Boxing As Working Class Identity In Nineteenth Century America

by Michael LeCompte

By the 1820’s boxing, or sparring actually, was taught in American gymnasiums to gentlemen seeking to copy their English counterparts in learning the manly art of self-defense. This early style focused on the basics of boxing and never  really moved beyond sparring exhibitions. It offered the excitement of fighting without the vulgarities of boxing. As the upper-classes enjoyed this sanitized version of boxing the rising waves of immigrants to America’s shores laid the true foundation of boxing in the United States.

The nineteenth century saw an influx of European immigration to America. Fighting allowed recent immigrants to earn money and to create a place for themselves within distinct  ethnic sub-cultures in opposition to the upper-class and despite a rapidly changing economy. Boxing was an identifying force, it created a working-class culture and was representative of the American dream.

Recent immigrants faced a new, impersonal, industrializing society in America, as well as old ethnic tensions and nativism. By the 1850’s  a modern system of capitalist production had taken hold. While good for industry the employer-employee relationship was suddenly broken down into a simple set of wages. As industrial work required less skill and society became ever more impersonal some men turned to boxing to pound out and create an identity among the toiling masses.

American prize fighting in the 1850’s was associated with the usual stereotypical sins  ascribed to immigrant groups, mainly drinking and gambling. These assumptions were not unfounded, though, as the purses for boxing matches were raised through the taking of bets.

The mid-nineteenth century aspect of boxing that most attracted immigrants was the economic opportunities it presented. If a man could give or take a beating it was worth it. Surviving a night in the ring was preferable to toiling away in a factory.

Perhaps just as important as the financial incentives of the ring were the values and identities that fighting promoted and symbolized. Boxing showcased working-class values and encouraged ethnic pride and independence. Identity was important in a society that had become de-skilled and impersonal.

A man could earn an identity in the ring as a good fighter, or as a good Irish or Italian or German fighter, and fans and the community at large could identify with him and through his exploits. Fights were the product of local circumstances waged for economic gain, personal honor, neighborhood pride, and the preservation of ethnic identity.

Bare-knuckle boxing required a toughness bordering on savagery. With very few rules the object was to win at all costs. This usually meant pummeling an opponent into submission or simply outlasting them. Since a match was not dictated by any set number of rounds they often went for hours until one of the fighters could physically no longer continue or deliberately fell to avoid further punishment. Once downed a fighter had thirty seconds to come to scratch. (A line at the center of the ring). Fights ended only when one man was unable to come to scratch or conceded defeat. Brute strength and stamina were more important than skill or finesse.

In 1865 the Queensbury rules were introduced in boxing and with strict guidelines, most notably the use of gloves, some of the brutality left professional fighting. It became less about brawling and more about boxing.

By 1880 most laborers in America knew nothing but wage employment. For this new working-class leisure and sport were no longer solely about identification as a community. Leisure became more about consuming goods and witnessing spectacle. The working-class ideal of boxing was being replaced by a modern, acceptable version promoted and enjoyed by the middle and upper classes.

By the turn of the twentieth century boxing was full of meaning for many Americans. Whereas urban immigrants embraced boxing for its recreational, national, and economic benefits, the middle and upper classes valued it as sport and exercise, an essential part of a vigorous life, necessary to ward off the effeminacy of modern society.

The fact that it has been outlawed, vilified, respected, and corrupted, yet ultimately survived makes boxing a distinctly human sport. It has represented different values over time, from gratuitous violence, to ethnic identity, economic opportunity, and the American dream. Boxing’s main appeal, though, lies in its challenge. It is the opportunity to enact the primal necessity to withstand whatever life has to offer, proving one’s self in the process.

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