Nigel Collins

The history of a boxing institution

The Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer sits in his office overlooking the marquee at the old Madison Square Garden at 50th St. and Eighth Ave. in New York City. Photo / The Ring

THE RING LAUNCHES NEW WEBSITE IN ASSOCIATION WITH YAHOO!: This story about the history of THE RING magazine kicks off an exciting new era for “The Bible of Boxing” – it’s first comprehensive website, designed to provide everything you want to know about the sport. It will be produced in association with Yahoo! Sports.,

It was the Roaring Twenties, a brief period of economic prosperity and cultural change sandwiched between the end of World War I and the start of the Great Depression. Bootleg booze flowed, flappers kicked up their heels, and in the editorial offices of the New York Evening Telegram, sports editor Nat Fleischer had a brainstorm, the ramifications of which still reverberate today.

The country was in the thrall of the Golden Age of American sports. It was a time when “The House that Ruth Built” sprouted in the Bronx, Red Grange ran wild on the University of Illinois gridiron, “Big Bill” Tilden changed the image of tennis, and Bobby Jones popularized golf.

But none of the new breed of sports superstar loomed larger in the peoples' eyes than Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world. Forged in the hobo camps and mining town of his native Colorado, the vicious-punching, ruggedly handsome Dempsey was the epitome of what the general public thought a heavyweight champion should look like, and fought accordingly — gunning for the knockout from the opening bell.

Dempsey's bout with Frenchman Georges Carpentier in 1921 was boxing's first million-dollar gate, a watershed event that did not escape the attention of Fleischer, an ardent follower of the sport. He realized that the time had come for boxing to have its own publication, and found a willing financial backer in Tex Rickard, the promoter of the Dempsey-Carpentier blockbuster.

Together with Rickard's press agent, Ike Dorgan, Fleischer launched The Ring magazine on February 15, 1922. It was a modest 24-page publication, costing twenty cents, but set lofty goals from the start.

“It is a magazine that has an idea, a great and glowing idea, that seeks to put and keep boxing in its rightful niche in sport,” read the unsigned foreword of the maiden issue, which also promised to “speak for, fight for, foster, up-build, and perpetuate” boxing. In many ways, these remain the publication's guiding principles, 86 years after they were written.

GROWTH AND INNOVATION

Bolstered by Fleischer's immense knowledge of boxing and reputation for honesty, The Ring was a success from the start and quickly grew from a newsletter-like pamphlet to a full-fledged newsstand magazine with international distribution.

Fleischer was a man of many parts-crusading journalist, trendsetter, and, when it came to boxing, super salesman. He quickly strengthened The Ring brand by instituting the custom of presenting world champions with a belt emblazoned with the magazine's distinctive logo. The very first Ring belt was given to Dempsey shortly after the launch of the magazine, with flyweight champion Pancho Villa receiving the second. But that was just the start of a series of innovations.

Inspired by Walter Camp's annual All-America football team, Fleischer pioneered the concept of boxing rankings and published the very first of its kind in the February 1925 issue. Like the magazine, they were sponsored by Rickard, and for a few years signed by Dempsey. “The Manassa Mauler” did not actually compile the ratings (he apparently didn't know enough about the “little guys”), but lent his name to them to show support and enhance their credibility.

The association with Rickard led to a problem the following year when a national weekly tried to buy the ratings from the promoter for $5,000. Rickard accepted the offer, but was forced to back down when The Ring threatened to obtain a court-ordered injunction and also sue for damages.

When Rickard died in 1929, Jimmy Johnston became head of Madison Square Garden boxing and also briefly sponsored The Ring ratings. At first, the ratings were published annually, but by 1930 they had become a regular part of every issue. As time passed, sponsorship was dropped and Fleischer and his staff compiled the ratings, with help from the magazine's worldwide network of correspondents.

In 1928, The Ring initiated another tradition when it named reigning heavyweight champion Gene Tunney as Fighter of the Year. The practice proved a popular one, and when the magazine added Fight of the Year and Round of the Year in 1945, the publication of the annual awards issue became a highly anticipated event. Today, the list of annual awards has grown to a total of seven with the addition of Knockout, Upset, Comeback and Event.

MR. BOXING

Fleischer did not restrict his role to that of editor and publisher. He became boxing's globetrotting goodwill ambassador, traveling around the world, covering fights in exotic locales, hobnobbing with heads of state, helping make important matches, occasionally refereeing, and always furthering the cause of the Sweet Science.

Although he was an old-fashioned, Victorian man, Fleischer's sense of fair play extended to boxers of all races. He championed the cause of black heavyweight contender Harry Wills, who clearly deserved a shot at Dempsey, but, despite Fleischer's efforts, never got it.

In 1938, Fleischer wrote and published the first volume of Black Dynamite: The Story of the Negro In Boxing, a pioneering work, which by time the fifth and final volume was published in 1947 had comprehensively documented black boxers' gigantic contribution to the sport.

It was, however, in the 1960s that Fleischer made his most significant stand against injustice, when he continued to recognize Muhammad Ali as heavyweight champion of the world at a time virtually every athletic commission and governing body had stripped him of the title.

Fleischer did not support Ali's refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. What he did support was everybody's right to his or her day in court. Ali appealed his draft dodging conviction, and Fleischer maintained that it would be wrong to deprive him of the championship until the final verdict was handed down.

When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1971 and the justices ruled unanimously in Ali's favor, Fleischer wrote that The Ring “found justification for its stance in the face of the epidemic of title-rescinding action which followed [Ali's] April 1967 conviction of a felony. … The Ring, corporately, and I, personally, welcome back to the ranks of boxers who are free of movement, and free of the onus of a federal felony, Cassius Clay.”

The quirky nature of Fleischer's personality can be found in those few lines. He was progressive enough to put his reputation, and the reputation of The Ring, on the line when he believed it was the right thing to do-but old-fashioned enough to insist on calling Ali by his Christian name years after Ali had converted to Islam.

Fleischer died of heart disease on June 25, 1972, his final editorial appearing in the September edition. After almost 50 years at the helm of “The Bible of Boxing,” the man who had become known as Mr. Boxing was gone. His leadership and ethical values were soon sorely missed.

A BREACH OF TRUST

Fleischer's son-in-law, Nat Loubet, who was managing editor at the time of Fleischer's death, succeeded him as both editor and publisher. Loubet's tenure was marked by financial growth and controversy.

With Ali as heavyweight champion and boxing still a regular part of network TV programming, the sport thrived during the 1970s. In 1976 The Ring entered into a 10-year licensing agreement with a Venezuelan company to publish a Spanish-language version of The Ring. It appeared that the magazine was headed for unprecedented growth, but trouble was brewing.

In the December '76 issue, The Ring announced its participation in the Don King/ABC-TV United States Tournament of Champions, which was designed to crown U.S. champs in eight weight classes. King would promote, ABC would televise, and The Ring would supply ratings, records and a belt to the winners. Loubet and Associate Editor John Ort were also members of the tournament's Executive Committee, which was chaired by James A. Farley, head of the New York State Athletic Commission.

The tournament began on January 16, 1977 aboard the USS Lexington, a Navy aircraft carrier docked in Pensacola, Florida. Another card followed in February, and two more in March before the tournament was suspended (and eventually canceled) amid allegations of kickbacks, padded records and favoritism toward house fighters.

There were several investigations into the matter, but no criminal or civil charges were ever lodged. It was, however, revealed that Ort had received $5,000 from King, which, according to Loubet, was for “work outside the contract between The Ring and Don King.”

Despite no hard evidence that The Ring had done anything illegal, the publication came away from the affair with its integrity badly compromised. The lingering stench did not begin to dissipate until 1979, when a group of investors, headed by retired basketball great Dave DeBusschere, purchased The Ring from the Loubet family and installed Bert Randolph Sugar as editor and publisher.

FIGHTING BACK

Sugar, a convivial raconteur with a deep knowledge and love of the sport, did much to restore the publication's credibility by purging it of anybody who had been involved in the scandal. He also vastly improved both the writing and graphic content of the magazine, but it floundered financially, and Sugar was replaced by Randy Gordon starting with the March 1984 issue.

Gordon's term lasted less than a year, and Nigel Collins, who had joined the staff in '84, made his debut as editor in the January 1985 issue. The staff and budget was slashed, and thanks in part to the emergence of Mike Tyson and the renewed interest in boxing he created, The Ring survived and even made progress toward raising its profile.

Collins reinstated the policy of awarding Ring championship belts in 1988, and experimented with a return to the traditional eight weight divisions. The move garnered support from a number of significant media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, and Jack Fiske, longtime boxing writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote, “The Ring magazine has come up with an idea whose time has come. Although not original, it's worthwhile and overdue.”

Nonetheless, the financial hole inherited from previous administrations proved too deep to dig out of, and in 1990 The Ring was purchased by Stanley Weston, who worked for Fleischer in his youth but had broken away and formed his own publishing company. Weston moved the operation from Manhattan to Long Island and made Stu Saks publisher and Steve Farhood editor.

The new team produced an excellent product for the next 3½ years, but following the July 1993 issue, The Ring was sold to Kappa Publishing and the editorial offices relocated to Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, approximately 35 miles outside of Philadelphia. Saks and Farhood stayed on, and Collins returned as managing editor.

A BOLD NEW FUTURE

When Farhood left, after the publication of the December 1997 issue, to pursue a career in television, Collins began his second term as editor-in-chief. Three years later, The Ring revitalized its image by ditching pulp paper and switching to a glossy, all-color format.

During Farhood's tenure, the tradition of awarding Ring championship belts had again been shelved. Therefore, in an effort to restore credibility to championship boxing, which had become a corrupted tangle of multiple titleholders in virtually every division, The Ring launched its new Championship Policy in the April 2002 issue. (See Ratings for an explanation of the policy.)

The Ring entered the digital age in July 2005 with its original website (thering-online.com), a technological advance that made possible another innovation-weekly ratings updates, instantly available throughout the world.

Moreover, The Ring's Championship Policy gradually gained traction, in part thanks to ESPN2's Friday Night Fights, which adopted both the Championship Policy and ratings. In addition, a number of top fighters, weary of paying exorbitant sanctioning fees and being forced to fight undeserving mandatory challengers, realized that they could save hundreds of thousands of dollars and control their professional destiny by fighting for The Ring championship.

“The Ring belt is the best thing to happen in a long time,” said Winky Wright, who won The Ring junior middleweight title in 2004.

Wright was not alone in his assessment.

“If you want to look up who the real champion is, then go to The Ring magazine,” said Oscar De La Hoya. “They are the ones who can really do what no other organizational body can do, that is bring back fans and make them aware who the champion is.”

Despite all the progress, the one thing The Ring lacked to push it to the next level was a passion for the sport at the corporate level. That all changed in August 2007 when The Ring was sold to Sports & Entertainment Publications, the publishing arm of Golden Boy Enterprises.

At first, there were understandable concerns about the potential for conflict of interest. Industry insiders and some readers feared that having the magazine owned by an active fighter, who is also one of the sport's foremost promoters, could conceivably mean the end of the autonomous impartiality that has been its hallmark for 86 years.

Both De La Hoya and Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer issued reassuring statements, including the promise that the magazine would be “held in an editorial trust where it will be operating totally independent of any influence” and that to do otherwise would “destroy our investment.”

“The proof of our sincerity will be found on the pages of this and upcoming issues,” wrote Collins in the January 2008 edition, the first under the current ownership. Eleven issues later, critics have been unable to point to a single lapse in ethics or instance where favoritism was shown toward De La Hoya or a Golden Boy-promoted fighter.

Now, as The Ring enters into a website partnership with Yahoo! Sports, the venerable publication will reach a vastly larger audience than ever before, allowing it to serve boxing and its readership in exciting new ways that even a visionary like Nat Fleischer could never have imagined.

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