The Origins of Boxing Terms and Traditions

By B.R. Bearden

04.07 - With the 4th of July here, and Americans celebrating their history and heritage, I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on boxing's history. First, I thought I'd see what important bouts occurred on the 4th of July in the US. Traditionally a day for outdoor events and fireworks, Independence Day was a natural for boxing matches in the United States early in the 20th Century. There were 15 championship bouts on the 4th of July in the US between 1903 and 1923, then not another one until 59 years later. Strangely the last one in the first quarter of the century was the Dempsey/Gibbons fight in Shelby Montana, a disaster for the town. Yet that shouldn't have caused a cessation of matches in areas more able to sustain large crowds of fans.

The title bouts held on the 4th of July in the US:

1903 LH George Gardner KO12 Jack Root
1906 Featherweight Abe Atell Pts 20 Frankie Neil
1907 H Tommy Burns KO1 Billy Squire
1908 L Battling Nelson KO17 Joe Gans
1910 H Jack Johnson RSF 15 Jim Jeffries
1911 L Ad Wolgast KO13 Owen Moran
1912 Jack Johnson KO9 Jim Flynn
1912 Ad Wolgast KO13 Joe Rivers
1913 L Willie Richier KO11 Joe Rivers
1916 L Freddie Welsh Dis 11 Ad Wolgast
1917 Ted "Kid" Lewis ND 15 Johnny Griffiths
1918 Ted "Kid" Lewis ND 20 Johnny Griffiths
1919 Jack Dempsey KO3 Jess Willard
1922 L Benny Leonard RTD 8 Rocky Kansas
1923 Jack Dempsey Pts 15 Tommy Gibbons (This event bankrupted Shelby, Montana)
1982 LW Aaron Pryor RSF6 Akio Kameda

One other important event in boxing on the 4th of July: 1934 Joe Louis fights his first pro fight, TKO1 over Jack Kracken

While the 4th of July boxing tradition didn't survive out of the 1920s, other early boxing terms and traditions did. Here are some of them, and explanations for their beginnings.

It's Square, Why is it Called a Ring?

The term "ring" comes from the original practice of having a circle of spectators form a ring around the two contestants. Often a rope would be held by the crowd to designate the area the fighters would have to move around. There weren't even stools, since the fights were usually outdoors and in isolated areas, so one of the fighter's supporters, called a "second", would kneel with one knee on the ground and the other up to form a seat for the resting fighter between rounds. Also, since boxing was illegal almost everywhere in its early days, if the "proper authorities" dropped in uninvited, the spectators simply dropped the rope and ran in every direction. The police might round up a few of the slow footed, but all the promoters would be out would be the cost of a rope.

When Did They Introduce the Mouth Guard?

In the early days, fighters often sucked on oranges between rounds and along the way someone decided to use the orange peel to protect his lips from being cut by his teeth when hit in the mouth. In the bare knuckle days, a fight could include as much grappling as actual punching and there weren't nearly as many blows thrown to the head or face since the hands tended to take injury.

The "gum shield" was invented by London dentist Jack Marles in 1902. It was intended for use during training so a fighter wouldn't get injured before the fight. (It didn't seem important to protect his mouth during a bout, since the object was to inflict injury) It was more than 7 years before anyone used the gum shield on a regular basis, and that was English fighter Ted "Kid" Lewis (1909-29, 170-30-14). Lewis was twice welterweight champion, 1915-16 and 1917-19. Legend has it that Lewis had an overbite and his lips were often cut by his teeth, though pictures of him don't show any obvious overbite.

The Awarding of Belts to Champions:

The practice of giving out championship belts in the U.S. was started in the late 1880s by Richard K. Fox, publisher of Police Gazette. Fox, according to legend, had been insulted by John L. Sullivan in Harry Hill's saloon in New York City, and detested the Boston Strong Boy. Fox backed a number of
fighters trying to best Sullivan, including Paddy Ryan and Jake Kilrain. Because the Police Gazette was the "official" source of boxing by Fox's own declaration, he began awarding the Police Gazette Diamond belt to those he considered champions in several weight classes. Because of his dislike for
Sullivan, Fox awarded his belt to Jake Kilrain, declaring him the legitimate heavyweight champion. But, in 1889, Sullivan beat Kilrain and was grudgingly recognized as the champion. Richard Fox died in 1922, the same year that Nat Fleischer founded his Ring magazine. Eventually The Ring was recognized as heir apparent to the Police Gazette as THE authority on boxing and would take up the practice of awarding belts.

Ranking Fighters:

Oddly enough, for two hundred years there were no rankings in boxing, nor weight classes. People tended to agree on who the champions were, but even that was seldom universal. It was the task of other fighters to follow and challenge the champion if they wanted the title. Then in January 1925, Tex Rickard, boxing promoter of such famous fights as Joe Gans- Battling Nelson, Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries and most of Jack Dempsey's fights, published, "The Rickard Rating Lists for 1924" at the urging of Nat Fleischer. Rickard had helped financially when Fleischer started The Ring magazine and Nat considered him the voice of authority on boxing. When Rickard died in 1929, Fleischer convinced Jack Dempsey to continue the rankings, which would be published in The Ring. Dempsey's first list of the Top Ten came out in the February 1930 issue of The Ring and Dempsey ranked fighters for the rest of the year. Thereafter, Fleischer decided The Ring staff would make the lists. For 35 years, the #1 ranked contender was who The Ring said it was, and seldom were they wrong. The coming of the alphabet organizations muddied the water to the consistency of sludge and it's been hard to figure out who the Top Ten really are ever since. (Hopefully this will change now that The Ring has gone back to making its own list the only one that matters)

Why the "No Decision"?

The No-Decision Era ran from approximately 1911 until 1920, though it carried over longer in some cases until referees and judges broke out of the habit. It started with the Frawley Law, passed in 1911. The Law was made in an attempt to stop fixed fights, with the idea that a fix was less likely if the only way to win was by knock out. Of course, fight fans want a clear winner, so the newspapers took over, rendering their own decisions, called "newspaper decisions". But, from a cross reference of several papers of the time, it is usually very easy to determine who won a particular fight. Suffice to say, if a Hall of Fame fighter has 40 ND listed, it's a safe bet that he won 35 or more of them. The Law was changed by the Walker Law in 1920, ending the No-Decision Era. At times a fighter might have deserved to win and been handed the consolation prize of ND, but to their credit, the "newspaper decisions" almost always told the real story. It is from them that we know just how good Harry Wills (25 ND), Philadelphia Jack O'Brien (57 ND), Benny Leonard (121 ND), Sam Langford (48 ND) and scores of other fighters of that time really were.

Just Like Being There: Broadcast Fights.

The first fight to have it's result broadcast over the radio was the Dempsey-Willard fight July 4th, 1919. On June 5th, 1915, WGI, at Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, began transmitting, the first true radio station and by 1919 it was a wonderful thing to have the results of the heavyweight championship available within minutes of the end of the bout.

On April 11, 1921, the fight between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee was sent out over the airwaves. It was the first live sports event ever broadcast, coming from KDKA radio in Pittsburg.

On July 2nd of the same year, the fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier was broadcast over WJY radio. An estimated 300,000 people listened in as the radio announcer excitedly said, "Seven . . . eight . . . nine . . . ten! Carpentier is out!! Jack Dempsey is still the world's champion!"

30+ years later a kid named Cassius Clay, who would become famous as Muhammed Ali, was riding his bicycle home one evening. As he passed a car with its radio playing he was captivated by the voice of the announcer crying out, ". and still heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Marciano!" He said it was then that he decided he wanted to be a champion, too.

The first TV broadcast of a fight was in 1931. It was an exhibition between Mickey Walker and Benny Leonard and was broadcast by the CBS Studios in New York and appeared as a reddish-orange picture about half the size of a standard business card to the handful of people who had sets in New York.

The first televised championship fight was June 19th, 1946, the rematch between Joe Louis and Billy Conn.

The first closed circuit fight was Joe Louis-Lee Savold non-title fight in 1951.

Unlimited Rounds?

The longest fight with gloves was between Andy Brown and Jack Burke, in New Orleans on April 6-7th, 1893. The contest started at 9:15 PM on the 6th and finished 110 rounds later at 4:34 AM on the 7th, a time of 7 hours and 19 minutes. It was declared a draw as both fighters were unable to continue. Though in an early day a round ended when a man's knee touched the ground, and many would get a breather by "taking a knee" repeatedly, this fight consisted of 3 minute rounds with 1 minute breaks.

Jake Kilrain fought 106 rounds against Jem Smith at Isles Des Souverains, France, December 19th, 1887. The fight was declared a draw when night fell.

The last scheduled 45 round contest was between Jack Johnson and Jess Willard, April 5th, 1915, in Havana, Cuba. Willard won by KO in the 26th round. The last time a world title fight was scheduled for 20 rounds was the 21st of March, 1941, between Joe Louis and Abe Simon. Joe KO'd Simon in the 13th.

Despite the possibility of longer fights, once the gloved era began and the fighter's hands could hold up much better, the need for hours of stalking, grappling, and resting went out the window. The final time a championship match passed the 15th round was March 17th, 1923 between Mike McTigue and Battling Siki for the world light heavyweight belt. McTigue won a 20 round decision.

Boxing Phrases and Terms:

The phrase "Bringing Home the Bacon" comes from the four word telegram Joe Gans sent to his mother when he won the World Lightweight Title in 1906.

"Pound for pound the best fighter in the world" was not coined for Sugar Ray Robinson. It was first used by a sportswriter to describe the great lightweight champion Benny Leonard.

The phrase "The Real McCoy" was coined to describe middleweight champ Kid McCoy and has several explanations. It's said a much bigger man tried to hit on McCoy's girlfriend in a bar and when McCoy told him who he was the man didn't believe him and laughed in his face. The Kid promptly knocked him cold. When he woke, the would-be bully said, "That was the real McCoy!" Another version has it that when McCoy fought Joe Choynski in 1899 in San Francisco, to avoid confusing him with another fighter named Peter McCoy who had fought a bout there a few days earlier, the newspaper headline read, "Choynski is Beaten by the Real McCoy".

"We wuz robbed!" was first shouted by Joe Jacobs, manager of Max Schmelling, when at the end of a fight Max seemed to have handily won, the decision instead went to Jack Sharkey.

"He can run, but he can't hide," was the response Joe Louis gave when asked how he'd deal with the speed of Billy Conn in their rematch.

Similarly Muhammed Ali was once asked if it would bother him that the smaller ring favored his slower opponent. Ali replied, "I'd fight that sucker in a phone booth."

"Southpaw", the term for a left handed fighter, isn't of boxing origin. It's from baseball. Early ball fields were built so that home plate faced to the east. That way, the late afternoon sun wouldn't be in the batter's eyes, a dangerous situation when a baseball is thrown in your direction. The pitcher faced west, and if he was left handed, the ball would be thrown with his south side hand, his "south paw".

And there you have a bit of boxing history and the origins of some of its components.



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