Have you ever wondered where the age old practise of presenting boxers with championship belts came from? Well I did! So, like a student swotting for his A levels I sat down on the bedroom floor surrounded by my boxing books and after burying my nose in them for over a week – this is what I came up with!

They metamorphosed first from a simple cotton ribbon which was worn rosette style on the chest like a military medal; but most boxers fought bare chested and there was nowhere to pin them so now the ribbon became a silken sash. This was worn over the shoulder and across the chest like those ceremonious sashes worn by heads of government, royalty and military leaders. But when they started giving them to racehorses and beauty queens the sash then quickly moved lower down the body and became a cummerbund (which is basically a scarf tied around your middle) and when I think about it a lot of the old drawings of bareknuckle boxers I’ve seen feature them with a sash around their waists. This concept was well received and other sports soon began adopting the same idea; especially track and field competitions. But when then attempted to pin adornments to the cummerbund they came across a problem; the silk threads splintered and ran like a ladder in a silk stocking, so they decided to use a different material and settled on leather, and this in a nutshell is how the championship belt was born!  

But I carried on reading about belts in boxing, and I found that prior to 1889 quite a number of complimentary belts were given to boxers; and these weren’t  just given to champions, any half decent boxer could get one, and sad to say, any half decent wrestler too. But these were basically nothing more than your common run of the mill ‘hold your pants up’ belts with a bit of added decoration to make them look the part. However, by the time 1889 arrived, all this changed.

Three years earlier than this in 1886, Dublin born newspaper journalist and self made millionaire Richard Kyle Fox bought and took control of a popular tabloid magazine called The National Police Gazette and with his Midas-like touch he transformed the Gazette from a low class scandal sheet into the most popular boxing magazine in the world, its success continued right up to 1922 when it took on a new veneer and changed its name into the, The Ring magazine.

Back to the belts! In 1889 there were two schools of thought in the boxing world as to who was the one true heavyweight champion of the world. Most people thought it to be John L Sullivan, but not the wily Richard Kyle Fox and his National Police Gazette. He (and quite a number of others I might add) reckoned it was Jake Kilrain, and in his usual arrogant way Fox publicly declared so in his magazine. But the simple truth of the matter was this; it wasn’t that he actually favoured Kilrain as a better boxer he just bore an intense dislike of Sullivan because he reckoned he had once snubbed him in a bar. To emphasise his point of view (and at his own expense) he had a highly ornamental belt specially made for the occasion and personally presented it to Jake Kilrain declaring him the true heavyweight champion of the world. This was twenty years before the first Lonsdale Belt!

Documents show that Fox’s belt contained a good 200 ounces of solid silver and was decorated with diamond-studs and other gold ornamental bits. Annoyed at this and determined not to be outdone; and probably instigated by the great, John L, himself, vast hordes of loyal Sullivan fans clubbed all their money together and commissioned their own private championship belt which eventually became known as the John L Sullivan Diamond Belt.

So when Sullivan and Kilrain did eventually face up to each other for their bare knuckle world championship fight in 1889 (which by the way wasn’t technically a true bare knuckle contest because they were both wearing skin-tight leather gloves) it was decided that the winner was to take possession of both belts – and thus because of this one single fight stipulation, a well loved tradition of awarding title belts to champions only was born.

We all know Sullivan got the verdict in this fight when Kilrain’s supposedly loyal corner man, Mike Donovan threw the towel in at the start of the 76th round. But the truth of the matter is this; although without doubt this was a truly gruelling contest and probably the best pre-modern era scrap of all time, the fight was a lot closer than Sullivan’s adoring fans would have you believe. It also cast doubt on the true loyalties of the towel throwing corner man Mike Donavan, who was later seen celebrating with the Sullivan camp.

The great John L who didn’t mince his words famously said of the first belt, “I wouldn’t put that belt around a dog.” But he wasn’t a fool and dug all the diamond studs out of it and sold them, and you can bet your life the gold and silver bits weren’t thrown in the bin either

The rest as they say is history. But in true boxing tradition the two men later became good friends, and Kilrain even acted as one of the pallbearers at Sullivan’s funeral in 1918.