From Beyond the Grave: The Evil

From Beyond The Grave is a series focusing on writing and quotes surrounding various happenings in boxing history. In this edition, Patrick Connor shares quotes from history about the various evils associated with boxing.

Battling Siki, 1920s light heavyweight champion, shows off his pet lion in a 1949 comic book

In 1961, Sports Illustrated invited Catholic moral theologian Father Richard McCormick to write about boxing. In his article, titled, “Is Professional Boxing Immoral?”, McCormick concluded, albeit in a convoluted and unnecessarily wordy way, that boxing is indeed immoral. Not only were there better, more effective ways of making money, he said, but people could also learn self defense without harming others.

The idea of boxing as an ethically-compromised endeavor nevertheless accepted as legitimate because it makes money is a turn-off for most observers. Cognitive dissonance and the resolution thereof aren’t exactly encouraged in boxing or else its horrors would have forced stronger reforms by now.

Some have attempted to name boxing’s issues and shame the sport into improving. Their voices have weight even now.

Contracts

Some of boxing’s minor evils have become so timeworn they are accepted, as one accepts a cauliflower ear or scar tissue over the eyes. From the manager’s viewpoint, the optionless short-term contract between fighter and manager is one of these necessary evils.

Depending upon the state, boxer-manager contracts are in effect between three to five years — and when the contract runs out, so can the fighters.

In the recent boxing hearings before Senator Kefauver’s subcommittee, boxer Ike Williams was asked if “in 1946 did Connie McCarthy cease or stop being your manager?” Williams answered: “Well, he did not cease. I guess I left him. I saw to it he ceased or stopped.”

McCarthy “ceased” after the lean years. Williams (under his new manager, mobster Blinky Palermo) went on to earn a million dollars as lightweight champion of the world.

Pat Putnam, Miami Herald, 5/1961
Ike Williams, bottom left, signs to fight Bob Montgomery in Philadelphia as Frank “Blinky” Palermo, upper left, looks on (Courtesy: Philadelphia Inquirer/Newspapers.com)

Gates

Jack Dempsey, who twice made the trip from rags to riches blamed his five famed million dollar gates today for the evil days which have fallen on boxing. The former heavyweight champion earned more than $5,000,000 as the greatest puncher the ring has ever known. He blew most of it, but now has made a financial comeback through oil and real estate to where once again he is a millionaire.

But it is those long-gone millions which the Manassa mauler condemns as the reason for boxing’s current ailments, with its racket domination and “futile club fighters and fancy Dans.

“My big gates did more to commercialize boxing than anything else in pugilistic history,” Dempsey asserts in “Championship Fighting,” his new book on the “lost” art of self defense, edited by Jack Cuddy, noted boxing authority. “They transformed boxing into a big-time business. As a commercial enterprise, the fight game attracted people who knew little or nothing about self defense.

“They came as promoters, managers, trainers and even instructors,” he adds. They joined the gold rush in droves — professional men, clothing manufacturers, butchers, rookies, racket guys and pool hall hangers-on.”

Oscar Fraley, United Press, 11/1950
Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey sends French icon and challenger Georges Carpentier through the ropes at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, concluding boxing’s first ever million dollar gate in 1921

Reform and Regulation

Governor [Nathan] Miller said he thought the legislative leaders knew how he felt on the matter [of boxing bills].

“I have not concealed my views on the subject from the,” he said. “I have reached my conclusion very definitely. I think that boxing, as it is now commercialized, is a great evil. I think the only chance to check the commercial part of it which is bound to lead to evils would be to get a committee of men who would not want to serve for pay, but who might, for their interest in the sport, undertake to serve. If such a commission could not regulate it as I think it ought to be regulated, I would be in favor of prohibiting it altogether.”

“What did you have in mind in speaking of commercializing boxing?” Governor Miller was asked.

“It takes an element of the community; people that ought to be engaged in some kind of productive industry, but who see an easy way of making a living without work. If the sport is to be in the hands of that class of men, it is not a sport.”

New York Times, 4/1921
New York World cartoon lampooning the idea of widespread sports — and specifically boxing — reform and regulation in New York, April of 1922

Promoters and Managers

I’ve said this before, of course, but there are only two basic sports: either you fight or you run. I believe that [boxing] not a wicked or evil sport. The right of choice is paramount. I do not believe in compulsory boxing [in school or community] and I deplore the hangers-on and the truly evil promoters and managers. I, personally, have not seen a punch-drunk boxer in modern times. And I believe that the British Board of Boxing Control has ensured that every reasonable precaution be taken.

Peter Wilson, London Observer, 11/1969
Legendary British fight promoter Jack Solomons, known locally as “Mr. Boxing” (Credit: Richard Ziegler)

Money and Rules

Money, as usual, is the root of the evil [in boxing]. Referees, promoters and fight managers know full well that strict enforcement of the rules would ruin many bouts, cut short the entertainment and drive away the customers. The Marquis of Queensbury rules were framed for a sport. Boxing has come to be largely a commercial enterprise, a show. The customers must be satisfied, and some of the fans are in favor of encouraging biting and gouging, not condemning them. They would add to the excitement.

It follows, then, that only the most flagrant violations of the rules are recognized; that only fouls which send a boy writing to the floor in agony, sometimes assumed, brings about disqualification. The fault is not so much with the referees as with the system that puts the gate above the sport. All the hammering in the world, even to the use of sledges and machine hammers, will not correct it.

George Daley, Detroit Free Press, 12/1926
Future heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, sits atop a pile of cash of the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1964 (Credit: Dick Meek)

The Mob

Boxing promoter Jackie Leonard says the government is getting at the main source of evil in prize fighting by indicting Frankie Carbo, one of five men charged with trying to muscle in on the earnings of world welterweight champion Don Jordan.

“It’s a tough proposition to clean up the boxing game,” Leonard said. “For 20 or 25 years you could hardly put on a champ fight without ‘taking care’ of Carbo first.”

Miami News, 9/1959
Program for a telecast of “Sugar” Ray Robinson’s victory over Carmen Basilio, one of the many bouts promoted by the mafia-run International Boxing Club of New York

Frauds

With the enormous increase in the interest which the general public has manifested during the past season of professional boxing and evil has come which seems to have no particular remedy except that of hard experience. When the public has been gulled a score or more of times by alleged first class shows under the name of some fictitious or long dead athletic club, and have paid many dollars of their good money only to be duped by witnessing a few scraggly bouts, they may learn wisdom. The possible profits of professional fights has encouraged many individuals, without a cent of original capital, except the bare cost of hiring a hall and having a few tickets printed, to launch upon the managerial field and bid for the people’s dollars. If the time happens to be ripe a good bit of plunder is the result. If the spectators are few their admission money is captured by the coy treasurer who conveniently decamps, leaving the cash customers to stamp their feet and howl, and finally be sent away after seeing two or three pairs of corner loafers caricature the manly art of self defense.

“Where the evil lies in such affairs is at once made manifest,” said a Brooklyn patron of boxing a day or two ago. “They tend to throw disrepute upon a pastime which has for its followers some of the most intelligent citizens of every city. Particularly is this true of Brooklyn. They make the fights grab bag catch penny devices, which put a premium on dishonesty and fake fighting. Recent instances in which these affairs have been perpetrated have been many. More than a half dozen have taken the various sections of Brooklyn into camp within the past two months. Schemers from abroad have come to think that Brooklyn is an easy mark in the game of bunco pugilism. A few experiences such as have befallen these fakirs of late may tend to rid the city of nuisance, for the sensible part of the public is learning not to patronize them.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1/1893
Logo for Don King’s U.S. Championship Tournament in 1977, which ended unceremoniously amid allegations of fraud and corruption

Spanning hundreds of years, boxing infects almost every country on the planet, spreading its evil, they say. Precisely what that evil is, however, seems to be ever-changing. Boxing’s hobgoblins evolved alongside the sport itself.

Lurking beyond the idea that boxing needs fixing or reform, however, is the notion that boxing, bestial and vicious as it is, works precisely as it’s meant to. Pugilism thrives on the dismissal cognitive dissonance by certifying the world a violent place, begging for the civility of the boxing racket.

Is boxing evil? A new decade of monstrosities awaits.

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