The gloves are off! The P4P hunt goes bareknuckle

Gary Lucken
26/06/2017 9:15am

Gary Lucken continues Boxing Monthly online's tenacious hunt for the earliest use of the phrase "pound for pound" within boxing writing - and reaches the bareknuckle era...

Readers of Boxing Monthly online will know of our ongoing search for the earliest use of the classic “pound for pound” phrase in a pugilistic context.

The hunt kicked off last year when online editor Luke G. Williams decided to examine the oft-repeated claim that the concept of a pound for pound king was created by sportswriters to describe the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson.

An extensive trawl through historic newspapers confirmed that the idea of describing the best fighter in the world regardless of weight as the pound for pound greatest did not originate in the 1940s and 50s.

Luke established that the label was actually in use decades earlier, well before Sugar Ray was even born.

And we can now reveal that boxing’s P4P expression is so old that it even predates the gloved era.

In previous articles BM online demonstrated how the term crops up in newspapers around the dawn of the 20th century when it was applied to, among others, the famed lightweight Battling Nelson in 1906.

Most notably, it was used on more than one occasion to pay tribute to the great Bob Fitzsimmons – the first boxer to ever capture world titles in three weight divisions (middleweight, heavyweight and light heavyweight).

The earliest reference we could previously trace was in the 'Old Sport’s Musings' column in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 12 June 1899 which discussed Fitz in the aftermath of his heavyweight title loss to “The Boilermaker” Jim Jeffries.

The unnamed columnist commented: “Taking him pound for pound, Bob Fitzsimmons was the greatest fighter that ever stepped into a ring… When the annals of Fistiana in the last decade of the nineteenth century are compiled, posterity – or that portion of it which will follow the boxing game – will doubtless wonder what manner of man was this that held both the heavy and the middle-weight championship.”

There the search temporarily hit a brick wall, suggesting that if the term was coined for any particular pug it was for 'Ruby Rob'.

But thanks to research by New Jersey boxing historian Gregory Joseph Speciale it is now apparent that the P4P concept dates back even further and was already in existence in the dying days of bare-knuckle fighting.

Gregory has unearthed several new uses of the pound for pound expression which are even older than the previously mentioned Fitzsimmons benchmark.

On 16 March 1899, for example, The Buffalo Commercial (New York) used the term in an article comparing the ferocious 'Terrible' Terry McGovern to the great lightweight champion George 'Kid' Lavigne.

Discussing McGovern’s recent KO victory over Patsy Haley, a win which earned him the right to fight Britain’s Pedlar Palmer for the world bantamweight crown, the paper quoted comments made by sportswriter Paul Armstrong (who later became a noted playwright).

Armstrong said: “Terrence McGovern is a champion, and it is likely will remain one no matter to what weight he grows. Boys of his mould, fibre and temperament happen only at rare intervals.

“The last one was Kid Lavigne, whom McGovern recalls in many ways. He has the same cheerful, persistent style of sturdily coming on in spite of punishment that marked the Kid of the old days; the same feints, set of head, and terrific hitting power. He recalls the Lavigne who fought (Young) Griffo and (Joe) Walcott to a remarkable degree, and pound for pound is quite as great.”

Even earlier is a P4P reference which appeared in The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago) on 8 December 1897 in a piece about the tragic fight between bantamweights Jimmy Barry and Walter Croot at London’s National Sporting Club, a bout which resulted in Croot’s death from brain injuries.

The paper reported the details surrounding the fatality before going on to discuss the relative merits of American and English boxers and commented: “It is a well-known fact… that while the middle and heavyweights of England are comparative ‘dubs’, the small men over there, pound for pound, outclass our own.”

Gregory’s research then uncovered two older articles which once again suggested the origin of the P4P term might be laid at the door of Bob Fitzsimmons.

On 9 March 1897 The Anaconda Standard (Montana) featured a front page piece by writer Joe Donovan previewing the coming battle for the world heavyweight crown between Fitz and reigning champion 'Gentleman' Jim Corbett.

Donovan ultimately, and incorrectly, tipped Corbett to win but said it was difficult to be sure who would emerge victorious and commented: “The prattle put to the front every time Fitz wins a battle, crediting it to his luck, is, in my opinion, simply bosh.

“There is not today and probably never was a man who would dare to weigh in with this fellow pound for pound and stand any chance. He is demonstrably a marvel of the fighting world who has run ahead of his class, till the monarch of the heavyweights alone blocks his path.”

POUND FOR POUND LABEL Lead Daily Call South Dakota June 19 1896And almost a year earlier a scribe named J H Headway had made similar P4P comments (more accurately they might be termed P2P remarks but the concept is clearly identical) in a column which appears to have been syndicated to a string of newspapers and which first appeared on 31 May 1896 in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana).

He wrote: “The naked truth points to the Kangaroo (Fitz) as a wonder of wonders, such a one as, pound to pound, the ring has never known the equal of.

“With him, whipping the general run of heavyweight aspirants is easy as brushing off mosquitoes; a feint, a hop or two, a smash with right or left, and all is over. In the heyday of his glory (John L) Sullivan never carried any such slung-shot raps as this middleweight freak.”

But just as it seemed that the genesis of the pound for pound expression could be wrapped around Fitz’ famous freckled shoulders a new and much earlier use suddenly emerged when Gregory discovered a reference dating back several years earlier.

On 14 December 1888 the New York Sun printed a piece in which an unidentified writer criticised pugilists of the day for constantly issuing challenges, or 'defis', to each other but then failing to get in the ring and actually fight.

POUND FOR POUND LABEL The Sun NY December 14 1888 Page 4The author went on, however, to claim that “the men of today are probably the best the world has seen” and added: “The old-time bruisers might be ransacked without finding one who, pound for pound, could hold his own with any of the entire school of present artists, from (John L) SULLIVAN down through (Charlie) MITCHELL, (“Nonpareil” Jack) DEMPSEY, (Jack) MCAULIFFE or (Ike) WEIR.”

This reference predates by several months the legendary 75-round bare-knuckle heavyweight title fight between John L Sullivan and Jake Kilrain on 8 July 1889 at Richburg, Mississippi, and demonstrates the pound for pound term had entered the boxing vernacular even before gloves became the norm.

Of course, none of this research is meant to denigrate the achievements of Sugar Ray Robinson. It remains true that the modern obsession with ranking fighters across weight divisions on a pound for pound basis owes much to Robinson, who many regard as the greatest of all time for his performances at welterweight and middleweight.

It also remains the case that Bob Fitzsimmons, famed for his ability to KO much larger men, can claim credit for the P4P term gaining traction in the late 19th and early 20th century.

But the concept of comparing fighters across weight classes or eras in 'pound for pound' terms was not invented as a direct result of the exploits of either of these titans of the ring and dates back much further than had previously been thought.

With thanks to Gregory Joseph Speciale