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Blame Roosevelt: A Brief History of Boxing vs Other Disciplines

If you’re looking to get mad at someone, perhaps it’s the 26th President of the United States.

American Press Association/Public Domain

For years the establishments of both boxing and mixed martial arts have been able to claim victory as the world's premier combat sport without much evidence to back up their claims. On the surface, Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor, the impossible fight that turned into the biggest fight ever, the fight that should not be and is now upon us, appears to offer clarity. But this bout is but a proxy war in the wider battle -- a battle where the only winners are those pulling the strings.

There is simply no shortage of history between boxing and other martial arts and combat sports. Each generation has its examples of boxers stepping into the territory of some other fighting discipline, or vice versa. High on the list of such debacles would be Muhammad Ali's special rules pairing with legendary Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976. Ali, then the heavyweight champion of the world, was ruthlessly kicked in the legs by Inoki and suffered permanent damage as a result. But that's not where it all started.

Perhaps we can thank U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt for the pomp and vanity of Mayweather-McGregor Fight Week.

"As President Roosevelt is already a crack boxer, a dead shot and a good wrestler, he will, when he masters the Japanese science, be a very uncomfortable person to tamper with." The science this 1902 news wire refers to is jiu-jitsu, a Japanese martial art based on close quarters combat using throws, joint locks and chokes mostly unfamiliar to the American public.

Roosevelt took to the sport and invited the instructor of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, Yamashita Yoshiaki, to give he and some White House staff lessons in 1904. This lesson and the Roosevelt's subsequent championing would prove to be essential to the spread of Japanese martial arts in the U.S., even if there had been sparks here and there.

At 5'8", becoming a true heavyweight ruffian was unlikely even in that burgeoning era. Then again "Sailor" Tom Sharkey epitomized the rugged grit of the time, and was happy to surprise anyone he could. Interestingly, Sharkey, a veritable tree trunk of a man with insanely thick legs, dabbled in a few other combat sports outside of boxing before they caught on in the U.S.

Sharkey cut his fight teeth in Honolulu as a sailor in the 1800s, earning a reputation as a tenacious, hard-hitting scrapper willing to do almost anything to win a fight. Most scraps were treated like street fights, though rules weren't enforced consistently and many bouts devolved to little more than two exhausted men colliding over and over. Still, in a tough era, Sharkey stood out as one of the most ferocious men around. His 1899 rematch against James Jeffries for the heavyweight title would be widely considered the best championship fight among the big men for decades.

By late 1904, Sharkey was done with boxing; recurring issues with his cauliflower ear, easily-opened scar tissue and a string of losses convinced the sailor to retire one final time. Sharkey wasn't done with combat sports, though, and he traded canvas for wrestling and jiu-jitsu mats. It's possible he recalled the cool $1,000 he pulled in for simply avoiding being thrown by wrestler John Piening, but Sharkey squared off against jiu-jitsu practitioner Tatsuguma Higashi at the end of 1904 and was embarrassed by a man half his size.

"When the two met," said a wire from New York, "Sharkey looked at the diminutive Japanese much as he would a child, with a smile of pity on his face. ... [Sharkey] was allowed to get a hold which to the spectators looked very bad for the little fellow. In fact, everyone expected to see the big sailor fall on his opponent and crush him. With one of his quick turns, however, Higashi raised Sharkey from the floor, had him in the air, and the next moment planted him on his back on the floor."

Within months of Roosevelt's White House lessons, organizations like Boston Athletic Association began advertising their "jujutsu displays" and working them into regular exhibitions. Initially dismissed as a neat performance art, jiu-jitsu's credibility grew considerably in the U.S. as police commissions sought to train their officers in the Japanese art in 1904. Later that same year, two books on jiu-jitsu were written by H. Irving Hancock and Harry H. Skinner and published, and again within months the U.S. Navy invited Yoshiaki to teach judo and jiu-hitsu to a small class of sailors.

When Yoshiaki wasn't rehired to teach a class the following year, Roosevelt personally contacted the Secretary of the Navy to get the judo pioneer his job back.

Over the decades, boxing has built a neat capsule around itself, developing independent of -- and indeed often well behind -- other sports. And one of the strangest things about boxing is its ability to remain inviting to so many despite being so insular. Boxing is extremely set in its ways, incredibly resistant to change, and forever defending its own honor against outside fighting disciplines and itself.

A Baltimore instructor named "Professor" Charles Willard was quick to shield boxing, then still in a fledgling state, from the Japanese martial art by challenging Yoshiaki to a showdown in 1905. In issuing his challenge, Willard called jiu-jitsu "cowardly" and "brutal," while describing boxing as "honorable" and "brave." Boxing apparently wasn't about to let some Johnny-come-lately martial art impose on its territory, though, never mind that jiu-jitsu was developed sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries.

More importantly, boxing drifted in and out of legality for years in the U.S. and elsewhere, and martial arts and wrestling exhibitions presented ways for fighters to make money while avoiding the usual cloak and dagger tactics often involved in putting illegal boxing matches together. Mixed rules bouts -- fights in which the rules of two or more fighting disciplines are accepted -- were an inevitability, and the boxing establishment felt threatened.

In 1907, a Berlin audience witnessed what is surely one of the first ever large scale, organized mixed martial arts bouts. Said a news wire, "Before a great throng of spectators a pugilist was pitted against a jiu-jitsu wrestler. Referees decided the battle a draw at the end of twenty-five minutes, though the boxer, who was aggressive throughout, was regarded as having the advantage."

It would take a few more decades for mixed rules bouts to catch on in any meaningful way. In November of 1935, months following his loss to future heavyweight great Joe Louis, Kingfish Levinsky was pinned in 35 seconds by catch wrestler Ray Steele in front of a crowd of 11,000. Even a brief visit to the mat made sense for Levinsky, who was a solid fighter known for his antics and sense of humor as much as his in-ring quality. Besides, The Ring, boxing's premier fight publication, had been following wrestling news and developments for years by then, and Steele actually became more famous for the win. What followed was an era of boxers like Tony Galento, Primo Carnera and even Joe Louis wrestling for cash.

Television transformed boxing and vice versa in the 1940s and 50s. Millions of television sets meant fights could be watched live rather than simply listened to -- or caught all chopped up in movie theaters. And 1963 saw the first ever televised mixed martial arts bout, as judo legend Gene LeBell was pitted against washed up journeyman boxer Milo Savage. Things did not end well for Savage, who was choked unconscious in the 4th round and stayed asleep for 20 minutes. Fans began throwing trash and seat cushions into the ring, confused and/or angered by the result.

The following year Bruce Lee performed his famed "One Inch Punch" at the Long Beach International Karate Championships. Lee would later become a student of traditional boxing before studying and teaching an early form of mixed martial arts. Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has consistently called Lee the father of modern MMA.

And the UFC is rightly considered the most important catalyst in the history of mixed martial arts and mixed rules bouts; its current state is like viewing a snapshot of where MMA's evolution is at. But it's also accurate to say that the UFC's success was built on the backs of countless great and essential men.

The excessive fanfare and grandeur of Mayweather-McGregor is the crescendo of a symphony over a century in the making. The melody was once curious, possibly even whimsical, but the latest promotional travesty has completely soured the tune. No outcome has the ability to turn back time or somehow shove the monstrosities back into the box. Hail to the chief who made it happen.

In his 1913 autobiography, Roosevelt wrote, "When I was in the Legislature and was working very hard, with little chance of getting out of doors, all the exercise I got was boxing and wrestling. A young fellow turned up who was a second-rate prize-fighter, the son of one of my old boxing teachers. For several weeks I had him come round to my rooms in the morning to put on the gloves with me for half an hour. Then he suddenly stopped, and some days later I received a letter of woe from him from the jail. I found that he was by profession a burglar, and merely followed boxing as the amusement of his lighter moments, or when business was slack."

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