It’s not too dramatic a statement to say that this week’s launch of Barry Hugman’s History of World Championship Boxing presents a complete re-assessment of the sport’s past – especially the murky early days of gloved boxing, beginning in 1871.
It has taken Hugman 20 years of international digging and approximately 2.5 million words but he’s finally completed the biggest work of his life. Not only that, it’s available for all to read, for free, via BoxRec.com.
Building on the extensive work of his historian colleague Harold Alderman MBE, Hugman, 71, decided to set out and dispel the myths which have been in place since former Ring editor Nat Fleischer started his Ring Record Book in 1942, which continued until 1987.
“It’s not that I’ve re-written history,” said Hugman. “It’s just that it wasn’t done properly in the first place. I wouldn’t have done it had they got it right in the first place. I wouldn’t have had to.”
One irritation Hugman has is what he perceives to be the American bias of early boxing history. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time when boxing was dominated by the two superpowers of Britain and America. Yet in the days before transatlantic flight, the very distance between the two countries made it easy to avoid making the really big fights, therefore resulting in more claimants than there should have been.
“English and American claimants issued challenges but rarely crossed the sea,” observes Hugman. “Often the American history talks about ‘our fighters’ when many of them, such as Jimmy McLarnin (pictured), Nonpareil Jack Dempsey, Jack McAuliffe and, of course, Bob Fitzsimmons, were born in Britain.
“Britain never had a Nat Fleischer so he had it all his own way, he was never challenged. However he was, at best, dealing with American titles at certain weights prior to 1920.
“The Ring Record Book was very black and white. Fleischer just wanted one champion, a line of succession, so he chose who he wanted from the early days and ignored a lot of other legitimate claimants. Had he started in 1920 when weight classes between Britain and America started to come together, that would have been easier. But I suppose he just looked at the best of the past and chose one. He was probably right but that’s hardly the point.
“For example, the welterweight division became clear in 1916 when Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis fought Jack Britton – two outstanding men – and the winner had the right to be called the champion. But prior to that there were about ten claimants who have been missed out of the history books.
“Before 1920, everyone was a claimant apart from, perhaps, the heavyweight line of succession, but even there, prior to Jack Johnson v Tommy Burns (1908), black fighters weren’t allowed to box for the title so how can the ‘world champion’ have really been the ‘world champion’?”
Hugman splits the early history of boxing into two periods, in his own mind if not in his work: 1871 to 1909 and then 1909 to 1920. 1909 is a significant date because it’s when the National Sporting Club introduced eight weights; prior to this, there had been many weight classes in Britain separated only by two pounds each. The many weights boxed at, and the fact that there was no accepted classes between Britain and America, was the most difficult aspect of trying to find coherence. 1920 is another significant date because it was the year in which the New York State Athletic Commission was founded, followed a year later by the National Boxing Association (in America). These bodies helped create a more coherent picture both in terms of weights and titlists. The British Boxing Board of Control was founded in 1929 and built on the earlier National Sporting Club.
One of the main concerns relating to the health of the sport today is there are so many different claimants and nobody knows who is the ‘real’ champion. As Hugman explains, this is certainly not a new phenomenon.
“It was just as bad if not worse 100 years ago. A boxing fan 100 years ago wouldn’t be able to say who the real champion was. Impossible.
“Promoters and boxers just claimed titles. Fighters would put money down for a title challenge with a sporting paper and if it was not taken up, they would just claim the title.”
As a life-long historian, Hugman has, unlike Fleischer before him, avoided making his own pronouncements in the text. He does have a warning for potential readers though.
“It’s not a reading book. If it was in print it would be an encyclopedia. It would be a miracle for someone to take in.”
So why didn’t Hugman publish it in print? He’s made a good career out of books and has written definitive series on both football (six editions of the PFA Premier & Football League Players’ Records; 16 editions of the PFA Footballers’ Who’s Who) and boxing (26 editions of the BBBoC’s British Boxing Yearbook) as well as successful forays into horse racing, swimming and the Olympic Games.
“This isn’t about the money. Think what it would have cost! It’s taken me 20 years and I’ve been all around the world looking in libraries.
“I’ve had a good life and I’ve been able to afford to do this. This is about me putting something back. It’s about posterity.”
Boxing fans should be thankful to Hugman and, he always insists on pointing out, the other historians and chroniclers who have helped him, most notably the aforementioned Alderman. It’s yet another reason to be thankful for BoxRec.com too, which has revolutionised the public’s access to the sport. This weighty addition is a significant advancement for all concerned.
Boxing historians in particular will look at this resource with enthusiasm but also with some trepidation…the history of the sport, especially its early days, has been re-assessed. Sparks, newspapers, sepia programmes, pencils, glasses and anoraks will all fly.