Philadelphia Feature

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Philadelphia's Other Legacy: Boxing

Ask a lot of people what they know about Philadelphia, and after a brief mention of the Liberty Bell, they'll probably bring up the boxing epic Rocky. Indeed, Philadelphia has played a vital role in the history of boxing.

In the 1880s, saloons owned by ex-bare-knuckle fighters had unlicensed bouts in their back rooms; venues such as the Ariel Club were hosting regular matches by the 1890s. Prizefighting was illegal until 1884, so matches were deemed six-round exhibitions in which no decision was rendered. Gamblers outwitted the law by consulting newspaper verdicts the next day.

Outdoor boxing started in 1914 and continued for more than 40 years. Most memorable was the mythical 1926 battle between two "outsiders," or non-Philadelphians: heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey versus Gene Tunney at Sesquicentennial Stadium. Tunney upset the "Manassa Mauler" in a 10-round decision beneath a relentless rainstorm as 120,000 people watched.

The 1920s saw Philadelphia fighters rise to contention in nearly every weight class, and the onset of the Depression in the 1930s failed to hinder Philadelphia's boxing scene. Jewish brawler Lew Tendler, Strawberry Mansion's Harry Blitman, Tommy Loughran, and Big George Godfrey were feared throughout the boxing world. Midget Wolgast—at 5 feet, 3 inches and 108 pounds—was one of the all-time greats of the flyweight division, and there was the colorful "Two-Ton" Tony Galento, a 5-foot, 9-inch, 240-pounder whose diet and training were primarily focused on beer drinking. Convention Hall opened in 1932, and hosted such historic fights as Steve "Hurricane" Hamas's upset over Germany's legendary boxer Max Schmeling.

Camden's Jersey Joe Walcott was the region's first heavyweight champ, but he lost to Rocky Marciano in 1952 in what Herman Taylor, a Philly promoter and icon for nearly 70 years, called "the greatest heavyweight fight I ever looked at." Sonny Liston was based in North Philly from 1958 to 1962, and Joe Frazier—who would go on to beat Muhammad Ali—first put on his gloves in Philadelphia.

Although Rocky brought Philly boxing to the national consciousness, the city lost its standing for major boxing events in the 1980s, when casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, began to draw the big matches. But the culture of boxing continues in such venues as the Blue Horizon and the Arena, and storied gyms such as Joe Hand's continue to produce good, old-fashioned "Philadelphia fighters."

Updated: 08-2013

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