Listing some old ring rituals and conventions that are no longer in use
SENIOR fight fans have seen boxing transformed in recent decades. True, the fundamentals are the same – a referee, a crowd and two gloved gladiators bound by rules – but boxing today has a different feel than it had years ago. Ring card girls, flamboyant ring entrances, booming entrance music and spite-fuelled press conferences are things young fans take for granted, while veteran devotees will recall a simpler, purer approach to promoting. In the digital age, the garishness has moved up a gear. Fighters now routinely engage in social media jousts, misbelieving that bouts cannot be ‘sold’ without bad taste and animosity. This is just the latest trend in an ever-changing sport. But what about the old ring rituals and conventions we’ve lost? Below, I’ve picked out a few.
Anyone who has studied photos or film of pre-war fighters will know that boxing boots then reached barely above the ankle. The soles were leather and the boxers shuffled their feet in a resin tray, kept by their seconds, to help their boots grip the canvas. The aroma of resin was familiar to ringsiders. In the 1970s and ’80s, however, rubber-soled boots replaced leather-soled ones and resin trays were jettisoned.
Watch old fight footage shot at the Covent Garden National Sporting Club and you’ll see cornermen frantically flapping towels between rounds in front of their fighters’ faces to cool them down. This seemingly prudent practice was already dying out by the 1950s. “If I was managing a fighter, I would insist on the use of a towel during the intervals between rounds,” ex-world champion Freddie Mills told Boxing News in 1954. “It’s very refreshing, cools down a heated body and slows the heart action.” When asked the reason for the decline of towel-flapping, Mills cited the influence of American trainers. “Our seconds get thinking that perhaps they are oldfashioned and drop a good and longestablished practice merely in imitation of people who know no more than they do.”
The ‘pivot punch’
The ‘pivot punch’ (or ‘swivel punch’) is a foul under the rules of boxing, but in practice it probably hasn’t been seen in a ring within living memory. To pull off this unusual punch the boxer swivels round 360 degrees, keeping one arm outstretched, the momentum of the swivel creating enough force to knock a man out. But since the boxer turns his head away it is difficult to judge where the punch will land, which is probably why it was outlawed. Canada’s George Lablanche used the ‘pivot punch’ to knock out Jack Dempsey (“The Nonpareil”, not the “Manassa Mauler”) in a world middleweight title fight in 1889. But Lablanche’s claim to the crown was dismissed because of his use of the blow.
Small hall atmosphere
Atmosphere is what older fans seem to miss most about the old-time small halls. Nowadays, football-style chants fill boxing halls, along with incongruous blasts of electronic music in the intervals between rounds. Years ago, part of the charm of fight-going was to hear the wisecracks and witticisms that echoed round the hall. This and the buzz created by the bookmakers and gamblers who swarmed round the ring all added to the ambience. Trainers and seconds wore white clothes and pre-war British referees often worked outside the ring on a raised ringside chair. If a fight was good, the crowd threw ‘nobbins’ (i.e. money) into the ring and the boxers went round with a hat each to collect the cash. This supplied a much-needed supplement to their modest purses.
Today, the noble art is not what it was. There are too many weights, too many world titles, too many mismatches and too many phoney quarrels. But wade through the nonsense and boxing is still boxing; a sport that can be beautiful or ugly, can inspire or sicken, but one whose capacity for action, unpredictability and sheer visceral thrill is beyond compare.