Below is an article I wrote several years ago for a Canadian Antiques Publication. A "short history, but a long article" I should say. Please bear in mind it was written for a non-boxing savvy audience, so I tried to keep many of the ideas and thoughts within it as simple as possible. Also please excuse any typos, mistakes, changes in collecting trends, out of date facts, or wild thrusts of hyperbole I'm often prone to make. I'll re-edit and add to the article as time permits. Thanks for reading. - Dave
A Short History of Boxing Memorabilia Throughout the Ages
By David Bergin
The sport of Boxing has gone through several different stages, eras and rule changes throughout the years; however for the purposes of this article, boxing and the memorabilia it entails will be broken up into the two most distinct eras, the Bare-knuckle era and the Gloved era. The Bare-knuckle era is generally accepted to have occurred from the time of James Figg until the reign of John L. Sullivan ended over 170 years later. The gloved era un-officially begins in 1892 when James J. Corbett defeats John L. Sullivan in the first gloved World Heavyweight Championship fight held in New Orleans, Louisiana.
For most of the Bare-knuckle era the majority of collectibles related to the sport originated from the British Isles where the sport was most widely accepted. Although for the most part illegal in both America and Great Britain, the pugilists of England and its neighbors were treated as heroes in their land. Newspapers granted them extensive coverage on their sports and front pages, fighters opened gyms and “sparring rooms” attended by the upper crust and nobility and most of the prominent matches were not only allowed to proceed by the local legal authorities, who turned a blind eye, but attended by them as well.
It was a different story in America where the sport of Pugilism was mostly looked down upon until the middle of the 19th Century when it finally began to gain mainstream popularity. It was a sordid affair in the New World, usually taking place in back alleys and controlled by the various immigrant gangs who ran the ghettos and seedier parts of most of the major cities and towns of America. Some of this can be seen dramatized in the films “Gangs of New York” and “Far From Home”. Whereas in the Isles the sport was seen mainly as a gentleman’s endeavor and a test of the scientific art of Self-Defense, in America you were just as likely to see a fight end when knives and pistols were drawn in the ring, or when one fighter was beaten senseless, not by his opponent but by the backers of his opponent. This would tend to happen when heavy betting was taking place and the backers didn’t like the way the fight was going in relation to their betting interests.
The slave issue was another thorn in the side of the American boxing scene. Most of us are familiar with the blaxploitation film “Mandingo”, starring 1970’s Heavyweight contender Ken Norton in the title role. Although the exploitive nature of that film cannot be denied, the brutal scenes of slave-owners pitting their most athletic slaves in bloody matches against other slaves for the purposes of quenching their gambling and entertainment interests was very much a reality of the day.
Newspapers in America railed against the sport, politicians campaigned against it and the liberal elite despised it while gangsters, con-men and slave-owners reveled in it. It was however, still known as a refuge for the common man. Unlike the upper crust who kept the sport alive in Britain, it was the dockworker, butcher and factory hand who kept the sport simmering on the backburner in America until it was ready for mass consumption.
James Figg and the 18th Century
c. 1720 London England – Expert swordsman James Figg adds the art of Bare-knuckle Prizefighting to his many sporting talents and becomes the first officially recognized Heavyweight Champion approximately 40 years after the sport of fisticuffs first came to prominence in the British Isles. Because of his success and popularity among the elite of London he opened a gym (or “Fighting Academy”) in which he taught the “noble science of defense”. This included swordsmanship, the use of the cudgel and of course prizefighting.
For the purpose of advertising his academy Figg had special business cards designed by prominent artist and friend William Hogarth. He would hand these out to passer-bys on the street and at various fairs of the day, of which he was a popular attraction. Thus was born one of the very first pieces of boxing memorabilia from the modern era. Though rare, some of these business or advertising cards are still in existence today and are known to surface from time to time.
Jack Broughton succeeded James Figg as the prominent practitioner of the Pugilistic Arts of the 1730’s and put in play many rules (titled “Broughton’s Rules”), which would serve as the cornerstone of the sport for the next 100 years. Boxing would tinker along for the next 55 years or so, falling in and out of favor with the public at various times until 4 stars and 2 rivalries rose to prominence in the mid to late 1780’s and spawned a surge in the number of pieces of memorabilia offered to the public.
Tom Johnson became a highly regarded champion who refused to participate in fixed fights, endearing himself to a public who was growing tired of this increasingly commonplace practice. In 1789, the smallish Johnson fought the much larger Isaac Perrins for 62 grueling rounds in Banbury, England. Johnson would come out on top, spawning David vs. Goliath comparisons in the press and inspiring several artists’ prints and a pair of commemorative bronze medals which were offered to the public as souvenirs.
A similar surge in popularity would occur during a heated 3 fight rivalry between Jewish sensation Daniel Mendoza and Richard Humphries that took place from 1788-90. Mendoza would take 2 out of 3 fights and despite not officially being declared Champion until 4 years later would become the darling of the sporting world with his popular scientific exhibitions and engaging personality. He became a popular subject for artists and his likeness was distributed to the public all throughout the British Isles.
The Success of Slaves
Two former slaves from America named Bill Richmond and Thomas Molineaux landed on the shores of England at the beginning of the 19th Century and became two of the most well known athletes of their time. Despite similar backgrounds these two couldn’t have been more different from each other. Richmond, who was the earlier of the arrivals to Britain, was an eloquent, self-educated man who engrained himself within the very fabric of the sport. Not only was he one of the most accomplished fighters of his era despite his smallish size; he was also a highly respected trainer, manager and tavern owner, a business man in every sense of the word. Molineaux on the other hand, possibly due to a more impoverished early life or just a clash of natures was known simply as a tough fighter who lived hard, drank hard and made little attempt to fit in with the cultured elite, even if he was viewed upon as a popular curiosity by them. Richmond actually became Molineaux’s mentor, trainer and manager when the latter first came to England; however the two soon developed a cool relationship as Richmond became more and more frustrated by Molineaux’s behavior and lack of proper training habits. They soon split ways and even developed a bit of a rivalry over the ensuing years.
Despite all this, Thomas Molineaux went on to participate in a famous two fight series with the great English Champion Thomas Cribb, which spawned more memorabilia spin-offs then any other fights of the first half of the 19th Century. After losing the first fight under suspicious circumstances in 33 rounds on December 18, 1810, Molineaux, due to his hard living was no match for Cribb in the rematch 1 year later. The Brits celebrated this rivalry with artwork, prints, illustrations, poetry and pottery commemorating the dramatic events which transpired between their homegrown pugilistic hero and the former American slave. Seven years later the hard charging and colorful Molineaux was dead at the age of 34, consumption being the popular reason of the day but most likely tuberculosis being the cause.
Boxing Becomes International
With this we skip forward 50 years to the most celebrated International Sporting event of the 19th Century. The official melding of the U.S. and British fight scene would occur when popular American John C. Heenan would travel to England to fight their champion Tom Sayers. Despite the U.S. being on the verge of a Civil War, all the prominent newspapers and publications of the day devoted most of their resources in covering what they called the first truly “World” Heavyweight Championship Fight. Sayers, the much smaller man was still heavily favored due to many people’s perceptions that Heenan was not much more then a clumsy big man. For over 2 hours a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fight went down with many shifts of momentum. Sayers broke his right arm and Heenan broke his left hand throughout the course of the fight. They both fought on courageously and eventually the fight was called a draw at the end of the 42nd round. Both men gave stellar accounts of themselves and the sport of boxing became as popular as it had ever been.
Large format color prints were produced on both sides of the Atlantic to sell to the general public. Various artists got in on the act as Newspapers and Sporting Publications everywhere produced graphically illustrated accounts of all events leading up to and including the famous battle. Attractive illustrated centerfolds produced by many of the publications, picturing the two fighters in pitched battle became a staple of collectors and fans who couldn’t afford the more elaborate color lithographed prints sold in upscale shops.
Unfortunately Sayers and Heenan never fully capitalized on their newfound popularity. Sayers retired after the fight and died 6 years later. Heenan toured playhouses and gave exhibitions but never won another significant fight in his career. Of course the sport of boxing in America was soon deemed inconsequential as the horrors of the Civil War soon took priority over everything else. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to everybody, a young boy was growing up in the Boston area who would soon become a savior to the popularity of the sport.
John L. Sullivan and the End of an Era
Every article and book ever written about John L. Sullivan includes the famous quote, “I can lick any son ‘uv a bitch in the house!”, so who am I to buck the trend? It encompasses all that attracted fans to the most charismatic sports figure of the 19th Century. Cocky, colorful, tough and dominant in his profession, he defeated Paddy Ryan for the American Bare-knuckle title in 1882 and cemented his status as an International icon by defeating British favorite Charlie Mitchell a year later. He re-matched Mitchell in France in 1888 and in 1889 defeated the tough Jake Kilrain in an epic 75 round battle in Richburg, Mississippi. This was to be the last Heavyweight title fight of the bare-knuckle era and it catapulted Sullivan to icon status as he became perhaps the first true superstar of the modern sports era.
Cabinet photos depicting Sullivan were mass-produced for the public, souvenir pins are created, boxing cards are produced by tobacco companies, he’s pictured on cigar boxes and John L. embarks on a country wide vaudeville tour starring as the hero in a play titled “Honest Hearts and Willing Hands”. He also sparred and performed in a series of boxing exhibitions while frequenting as many taverns and restaurants as possible during his spare time.
Sullivan soon stopped seriously training and grew apathetic as a young lion was quickly rising through the ranks of the boxing world. “Gentleman” Jim Corbett or “The Boxing Banker” as he is known was the antithesis of Sullivan. While possessing the same confidence necessary in elite athletes, he was cultured where Sullivan was crass, eloquent where Sullivan was gruff and debonair where Sullivan was uncouth. Even in the ring they were polar opposites. Sullivan relied on his strength and inside fighting ability. He didn’t mind taking a punch to deliver a punch because of his confidence in overwhelming his opponent either way. Corbett was a new breed and a blueprint for the future of pugilism. He feinted punches, jabbed from the outside and brought the scientific aspect of boxing under the new Marquis of Queensbury rules to a higher level.
On September 7, 1892 Corbett and Sullivan met in New Orleans, Louisiana. For the first time 5 ounce gloves were worn in a Heavyweight title fight and the bare-knuckle era in the mainstream boxing world was ended forever. The end of the bare-knuckle era also brought about the end of the Sullivan era. For 21 rounds Corbett thoroughly frustrated the older, slower Sullivan, peppering him from the outside until the fight was finally stopped.
The science of Corbett was followed by the emergence of the versatile Robert Fitzsimmons, the brawn of James J. Jeffries and the rising popularity of the lighter weight classes. The Heavyweights were no longer the only game in town. We would also see the rise of the African-American prizefighter and the explosion on the scene of one of the most controversial figures in sports history. Those of you who only have a passing knowledge of the sport of boxing may think I am referring to Muhammad Ali. I am actually referring to an African-American heavyweight who preceded Ali by about 50 years.
Jack Johnson and The Great White Hopes
Jack Johnson was a black man who loved white women, fast cars and trash talking his opponents. He also lived in an era in which this made him the most hated man in America. He followed then Champion Tommy Burns all over the world in order to convince Burns to give him a well-deserved crack at the Heavyweight title. He finally caught up to him in Australia in 1908 and with the help of Australian promoter Hugh McIntosh, who made Burns an offer he couldn’t refuse, Johnson finally got his chance. “Papa Jack” as he was known, completely demoralized Burns and when the police stopped the brutal onslaught in the 14th round, Johnson became the first ever Black Heavyweight Champion. Nearly 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Jack Johnson held the most coveted title in all of sports.
He was dominant, he was colorful and he was the perfect villain for the public to feed off of. The American author Jack London loudly called for the “rightful” return of the Heavyweight Championship to “White America” and the “White Hope” era was born. James J. Jeffries was coaxed out of a long retirement, only to be embarrassingly bounced back into it by an unimpressed Johnson, and fight managers looked all over North America to find a big white Heavyweight to knock Johnson off his pedestal. Promoters lined them up and Johnson either toyed with them like a bored Lion or just plain knocked them out.
America loved its villains and Jack Johnson kept the newspapers and tabloids busy. He was probably the most photographed athlete of the first 20 years of the 20th century. When he wasn’t busy getting pulled over for speeding, he was being indicted for what basically amounted to “White Slave Trade”, for transporting the many women he had relationships with across state lines. He fled the U.S. and continued his Heavyweight title reign while overseas. He was finally beaten and his 7 year title run came to an end in Cuba at the age of 37 when 6’7” Kansas native Jess Willard outlasted him for 26 rounds under the hot Havana sun.
Unfortunately, in the wake of Johnson, a black fighter was not to get another shot at the Heavyweight Title until Joe Louis emerged on the scene 20 years later. Deserving fighters such as Sam Langford, Harry Wills, Kid Norfolk and George Godfrey were sidestepped while less talented white fighters were offered chances to become Champion. Vintage memorabilia featuring Johnson and many of his black contemporaries are always in demand and a recent documentary about Jack Johnson on PBS by famed film-maker Ken Burns has created upswing of interest in many of his collectibles.
“The Manassa Mauler”, “Brown Bomber” and Other Heroes
The 1920’s saw the emergence of Jack Dempsey, “The Manassa Mauler”, a powerful knockout artist who mastered the bob and weave style of over-whelming an opponent, which a young Mike Tyson perfected many decades later. He married/divorced movie stars and walked the line of hero and villain, much to the delight of the American public. A contemporary of Babe Ruth, the two inhabited the same stratosphere of super-stardom at the time. Whereas much was made of the $100,000 contract Ruth signed with the Yankees, Dempsey became the first Million Dollar athlete. Arenas were built when he fought and attendance figures of 100,000 plus at many of his title fights was a regular occurrence.
Like Jack Johnson, Dempsey also reigned as title-holder for 7 years until he was un-seated by a talented boxer named Gene Tunney in 1926. Tunney was an educated military man who shunned the spotlight and retired soon after defeating Dempsey for the second time in 1927. Meanwhile in the lighter weight classes, other boxers such as Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers, Kid Chocolate, Benny Leonard and many more were becoming stars in their own right. Many of whose memorabilia is in demand by collectors around the world today.
Jack Sharkey, Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera, Max Baer, and “The Cinderella Man” James J. Braddock, would swap the Heavyweight title between each other over the next several years with nobody in particular being more dominant then the other. For the purposes of this article James J. Braddock deserves special mention. Normally thought of as a middling Light-Heavyweight and Heavyweight contender he rose to prominence with an inspiring underdog performance over then Champion Max Baer. Even under these circumstances, his memorabilia was not thought of very highly among present day boxing collectors, however since the release of the Ron Howard movie “The Cinderella Man”, his material has become very much in demand, with the prices of many items raising several fold. It also helped that this movie was very highly regarded among boxing circles, even if its box office results were somewhat disappointing. It serves as an example of how the modern mass media can influence the collectibles market. Another example would be Martin Scorsese’s classic film “Raging Bull” which still has an impact today on the price of memorabilia related the 1940’s-50’s Middleweight contender and Champion Jake LaMotta.
Out of the rubble of the Heavyweight division and the Depression, would rise the next great Heavyweight Champion; Joe Louis, otherwise known as “The Brown Bomber”. After an early setback to former champion Max Schmeling, he would KO Braddock in dominant fashion to take the Heavyweight title in 1937 and follow it up with a brutal performance in avenging his lone defeat against Schmeling in 1938. Joe was the first black champion widely accepted by the American public, and his rivalry against Max Schmeling was seen as a larger fight of American Democracy against German Nazism. For an amazing 13 years Louis held the title, and still stands today as arguably the most dominant champion in history.
Other popular fighters among collectors during and following the Joe Louis era include Sugar Ray Robinson; possibly the pound for pound best boxer in history, Rocky Marciano; who was the only Heavyweight Champion to retire undefeated, Henry Armstrong; the only man to hold 3 separate weight-class titles at the same time, the fearsome Sonny Liston and others, too numerous to mention at this time. The 1960 Summer Olympics would see the emergence of the most recognizable sports figure in not only boxing history but perhaps all of sports history.
“Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a……..”
I’m guessing, even if you’re not a boxing fan or a sports fan, you still know who I’m referring to. “The Louisville Lip”; originally known as Cassius Clay and eventually as Muhammad Ali. This motor mouthed poet captivated the world with his confidence and charisma in a division not used to his combination of speed and sneaky power. A meteoric rise from 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist to Heavyweight Champion with a pair of convincing wins over the feared Sonny Liston in 1964-65, shot him right into the public spotlight of which he’s never left all these years later. Beloved and sometimes hated the world over, he befuddled opponents throughout the sixties, created a storm of controversy when he refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, was banned from boxing for a time and came back more popular the ever in the 1970’s.
An article about boxing memorabilia would be incomplete without mentioning Ali. He has inspired more creations, marketing campaigns, trading cards, graced more magazine covers and been photographed more then any other boxer in history. Large auction houses have held major auctions offering nothing but Muhammad Ali memorabilia. The most famous of these was Christie’s Auction of the Paloger Collection of Ali memorabilia which took place in 1997.
His autograph also commands a larger premium then most any athlete who is still alive, even though they are rather plentiful. The advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease have only recently begun to slow him down. Until not very long ago, he was still a highly sought after autograph guest at private signings and show appearances, and a simple handshake and quick scrawl of his signature could cost upwards of $350 per item, though I wouldn’t suggest paying that much for a modern Ali signature unless you actually get to meet him in the process. Ali was also a very willing signer throughout his life, whether he was being paid to make an appearance, or if you just ran across him out in public.
Since Ali’s retirement after a loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981 the sport of boxing has seen a slow decline of popularity from a mainstream sport that once competed with only baseball for fans to the marginalized sport it has become today. Superstars still graced the sport, millions of dollars were made and lost, but the allure boxing once had with the public seemed to slowly lose its luster over the following years. Still, if you were a fan of the sport and a collector there was still plenty to choose from. Popular fighters among collectors from the era of Ali until now include Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Salvador Sanchez, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and others.
You Collect What?
Most people will give you a double-take or question you when you tell them you collect and deal in Boxing memorabilia. Fact is it wasn’t long ago when I would have done the same thing. I’m a general sports fan and grew up with a love for the sport of baseball. Over the years, while being a baseball junkie I also became interested in collecting NFL Football, Basketball and Hockey trading cards and memorabilia. I followed a few boxers over the years and watched fights with my father on TV but never thought I would be a collector of the sport.
Then a few things happened over a short period of time. First, I grew disenchanted with modern Baseball cards, their manufactured scarcity and the dozens of sets that began to be issued every year. I decided I only wanted to collect older material and in the process discovered I couldn’t afford to collect vintage items of my favorite athlete at the time, which was Babe Ruth. I soon discovered Jack Johnson and found him just as, if not more interesting then “The Babe” in a sporting as well as social context of the times. Most importantly it appeared I could collect important pieces of memorabilia relating to him at a fraction of the price it would cost to amass a Babe Ruth collection.
Shortly after I started collecting Jack Johnson material I was at an Antique Paper Show in Hartford, CT and found a series of photographs which blew me away. They were simple yet moving at the same time. On March 21st, 1963 Sugar Ramos fought Davey Moore for the World Featherweight Title in Los Angeles, California. In a tragic turn of events Davey Moore slipped into unconsciousness shortly after the fight and passed away two days later. The photos I found did not depict the fight itself, but showed new Champion Sugar Ramos during a period of deep mourning, after finding out his opponent had died in the hospital. This event even inspired a song by Bob Dylan titled “Who Killed Davey Moore?”. Dylan would explore another boxing theme several years later with his more famous “The Hurricane”, which was inspired by the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
I was hooked and soon discovered boxing had a rich and interesting history, beyond any other sport I had studied before. I grew up a stat freak poring over batting averages and ERA’s in baseball. Studying the backs of every baseball card I could find. However, in boxing it was the characters that stood out. Sure, you could tally knockouts, win percentages, etc.., but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the actual people involved in the sport. Courage, egos, tragedy, corruption, hope, despair, endurance; there wasn’t an emotion, fault or concept, good and bad that didn’t infiltrate the very being of the sport at any particular point in its history. Whether it’s two Champions fighting for a coveted title or two club fighters banging away at each other for 50 bucks a round, there’s always the hanging suspense of what can happen next.
The art of collecting boxing memorabilia is also much more complicated then one might think. Almost every collector specializes in something different. Books, on-site fight tickets and programs, fight posters, trading cards, autographs, magazines and publications, fight equipment and Ring Belts are only a few of the more prominent subjects sought by different collectors. Myself, I prefer vintage photographs although I dabble in just about every aspect of the sport as a dealer of memorabilia.
Ironically, it seems as the sport of boxing itself is declining in popularity, the collectibles market is as strong as ever. The major auction houses usually include prominent boxing sections in most of their sports memorabilia auctions, and it seems more and more collectors are being drawn into the hobby as the internet has made a once niche market more accessible to the general collector; who was used to scrounging through tables at local baseball card shows for bottom tier and over-priced boxing related items. Most importantly, collectors are becoming interested in the history of the sport while discovering they can amass an impressive collection of historical memorabilia for much less then the price of a certain Honus Wagner baseball card.
A list of some Books essential to the Boxing Collector“History and Bibliography of Boxing Books” by R.A. Hartley
“Seconds Out – Round One (Boxing on Cigarette and Trade Cards)” by Evan Jones – Published by Murray Cards of London, England
“America’s Great Boxing Cards” by Adam Warshaw
“The Paloger Collection of Muhammad Ali Memorabilia” Catalog by Christies Auctions House of Los Angeles. October 19, 1997
“An Illustrated History of Boxing” by Nat Fleischer and Sam Andre
“The Boxing Register – International Boxing Hall Of Fame Official Record Book” by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt
“Boxiana” by Pierce Egan – originally published in 1812 (cheaper re-print editions from the 1970’s can be found on various used book sites)