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Race and BoxingBy Tom Donelson
Here is a thought to ponder. In 1902 Joseph Gans would capture the world lightweight championship. The significance? Gans would be the first African-American to capture a World Championship. This at a time when African-Americans would not be allowed to compete against White Athletes in professional baseball and it would be another 45 years before Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier.
I will not pretend that Boxing was not afflicted with racism, it was. But Boxing was the one sport in which African-Americans could actually compete against white fighters and this was long before African-Americans would be allowed to compete in Professional baseball, football, or basketball. In these others sports, African-Americans would be forced to play in their own leagues separated from rest of the American sport scene. Boxing was the first refuge for black athletes to gain acceptance in professional sport. Even in the 1890's Peter Jackson would fight white fighters including Gentleman Jim Corbett, though Jackson never fought for the heavyweight championship.
Jack Johnson would the first African -American to hold the world heavyweight championship, but his reign was mired in controversy. His penchant for dating and marrying white women made him persona non gratis among white audience and white promoters of the times. Race riots resulted from his one-sided victory over Jim Jeffries in 1910 and after Johnson was dethroned, no African-American would fight for a heavyweight championship until Joe Louis would beat Jim Braddick in 1937.
However, this did not stop African-Americans from fighting white boxers and in the 1920's, there was a serious efforts to set up a match between Jack Dempsey and Harry Wills. The first Dempsey-Tunney fight was held in Philadelphia because New York sports commission would not approve the fight unless Dempsey fought Wills first. Boxing writers such as Nat Fleichser pressed for a Wills- Dempsey fight. There were several views of why this fight never came up. One reason given was that Tex Rickard, the leading boxing promoter of the era, worked behind the scene to see it did not happen. Some would say that it was outright racism on Rickard's part. Others felt that Rickard feared race riots just as those that followed the Johnson-Jeffries fight, which he promoted. Then others such as author Roger Kahn felt Rickard simply believed that a black heavyweight champion would be economic doom for boxing. Oh maybe all three reasons were equally instrumental in keeping Wills from the heavyweight championship.
Boxing historian Tracy Callis told me, "Some folks often mention white champs avoided the black contenders because they feared them. I do not think this is true. I think it was racial pride, first and foremost." Another reason was money. Mr. Callis continued that even black fighters like Jack Johnson, "He avoided blacks for the title just like his White counterparts. Johnson received more money to fight white men than blacks, a 'by product' of a white society with racial pride at the time."
An old Wills would eventually lose to an up and coming fighter, Jack Sharkey ending his chance for title consideration. Sharkey also challenged George Godfrey, another excellent African-American fighter and defeated him with a superior exhibition of boxing. According to boxing historians Tracy Callis, Chuck Hassan and Mike DeLisa, Godfrey was an excellent draw among both white and black fans in the Philadelphia area, proving that African-American fighters could draw fans and make money for promoters. Harry Wills and George Godfrey would be the transitional figures that made Joe Louis possible.
When Louis became champion, racial attitudes were slowly changing and his management team was careful with Louis' image. Louis was respectful toward his opponents and he was never allowed to seen with white women. Much of Louis' womanizing was covered up and the image presented to America was a polite gentleman who was good in the ring. No trash talking ever came from Louis mouth. This in contrast to Jack Johnson, who not only dated white women openly, but taunted his white opponents in the ring. The real change in America attitude toward Joe Louis occurred in the second Louis-Schmeling fight.
This fight was promoted as political match between Nazis Germany and United States. Joe Louis became representative of America's ideals, an irony considered the treatment of African-Americans in America at the time. But then Joe Louis once responded, "There is nothing in Nazis Germany" that would be of help to African- American when asked how he could fight for his country. For two minutes, Americans were colorblind as Joe Louis shellacked the hapless Max Schmeling. Many Americans agreed with the sport writer, Jimmy Cannon, when he wrote, "Louis is a credit to his race. The Human race."
Louis used his championship as a tool to promote integration in the armed forces during World War II. While the armed forces would not be integrated until after World War II, Joe Louis insisted that any exhibitions he fought in overseas had to be integrated. Louis was the quiet fighter for civil rights and he personally interceded on the behalf of Jackie Robinson, who faced court-martial over a racial incident. Without Joe Louis fighting for Robinson during the war, there would be no Jackie Robinson story.
After the war, Joe Louis reign as champion ended with the great man's retirement and two African-American fighting for the title as Ezzard Charles defeated Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott would captured the title from within two years and everyone accepted that these fighters were the two best when they fought four times for the Heavyweight championship between 1949 and 1951.
After the Rocky Marciano era ended, two African-Americans again fought for the title. Floyd Patterson became the youngest fighter to win the championship as he defeated the "Old Mongoose" Archie Moore. Interestingly enough, Patterson ducked the better African-American fighters of his era as he fought non-descript white contenders. Patterson was a good fighter and he could have beaten many of these tough opponents but the one opponent that his management team feared was Liston.
Sonny Liston was frozen out of the title picture despite being recognized as the best heavyweight of his era and both Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley would have to wait until the Ali era to get their championship. In one interview, Liston would hold Patterson failure to allow more African-American to fight for his crown against him. Public pressure eventually forced this fight to happen and Liston won with a first round TKO. He would win in a rematch. In fairness to Floyd Patterson, other black champions in the past avoided black fighters in favor of white fighters. Tracy Callis is convinced that money played a role in picking opponents since white fans would pay more money to see a white fighter challenge for the title.
The Ali era was split into two eras. The first Ali era was hindered by debate over his joining the Black Muslims and his opposition to the Vietnam War. With the Civil Rights movement, riots in the street and Vietnam War as the background, Ali was unpopular with many boxing fans and he found himself fighting many of his title fights overseas. After his comeback from boxing exile , his position on Vietnam had substantial support among many in the population and Ali became the new symbol of protest for many Americans. Ali-Frazier I was one of the most widely watched match in boxing history as the Madison Garden was sold out and the Pay for View television set new records. This was much due to Ali's personality and politics as the fighting skills of both men.
As the 70's progressed, a softer Ali appeared. No longer the master taunter, he seemed tame and America attitude changed as well. In the 1996 Olympics, all of America applauded as he lighted the Olympic torch. Ali went from being a controversial champ with plenty of enemies to a man who was universally loved. This alone demonstrated the change in race relations.
Today in boxing, African-Americans and Hispanic fighters dominate the sports and one of the biggest promoters is Don King. Love him or hate him, there is no equivalence in any other sports to Don King. The closet is Robert Johnson, who just been rewarded a franchise in the NBA but Don King is not just an owner but one of the master of the sport.
Boxing is guilty of many sins but the one area where Boxing lead the way was in race relations. Long before Jackie Robinson was allowed between the lines of a baseball diamond, Joe Louis dominated boxing and before him, there others like Johnson and Gans. Boxing was the first sport in which black fighters could earn a living fighting white athletes. At least in race relations, boxing was ahead of the other professional sports.
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