BOXING in New Jersey
The definitive history.
Professional boxing has thrived in New Jersey on and off since the late 19th century. Among the great champions who performed in the Garden State during those early days were Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Gans, Jack McAuliffe, Jack O’Brien and Gentleman Jim Corbett.
For decades, the heart of New Jersey boxing was centered in the local clubs, particularly in Hudson, Bergen and Essex Counties. The primary place for big fights was Jersey City, where big crowds could be ferried over from New York and there were large indoor and outdoor arenas.
During World War I, oil magnate Harry Sinclair built a baseball stadium in Harrison, across the bridge from Newark. This park hosted the 1918 fight between Jack Dempsey and Fred Fulton, an important stepping stone in the Manassa Mauler’s rise to the heavyweight crown.
In 1920, European star Georges Carpentier won the heavyweight title from Battling Levinsky in Jersey City. Nine months later, Carpentier fought Dempsey in Jersey City in boxing’s first $1 million gate. More than 80,000 fans watched the fight, which was also the first title bout to be carried live on radio.
Later in the 1920s, Benny Leonard and Harry Wills won memorable fights in Jersey City. During the 1920s and 1930s, Mickey Walker, the most popular New Jersey- based champion did most of his fighting in Elizabeth and Jersey City.
During World War II, Camden became a popular venue for major fights. Like Jersey City, it was across the river from a major metro area (Philadelphia). Jersey Joe Walcott and Joey Maxim both fought there in the mid-1940s. Maxim defeated Walcott in Camden in a 1946 bout.
Although boxing continued to be popular in the Garden State, for three decades starting around 1950, it failed to draw major fights. The Depression and war years had been hard on its facilities, many of which fell into disrepair. The most memorable match during this time might have been Sonny Liston’s 1970 victoryover Chuck Wepner in Jersey City. It was Liston’s final fight. Wepner (aka the Bayonne Bleeder) went on to fame when he served as the inspiration for Rocky after earning an unexpected shot at Muhammad Ali.
The fight picture brightened considerably after casino gambling came to Atlantic City. Where gaming is popular, boxing usually follows, and by the early 1980s, AC was a popular venue for title fights.
Among the boxers who etched their names into the record books in Atlantic City were lightweight Sean O’Grady, welterweights Mark Breland and Meldrick Taylor, cruiserweight Bobby Czyz, junior middleweights Pernell Whitaker and Fernando Vargas, middleweights Roberto Duran and Bernard Hopkins, light heavyweight Michael Spinks, and heavyweights Dwight Braxton, Michael Moorer, George Foreman, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
Perhaps the most famous fight in New Jersey boxing history took place in Atlantic City on June 27, 1988. Mike Tyson stepped into the ring against Michael Spinks, the only boxer believed at the time to have what it takes to beat the 21-year-old champ. The fight was less than 90 seconds old when Spinks hit the canvas after a short right uppercut to the chin—and failed to get to his feet before the count of 10. It was the first time Spinks had gone down in a fight. The victory united the heavyweight title for the first time in years.