Boston: Home to clam chowder, cream pie, lager, baked beans and boxing. The Northeast center rose to prominence as a boxing hub way back in the late 1800s, and has since birthed some of the ring’s greats. In the sport’s earliest days, Boston boxers practiced prizefighting or bare-knuckle boxing, and it was during this period that boxing shifted from an illegal and dangerous pastime to one that the masses adored.
The rise to boxing city legend wasn’t easy for Boston, however. Some of the earliest Beantown boxers were mobsters, gangsters, and cheats, according to historian Kevin Smith. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the legends who left their legacy on the sport in a positive way.
For more fascinating Boston boxing legends, make sure to grab a copy of “Boston’s Boxing Heritage: Prizefighting from 1882-1955” by Kevin Smith.
- The Boston Strong Boy — Otherwise known as John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strong Boy hailed from Roxbury, a neighborhood within the city. The Irish-American boxer became one of the earliest gloved boxing champs; in fact, he’s recognized as the very first heavyweight champ of that style. Sullivan’s tenure marks a transition in Boston boxing from bare-knuckle to gloved boxing, as he was also the last heavyweight champ of bare-knuckle boxing. Sullivan held the title of heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892.
- George “Little Chocolate” Dixon — Known for his small stature, Canadian boxer George Dixon delighted prizefighting fans in the late 1800s. Dixon was the first black world boxing champion in any weight class, earning the Bantamweight Championship title on May 10, 1888. Boxing fans can visit Dixon’s grave at Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston.
- Barbados Joe Walcott — Nicknamed “The Barbados Demon,” Barbadian boxer Joe Walcott claimed the World Welterweight Championship title for five years, from 1901 to 1906. After getting a job on a sailing vessel that landed in Boston, Walcott made Beantown home and trained in a local gym before eventually becoming professional. Contemporary boxer Jersey Joe Walcott took his stage name from his boxing hero, Barbados Joe Walcott.
- William “Honey” Mellody — Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1884, William Mellody made a mark on Boston’s boxing scene early on. He fought throughout the Boston area before turning professional, and notably sparred with Irish boxer Martin Canole at the Bowdoin Square Athletic Club in Boston in 1902. Mellody claimed the World “White” Championship in 1904, and the World Welterweight Championship against Joe Walcott shortly thereafter.
- Sam “The Boston Tar Baby” Langford — Otherwise known as the Boston Terror or the Boston Bonecrusher, Sam Langford undoubtedly earned his place as one of Boston’s most legendary boxers. Born in Nova Scotia, Langford relocated to Boston to face some of the best boxers in the world. Interestingly, Langford claimed titles across many weight classes, from lightweight to heavyweight, defeating many world champions. Among his 180 wins are the World Heavyweight Championship and the World “Colored” Heavyweight title.
- Jack “The Boston Gob” Sharkey — A one-time fisherman from Binghamton, Sharkey moved to Boston as a young man. Sharkey learned to box during his time in the Navy, and started fighting professionally after being honorably discharged. During his professional career, The Boston Gob nabbed 38 wins, including the World Heavyweight Championship title.
- Rocky Marciano — We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano in our list of Boston legends, whether boxing or otherwise. Born in nearby Brockton — just 25 miles south of Boston — in 1923, the Brockton Blockbuster cut his teeth against some of The Bay State’s greatest boxers. Marciano became the only heavyweight champion to retire with an undefeated record, and was later immortalized by Sylvester Stallone in the classic Rocky movies.
- Marvelous Marvin Hagler — Contemporary boxer Marvin Hagler has his prizefighting predecessors to thank for his success. Like Rocky, Hagler hails from Brockton, but had the distinct advantage of training at a local gym under legendary boxing manager Goody Petronelli. During his career, Hagler earned the title as the undisputed middleweight champion during the 1980s. He earned 12 champion wins during that period, and still holds the highest knockout percentage of all middleweight champs.