- Historic Sites
The Business Of Boxing
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
Some people think that the history of boxing as a glamorous business, as promotion rather than as sport, begins with Muhammad Ali and Don King. Before Ali, they say, boxing was I just a bunch of palookas punching each other. Ali was boxing’s first showman, they say, the first glamour boy, the first bad guy whom the fans loved to hate; the first black athlete to be revered worldwide, the sport’s first true media creation. Don King, meanwhile, is sometimes thought of as the original larger-than-life promoter, the man who first showed us that a boxing match can be turned into one small part of a weeks-long media circus—one that can end by grossing, as did the Holyfield-Forman bout last spring, well over $70 million.
But the truth is that Ali and King were simply another case of history repeating itself. “The championship is like one of those frames you stick your head through to be photographed,” writes the novelist Wilfred Sheed. “The face is your own, but the clothes and posture belong to the management.” Unlike many other sports, such as football, basketball, and hockey, which have become businesses only within the past few decades, boxing has always been more of a business than a sport. The only real difference is that the business end of boxing gets more coverage now than it did a generation ago.
It has always been sport and business. Today it’s a multimillion-dollar industry. It got that way through a handful of dramatic—and dramatized—clashes between heavyweight titans. Here are the bouts that built the modern sport.
“The misty-eyed hero worship is gone from boxing now,” says Nigel Collins, the former editor of The Ring magazine. “All sports are treated as businesses today, and boxing in particular is less of a sport, more of a spectacle. I’m amused, when I go to a major fight, to see spectators lined up with their cameras, not to take pictures of the fighters but to shoot the celebrities coming into the arena.”
Sounds like what you’d see at a premiere instead of a fight? Well, if you’re a boxing fan, you’ve noticed that boxing people—the fighters, promoters, managers, and trainers—don’t remind you of sportsmen so much as they remind you of theater people. This may be partly because boxing is such a serious sport and such a personal sport. It’s impossible to treat it as a game; it has to be treated as drama. But boxing is most closely related to theater because it relies so heavily on promotion.
Baseball and football don’t need to be promoted heavily. The Super Bowl and the World Series happen every year, and they always attract plenty of fans. Major fights occur at irregular intervals, and, like plays, one never knows if they’re going to be hits or flops. It all depends on how they’re built up. With good business sense, a gambler’s instincts, and the right gimmick, a fight promoter can make a fortune. A miscalculation will ruin him.
Boxing wasn’t always a major sport in the United States. In Great Britain boxing has been popular since the early 1700s, but it took longer to catch on here because it has always been an urban sport, appealing almost entirely to city dwellers; and the United States simply didn’t have enough of them to support it until the late 1800s. Bareknuckle prizefighting began to catch on in California during the gold rush; it got a boost when an American, John C. Heenan, held the British heavyweight champ, Tom Sayers, to a draw near London in 1860. But the popularity of boxing was also hampered by the fact that it was illegal. This wasn’t because bareknuckle fights were so brutal (believe it or not, they almost never resulted in serious injury) but because the matches encouraged gambling and rowdy behavior on the part of the spectators. Prizefights had to be held in secret. Only a few hundred insiders and high rollers knew where and when a fight was going to take place. On the appointed day, the time and location would be revealed to them, and they would assemble there to watch the fight.
There was no admission fee. The business side of boxing depended entirely on betting. The fighters fought for a purse put up by their backers (hence the term prizefighting ); the backers, in turn, hoped to profit by betting on their man. The cops, ordinarily, would have been persuaded not to interfere until the bout was over, at which time the fighters and fans would rush out of the local jurisdiction before they could be nabbed.
When the Marquis of Queensberry rules (mandating gloves and forbidding wrestling) began to catch on in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the law became more lenient in some states. Glove fights were sometimes permitted as long as the fans behaved themselves and as long as the bouts were officially billed as exhibitions. That is, the official story was that the fighters were not trying to hurt each other but merely trying to entertain.the crowd with a not-too-violent display of their boxing skills. This kind of setup sounds preposterous today, but it was common practice. Cops often entered the ring and stopped a fight if it looked as though things were getting too rough.