In the early twentieth century, most professional bouts took place in the United States and Britain, and champions were recognised by popular consensus as expressed in the newspapers of the day. Among the great champions of the era were the peerless heavyweight Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons , who weighed less than 12 stone pounds , but won world titles at middleweight , light heavyweight , and heavyweight On May 12, lightweight Joe Gans became the first black American to be boxing champion.
Despite the public's enthusiasm, this was an era of far-reaching regulation of the sport, often with the stated goal of outright prohibition. In , the State of New York enacted the Lewis Law, banned prizefights except for those held in private athletic clubs between members. Thus, when introducing the fighters, the announcer frequently added the phrase "Both members of this club", as George Wesley Bellows titled one of his paintings. On December 26, , heavyweight Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion and a highly controversial figure in that racially charged era.
Prizefights often had unlimited rounds, and could easily become endurance tests, favouring patient tacticians like Johnson.
At lighter weights, ten round fights were common, and lightweight Benny Leonard dominated his division from the late teens into the early twenties. Prizefighting champions in this period were the premier sports celebrities, and a championship event generated intense public interest. Long before bars became popular venues in which to watch sporting events on television, enterprising saloon keepers were known to set up ticker machines and announce the progress of an important bout, blow by blow.
Local kids often hung about outside the saloon doors, hoping for news of the fight. Harpo Marx, then fifteen, recounted vicariously experiencing the Jeffries-Munroe championship fight in this way. In the s, prizefighting was the pre-eminent sport in the United States , and no figure loomed larger than Jack Dempsey , who became world heavyweight champion after brutally defeating Jess Willard.
Dempsey was one of the hardest punchers of all time and as Bert Randolph Sugar put it, "had a left hook from hell". Although Tunney dominated both fights, Dempsey retained the public's sympathy, especially after the controversy of a " long count " in their second fight. This fight introduced the new rule that the counting of a downed opponent would not begin until the standing opponent went into a neutral corner.
At this time, rules were negotiated by parties, as there were no sanctioning bodies. Famous champions of that era included the German heavyweight Max Schmeling and the American Max Baer , who wielded a devastating right hand. Baer was defeated by "Cinderella Man" James Braddock , a former light heavyweight contender before a series of injuries and setbacks during the Great Depression and was at one point even stripped of his license. Most famous of all was Joe Louis , who avenged an earlier defeat by demolishing Schmeling in the first round of their rematch. Louis was voted the best puncher of all time by The Ring , and is arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time.
In , Henry Armstrong became the only boxer to hold titles in three different weight classes at the same time featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight. His attempt at winning the middleweight title would be thwarted in The Second World War brought a lull in competitive boxing, and champion Louis fought mostly exhibitions.
After the war, Louis continued his reign, but new stars emerged in other divisions, such as the inimitable featherweight Willie Pep , who won over fights, and most notably Sugar Ray Robinson , widely regarded as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time. Robinson held the world welterweight title from to and the world middleweight title a record five times from to Unfortunately, many fights in the s and s were marred by suspected mafia involvement, though some fighters like Robinson and Basilio openly resisted mob influence. Among the heavyweights, Joe Louis retained his title until his retirement, having held the championship for an unprecedented eleven years.
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Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott succeeded him as champion, but they were soon outshone by the remarkable Rocky Marciano , who compiled an astounding record before retiring as world champion. Among his opponents was the ageless Archie Moore , who held the world light heavyweight title for ten years and scored more knockout victories than any other boxer in history. In the early s, the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston captured the public imagination with his one-sided destruction of two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.
One of the last mob-connected fighters, Liston had his mystique shattered in two controversial losses to the brash upstart Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali after becoming champion. Ali would become the most iconic figure in boxing history, transcending the sport and achieving global recognition. His refusal to serve in the Vietnam War resulted in the stripping of his title, and tore down the barrier between sport and culture.
After three years of inactivity, Ali returned to the sport, leading to his first epic clash with Joe Frazier in , ushering in a "golden age" of heavyweight boxing. Ali, Frazier, and the heavy-hitting George Foreman were the top fighters in a division overloaded with talent. The late s witnessed the end of universally recognised champions, as the WBC and WBA began to recognise different champions and top contenders, ushering in the era of multiple champions, unworthy mandatory challengers, and general corruption that came to be associated with sanctioning bodies in later decades.
The end of this decade also saw the sport begin to become more oriented toward the casino industry. Also, public broadcasts would be replaced by closed-circuit, and ultimately pay-per-view, broadcasts, as the boxing audience shrank in numbers. In the early s Larry Holmes was a lone heavyweight talent in a division full of pretenders, so the most compelling boxing matchups were to be found in the lower weight classes. Leonard went on to knock out the formidable Thomas Hearns in Meanwhile, the junior welterweight division was ruled by Aaron Pryor , who made 10 title defenses from to , before vacating the championship.
The fight was billed as "The War", and it lived up to its billing. As soon as the bell rang, both fighters ran towards the centre of the ring and began trading hooks and uppercuts nonstop. This continued into round three, when Hagler overwhelmed Hearns and knocked him out in brutal fashion.
This fight made Hagler famous; he was able to lure Ray Leonard out of retirement in , but lost in a highly-controversial [ citation needed ] decision. Hagler retired from boxing immediately after that fight. In the latter half of the decade young heavyweight Mike Tyson emerged as a serious contender. Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Tyson won the heavyweight unification series to become world heavyweight champion at the age of 20 and the first undisputed champion in a decade. Tyson soon became the most widely known boxer since Ali due to an aura of unrestrained ferocity, such as that exuded by Jack Dempsey or Sonny Liston.
Much like Liston, Tyson's career was marked by controversy and self-destruction. He was accused of domestic violence against his wife Robin Givens, whom he soon divorced. Meanwhile, he lost his title to underdog James Douglas. His progress toward another title shot was derailed by allegations of rape made by Desiree Washington , a beauty pageant queen. In Tyson was imprisoned for rape, and released three years later. With Tyson removed from the heavyweight picture, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe emerged as top heavyweights in the early nineties, facing each other in three bouts.
In the late s Chavez was superseded by Olympic gold medalist Oscar De La Hoya , who became the most popular pay-per-view draw of his era. In the late s Mike Tyson made a comeback, which took an unexpected turn when he was defeated by heavy underdog Evander Holyfield in Holyfield won two of the three title belts, but lost a final match in with WBC champion Lennox Lewis , who became undisputed champion. The last decade has witnessed a continued decline in the popularity of boxing in the United States, marked by a malaise in the heavyweight division and the increased competition in the Pay-Per-View market from MMA and its main promotion, the UFC.
This cultural shift is reflected in some of the changes in championship title holders, especially in the upper weight divisions. The light heavyweight division was dominated in the early part of the decade by Roy Jones, Jr. The two fighters never met, due to a dispute over whether the fight would be held in the U. This sort of dispute would be repeated among other top fighters, as Germany emerged as a top venue for world class boxing.
The most famous German-based boxers are the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers , Wladimir and Vitali , both of whom held versions of the heavyweight title. The Klitschkos were often depicted as representing a new generation of fighters from ex-Soviet republics, possessing great size, yet considerable skill and stamina, developed by years of amateur experience. Most versions of the heavyweight title were held by fighters from the former Soviet Union.
Since the retirement of Lennox Lewis in , the heavyweight division has been criticised as lacking talent or depth, especially among American fighters. This has resulted in a higher profile for fighters in lower weight classes, including the age-defying middleweight and light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins , and the undefeated multiple weight division champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Billed as the "fight to save boxing", the success of this event shows that American boxing still retains a considerable core audience when its product is of descent from the American continent.
Other notable fighters in even lower weight classes are experiencing unprecedented popularity today. These small fighters often display tremendous punching power for their size, producing exciting fights such as the incredible bout between Castillo and the late Diego Corrales. Interest in the lower weight divisions further increased with the possibility of a superfight between two of the current best fighters in the world, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Experts predicted this would break current pay-per-view records, due to the tremendous public demand for the fight. Professional bouts are limited to a maximum of twelve rounds, most are fought over four, six, eight or ten rounds depending upon the experience of the boxers. Through the early twentieth century, it was common for fights to have unlimited rounds, ending only when one fighter quit or the fight was stopped by police.
In the s and s, a fifteen-round limit gradually became the norm, benefiting high-energy fighters like Jack Dempsey. For decades, from the s to the s, world championship matches in professional boxing were scheduled for fifteen rounds, but that changed after a November 13, WBA Lightweight title bout ended with the death of boxer Duk Koo Kim in a fight against Ray Mancini in the 14th round of a nationally televised championship fight on CBS.
Exactly three months after the fatal fight, the WBC reduced the number of their championship fights to 12 rounds. The WBA even stripped a fighter of his championship in because the fight had been a round bout, shortly after the rule was changed to 12 rounds. By , to the displeasure of some boxing purists, all fights had been reduced to a maximum of 12 rounds only, partially for safety, and partially for television, as a round bout could be broadcast within an hour, while a round bout could require up to 90 minutes to broadcast.
If a knockout or disqualification does not occur, the fight is determined by a points decision. In the early days of boxing, the referee decided the winner by raising his arm at the end of the bout, a practice that is still used for some professional bouts in the United Kingdom. In the early twentieth century, it became common for the referee or judge to score bouts by the number of rounds won. For the first time, the Celtic legend speaks candidly about his time as right-hand man to Jock Stein and how together they ruled Scottish football and conquered Europe with the Lisbon Lions.
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