For at least a generation, boxing’s cultural impact has declined in the United States. Seemingly everyone involved with the sport—from promoters to fans—has offered opinions about how to restore boxing to the mass popularity it last enjoyed when Mike Tyson was a household name. One line of thinking holds that boxing’s popularity rests with its heavyweight division. Another claims that boxing’s popularity would return as soon as a boxer from the United States won a heavyweight championship from the Europeans who have controlled that division in recent years. But, when Deontay Wilder, a 6’7,” wild-swinging, power-puncher from Alabama, won a title in January 2015, the sport did not revive as predicted. Lost in the urge to resuscitate boxing is the fact that the sport is popular, just not in the demographic with which marketers are primarily concerned, the white middle-class. Boxing in the United States has become a mostly Mexican sport. This change has been unfolding for more than a century.
For most of its history, boxing has fluctuated between societal acceptance and rejection. Boxing provoked particular scorn during the bare-knuckle era, when most contests occurred in secrecy, out of fear of police intervention. The lower classes of society—gamblers, drunks, and brothel masters, as they were perceived by their “betters”—commonly attended. But during the late twentieth century, a change in governing rules helped boxing gain social respectability. Among the most important changes, a set of regulations—known as the Marquess of Queensberry rules—disallowed hugging and wrestling, placed three-minute limits on rounds, added a ten-second count after each knock down, and most importantly, called for gloved fists.
As boxing evolved from its Queensberry rules and the sport won new popularity, universities—including several among the ivy leagues—instituted boxing programs. Students who participated, members of the upper-class, noted the distinction between prizefighting and boxing. Prizefighting maintained its negative connotations. Conversely, especially in the era of Muscular Christianity, upper-class practitioners promoted boxing as an acceptable, even admirable sport, with the self-discipline, manliness, and training it required. But always, they emphasized the difference between amateurs who boxed for the sake of health and prizefighters who fought to make their living.
This distinction was pivotal. Prizefighting in the United States’s populous, eastern regions was outlawed in the late nineteenth-century. As that occurred, the sport moved to the country’s western and southern regions where few laws prohibited prizefighting. With this move, prizefighting also arrived at the United States-Mexico borderland. Indeed, photographs of early prizefights along Mexico’s northern borderlands reveal them to have been fought in the middle of the desert, close to either side of the Rio Grande.
The Mexican Revolution also caused boxing to spread into Mexico. In 1914, Pancho Villa, who wished to add to his war chest, sought to stage a world title fight in Ciudad Juárez between Jack Johnson and Jess Willard. Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, lived in self-exile after a racially-motivated jury convicted him of violating the Mann Act. Because of his conviction, Johnson could not travel to the Mexican border town through the United States. Because Villa’s foe, Venustiano Carranza, controlled the Mexican coastlines, promoters moved the fight from Ciudad Juárez to Cuba. During his exile, Johnson lived and boxed across Latin America until the Mexican government welcomed his as a guest in 1919. Johnson lived in Mexico until 1920 when revolutionary violence forced him to surrender to United States authorities.
After the revolution, boxing’s popularity increased. The Mexican government used sports to promote the country’s stability and, implicitly, the success of its revolution. In the 1920s, Mexico took part in international sports competitions as a way of gaining respectability. By the mid-1930s, the first so-called “golden age” of Mexican boxing (a term, to my knowledge, coined by historian Stephen D. Allen) had begun to unfold in Mexico City. During this time, Mexican boxing made inroads in the United States, again, partly as a result of the Mexican Revolution, which led to the greatest migration of Mexicans into the United States. But not until the 1960s did the second golden age of Mexican boxing flourish, this time, in Los Angeles.
In the 1960s, the influence of Mexican boxing expanded not only into the United States but also globally. In the latter months of 1963, representatives—intent on reforming and unifying the sport—from Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States attended a boxing convention in Mexico City. Out of this convention came the World Boxing Council (WBC), boxing’s first global sanctioning body. And though multiple countries founded the organization, the WBC is thoroughly Mexican. Indeed, protecting Mexican boxers from boxing promoters and managers in the United States was among its stated goals.
Among Mexico’s many boxing heroes, Julio César Chávez stands out. Active from the 1980s through the early 2000s, Chávez epitomized Mexican machismo. The so-called “Mexican Style” of boxing, which emphasizes offensive aggression while paying only minimal attention to defense—did not originate with Chávez but in modern times, it is often associated with him. Chávez was, and remains, a Mexican national hero. So impactful is his legacy that when he fought Mexican Americans, fans of Mexican heritage raised questions about the Mexican ethnic authenticity of his opponents. Those questions express concern over assimilation in the United States and the point at which an immigrant can no longer be considered “Mexican.”
Besides boxing, Chávez’s popularity has inspired corridos—Mexican folk songs—about national pride. More recently, and a testament to his persistent popularity, a telenovela entitled El César was produced and based on Chávez’s life.
So popular was Chávez that he even altered the boxing calendar. A century ago in the United States, important fights occurred on the Fourth of July. Today, the weekends of Cinco de Mayo and September 16—two Mexican holidays, even if the former is more often celebrated in the U.S.—mark boxing’s major events. Chávez popularized these Mexican holidays within the boxing world. The tradition of boxing on Mexican holidays continues with the career of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, one of the top three most popular boxers in the world.
During Alvarez’s and other Mexican boxers’ fights, fans enthusiastically wave Mexican flags, sing in Spanish, and dress in colors denoting their national pride. Spectators, both ringside and at home, would not agree with the notion that boxing is dead. Though it is true, that boxing’s demographics have changed, the sport is very much alive. Boxing is a Latino sport and that changed has occurred over 125 years.
Roberto José Andrade Franco is a freelance writer and doctoral candidate in history at Southern Methodist University. His dissertation focuses on the impact of boxing on identity, specifically Mexican and Mexican American. You can follow him on twitter, @R_AndradeFranco.