"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."
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.
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. The
second print, a scene at the National Sporting Club in 1917, shows a lily-white
crowd in fancy dress.
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historical dialectic, they have been replaced by black and Latin audiences; the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.
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.
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:
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.