A few months ago, boxing historian Bert Sugar quipped, ”[One of] the two best American heavyweights today is [Baltimore Ravens Linebacker] Ray Lewis.”
I’m not sure if Lewis ever slipped on a pair of Everlast boxing gloves, but he did opt to use his 250-pound frame for a successful career in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, left the gridiron 32 years ago and did pursue a career as a heavyweight boxer. Jones’ stint in the ring would only last for six professional fights, as he would return to the Cowboys a year later in 1980.
Sugar’s statement about Lewis and Jones’ brief involvement in prize fighting is a testament of what boxing fans have witnessed over the past 30 years with regard to the sport: the steady decline in African-American participation.
In 2011, of the possible 68 championship belts: WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO titles from each respective weight class; only seven are held by African-American fighters, with none of those current title holders in boxing’s signature and most prolific weight class, the heavyweight division.
Those seven titles are shared among only six black fighters.
Presently in boxing, 16 of the championship belts belong to Mexican fighters and 14 are in the possession of Europeans.
In 2001, a total of 51 belts were counted, as the WBO wasn’t widely recognized as a major governing body in pro boxing yet, and 18 of those titles were held by black fighters. The heavyweight class back then was anchored by Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen the number of titles increase, but the amount held by African-Americans reduced by more than half.
It has now been seven years since the heavyweight title has been held by a black fighter. Lennox Lewis, who is of British, Canadian, and Jamaican pedigree, retired as champ in 2004. And you have to go back to Hasim Rahman, who upset Lewis in April 2001 (only holding the undisputed title for seven months,) to find a time when the belt has been displayed over the mantel of an African-American household.
Boxing has suffered two major “low blows” that have led to many blacks abandoning the sport that they dominated for so many years.
The first, as Bert Sugar noted, is professional football. Not only has playing on the gridiron led to a lucrative career in the NFL, but has also given quite a few African-Americans the opportunity to get a free college education.
The second reason why the popularity of boxing has decreased is because of the lack of accessibility to the sport in the black community. In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s boxing programs sponsored by the Police Athletic League, Salvation Army, CYO, and YMCA existed and were very instrumental in teaching black kids how to box. As funding for each of these organizations was cut, one of the first initiatives that fell under the chopping block was their boxing programs.
This affected not only amateur competition, but also the availability of the necessary equipment and facilities to train. Just about every community across the country still has a Pop Warner football league, but it’s becoming increasingly challenging to find a fully operating YMCA today.
The city funded programs in markets like Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York — places that are rich with boxing history and tradition — have fallen victim to urban decay. Unless a potential fighter is exposed to various platforms to box, it’s extremely difficult to find the right resources to develop the craft.
Growing up in the 80’s, when we couldn’t get to a gym, we found another outlet to quench our thirst to box. One of our favorite pastimes was slap boxing. It was a lot of fun, but also taught us how to throw different combinations, improve our balance, and instructional in self-defense. The kids of today have traded in street corner slap boxing for a joystick and would much rather play boxing on their XBox and Wii games instead.
As blacks are focusing on other sports, it is the European and Latin countries that have been studying boxing more carefully. Not only are they learning and training at earlier ages, but even turning pro, while many African-American kids are still in high school. Because many come from very poor countries, they are even forced to turn pro to support their families financially. With the exception of soccer, European and Latino children are now being raised on boxing from a very early age.
Just as there’s been a recent influx of European players getting drafted into the NBA and making a name for themselves in the league, foreign fighters are now also boxing on a more competitive level than in past generations. For the longest, the biggest knock on fighters from overseas was their lack of defense and lateral movement.
After years of observing the ring generalship and savvy of African-American fighters, boxers from other countries have done a tremendous job in emulating the “slick” style. Foreign fighters have even gone as far as to showboat like black boxers by dropping their hands, dodging their heads, and shuffling their feet.
Although not having the same athleticism and physical gifts as many black boxers, European and Latino pugilists have compensated with will, mental toughness, and an undying work ethic. Add that formula to a tough upbringing and years of amateur experience and that spells world champion. The blaring fact that proves that globally the gap is quickly closing; is how the U.S. has been faring in recent Olympic competition.
In the last 15 years, the United States has only had two African-American gold medalists in boxing, Andre Ward [Light Heavyweight in 2004 and current WBA Super Middleweight champ] and David Reid [Light Middleweight in 1996]. By comparison, from 1980 – 1995, we had 11 black gold medalists, who competed and won in the Olympics.
As European and Latin boxers are more prevalent today, it hasn’t helped in the popularity of the sport in this country. A retired Mike Tyson, who is a reality show gem and stars in box office blockbusters like the The Hangover is still a bigger global celebrity than present Ukrainian champs Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko combined. But even with the appeal of “Iron Mike” and Floyd “Money” Mayweather, Jr., America has long been desperately searching to exalt the next “Great White Hope.”
A Caucasian champion designed for a Wheaties box; one, who was born and blossomed on American soil, someone, whose name can be said alongside of Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey. Mainstream America prematurely tried to push boxers like Gerry Cooney, Tommy Morrison, and most recently, Kelly Pavlik on that pedestal, but they were knocked off of it, before even one foot was firmly planted.
At any rate, I’ll still continue to support U.S. boxing and especially my African-American pugilists as much as I can as a spectator and journalist; hoping that the sport can make a resurgence.
Although black boxing may be down on the canvas, we have the talent and determination to always get back up. And as boxers are taught from an early age, it only takes one punch to be back in the fight.