The first person recognized as the World Heavyweight Champion of Boxing was John L. Sullivan. According to Wikipedia, he was “a cultural icon of the late 19th century America, arguably the first boxing superstar and one of the world's highest-paid athletes of his era.” Sullivan was the son of Irish immigrants. He defeated a fellow Irish-American, Paddy Ryan, to gain his title. Although Ryan had the title, he was not considered the “world” champion because he did not face opponents outside the United States. To complete this Celtic circle, Sullivan defended his title for seven years until losing to another Irish-American, James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.
People from Ireland had been immigrating to the United States since the 1700s. With the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s, immigration increased dramatically. The Irish established a sizeable footprint in Eastern cities like New York and Boston. They were poor and worked as low-wage laborers in the cities where they settled. They were also openly discriminated against, as illustrated by this 1954 New York Times advertisement.
Some of the best boxers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries came from this environment of manual labor, poverty, and discrimination.
The Irish as Natural Fighters?
One answer would be that the Irish are “natural” fighters. Something in their DNA makes it easier for them to punch and be punched. A similar - but more subtle - argument would be that the Irish are not that intelligent. When a group has a lower IQ on average, so the argument goes, fewer members from that group will end up in positions that require education. The Irish were laborers, not lawyers, pugilists, and not professors, because of their lack of intellectual abilities.
Although there are still pockets of people who attempt to make these arguments, they are primarily (and luckily) on the fringes of modern social science.
Another possible answer is to look at the culture of Irish Americans. Maybe there is something about how the Irish view the world and live their lives that lend itself to boxing. Living a hand-to-mouth existence on blighted farms in Ireland or the mean streets of Boston and New York makes for people inured to violence and welcoming of aggression. These hardened Irish men were simply too much for the gentile WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the staid Swedes, and the conscientious Germans who dared step into the ring with them.
This argument can be enlightening when we properly understand the origins of culture. Groups respond to environmental conditions. And so yes, a group of kids who grew up on crime-ridden streets filled with alcoholic adults and violent gangs will adopt different behavior patterns than those who grow up in a quiet, wealthy hamlet filled with servants and ponies.
The critical verb in this story is to respond. There is nothing inherently Irish here. It is simply a group responding to an environment. A proper understanding of group cultural patterns would acknowledge that it is not the culture of a group but the culture of an environment.
But even the cultural explanation leaves me wanting.
People are not simply reacting to their environment like a robot. They are responding, yes, but they are also thinking beings capable of understanding the meaning and purpose of the behaviors they adopt. The kid of Irish immigrants who joins a gang is doing so because it benefits him in some way - self-esteem, money, and protection. If their behaviors are not helping them reach their goals or there is a better way to reach them, they’ll try something else. If those same kids had options that were less likely to lead to their death but offer the same rewards, many would choose the safer path.
Now I can answer why Irish Americans dominated professional boxing at the turn of the Twentieth Century: opportunity structure.
Late sociologist Robert K. Merton argued that most people in a society share similar understandings of success. In the United States, it is economic success. However, everyone has different access to the legal means to reach those goals. Merton argues that there are differences in the opportunity structure for individuals in society. Merton argued that people could choose illegal means of achieving their goals - robbery and theft, for example. But the opportunity structure is about what a person’s legal options are to reach goals.
Irish immigrants like John L. Sullivan, Paddy Ryan, and James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett wanted to make money just like most other people in the country at that time. But what options did they have?
They or their parents immigrated to America under the bleakest of circumstances. Unlike Jewish immigrants, who often came with skills or some level of literacy, most Irish immigrants came as former farmers now faced with making a living in an urban environment. They had little education and few skills to leverage. Unlike many immigrants from the continents of Asia and Africa today, they did not come with money or from families investing in their success in the new country. And above all, they were Irish, and they lived in a time when being Irish in the United States meant being second-class citizens.
And so, if that Irish kid wants to make money and be successful, he can’t spend too much time in grade school because he has to help his family, who is likely poor. College is out of the question. Access to networks that can provide higher-wage employment would require connections with WASPs who likely look down on him. The opportunity structure for Irish men did not include working in the local bank or university.
The Meaning of a White Heavyweight Champion
Readers may not have heard of Sullivan, Ryan, or Corbett. But they may have heard of Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. Dempsey may be the most well-known Irish-American fighter. And then there was James Braddock, the champion from 1935 to 1937. A portion of Braddock’s career was popularized in the Russell Crowe movie Cinderella Man.
In post-World War II America, the opportunity structure of Irish Americans (and most white ethnics) shifted to mirror the opportunity structure of wider white society. The children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants could put down the boxing gloves and pick up slide rules.
With respect to some outstanding Italian-American and Hispanic boxers, American boxing has been, until recently, dominated by African-Americans. Muhammad Ali, Suga Ray Leanord, and Mike Tyson come to mind.
The reason why black Americans gravitated to boxing and other sports are the same reasons that Irish boxers did: their opportunity structure. At this point in American history, African-Americans are distributed throughout the class structure - they are no longer universally poor. Overt discrimination is no longer a significant factor in their lives. But in the 1940s-1990s, there were large pockets of black America characterized by intense poverty and wealth deprivation, drug and alcohol addiction, crimes, isolation from middle and upper-class job networks, and over-policing. Boxing - as well as other sports, are seen as possible means to success for black Americans.
So it is no surprise to me when I watch Showtime boxing and see representatives from poor populations - black Americans, Hispanics - particularly from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and individuals from Eastern European countries. These athletes have chosen dangerous occupations that could have long-term health consequences because their opportunity structure does not include middle-class, white-collar occupations requiring educational investment.
I end with this: what will it say about American society if white people begin dominating boxing?
I’m not talking about the white fighters — often from Europe who come along sporadically and become champions like Tyson Fury (shown below). I am talking about a sport in which we routinely see white boxers in the ring against each other, competing for titles. I am talking about white boxers being at the top of the rankings in several weight classes, from heavyweight to featherweight. I am talking about the white fighters not being from Europe but the grandchildren of the Greatest Generation — white families who experienced tremendous economic growth and upward mobility post World War II.
It would mean we have undergone a significant shift in the class structure of the United States, where white Americans share the same opportunity structure as people of color. I don’t know if that is good or bad.
Hope the opportunity structure opens up.