It was August 1876, and the venue was a barge anchored in the Delaware River near Pennsville, New Jersey. Most of those aboard were gamblers who had gathered to watch and wager on an illegal bareknuckle bout between “Philadelphia” Jimmy Weeden and Billy Walker, another local pug.
Details of the contest are few, but there’s no doubt that Walker died of injuries incurred during the fight. Weeden was arrested and imprisoned in Trenton, where he died a year later, primarily because his battle wounds were never properly treated.
In an O. Henry-esque twist of fate, the double-death barge fight led to the legalization of boxing in the City of Brotherly Love.
In an effort to rein in the outlaw sport and pacify public outrage over the demise of Walker, the Philadelphia City Council, with cooperation from the sheriff’s office, establish rules under which boxing was allowed to take place within the city limits.
Although bareknuckle bouts had been popular in Philadelphia since colonial times, the Walker-Weeden tragedy was the catalyst that changed everything.
Although there were rules about the location and duration of the bouts, they were just minor inconveniences. The punch-drunk genie was out of the bottle. Boxing was legit in Philly.
The sport took root and flourished, especially among immigrant groups from Europe. When the 20th century dawned, Philadelphia was already a leading fight center, and boxing was well on its way to becoming an integral part of the city’s culture and identity.
There’s not another city in the United States where a boxer’s hometown carries a cachet so potent that it implies certain admirable qualities, regardless of his or her ring record.
There’s a mystique about the name itself, two words that say so much.
No matter if it’s a four-round novice fresh from the Golden Gloves or a world champion, broadcasters always mention that so-and-so is a Philadelphia fighter.
They natter about how tough and determined they are and how the other guy had better look out for the left hook. But that is just shorthand for a more complex story.
How did Philadelphia gain its reputation as a city of badass boxers in the first place? Did the fighters make the city or did the city make the fighters?
The safe guess is the confluence of both, set and setting, coming together to create the unique and lasting milieu that hosts Top Rank on ESPN Saturday’s card at the Liacouras Center.
In the boxing world, Philadelphia fighters are a subset unto themselves. Like their city and its current king, Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, they have attitude, even the ones who usually lose.
“I think it’s the lifestyle,” said Philadelphia-born publicist Michelle Rosado. “It’s the way they come up and are developed that makes the Philly fighters the way they are. It’s a blue-collar town, and a lot of the guys work at hard-labor jobs. They know about the grind and the grit. It creates a different mentality.”
“Philadelphia has always been a tough city. There are lots of poor neighborhoods,” said Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz. “I think our boxers are influenced by Philly’s history of always having tough fighters. They know what’s expected of them.”
All of that and more goes into the making of a Philadelphia fighter, but there is no one-size-fits-all. They don’t all come out smokin’ like Joe Frazier.
Tommy Loughran, who is considered by some to be the greatest Philadelphia fighter of all time, tallied only 14 knockouts in 126 pro fights. Let that soak in for a moment. This guy went rounds, 1,179 all told.
Even though he had a measly 11-percent knockout rate, in his prime, the “Philly Phantom” was almost impossible to hit cleanly and could jab his adversary into a state of utter frustration. Tommy didn’t really move that fast but knew when and why he did what he did, and he did it well.
There is no end to the stylistic variation among Philly fighters. The best of them are usually one-offs.
Lightweight champ Bob “Bobcat” Montgomery fought like his nickname; light heavyweight champion Harold Johnson was a textbook stylist with a punch. Then there’s Gypsy Joe Harris, a one-eyed improvisational genius, and Bernard Hopkins, whose discipline and boxing IQ took him places where nobody else has gone.
As counterintuitive as it might sound, you don’t have to be born in Philly to be a Philadelphia fighter. If you’re good enough, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Some of the most celebrated members of the club were born elsewhere: Frazier, Montgomery and Wesley Mouzon were all from South Carolina. Bennie Briscoe was born in Augusta, Georgia.
They were part of the Great Migration of approximately 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West, which occurred between 1916 and 1970. The boxers among them swelled the ranks, and there was no looking back.
Philadelphia’s golden eras are receding further and further into the past. The flame has flickered now and then, but boxing has survived because what would Philly do without it?
The Eagles, Sixers, Phillies and Flyers are the big dogs for sure. But the fighters are the city’s heart and soul, closer to the truth than the rest.
There was a reason Sylvester Stallone chose Philly for the geographical center of the Rocky movies. It’s a fight town, and everybody knows it. It’s a given.
The small-venue scene has been busy in recent years, with regular cards at the 2300 Arena, Sugar House Casino and the Fillmore.
Successful big-budget shows were already just a memory by the time the Spectrum was demolished in 2010.
There were several ill-advised attempts to go upscale again, but they all ended badly. It didn’t work when Mike Tyson blew out Buster Mathis Jr. in 1995. It didn’t work when Bernard Hopkins was fed inept Frenchman Morrade Hakkar in 2003, and it sure didn’t work when Danny Garcia flogged Samuel Vargas in 2016.
Philly fans aren’t going to turn out en masse to watch mismatches, never have, never will, not even if it’s “Iron Mike” butchering the sacrificial offering. They’re too savvy for that.
Why overpay to watch a marque name fight a no-hoper when for $50 you can see Tyrone Brunson come off the floor in the fourth round and stop Kermit Cintron in the fifth? That’s the sort of stuff that sells in Philly.
Although the nominal main event Saturday is the Jessie Magdaleno-Isaac Dogboe junior featherweight title fight, it’s the battle for the vacant Pennsylvania heavyweight title between Bryant Jennings and Joey Dawejko that will likely sell the most tickets.
It’s the kind of match that has always been the key to the hearts of Philadelphia fans — a showdown between two of their own, the original “Philly Special.”
It’s been that way down through the decades. It didn’t matter if it was Benny Bass knocking out Harry Blitman in 1928, or the two savage Montgomery-Mouzon wars in 1946.
It was the same in the 1970s and ’80s, when Briscoe and Eugene “Cyclone” Hart did their thing not once but twice, and bantamweight champion Jeff Chandler cut down homey Johnny Carter after a free-swinging start.
When the big fights moved down the road to the Atlantic City casinos, a SRO crowd at the legendary Blue Horizon was still virtually guaranteed when crosstown rivals clashed. Philly vs. Philly got to be such a hot ticket, hustlers were selling counterfeits on the corner the night Troy Fletcher beat Bryan “Boogaloo” Jones for the vacant Pennsylvania bantamweight title in 1985.
Then, around the turn of the millennium it became increasingly difficult to match two Philadelphia fighters, much to the dismay of Peltz, who has spent close to 50 years doing just that.
“The main criticism of me in recent years, and I love it, is that I promote for the fans, not the fighters,” said Peltz. “Young fighters ask me, ‘Why should I fight for you, Russell? You’re going to put me in tough, and if I get beat I won’t be able to get on TV.’
“They are influenced by Floyd Mayweather making such a big deal about his “O”. Everybody wants to be undefeated, and I understand their point of view. Television executives don’t want the best fights. They want fighters with undefeated records.”
Peltz has, however, figured out a way to partially combat the epidemic of house fighters vs. low hanging fruit.
“I’ve narrowed the circle of people I want to work with, people who understand the system. It’s like a basketball coach, say, Phil Jackson. He had the triangle offense system and he needed his players to buy into it. My system is that you’ve got to fight [tough opponents], but if you lose I won’t abandon you.
“Making a fight like Jennings-Dawejko makes me feel good. I told Jennings he was going to be involved in a terrific fight. Who wants to see him fight Derric Rossy or some other used-up heavyweight? Jennings-Dawejko is selling this card.”
It also helps that Jesse Hart, son of Cyclone, is on the show, fighting Demond Nicholson. Jesse came up short in his super middleweight title shot against Gilberto Ramirez but earned a lot of respect rallying down the stretch after a rough go of it early on.
Immediately after the fight, even though his son had lost, the old left-hooker looked joyful. When Jesse reached the corner, his beaming father kept saying, “You fought him. You really fought him.”
That was the important thing as far as Cyclone was concerned. His son did what he used to do back in the day, took it to the dude, on the inside Philly style.
Jesse didn’t win, but he fought like a Philadelphia fighter down the stretch.
This is not necessarily to say that Jesse Hart, or the winner of Jennings-Dawejko, for that matter, is the future of Philadelphia boxing. It’s just good to know the spirit lingers and the city still celebrates its unique breed of boxer.