention of Jake Kilrain). On appeal the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled:

"The offense can exist only where two persons engage in the unlawful act. The parties are severally guilty, but the guilt of each springs from the joint unlawful act. One man cannot commit the offense."

The judges noted that there was nothing in the indictment to indicate that Kilrain fought back and therefore held that whatever had taken place did not amount to a prizefight. Though I have seen the kind of fight Their Honors must have had in mind, they did not do Kilrain justice. It took Sullivan 75 rounds to knock him out. The fight lasted more than two hours.[13]

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