Friday, October 15, 2010


It probably would surprise a lot of people who view boxing as nothing more than a crude and brutal brawl to know the words “art” and “science” were once used to describe the sport. “The Manly Art of Self Defense”, “The Noble Art”, “The Sweet Science” are phrases that originated during the 18th and 19th century English bare knuckle period. Modern boxing began in England in the late 16th century. The earliest bare-knuckle practitioners based their technique on the refined art of fencing. As a result, boxing’s footwork, straight punching, feints, blocking and parrying developed from strategies used by fencers. It is no coincidence that boxing’s most fundamental punch, the left jab, is very similar to the fencer’s straight thrust or lunge.
At the height of fencing’s popularity, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, numerous teaching academies appeared all over Europe. The best fencing instructors were highly respected for their knowledge and teaching skills. In England, and elsewhere, it was not uncommon for many of these fencing masters to be addressed as “professor”.
By the late 1700s bare-knuckle boxing had eclipsed fencing in popularity. In London, the epicenter of the sport, there were several well known boxing academies. The academies were owned and operated by famous ex- boxers, some of whom had the word “professor” printed on calling cards, or on the covers of instruction books they authored. Of course these men did not have a formal degree from an institution of higher learning. In fact some could barely read or write. But they understood the principles of balance, leverage, timing, footwork, punching technique, body alignment and strategy as it applied to boxing. In that sense they were no different than the fencing “professors” who preceded them. It was also not uncommon for master teachers of the art of singing, dancing, acting or playing a musical instrument to sport the title of “professor”.
According to Adam Pollack’s fine book “In The Ring With James J. Corbett”, Professor Walter Watson, an Englishman and “a celebrated exponent of the manly art”, was hired by the Brahmans of San Francisco’s exclusive Olympic Club in 1884 to teach boxing. One local newspaper reported that “Watson recently knocked out the famous pugilist, Professor McClellen, in New York City.” Professor Watson’s most famous pupil at the Olympic Club was James J. Corbett. Seven years later Corbett would defeat the great John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship. It was the first heavyweight title bout conducted under Marquis of Queensberry rules. After Watson left the Olympic Club, in 1888, Corbett was named instructor, thus earning the title of “professor” for himself.
I think the use of the word “professor” also served to further encourage the veneer of civility boxing was trying to achieve at this time. After all, for most of the 19th century professional boxing, especially the bare knuckle variety, was vilified and outlawed in America.
Mike Donovan, a middleweight title claimant in 1881, became “Professor Donovan” in honor of his being named boxing instructor at the prestigious New York Athletic Club. In 1893 Donovan wrote a popular instructional book titled, “The Science of Boxing”. He often sparred with President Teddy Roosevelt.
Hundreds of boxing instruction books and training manuals were published from the 1850s to the 1930s, with the words “science” and/or “art” in the title. In fact, the earliest book to include a section on boxing instruction appeared in a fencing manual published in 1747. It was titled “A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defense” by Captain John Godfrey. Although written 260 years ago years ago many of today’s boxers would gain from reading it. These words appear in the opening paragraph: “Strength certainly is what the Boxer ought to set out with, but without Art he will succeed but poorly. The Deficiency of Strength may be greatly supplied by Art; but the want of Art will have but heavy an unwieldy Succor from Strength.”
It is not clear why the word “professor”, as it applied to boxing, went out of style after the first decade of the 20th century. But during the 19th century it was not uncommon for the prefix to be used. Noted professors of pugilism included John Donaldson, Johnny Clark, Edmund E. Price, Billy McCarthy, John B. Bailey, William Miller and Jim Kelly. All were middle to late 19th century bare-knuckle fighters and trainers. William Muldoon, the legendary athlete, health fanatic, and trainer of John L. Sullivan, was sometimes addressed as “Professor Muldoon”.
Several of these names recently surfaced in the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archives, where a massive amount of material is currently being documented, catalogued and preserved. No doubt more information will be forthcoming as the Kaplan Archives continues to yield its varied treasures. I am confident of this because the whole process is in the capable hands (fists?) of an authentic professor with a love for boxing—Professor Tony Cucchiarra, Brooklyn College’s very own “Professor of Pugilism”.
*Historian and author Mike Silver is an advisor to the Kaplan Boxing Archives. He is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishers, 2009).

Friday, October 1, 2010

Oscar “Golden Boy” de la Hoya Puts In An Extra Punch to the Great Boro of Brooklyn by Amy Handelsman

In a sweltering Gleason’s Gym on Tuesday, September 28, 2010, Oscar “Golden Boy” de la Hoya “put in an extra punch to the great borough of Brooklyn” in a celebration of his recent three-year deal with Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment to bring a yearly minimum of 12 bouts to The Barclays Center, future home to the New York Nets, among other sports franchises, at the former Atlantic Navy Yards.

De la Hoya, retired boxing champion and now founder and President of Golden Boy Promotions, was ringed by some of his more prominent fighters, among them lightweight Mickey Perez, welterweight Danny Garcia and middleweight Danny Jacobs. The natural showman used the occasion to announce the signing of world champion junior welterweight Paulie “Magic Man” Malignaggi, who trains out of Gleason’s and is a hometown favorite.

A bit of logrolling was indulged, as is often the case at these events, with a shout-out to Melvina Lathan, Chair of the New York State Athletic Commission; opening remarks by Barry Baum, the Vice-President of Communications at Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, the sales and marketing arm of the Barclays Center, and Richard Schaefer, the CEO of Golden Boy Promotions; and even a surprise appearance by controversial Atlantic Yards developer Bruce C. Ratner.

De La Hoya, dressed casual-but-chic, in blue jeans, a tattersall checkered shirt and heather wool blazer, his face fuller and hair longer, looked like the very incarnation of an athlete-cum-businessman, still boyishly handsome, disarming and sleek. His platitudes about bringing big-time professional boxing back to Brooklyn, “starting now, with the kids that train at Gleason’s,” went down easily. We nodded in agreement when he claimed, “Brooklyn deserves it.”

Backing up his promise to be a role model to the amateurs of USA Boxing Metro,
Oscar held a clinic in one of Gleason’s three boxing rings, but not before a photo opportunity that had the Golden Boy swarmed with photographers and fans thrusting gloves up for him to sign. The jockeying for position was so intense that de la Hoya was muscled some 12 feet back from the podium, pinned against the ring where the clinic was scheduled. (I had a fleeting thought that the situation called for bodyguards, then remembered the champ--the first boxer in history to win world titles in six different weight divisions-- would have no problem defending himself should things get rough.)

There were plenty of us not part of the news media or avid fan base, milling around Gleason’s vast 14,000-square-foot floor: the regular gym rats, sporting thick gold chains and crosses, buzz cuts inlaid with lightning or yin/yang designs. Some came to train, dancing in the ring or punching heavy bags, seemingly oblivious to the hubbub around them. The din was punctuated by grunts and the slamming of bodies in the wrestling arena. Roaming like jackals were suited white guys with too much hair product--promoters, managers, publicity flacks—slapping their fighters on the arm, holding up an index finger (the universal sign for “We’re No. 1”) and delivering, a bit too self-consciously, the soul handshake. The women not working were all over-dressed, wedged into sausage casings and tottering on too-high heels. This also seems part of the fight game.

Soon paper barricades were ripped off and the center ring was crowded with a dozen USA Boxing Metro teenagers, all shadowboxing, cocky and sweet and twitchy with nerves. I clamored up on the ring apron and my eye went to the two lone girls, both sporting Gleason’s T-shirts, ponytails and braces; the flashier of the two chosen by the Golden Boy to throw punches at his upraised hands, his eyes twinkling in delight.

De la Hoya alternated correcting the stances of his young acolytes with flashing a dimpled smile towards the cameras, his attention divided between duties as trainer and spokesman. He pulled no punches when it came to exploiting his matinee-idol good looks and charm. The media pressed together on the ring apron, leaning in for a better view; the kids prancing, pivoting, throwing double and triple jabs, bobbing and weaving, their shoulders shrugging like real contenders.

One dad thrust his two-year-old son into the arms of the former champ; the cameras flashed and whirled. De la Hoya held the boy’s tiny fist and waved it for the press. The baby, his Mets cap half-obscuring his face, looked dazed and confused, unaware of the great man’s stature in this boxing mecca.

On my way out, I shook hands with Jack Hirsch, President of the Boxing Writers of America, in conversation with Bruce Silverglade, Gleason’s owner. Bruce allowed that the deal between Golden Boy Promotions and Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment would be good for boxing in Brooklyn and in New York in general, inspiring other promoters like Lou DiBella and Joe DeGuardia to put on more fights.

I clomped down the two flights of stairs, happy to feel the cool night breeze. There on the sidewalk before me was Bert Sugar, boxing writer, editor and sports historian, biting on his signature cigar under a wide-brimmed fedora, and by whose very presence blessed the event, a true Pope of the Fistic Science.