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A Blow Struck for Boxing

The staggering commercial and cultural success of the Carpentier-Dempsey promotion constituted a powerful punch in the nose to the active anti-boxing lobby of the era. The fact that Dempsey and Carpentier were the first of a new breed of athletic/media superstar is significant; they acquired a status that carried with it almost incalculable commercial and cultural weight and that weight accrued to the sport of boxing itself. Carpentier-Dempsey served as an unambiguous demonstration of the fact that boxing could be both extremely popular and extremely lucrative.  Both the emotion and the money that the public was willing –even eager-- to invest in the bout and the hype surrounding it served as unambiguous proof of the appeal of the sport to large numbers of people.  The fight was a referendum on the worthiness of boxing itself and America (and in fact the entire Western world) responded overwhelmingly in the affirmative.

On the other side of the question, ministers from virtually all the Protestant denominations had gone on record against the fight and against professional boxing in general. They wrote editorials and preached sermons detailing the evils of the practice, the various ways in which two men trying to harm each other, in front of witnesses and for money, was an immoral act.  Much of the anti-boxing discourse is quoted and rehearsed in an editorial that appeared in The Literary Digest several weeks after the contest (July 30), revealingly entitled “The ‘Carbuncle’of Boyle’s Thirty Acres”:

“A moral carbuncle” is the denunciatory description given by Dr. John Roach Straton, a prominent Baptist minister of New York, to the recent Dempsey-Carpentier championship fight, and a chorus of religious editors joins him in rebuking the “90,000 criminals” who witnessed the bout and the two “brutes” who bloodied each other’s noses.

It is fairly clear, of course, from this opening sentence that the editorialist is taking at least a mildly ironic, if not downright mocking, stance vis-à-vis the anti-boxing reformers.  The phrase “moral carbuncle” seems destined to provoke a smile, as do the hysterical references, given between quotation marks, to spectators as “criminals” and boxers as “brutes.” A counter-balancing perspective is suggested by the sly pointing out of the fact that the only actual physical harm the two men did to each was to bloody each other’s noses.  All of the passages quoted from religious publications decrying the fight tend to the overtly hysterical end of the spectrum and were clearly chosen expressly for that reason.  For example, the editorial goes to quote the same Dr. Straton, quoted in the New York Times as having said that the event implied that Americans had “relapsed into paganism.”  Straton also said that the fight attracted “all those elements whose influences are making for the overthrow of our American ideals and customs.”

Other anti-boxing commentators, writing after the fight, are no less melodramatic and paranoid.  Puzzlingly, The Christian Work, a non-denominational publication, said of Carpentier-Dempsey: “Of course, it was not a boxing match. And no one supposed it was.”  The same publication opines that, in the wake of the popular bout, “bull-fights and gladiatorial combats will probably be revived.” For its part, The Christian Century takes heart in its belief that there was “a certain disgust in the attitude of mind with which a large portion of the reading public received the news of the results already discounted by expectation.” Optimistically, the unidentified writer for the publication states his belief that public opinion-- of the good, upstanding, Christian kind-- will eventually bury prizefighting, just as it had closed down the barrooms:

The prize-fight, no matter what the stakes or how distributed, is an outlaw in the civilized world.  It must oppose an ever-growing and healthy public opinion.  It must seek furtively an area where the conscience of the community, or of public officials, is lax and corruptible.  Like the saloon, it will not long be able to find a place where immunity from a proper regard for law, order, and decency can be secured.  It is an outlaw and a pariah.

The Daily American Tribune, a Catholic publication, rejoices over the fact that Carpentier-Dempsey has become now a thing of the past: “Thanks be to God, the ‘great’ day of shame, national shame, is over!”  The blame for the entire “shameful” affair is laid squarely on the press: “The bloody sport […] was made the center of public attention for weeks, owing to the news agencies and publishers of the thousands of dailies that served the financial interests, pulling the strings, especially the purse-strings, of the American public.” For The Universalist Leader, a publication of the Universalist denomination (which would, decades later, merge with Unitarianism) the blame lies squarely with the press for having brought the entire sordid mess into respectable American homes and, in so doing, corrupted otherwise innocent youths:

[…] the prime evil is the conducting of this school of crime and forcing its text-books into the hands and homes of America.  And we, the dear people, as we see the laws against gambling swept aside, and all the finer traits of manhood smothered in a delirium of passion and greed, must suffer for it.  It will take years to bring back our youth to sober sanity from these months of beastly intoxication incited by our newspapers.

It is difficult to imagine what specific content of the newspaper coverage is being alluded to here.  Surely the endless stream of petty details about the boxers’ training regimes was not “intoxicating,” nor were the predictions about the contest’s outcome.  As for the more purple prose surrounding the event, the most salient tendency was that of flowery, philosophical musings on the virtues of sportsmanship, chivalry, personal courage and duty to country, hardly the stuff of “beastly intoxication.”  It is clearly the simple fact of the volume of press coverage surrounding a boxing match that rankles the anti-boxing pundit here.

The Literary Digest editorialist also cites, however, the opposing viewpoint.  An editorial in the New Haven Journal-Courier says that such hysterical anti-boxing rhetoric is in fact a symptom of the reformer’s awareness that their admonitions are not being heeded.  Anti-boxing pundits “talk this way, impugning motives here and blackening characters there, because they have lost their tempers at the disinclination of people to follow them.”  The New Haven paper draws a comparison between the ad hominem smear tactics employed in the battle over the ratification of Prohibition, when any opponent of the amendment was accused of being a “rummy” and suggests that “now others are catching it for similar reasons.” Particularly pointed in the Journal-Courier editorial is the idea that the reformers are in fact seeking to squelch dissent altogether, to repress free speech:

Anywhere the man or woman who dares to have an original thought or independent air at once finds himself or herself shot full of imaginary holes by these intemperate guardians of other people’s business, these self-constituted administrators of other people’s morals.

In so doing, the editorial goes on to say, they are turning people away from their agenda rather than converting them to it:

We may perhaps suggest to these people that they are increasingly driving sane and sober people away from their stand—and because of the vulgarity of their methods.  It is time they learned that American citizens do not propose to be reformed by their methods, which have been tested and found wanting.  A blind man can see the resentment that is expressing itself in every section of the country, not because they lack human sympathy with the moral condition these exuberant folks are blunderingly trying to set up, but because they are intemperate and insolent, overbearing and dictatorial.

The fact that the Literary Digest editorial ends on this note makes clear its own stance on the question.  The piece is comprised almost exclusively of quotations but the choice of quotations and the manner in which they are presented leave little room for doubt about the orientation of the editorialist: the hysteria and intolerance of the any-boxing lobby will soon render it obsolete.

This of course is exactly what did happen. The fact of the matter is that the opinions expressed by the New Haven Journal-Courier and endorsed, albeit implicitly, by the Literary Digest seem to have been those of the overwhelming majority of the American people, as evidenced by the complete success of everything having to do with Carpentier-Dempsey.  As Randy Roberts points out, the promotion was, among other things, a battle in which the reformers suffered a stinging defeat.  There is little evidence to suggest that significant numbers of people paid any attention to the stern anti-boxing rhetoric (and those who did pay attention to the preaching were no doubt already among the converted).  Roberts astutely points out that this widespread ignoring of ecclesiastical admonition reflects a growing secularization of American society.  For many commentators at the time, what was going on, as Roberts puts it, “less a shift toward barbarism than an indication of the weakening of the power of the pulpit.”[1] 

[1] It is important to note that not everyone saw boxing as antithetical to the Christian life. On the contrary, some considered the two quite compatible. The outspoken leader of the movement to legalize boxing in the state of New York was Anthony Drexel Biddle. Biddle, an avid amateur boxer, was also a communicant of Holy Trinity Church (Episcopal), Philadelphia, where he conducted remarkably muscular Bible classes for men, which famously included boxing instruction, as memorialized to comic effect in the Disney film The Happiest Millionaire (1967, with Fred MacMurray as Biddle). Return to text