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World at war: Tribute to boxing’s contribution

By Gav Duthie: 100 years ago to the day August 4th 1914 the world was at war. Initially dubbed ‘The Great War’ it lasted until November 11 1918 which is now referred to as remembrance day. The last WW1 veteran British born sailer Claude Choules died last year in Australia aged 110 but its important we never forget these people and also the role that sport played in the war including boxing. 

Sport during the War

If a war broke out today it would be highly unlikely that we would see top boxers out in the front line. This is not a criticism as the world was a very different place then. Team sports were greatly affected during wartime as people criticized paying to watch young healthy men who were earning a living to entertain rather than fight in battle. In the UK prosperous soccer team Heart of Midlothian’s entire squad enlisted at the same time, 7 never returned. International UK Rugby lost 26 men. In total more than 9 million people were killed in the wars 4 years. 

Boxing during the war

According to Boxrec 145 active fighters gave up the sport at one time or another to enlist. For the most part boxing was less effected than team sports as individual fighters were involved and there wasn’t the difficulty of running leagues etc. probably the most significant fight of the war era drew over 20,000 fans when Jack Johnson finally succumbed too the giant Jess Willard on April 5 1915 after 26 rounds and 7 years as heavyweight champion. Most boxers were able to continually have successful careers during this time but this did not stop arguably 2 of the best boxers of all time Benny Leonard and Gene Tunney joining the cause.  

Gene Tunney

Gene Tunney 65-1-1 (48) enlisted on May 2 1918 just as he was starting to make a name for himself in boxing. He joined the United States Marine Corps. Although Tunney seen very little action his gesture was a point of patriotic pride for fans and earned him the nickname ‘The fighting Marine’. 

Benny Leonard

Benny Leonard 90-6-1 (70) was more heavily involved. During the war time Leonard was actually in his boxing prime. He won the World Lightweight title from Freddie Walsh in March 1916. Leonard nicknamed ‘The Ghetto Wizard’ taught boxing and served as an instructor in bayonet and hand-to-hand fighting. In 1918 he boxed exhibitions to help in war bond drives. 

Not so lucky
 (courtesy of boxrec)

Percy Cove 32-8 (13) was a sad story and one of a few to lose their lives during the war. He was a Canadian boxing champion originally named Chamberlain born into an affluent family. They disapproved of his boxing and he joined the Canadian military in 1915. He was a languid awkward fighter and some joked he was too skinny to be hit by enemy bullets. In early 1916 he wrote to deny claims of his demise “I am still on the globe, but theres no telling how long it will be, however they don’t get us all and I might be one of the lucky ones”. In only October that same year Cove was found dead at Somme, France with no less than 46 bullets in his small frame. His courage allegedly allowed him to drag himself forward many yards before he finally passed. Biographies of all 145 soldiers can be found on boxrec.

One of the most famous sporting stories of WW1 is when on Christmas day 1914 Allied and German troops cease fired to play a game of football before the fighting resumed. Boxing and sport in general was often a welcome release from the struggles of life and war in this time. Sport can still have this effect on us today and although our lives shouldn’t be shaped by it they have very important roles. 

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