A Closer Look: Race and Boxing in Black and White

By Sean Newman
Updated: November 7, 2005

NEW YORK, NY–There is no denying that the issue of race has reared its ugly head in the sport of boxing many times in the past and, on a more subtle level, it still does so today. Dating back to the days when white boxers like John L. Sullivan refused to even fight black men, let alone defend their titles against them, race has always been a factor in boxing; its marketability, its prevalence in the collective consciousness of society, etc. It has been used to hype fights, as it was back in the days of Jack Johnson and the Great White Hopes, and it’s been used to destroy fights, as with the fight that wasn’t between Jack Dempsey and Harry Wills. It’s not often spoken about openly, but it is there, and will be there.

Why do you think the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney match did such big business? Why do white heavyweights garner so much attention, anyway? It’s also no secret that the sport of boxing, like many of the more popular sports in the United States, is dominated by black fighters. That is a subject that is not open to debate. Deny it as much as you like, it’s a fact. The question here is whether this is a result of biological or environmental factors, or maybe a bit of both. Additionally, what drives the interest in race? And, is it wrong to pay attention to it?

Race is interwoven in the fabric of boxing history. What close follower of the sweet science can forget the aforementioned Sullivan’s reluctance to fight black boxers, or the reluctance of those who followed Sullivan’s lead? Whether this was a result of elitism, as the boxers claimed, or a fear of surrendering championships and thus giving members of the minority a cause for hope is up for debate, but in light of the emergence and subsequent dominance of African American boxers over the many past decades, the evidence weighs heavily in favor of the latter.

Who could overlook the title reign of Jack Johnson and the complete thrashing he delivered to a comebacking Jim Jeffries? That result sparked violent riots all across the nation. Even the famed author Jack London had called on Jeffries to defend the white race, demonstrating that in what was a less complicated time, complex issues were a staple at the forefront, and not shrouded in that closet that we now call political correctness.

Noted author, scholar, and former broadcaster Jon Entine spoke with Doghouse Boxing on the subject, and he thinks that the domination by black athletes in the sport as opposed to white fighters has a little to do with both genetics and environment/opportunity. Entine, however, treats this touchy (not to mention taboo) subject delicately.

“For what it’s worth, in boxing, the genetic ‘advantage’ to blacks of West Africana ancestry in some events because of faster reaction time and foot speed, is overwhelmed, frankly, by social and cultural factors,” Entine tells us. “Also, as whites have more upper body strength (on average), at the heavier weights, potential West African descent advantages might be cancelled out or even overwhelmed by genetic advantages of whites. Mixed race boxers, including Hispanics, might have some bio-cultural advantages. But all of this is VERY speculative.” In an interview with Geoff Metcalf, Entine was more specific to boxing.

“In some ways (environment) is probably more (important) than the genetic factors because boxing takes a mix of skills,” Entine said. “In fact, there will always be white heavy-hitting sluggers around; there traditionally have been. That is partly because of the natural upper body strength of whites. Whites, however, don’t tend to be as quick as the black athletes are. But you look at the ’30s and that is when Jews, believe it or not, were dominant in basketball and in boxing. Max Baer and a lot of the lower weight groups had Jewish champions.” “But wasn’t that more a function of opportunity?” Metcalf asked.

“I think it was,” Entine responded. “What I’m saying is boxing is one of those sports where most sane people don’t go after it. It really takes a toll on you in so many ways. So it really narrows the number of people who are going to go after that sport. I just don’t think that is a sport that has universal appeal anymore. It really is a ghetto sport. Many blacks won’t go into it now, just as whites stopped going into it, because they have more opportunities elsewhere. Opportunity really is a factor in boxing.” Entine’s views are expressed from a precarious position where he might easily be labeled by one unfavorable name or another, including the dreaded label ‘racist’. In fact, his views are similar to those expressed by one who has had many labels applied to him in his lifetime.

“In the modern world, black domination of boxing illustrates the physical differences created by the differing evolution of the races,” says former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and Louisiana state representative David Duke in his autobiography. “Soon after blacks were permitted to participate freely in the organized sport, they quickly asserted their superiority in it. Black athletes have muscle types that can provide quick bursts of speed, while whites tend to dominate sports that require maximum strength and endurance. Weightlifting, for example, is overwhelmingly dominated by Europeans and Asians.” Entine, author of a book entitled ‘Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sport and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It’, acknowledges that the theory exists that athletic superiority implies a corresponding deficiency in the intellectual and moral realm. He maintains however, that this theory is easily dismissed, as just because Muhammad Ali, for example, excelled at boxing, this does not mean that he must necessarily be ignorant. By the same token, Vitali Klitschko is not of substandard cognitive ability simply because he is an athlete.

“For instance, Asians have shown a clear proclivity for string instruments over many years,” Entine told the Newark Star. “Cubans are wonderful Olympic boxers. That isn’t to say Asians or Cubans are boxed into those professions, or that they can’t succeed elsewhere. Similarly, by saying African-Americans have the ability to excel in sports doesn’t automatically mean they can’t do other things well, which is the typical knee-jerk reaction people have.”

“We have to look at these things in the complexity that these issues present themselves,” Entine said in a 2000 interview with Jesse Jackson. “There are many social and cultural factors involved.” Many African American scholars agree with Entine’s conclusions, including Dr. Joseph Graves, a professor of evolutionary biology.

“Clearly cultural factors matter,” Graves has said. “However physiology matters as well and it is probably not a coincidence that the fastest and quickest boxers are of West Africa ancestry and the more plodding sluggers tend to be white.” Some of you may remember the controversial comments many years ago of one Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder, who made on-air remarks on the breeding practices of slave owners that got him fired from his broadcasting position. Even to this day, the Jimmy ‘The Greek’ scandal is a benchmark on how far to go with the issue of race in sports.

Entine says, however, that Snyder was absolutely wrong.

While the issue of black vs. white is what enamors many people with boxing (whether they admit it or not), there are a couple of exceptions to be noted. For one, this phenomenon seems almost exclusive to the heavyweight division. The color of a fighter’s skin just doesn’t seem to matter as much to some people if the boxer does not weigh over 200 pounds. Then again, most casual fans would rather watch the big boys, anyway.

Another exception is that, for some reason, the ‘Great White Hope’ tag so often applied to white heavyweight fighters does not seem to affect those born outside the United States. How many times have you heard either of the Klitschko brothers referred to as a GWH? What about Andrew Golota? Oleg Maskaev? No, foreign born fighters with fairer complexions need not apply.

On a different note but still in the same vein, is it wrong to root for a fighter on the basis of skin tone? Or is it, as Jeff Goldblum’s character said in ‘The Great White Hype’, simply a “pride in one’s tribe?” The impression here is that the latter is the more likely scenario, but white fans should be cautioned that a Mexican fan cheering for a Mexican fighter, or a Puerto Rican fan cheering for a Puerto Rican fighter is a whole different kettle from white cheering for white. Like the black comedian who makes racial jokes, there are double standards that we live with. It’s just the way it is.

We do not live in a colorblind society. As ideal and noble as that objective may be, it’s simply not so, and quite possibly never will be. And if it were, the history of boxing might not be so tragically rich. Now there’s an oxymoron for you. That, in the grand scheme of things, might be the greatest irony of all.