The Business Of Boxing

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The legendary champion John L. Sullivan was a leading advocate of the Queensberry rules. He believed that the old-fashioned London Prize Ring (bareknuckle) rules allowed too many opportunities for running and stalling and thus helped an inferior fighter to win by wearing out his opponent. “I want fighting, not footracing,” Sullivan said. Also, it was good business to switch to gloves. Bareknuckle fighting was illegal everywhere, and Sullivan often ended up paying a hefty fine after a bareknuckle fight. Glove fighting, however, existed in a sort of legal limbo: the authorities might permit a bout to take place now and then, on an ad hoc basis.

Some people believe that the 1892 match between “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and John L. Sullivan was important because it was the first heavyweight championship bout in which the Queensberry rules were used. This is not true. Sullivan won the heavyweight title in 1882, fighting with bare knuckles, but he defended his title both with and without gloves over the course of the next decade.

What made the Corbett-Sullivan bout so important was its impact on the business side of the sport. The Louisiana authorities had decided to take a chance on legalized boxing, and the result was the first heavily promoted boxing show to take place in the United States. Corbett-Sullivan was the first heavyweight championship bout, promoted as such, to be held legally. It was the first heavyweight championship bout for which an admission fee was charged. And because of Corbett’s knack for self-promotion, this bout set boxing on its way to becoming a major sport in America.

 

Billed as the “Carnival of Champions,” the three-day event was held at the Olympic Club in New Orleans. On Monday, September 5, 1892, George Dixon defeated Jack Skelly for the featherweight championship of the world; on Tuesday Jack McAuliffe knocked out Billy Myer, successfully defending his lightweight title; on Wednesday night Sullivan and Corbett had their historic showdown.

Sullivan, thirty-four years old and nearly 20 pounds over his best fighting weight, was long past his prime and had not faced a serious challenger in three years. Corbett was only twenty-six and in perfect shape. But while Corbett was known to be a clever boxer, he was never a hard hitter, and he weighed only 178 pounds to Sullivan’s 212. The oddsmakers made Sullivan a 5-1 favorite.

Had Sullivan won, the unsurprising result would not have been extensively reported. As it was, Corbett fought the fight of his career, combining his blinding speed with brilliant tactics to frustrate, exhaust, and finally knock out Sullivan—and the upset victory was front-page news. The conqueror of the mighty Sullivan was the talk of the nation, and he made the most of it. He traveled all over the country, giving exhibitions and appearing in a play specially written for him, called Gentleman Jack . Sullivan had done the same thing, but his boisterous, macho persona had limited his appeal. Corbett, who could be suave and charming, was able to get the middle and upper classes—and a lot of women—interested in boxing for the first time.

But Corbett and his manager, Bill Brady, had to do it all themselves. They booked the personal appearances; when Corbett defended his title, he and Brady had to reach an agreement with the challenger, find a suitable venue, organize the publicity, do just about everything but take tickets. There was money to be made in boxing, but it went mainly to the gamblers. Fighters made relatively little, and promoters even less.

The guy who single-handedly changed boxing from a sport to a business was a cowboy and gambler named George Lewis (“Tex”) Rickard. Rickard had made a good living as a faro dealer in the Yukon during the gold rush of the 189Os; in 1904 he began plying his trade in the tiny mining town of Goldfield, Nevada. Like any good businessman, he had a talent for making money by persuading other people to invest in his enterprises. When the Goldfield town fathers decided it was time to attract more tourists and settlers, Rickard had an idea.

“Why not stage a prizefight?” he asked. “You fellows put up the money, and I’ll sign the fighters and put up an arena.”

Within an hour Rickard had raised fifty thousand dollars to cover the fighters’ purses and the construction of an arena. Next, he contacted several of the best fighters in the country, offering them a guaranteed purse. He finally lined up Joe Gans, the lightweight champion of the world, and Oscar (“Battling”) Nelson, the number-one challenger, for a guarantee of ten thousand dollars for Gans, twenty-three thousand dollars for Nelson. (Although he was the champ, Gans was obliged to take the short end of the purse because he was black. Nelson styled himself the “white lightweight champion.”)

Reno in 1910 was bedlam. Visitors slept in hammocks, on pool tables, and on park benches, ate in shifts, and kept brothels and casinos hopping.

Now that legalized glove fights allowed promoters to charge admission, fighters were promised a percentage of the gate money in addition to stakes and side bets. But an absolute guarantee of a certain sum? That was a shocker. It looked to most people as though Rickard was playing Russian roulette with five bullets in his gun.