Boxing, traditionally a sport of the least advantaged, proved a requirement for working class youth, who often settled ethnic, religious, and racial rivalries with their fists. African-American slaves who fought for the pleasure of their masters were among the first professional prizefighters. Even after Emancipation black youths were often forced or coerced into battles royal or group fights, sometimes blindfolded, while a surrounding cordon of white onlookers offered money to the winner.
By the latter nineteenth century boxing gained a slight measure of respectability as the sport became more organized with weight class championships under the sponsorship of Richard Kyle Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette. More importantly, boxing offered a cloak of masculinity for men during this period who perceived an increasing feminization of American culture.
Working class youths saw the sport as an opportunity for social mobility as middle-class athletic clubs, newspapers, and even religious groups supported amateur teams and tournaments in the twentieth century. Successful fighters often progressed to the professional ranks where a series of ethnic immigrant groups enjoyed success. Irish, Jewish, and Italian champions won fame and symbolized a greater degree of assimilation in American culture.
Boxing was a controversial sport, and for a time was banned in many states. New York only legalized the sport in 1920. Three years later the Chicago Tribune sponsored a major boxing tournament, eventually known as the Golden Gloves, to challenge the New York team. Both cities became centers for the sport. By 1930 the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) joined the ranks of national boxing enterprises. The CYO team proved especially popular during the Depression, as it supplied its members with a full suit of clothes as well as medical and dental care. CYO fighters who opted for the professional ranks received guidance from program affiliated management teams. Others got jobs through the Catholic social and commercial network.
While the CYO and individual municipalities invoked age restrictions, usually age sixteen, professional boxing had (and still has) no age limitations. Wilfredo Benitez won a world championship at age seventeen. Teenage boys became heroes on local, civic, national, and international teams, often finding the esteem and recognition denied them in other spheres of life. The amateur bouts produced members of the Olympic teams and the professional ranks for the remainder of the twentieth century.
By the 1930s African-American boxers began to displace the white ethnics atop the ranks, joined by Hispanic fighters at mid-century. Girls, too, joined the amateur boxing ranks by the 1980s in training programs offered by park districts, police athletic associations, and private gyms. While most engaged in the activity in pursuit of personal fitness, a very visible minority joined the annual Golden Gloves tournaments for competition, with a select few attaining professional status in televised bouts. Though few have found material success in the pastime, boxing has assumed both historic and symbolic value in the physicality and toughness required and admired by working-class youth.
See also: Organized Recreation and Youth Groups; .
Gorn, Elliott J. 1986. The Manly Art: Bare Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sammons, Jeffrey T. 1990. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
GERALD R. GEMS