All Geared Up

A boxer’s shorts falling down halfway through a bout might sound humorous to us these days, but regrettably in the not so distant past it was not all that unusual, and when it did happen it left the poor embarrassed boxer concerned in a serious and potentially dangerous situation. And believe it or not prior to 1925 quite a number of boxers had trouble preventing their shorts from falling down in the middle of a fight; and they could hardly pull them up again with gloves on could they! It was alright for the devil may care bareknuckle boys before them, they tended to wear long johns tied up with a scarf which always stayed up. Thankfully for both the boxers and spectators alike, the introduction of elasticated waistbands soon put paid to this disconcerting problem. And in a roundabout way we can all thank the legendary hard punching heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey, for it.

Back in 1917 after hearing several stories about a very clever and talented young sportswear designer Dempsey walked into a small sports and swimwear shop nestling in the leafy suburbs of Toledo and asked the young man behind the counter who was called, Jacob Golomb, if he could make him a boxing head guard that would last longer than 15 rounds. Clever man that he was he did (and so the story goes,) he cheekily told Dempsey it would ‘last forever,’ it didn’t of course, but it gave him an idea for a brand name for his goods – and this is how the name ‘Everlast’ was born. It also fired the young Golomb’s interest in boxing and he turned his attention to manufacturing gloves and other boxing equipment. Being a competitive swimmer himself he had already addressed and resolved the embarrassing problem of trunks slipping down at inappropriate times. When he realised boxers also had this problem he soon turned his attention to this and designed and made the first ever elasticated boxing shorts – problem solved. However, before shorts came gloves, and Jack Dempsey; the man who had introduced Golomb to boxing, proudly wore his newly designed Everlast boxing gloves when he devastatingly took the heavyweight title from the 6 foot 6 and a half inch giant, Jess Willard in 1919.

Poor Willard, for a man who had never been knocked down before, getting put on the canvas seven times in the first round of a contest must have come as a crushing blow to him. The fight ended at the end of the third round and Willard’s injuries were so bad Dempsey was accused of cheating. The officials suspected Dempsey’s gloves were loaded and examined them looking for signs of tampering but found nothing. They demanded to know how these seemingly innocuous looking boxing gloves could inflict such terrible injuries on a large robustuous man like Willard. His injuries consisted of a broken jaw; broken ribs and teeth, deep fractures of his cheek bones to say nothing of the lumps, bumps and bruises. “It was me that did the damage not the gloves,” said Dempsey in his own defence. Inadvertently, all this commotion  did the Everlast name a big favour by bringing attention to the brand, which in turn put the young Jacob Golomb on the road to his first million bucks. The rest as they say, is history, and Everlast is now one of the largest, if not ‘The’ largest manufacturers of sporting equipment in the world.

Exactly who invented the gum-shield; or mouth-guard as it was originally called is something of a bone of contention amongst boxing pundits and historians. But of the hundreds of contenders for the title there are only two major challengers, and both of them were dentists. One was an amateur boxing orthodontist called, Philip Krause, who claimed he had worn a homemade reusable mouth-guard for years but only offered it for public sale in 1920. He said it was initially only intended for training purposes, but a year later his good friend, the late great, Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, took it a stage further and wore one in a championship fight against, Jack Britton. But oddly enough gum-shields weren’t fully accepted as genuine safety accoutrements until 1927. And this was only brought about when the fight between light heavyweight battlers Mike McTigue and Jack Sharkey was stopped in because of cut lip caused by a broken tooth – which safety officials deemed could have been easily prevented if the enduring McTigue had been wearing a gum-shield.

And the other major claimant for the invention was a prominent London dentist called, Jack Marles, and he claims to have invented it in 1902. Apparently he got the idea from watching fighters suck on the segments of oranges between rounds (he should have looked more carefully and he would have seen that a lot of these boxers were using the orange rind as a makeshift gum-shield anyway) Another thing these two men had in common besides being dentists was that they both used the same malleable material to make their gum-shields: Gutta-Percha.  And this is the exact same resin that I (and thousands like me) used to make our own gum-shields from in the early 1960’s. You could buy it for a few pennies from almost any chemist’s shop in those days. You just took it home and carefully put it in a pan of warming water until it was malleable and then shaped it around your teeth like a child playing with Plasticine; and the good thing was, it lasted for ages!

Whilst I’m on about boxing equipment I might as well mention bags and balls. There is, or I should say there was a man who claimed he invented them both. Personally I think this is verbal diarrhoea because we know the ancient Greeks and Romans used them to train their athletes; soldiers and gladiators. What he should have said was that he had adapted or customized them to fit with modern trends (as they were in his day.) His name was Andrew. J. Newton or Professor A. J. Newton as he liked to call himself, and was the ABA lightweight champion of 1888 and 1890. He called his ‘inventions,’ The Perfect Punching Ball, The Revolving Medicine Sack, and, The Ground Punching Ball. Call them what he likes, he still didn’t really invent them. He then started calling himself a, Physical Culture Expert, and opened a boxing club for women in London called the, A J Newton School of Arms, which strangely enough was hugely successful. Truth be told he was a bit of a fraud, he was in fact a showman and spewed forth lies from his every orifice. He tended to live life by the seat of his pants and loved to perform in front of crowds and would give boxing type exhibitions with his family under the name The Newton Midgets. Although he was an ABA champion and had excellent ring skills he never boxed professionally. However, his young niece Annie Newton, well she was a different story. She was the only one in the family that you could call a proper professional boxer, and took part in hundreds of exhibition matches and over 50 professional bouts, much to the annoyance of the straitlaced home office of the time. They didn’t believe women should box at all and tried with all their might to have her banned, but were obviously unsuccessful.

I can’t seem to find much about the history of boxing boots; or boxing footwear in general; perhaps because a lot of early fights were fought barefooted as well as bare fisted. The earliest reference to footwear I can find is rule number 11 in the 1867, Marquess of Queensbury’s rules which simply states: That no shoes or boots with spikes or sprigs will be allowed. And I think sprig in this instance refers to the ugly metal studs which people sometimes attached to the soles of shoes.