On January 16, the Golden Globes kick off the Hollywood awards season, so it seems a good time to examine a particular type of film--the professional boxing story. Fight films generally prove popular with the public and also usually succeed in raking in the awards.
This year we have David O. Russell's excellent film, The Fighter starring Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, and Amy Adams. In previous years there have been other very successful fight films including Cinderella Man (2005), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Raging Bull (1980), and of course, the almighty Rocky movies, beginning in 1976.
While the popularity of these stories may start with the fact that these films bring to life the classic underdog-to-hero storyline, it is fascinating to note that the world of boxing remains a popular setting for this theme, despite the fact that few Americans today would be found in a ring themselves.
I hope readers will weigh in with whether the reason filmmakers select this setting is because boxing presents the opportunity for the ultimate contest of man-against-man, or whether the pleasure for viewers is partly derived because on some basic level audiences enjoy watching a certain level of organized brutality, particularly if the one getting the pummeling is perceived as a "bad guy." (Bullfighting, still popular in Spain, may hold a similar allure.)
The Highlights of the Sport's Popularity
Boxing dates back to early man who almost certainly faced off against one another over food or women or hunting territory. In ancient Greece, boxing was part of the original Olympic Games, because the Greeks believed that it was a sport practiced by the gods.
The sport as we know it traces back to England where the "noble science of self-defense" became popular in the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, England had numerous boxing schools and academies, and boxing was seen as an equalizer in society because it required nothing more than will and fist power--no expensive equipment necessary.
The basic rules of the sport that are followed today date to 1867 and are known as the Queensberry rules. The most significant change that occurred with the adoption of these rules was the requirement that boxers wear gloves. This drastically changed the nature of fighting. Bare-fisted boxers used their fists somewhat more timidly and with a different strategy, as they needed to protect their hands. Once their fists were in gloves, a fighter's punches became harder and therefore, more deadly.
The use of boxing gloves increased the number of knockouts, and fighters often sustain head injuries as a result of the blows, something that was much less common previously. (There are numerous examples of the ill effects of one's head being a punching bag; none better known than Muhammad Ali.)
Fighting in the U.S.
During the nineteenth century, boxing in America often pitted culture against culture; a popular match-up was one between arch enemies from their native land--men of British descent sparring against immigrants from Ireland.
By the end of the century, boxing got a boost from none other than Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Roosevelt had suffered asthma as a child so as he regained strength, he looked to build his physique, and boxing was among the sports he advocated to create "strong and powerful" men.
As police commissioner in New York City from 1895-96 and then as assistant secretary of the Navy from 1896-98, Roosevelt encouraged his police officers to train in boxing and he recommended that the sport be added to the activities in the YMCAs. Later, he added it as a requirement for men of the Armed Services. Roosevelt himself boxed well into his presidency, stopping only after he suffered a detached retina.
During these years, professional boxing was wildly popular but it was illegal in many communities. The possible dangers of the sport were not why it was outlawed; it was banned in many areas because it attracted betting, and where there was betting, there was corruption. States found the easiest way to stamp out corruption was to ban professional fights.
As with prohibition, creative minds set to work to find ways around this. Soon promoters scheduled fights on barges, placing them just outside local jurisdiction. Or sometimes organizers created "clubs" where men were allowed to pay to become members and therefore were eligible to witness the fights.
Real Underdogs Used Boxing as a Toehold
Like the story arcs in movies today, the men of the twentieth century often used boxing as a way to come up in the world. Long before Jackie Robinson could break color barriers in baseball in the mid-1940s, Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was the first black man to become heavyweight champion of the world (1908).
Jack Dempsey (1895-1983), the "Manassa Mauler, "was the quintessential fellow who made good via boxing as a poor boy who grew up in Colorado and became a heavyweight champion.
Boxing took on world significance when, in 1938, American Joe Louis (1914-1981) was to go up against German boxer Max Schmeling (1905-2005), who was said to be a huge favorite of Hitler's. President Franklin Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House to wish him well before the fight. FDR was to have told Louis, "Joe, we're depending on those muscles for America." Though Louis had lost to Schmeling previously, Louis knocked out Schmeling in less than two minutes.
Popularity Expands with Televised Coverage
When television executives looked around for ways to expand their programming in the late 1940s and '50s, boxing was the perfect sport. Unlike baseball, football, or basketball, which requires multiple cameras in order to provide good coverage, televising the fights was simple in comparison. Two opponents and no equipment made it an inexpensive and exciting type of programming. The Gillette Friday Night Fights began in those years and proved to be one of the most popular boxing series in American history.
While boxing today still draws big audiences and is a staple in pay cable programming, today allegiances among sports fans and audiences are more likely to be built around the team sports like football, basketball, hockey, and baseball, where teams start out with a base because of their geographic location.
But the success and popularity of films about professional boxing remind us that America loves its heroes...and a hero is even more beloved if he (or she, we can't forget Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby) start out as an underdog and become a winner.
But underdog stories could take place in any setting. Why do filmmakers keep returning to boxing, a sport that not that many people participate in anymore?
Do they keep returning to this sport for a background because it's the perfect person-against-person competition, testing a character's mental and physical ability, or do they return because at some basic level, audiences take pleasure in watching someone get pummeled, particularly if the pummeled one seems to represent "evil"?
And if you'd like to read more about everyday American heroes, please visit www.americacomesalive.com, and test your knowledge of American history with my weekly Fact or Fiction questions at www.facebook.com/americacomesalive.