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Was Boxing Ever Segregated?

Last Updated: 16.05.22


We cannot tell for sure when boxing was invented or when it started being considered a sport per se instead of a simple means of self-defense. What we can say is that it comes with a rich and interesting history, dating back thousands of years before the rules and boxing timers we now use were invented.


A short history of boxing

The first proofs of boxing as a sport come from the ancient world and date back to over 3,500 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Moving a little further across the history, we discover what’s arguably the first written vestige of boxing in Homer’s “Iliad”.

With the rise and the expansion of the Roman Empire, rulers discover new ways of entertaining and amusing the crowds, by putting slaves into a ring and having them battle until death. The so-called gladiator fights become an instant attraction throughout the Roman Empire and a chance for slaves from all over the world to earn their liberty.

The fall of the Roman Empire saw a worldwide decadence of culture, luxury, and freedom, which was followed by centuries of church oppression in the Dark Ages. Back in the medieval times, boxing was considered an inferior form of fighting only allowed for peasants and those of weak morals, as other noble activities rose to fame, entertaining nobles and clerks.

The Dark Ages remained in history as difficult times for everyone opposing the so-called moral standards imposed by clerks and rulers. The heritage left from the golden ages of the Roman Empire was replaced by obedience, judgment, poor hygiene rules, and rage against education and culture in general.

The Renaissance period that marked Europe from the 14th to the 17th century finally brought back aesthetics, good taste, lavish, luxury, opulence, and, above all, art. To this date, the Renaissance years remain some of the most important in world history as they mark the beginning of an era of enlightenment, science, and fine arts.

There are several breakthroughs made in the field of medicine and science, while boxing starts to make its way back into the lives of nobles. About a hundred years later, in the 18th century, boxing begins to have rules and is considered as a sign of British male authenticity, a recognition of the force and wisdom of these fine European men.

At that time, more than 95% of Europe’s population was entirely white, so we cannot even mention segregation or a fight for equal rights.

However, we also talk about a patriarchal society, mostly ruled by men and their saying. The role of women was only a supportive one, so often enough they were only seen as mothers and wives.

They had little to no education and their main role was to look after their husbands and children. We can rarely talk about career women, let alone those who want to make a name of themselves by trying out activities that were mainly considered as “manly” such as practicing sports.

The 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century

Throughout its modern history, boxing jumped back and forth between being a noble activity that showed character and strength and a despicable one that was deemed immoral and shameful. The situation finally changed at the end of the 19th century, when boxing became more and more popular throughout Europe.

However, as many people saw it as a fast way of gaining fame and money, the competition in the field started growing, pushing more and more boxers outside the borders of Great Britain, trying out their luck in the United States.

At that time, the “land of the free” was far from being educated in the field of boxing and faced a general lack of interest for this sport. But, truth be told, the United States was dealing with much more disturbing problems, one of them being segregation.

As we previously mentioned, boxing comes with an interesting and bumping history, but an episode that remains shameful is considered the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century where white supremacy was the only accepted social way.


Racial segregation in the United States

Segregation in the US remains one of the most shameful pages in the history of this rather great country. Unfortunately, centuries of abuses, slavery, and right deprivation cannot be fully atoned, even though separation by race was prohibited around 50 years ago.

Although a series of acts adopted in the Constitution between 1867 and 1875 finally offered the people of color the right to vote in all states, it wasn’t until late into the 1950s and even the 1960s that things really started to move into the right direction.

Unfortunately, the previously mentioned acts didn’t prohibit segregation in school or in many other public places, which continued the abuses against people of color in almost all fields, including one of sports.


Racial tensions at the beginning of the 1900s

Enter Jack Johnson, one of the most prolific professional boxers in history, and a prominent figure of the beginning of the 20th century. He also happened to be black and was known for his questionable morals as he traveled the country drinking, smoking, cursing, and sleeping with many women.

Hated by most, Johnson seemed to represent everything that was wrong with the black race. So, when he became the first black heavyweight worldwide boxing champion by defeating Canadian boxer Tommy Burns in 1908, people weren’t actually pleased.

Soon after, a former retired champion, the white Jim Jeffries was begged to reconsider his retirement and return to the ring in the hope of teaching Johnson a lesson about racial supremacy. The iconic battle between these two champions was a first and shy step toward fighting race controversies when it came to athletes in the United States.

Although we cannot actually talk about racial segregation in the world of boxing, there were some obvious tensions between black and white fighters, fueled by society as a whole. Ultimately, the fight between Johnson and Jeffries was treated as a battle for racial supremacy and, despite Johnson’s victory, little actually changed over the next few decades.

Muhammad Ali and his black America

Born in 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., better known for his stage name Muhammad Ali is arguably the most famous professional boxer of color in the world. Activist and philanthropist, Ali brought an unmeasured contribution to rights equality in sports for people of all colors.  

His unique fighting style combined with his passion for the game and many other things outside the ring turned him into the most beloved and hated sportsmen in the world.

He soon started making a fortune and enjoying a lifestyle that was once reserved for businessmen and people in the oil industry solely, bringing professional athletes into a whole new era and opening the roads for many boxers of colors to come.

It was certainly not easy and even potentially dangerous to want to rise above your predetermined condition as a black man in America in the past century, but professional boxers like Johnson, Ali, and the most recent Mike Tyson prove that the country is finally on the right track and tries to do everything to forget the shameful times of racial controversies and segregation.




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