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Patrick and Michael slug it out IN &Out of the Ring! pt 1

By Steven G. Farrell: Boxing, baseball and horse racing were America’s three favorite sports long before football, basketball and hockey made the scene; and of these sports it can be argued that boxing was dominant over the other two. In fact well, well into the twentieth century, the big money went to the champions of the heavyweight division of boxing. In the 1880s John L. Sullivan, America’s first millionaire athlete, average earnings were well over a $100,000 per year during his prime while Mike “King” Kelly, his leading contemporary in baseball, made a salary of around $5,000 a season.

The big days of boxing were still intact forty years later during the Roaring Twenties. The Darling of the Jazz Age, Jack Dempsey, at least quadrupled Babe Ruth’s princely annual income of $80,000.00. Besides, the huge incomes athletes could earn in their respective sports, a boxer or any major athlete was also pivotal in opening up the gates for their individual ethnic groups or subcultures as well as serving as heroes to these ethnic groups and subcultures. John L. Sullivan and Mike Kelly were not only well paid athletes but they were both Irish-Americans who had won fame across the nation and who had forced the WASP population to pay attention to them. Fame and fortune of heroes like Sullivan and Kelly reflected well upon their fellow Irish-American and also gave these Irish Americans popular culture superstars that they could be proud of and look up to. Scholars calculate that the golden age of Irish-American dominants in sports ran from roughly 1880-1900 and the silver age ran from 1900-1920. The halcyon days of Irish rule lasted longer in boxing than it did in baseball.


African -American in sports had to wait for many decades longer than the Irish to achieve acceptance, and then dominant, in sports. Joe Louis wasn’t permitted to become the John L. Sullivan of the black race until the later years of the Great Depression and Jackie Robinson didn’t make his debut as a Brooklyn Dodger until a few years after the Second World. Jewish, Italian, Eastern European and white southerners all were enabled to make their entry and mark in the world of sports long before the African-American was allowed to suit-up with his white teammates or to climb into the ring with opponents.

In this paper, I shall be focusing upon the one on one relationship between the most notable of Irish-American and African American prize fighters who have ever jumped over the ropes to enter the ring to combat one another for supremacy. The situation hasn’t always been as bleak as some historians have painted it to be. However, there had been enough sorry episodes to warrant a closer look. I will strive not to interject my own conception of what is good or bad or right or wrong. Rather, I try to stick to what the boxers themselves said and how they behaved as well as study how the media of the time reacted to it all.

I have selected the 100 year time frame that stretched from 1882 to 1982. It begins with John l. Sullivan winning the heavyweight championship against Paddy Ryan and it concludes with Gerry Cooney’s thirteen round lose to Larry Holmes which marks the last occasion when an Irish-American was a serious challenger for the belt.

It is widely held by boxing scholars that the sport of professional boxing entered its modern day phase when the Boston Strong Boy flatten the Troy Giant in the fifth round with his bare knuckles. John L was the key figure in the transition in boxing from the London Rules (bare knuckles) to the Marquis of Queensberry Rules (gloved fists) while James J. Corbett was the first truly modern fighter. Sullivan proceeded to hold on to the belt for amazing ten years; mostly by ducking promising up and coming fighters of both races. However, black men such as George Godfrey and Peter Jackson never came close to being allowed to fight for the glory of the crown. Sullivan was the first athlete who figured out it was more profitable to turn to the footlights of the stage than to fight beneath a hot sun. It was also less physical taxing and required far less round work. It the Great Sullivan desired a quick payday he could just as easily go on a tour staging exhibitions and sparring with rank local amateurs. However, Sullivan found it necessary to put his crown on the line every few years to silence the baying of the sportswriters and the boxing world. However, there were not yet any formal boxing organizations to sanction or to promote fights. Richard Kyle Fox, owner of the Police Gazette, did more to galvanize the champ to defend his crown more than anything else.

There were always plenty of talented black boxers in the fight game but they were usually regulated to fighting against one another. However, the lower weight divisions seemed to be more accepting to black men than the heavyweights. George “Little Chocolate” Nixon, a Black Canadian, became the bantamweight champion of the world in 1890. Joe Gans was also another highly respected black man who eventually became lightweight champion in 1902. Oftentimes reporters referred to black fighters as “Ethiopians” and there was no hesitation in bestowing racist nicknames upon black fighters.

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