BOXING & WRESTLING. For most of the 19th century, the contact sports of boxing and wrestling were frowned on by the educated public and were seldom written about by Cleveland newspapers. As Cleveland grew in population, however, the demand for indoor recreation and spectator sports increased, and boxing and wrestling became popular despite continued legal problems and newspaper criticism. Boxing refers to fighting with the fists, at first with bare knuckles and later with padded gloves, while wrestling involves grappling, with the object of bringing one's opponent to the mat.
Although there was a great deal of unorganized and impromptu fighting in early American history, little if any organized amateur and professional boxing and wrestling took place in Cleveland until the last few decades of the 19th century. One of the first mentions of boxing in Cleveland was in the CLEVELAND LEADER of 16 Oct. 1855, advertising classes by a Professor Sheridan Mann in "the excellent ornamental and useful arts of sparring and fencing." Prizefighting was not written about until 21 Jan. 1863, when the Leader reported a fight in the FLATS between Paste Horn of England and James Hebard of Cleveland. Typical of Cleveland editorial comments was one in the Leader of 21 Mar. 1868: "It [prize fighting] is a crime against the peace of every civilized country." Later that year, the Ohio general assembly made it illegal "for a person to be in any way connected with a fight or to countenance it by his presence." However, boxing matches were held in Michigan and in Canada for years, or at times on boats in Lake Erie. By the 1890s, increased public interest in professional boxing here in Cleveland was evidenced by vaudeville appearances by champion prizefighters, including John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, and Bob Fitzsimmons, and well-attended no-decision bouts in the newly constructed CLEVELAND ATHLETIC CLUB. For a 3-year period in the late 1890s, boxing matches were permitted; Cleveland's first championship match, a 20-round draw between Kid Lavigne and Jack Daly was held at the CENTRAL ARMORY on 17 March 1898.
Upon taking office in 1901, mayor TOM L. JOHNSON banned professional boxing, but this did not dampen Cleveland's interest in the sport. Clubs and gyms were organized, such as Charley Marotta's club on E. 79th St., Jack La Vack's gym at Payne and E. 19th St., and Mike Ryan's gym on Frankfort St. between what is now W. 6th and W. 9th streets. Although Phil Brock, a lightweight, was the first Cleveland boxer to win a championship, the emergence of JOHNNY KILBANE in 1907 was, in the words of boxing historian Dan Taylor, "the most important milestone in the history of boxing in Cleveland." Johnson's successor, mayor HERMAN BAEHR, tolerated fights, including one in December 1911 at GRAYS ARMORY between Kilbane and Charley White. Kilbane, after winning the featherweight championship in California in 1912, returned to Cleveland and was greeted by a St. Patrick's Day crowd of over 100,000. Although mayor NEWTON D. BAKER (1912-15) banned prizefighting in the city after a vicious fight between Kilbane and Monte Attell, mayor HARRY L. DAVIS (1916-19) reinstated professional boxing in Cleveland and appointed the city's first boxing commission, which included Billy Evans, baseball umpire, and Pat Pasini, athletic director of Case School. Bouts were to be no-decision matches limited to 10 rounds.
Amateur boxing's popularity grew during the years in which Mayor Baker prohibited prizefighting in the city. The Cleveland Athletic club imported teams to box local amateurs, and by 1914, 4 Cleveland boxers were national champions at the AAU tournament in Boston. Scholastic boxing, however, was never popular in Cleveland, although local colleges had teams for a time during the 1920s and 1930s. Amateur boxing received a real boost in 1929 when the Golden Gloves program, started in Chicago by Arch Ward, held its first matches at the PUBLIC AUDITORIUM. In 1931 the Northeast Ohio AAU designated the Golden Gloves matches as the official tryouts for the national championships. At its peak, the Golden Gloves, sponsored by the Plain Dealer and the AAU, had over 800 young boxers entered. For years John Nagy, Cleveland recreation commissioner, served as president of the Golden Gloves Assn., and the championship bouts at the CLEVELAND ARENA regularly drew over 10,000 fans. Among the many fine boxers who emerged from Golden Gloves competition were Jimmy Bivins and Joey Maxim, who went on to win the world light heavyweight title in 1950. By 1982 the AAU had turned over the local program to the Amateur Boxing Federation, under the leadership of Wylie Farrier.
During the 1920s and 1930s, several important professional boxing matches were held in Cleveland. Local ring hero JOHNNY RISKO fought Max Schmeling, Gene Tunney, and Max Baer, future heavyweight champions. At the Cleveland Stadium, on 3 July 1931, Max Schmeling beat Young Stribling on a TKO in a match that had gate receipts of $349,000 (See SCHMELING-STRIBLING FIGHT). The Cleveland boxing commission had a poor reputation nationally from 1926-36, with the fake Jones-Jeby fight in 1933 a vivid example. To clean up the sport, mayor HAROLD H. BURTON (1936-40) appointed TRIS SPEAKER to the Boxing Commission in 1936, and for 6 years local professional boxing enjoyed its greatest growth. When welterweight boxer Jim Doyle died on 2 July 1947 as the result of a title bout at the Arena against "Sugar Ray" Robinson, the Boxing Commission ruled that all boxers had to be licensed locally in the future and that any boxer whose history showed a head injury would be banned. With the leadership of fight promoter LARRY ATKINS, live professional boxing was a major Cleveland spectator sport during 1950s and 1960s, climaxed by the annual New Christmas Toyshop program. Eventually, however, televised fights limited the attendance at local live professional boxing cards. The March 1971 closed-circuit television bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali produced a gate of $170,000 from 16,000 fans who viewed the match at 6 Cleveland locations. Flamboyant Cleveland-born fight promoter Don King attempted to revitalize boxing in northeast Ohio during the 1970s. The first black man to successfully promote boxing matches nationally, King brought the ALI-WEPNER FIGHT to the area in the mid-1970s. Although King promoted fights at the Public Hall as late as 1981, he was discouraged by the city's high cut of gate receipts. One of the last important live local fights in Cleveland was Gerrie Coetzee's knockout of Akron's Michael Dokes on 24 September 1983. After many years of suggested changes in the governing of local boxing matches, Ohio's general assembly established the first state-wide boxing and wrestling commission in July 1981. The 3-person commission, appointed by the governor, writes regulations covering fights and issues licenses to boxers, trainers, and promoters. Although the Cleveland Boxing & Wrestling Commission no longer regulated professional fights, it still was in charge of amateur boxing and professional wrestling matches.
While wrestling had been the foremost sport of the Union Army during the Civil War, it was seldom reported in newspapers during the 19th century. Publicity about wrestling seemed limited to strong-man matches at circuses. It was not until the turn of the century that amateur wrestling became popular. Published records of early wrestling matches, considered "academic antics," were almost nonexistent, but by the 1920s, Greater Cleveland scholastic wrestling tournaments were being held. In 1929 wrestling coaches Joe Begala of Kent State and Claude Sharer of Case School of Applied Science were the leaders in organizing the Northeast Ohio Assn. of Wrestling Coaches & Officials. A decade later, the Ohio High School Athletic Assn. held state tournaments 1939-43, with Cleveland's John Hay High School winning 4 of the first 5 championships. From 1944-54, state invitational meets were held by the local Greater Cleveland Wrestling Coachs & Officials Assn. However, in 1955 the state's Ohio High School Athletic Assn. resumed the sponsorship of the annual state wrestling championship in Columbus. Cleveland area schools dominated the wrestling tournament from the beginning, with only 5 large schools from other areas of the state ever winning the team title.
Greater Cleveland scholastic wrestling took off after World War II, because of many dedicated coaches and officials. Al Carroll was the secretary of the Greater Cleveland Wrestling Coaches & Officials Assn. for over 40 years, while talented coaches, including Mike Milkovich of Maple Hts. and Howard Ferguson of Lakewood St. Edward's, coached dominating teams during the period. Milkovich's squads won 10 championships between 1956-74, and Ferguson's wrestlers won 10 straight state titles from 1978 on. Milkovich was especially important in involving the entire school and community in the wrestling program. Watching wrestlers was the thing to do on Saturday night in MAPLE HTS. Ferguson's young men continually defeated championship squads from other states. By the mid-1970s, the National High School Federation ranked Ohio highest in the number of boys (over 25,000) in scholastic wrestling. In 1986 the state tournament at Columbus had 3 school divisions and attendance of over 30,000 fans for the 3 days. In the spring of 1994 northeast Ohio scholastic wrestling was rated tops in the nation. Five wrestlers from the area won titles in a national tournament. Private (parochial) schools have won every large school wrestling title since 1978. Walsh Jesuit High School in northern Summit County won the title in 1993 and 1994. A Jr. Olympics program run by the AAU made it possible for young wrestlers to compete throughout the year. Local colleges and universities also had excellent wrestlers in the period following World War II. Joe Begala coached at Kent State for 42 years, with 307 victories and 7 undefeated seasons, while CLEVELAND STATE UNIV., JOHN CARROLL UNIV., and CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE-Western Campus, consistently had nationally ranked wrestling squads.
Professional wrestling has been popular in Cleveland, helped by television in recent years. In GORDON COBBLEDICK's words, "rasslin' [is] not a sport but a superbly staged act." PETER BELLAMY, the PLAIN DEALER drama critic, described professional wrestling matches as "a harmless pleasure [providing] a fine howling and catharsis for people of childlike trust." In the 1980s local professional boxing matches were almost nonexistent, although under the leadership of the Amateur Boxing Federation the Golden Gloves tournament and amateur boxing were having a renaissance. In the sports of scholastic and collegiate wrestling, the Greater Cleveland area was maintaining high quality programs, generating widespread public interest and support.