The South: Land of Heavyweight Boxing Champions

floyd patterson

The South in the twentieth century has embraced any number of northern athletic imports and made them her own. Arguably, the South has produced the premier basketball player in Michael Jordan, the top baseball player in Ty Cobb, and the greatest football player in Jim Brown. Boxing, however, is not a sport that one associates with Southern bred champions.

The modern sport of boxing was codified in the British Isles in the middle of the nineteenth century. Boxers from Great Britain would dominate the sport until the turn of the century when Americans dominated the sports glamour division, the heavyweights. Two Southerners were among these early champions: Marvin Hart of Louisville, Kentucky and the great Jack Johnson of Galveston, Texas. The first golden age of the heavyweight division during the 1920s and 1930s saw the division dominated by three legendary fighters of Irish heritage: Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and Jim Braddock. Dempsey was from Colorado; Tunney and Braddock were both from New York. Braddock gave a harsh boxing lesson to one John “Corn” Griffin, a leading contender from Florida. The man who destroyed Braddock and definitively broke the Irish-American hold on the heavyweight crown was the incomparable Joe Louis, a native of Alabama. The next Southern native to hold the belt after Louis was the underrated Ezzard Charles.

What is most curious is that during the heavyweight division’s second golden age (1959-1975) every heavyweight champion save one (Ingemar Johansson, a Swede) was a native of the South, as were some of the leading contenders. The roll of honor is thus: Floyd Patterson was a native of North Carolina, Sonny Liston hailed from Arkansas, Muhammad Ali was from Louisville, Kentucky, Ernie Terrell was from Mississippi, Jimmy Ellis was a Louisville, Kentucky native, Joe Frazier was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, and George Foreman was a son of the Lone Star State. What of some of the era’s great contenders? Buster Mathis was from Mississippi, the devastating puncher Ernie Shavers was a native of Alabama, and while the tough Jerry Quarry was born in southern California, he came out of the Okie culture of that place, his father having been a native of Oklahoma and his mother a native of Arkansas.

With the exceptions of Ali and Ellis, the South’s great heavyweight boxers were part of a larger twentieth century southern diaspora, mostly African-American, in Quarry’s case Okie, which had an enormous impact upon the sport. They brought with them their rare physical abilities and mental acumen to northern trainers like Angelo Dundee, Cus D’Amato, Yank Durham, and Gil Clancy to be tutored in the punishing arts of the sweet science. They would live in Miami, New York, and Philadelphia; they trained in gyms such as Gleason’s in New York, Front Street in Philadelphia, or Fifth Street in Miami. These men absorbed their lessons well; many boxing experts will attest that the pugilists of the two golden ages have no peers today. The South never embraced boxing in the full hearted way it embraced football, basketball, and baseball. Nevertheless, she produced sons like Floyd Patterson who ennobled the sport, or sons like Ali and Frazier, who took the sport to heights never to be seen again.

About John Devanny

John Devanny holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina. Dr. Devanny resides in Front Royal, Virginia, where he writes, tends garden, and occasionally escapes to bird hunt or fly fish.. More from John Devanny

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