Andre Ward is breathing life into a long-dormant boxing scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, drawing large, passionate crowds when he fights in his native Oakland, where he'll face Allen Green on Saturday. Little did he know this was once the norm in the region.
The Bay Area was the boxing capital of the world a century ago, producing many of the best-known fighters and playing host to some of the biggest events in the history of the sport. The era ended at the start of World War I, meaning no one alive can describe it first hand, but the names live on in boxing lore.
“It wasn’t just a hub of boxing. It was THE hub of boxing,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar.
San Francisco had grown into a cosmopolitan town of about 200,000 by the 1880s but, not too many years after the California Gold Rush of 1849, it retained a wild side. Prostitution, gambling and fighting apparently were commonplace.
But ever-changing laws placed rigid restrictions on the sport for a time. Boxing matches were limited to members-only athletic clubs, which flourished in the Bay Area before the turn of the century and produced many legendary fighters.
The greatest was a bank clerk from San Francisco named James J. Corbett, a product of the Olympic Athletic Club who developed into the best heavyweight in the world and the modern father of scientific boxing.
Corbett’s fights with fellow San Franciscan Joe Choynski between 1887 and 1889 -– one held on a barge in the Bay north of the city to avoid police interference –- have a respected place in history, as does his epic 61-round brawl with the great Australian Peter Jackson in 1991.
But he won immortality by using his superior technique to easily outbox powerful, but crude John L. Sullivan in New Orleans and win the heavyweight championship in 1892, which helped establish San Francisco as a fistic center and ushered in the modern era of boxing.
Not long after that came Jim “Sunny Jim” Coffroth, another San Francisco resident who would become the first great boxing promoter. Coffarth, who apparently had been fascinated by the bare-knuckle fights of his youth, lured some of the greatest fighters in the country to California by offering big-money guarantees.
As a result, he staged some of the biggest fights of the time in and around San Francisco, including an area called Colma just south of the city: Corbett-Jim Jeffries (1903), Bob Fitzsimmons-George Gardner (1903), Battling Nelson-Joe Gans (twice in 1908) and Jack Johnson-Stanley Ketchel (1909) to name a few.
Not even the devastating earthquake of 1906 could keep 'em away.
Coffroth eventually left boxing and opened horse racing tracks, which added to his already-considerable wealth.
“The reason he was named ‘Sunny Jim’ is because of the outdoor shows he put on,” Sugar said. “And he put on a lot of them. Coffroth was big, the biggest player there was before Tex Rickard came on the scene.”
The success of Corbett and Coffroth seemed to spawn the emergence of many other great fighters.
Featherweight Abe Attell, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest fighters who ever lived, was born and raised in San Francisco. He fought between 1900 and 1917. His brother Monte was also a top fighter. Jimmy Britt beat some legendary contemporaries, including Nelson and Young Corbett II. And Willie Ritchie, another Hall of Famer, held the world lightweight title from 1912 to 1914.
That was when the golden era of boxing in the Bay Area ended. A new law in 1914 limited boxing matches in California to four rounds, which apparently played a role in Cofforth’s transition to horse racing and drove big-time boxing out of the state for a while.
Of course, important fights would return to the Bay Area in the ensuing generations. Most of the top fighters fought one time or another in the region. For example, Los Angeles-based Henry Armstrong, a legend in the sport, fought there many times during the 1940s.
And Oakland produced some good fighters. Bert Lytell (1940s) and Johnny Gonsalves (1950s) were among the top contenders of their time.
But the Bay Area hasn’t produced a fighter quite like Ward for some time. He was the United States’ only gold-medal winner in the 2004 Olympics, he hasn’t lost as a professional and his victory over Mikkel Kessler in his last fight has made him a favorite to win the Super Six 168-pound tournament.
He’s a throwback to the golden era, a concept he enthusiastically embraces.
“I didn’t know the Bay Area was the center of boxing way back when,” he said. “I know Oakland used to be a pretty big fight town. They had several gyms, King’s Gym, Pittman’s Gym and other gyms. We don’t have that now. We have only one core gym, King’s, where I train.
“I see a lot of excitement about the sport, though. People say the sport is dying. I don’t think so. Fans are spending their hard-earned money in this economy to watch fights. And they’re enjoying it.”
A little like the old days.