It was a misdemeanor to engage in a prizefight in Oklahoma prior to July 17, 1959. On that date Gov. J. Howard Edmondson signed a bill that legalized the sport of boxing in the Sooner State. The Oklahoma Territorial Legislature had declared in 1890 that pugilism was "a crime against the public peace" and rejected a bill to legalize boxing in 1895. Although Gov. Lee Cruce used the Oklahoma National Guard to enforce the state's prizefighting law, Oklahoma's antiboxing legislation was unpopular and so was ignored.
Professional championship boxing debuted in Oklahoma on June 22, 1909, when more than three thousand spectators gathered at Oklahoma City to watch Denmark's Battling Nelson defend his world lightweight championship. It was sixty-two years before Oklahoma's next title fight. On December 16, 1971, Cushing native Brian Kelly Burden unsuccessfully challenged Bob Foster for the world light heavyweight championship at Oklahoma City's State Fair Arena. Controlling the bout was Oklahoman Earle Keel, who that night became the first American Indian to referee a world title fight.
Tulsa hosted a world championship doubleheader on October 29, 1993. It featured Oklahoma's first heavyweight title fight, with Tommy "The Duke" Morrison of Jay defending his World Boxing Organization championship. He was joined on the card by International Boxing Federation super middleweight champion James Toney. The Home Box Office television network broadcast both fights worldwide.
Many legendary professional boxers fought in Oklahoma including former heavyweight champions Jack Johnson, Jess Willard, Jack Dempsey, and George Foreman, middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson, and lightweight champion Benny Leonard. Joining Tommy Morrison as Oklahoma's other world champions are Sean O'Grady and Bartlesville's Brenda Rouse. O'Grady, who reigned as the World Boxing Association lightweight champion in 1981, was the son of Pat O'Grady, a colorful boxing figure who trained, managed, and promoted fighters in Oklahoma City during the 1970s and 1980s. Rouse, a former undefeated world kickboxing champion, won the women's International Boxing Association strawweight championship in May 1999.
The lack of a state boxing commission hindered the sport's professional development. The Oklahoma Legislature created a commission in 1971 but repealed it in 1975. Bills to organize a commission were rejected by the Senate in 1921 and were vetoed by Gov. Henry Bellmon in 1987. In 1994 the Oklahoma Professional Boxing Advisory Committee was formed. However, due to its ineffectiveness the number of fight cards held in Oklahoma dropped from thirty-nine in 1990 to one in 1998. To remedy the situation the Oklahoma Legislature passed the Professional Boxing Commission Act in 1999. It replaced the Oklahoma Professional Boxing Advisory Committee with the seven-member Oklahoma Professional Boxing Commission. Danny Hodge, an Oklahoma wrestling great and former AAU and Golden Gloves boxing champion, was appointed chair.
Amateur boxing flourished in Oklahoma between 1927 and 1958. Oklahoma's first Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament was held in 1930, and the state Golden Gloves tournament debuted in 1936. The latter was held annually in Oklahoma City until relocated to Tulsa in 1954. An estimated twenty thousand spectators attended the event in 1946, and boxers from forty-nine communities competed in the 1949 tournament.
Each year Oklahoma's eight Golden Gloves champions represented the state at the national tournament in Chicago. Barry Darby and Earl O'Neal became Oklahoma's first national Golden Gloves champions in 1943. That same year O'Neal was also crowned Oklahoma's first national AAU champion. The Oklahoma squad won the national Golden Gloves team title in 1949.
Boxing was also a popular activity at Oklahoma's high schools, colleges and universities, and military installations. In 1927 the Oklahoma Interscholastic Athletic Association held its first state tournament for high school pugilists. At the collegiate level boxing became a letter sport at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) in 1937, the same year that the Aggies won the state Golden Gloves team championship. Other institutions with programs included Cameron State School of Agriculture, where students boxed for class credit, Oklahoma Baptist University, University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma Military Academy. Oklahoma National Guardsmen engaged in contests at Fort Sill summer encampments. Teams representing the Forty-fifth Infantry Division, Camp Gruber, and other facilities regularly participated in state Golden Gloves competition.
Oklahoma's American Indian population produced excellent boxers. All-Indian events were held, with Fort Sill, Riverside, and other Indian schools fielding talented teams. Chilocco Indian Agricultural School won the first Oklahoma Golden Gloves team championship in 1936 with three individual titlists. In 1948 the coaches and seven of Oklahoma's eight Golden Gloves team members were American Indians.
African Americans began participating in Oklahoma Golden Gloves competition in 1952. That year novice DeWitt Lucas became the first black Oklahoman to win an Oklahoma state championship. In 1953 Oklahoma City light heavyweight Johnny Stewart was Oklahoma's first African American boxer to compete in the national Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago. Another noted African American was Tulsa's Ellsworth "Spider" Webb, who won two national collegiate championships at Idaho State University and represented the United States as a middleweight at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. As a professional Webb unsuccessfully challenged for the world middleweight championship in 1959.
On August 7, 1976, the Oklahoma Athletic Hall of Fame honored eighty of the state's top professional and amateur boxers. Among them were Babe Hunt, Carl Morris, Brad Simmons, George Courtney, Eugene "Chief" Parris, and Marvin Liddell. Along with champions O'Grady, Morrison, and Rouse, Tulsa's James "Quick" Tillis and Muskogee native Buck "Tombstone" Smith should also be recognized. Tillis fought for the world heavyweight championship in 1981 and in 1986 became the first opponent to go the distance with an up-and-coming Mike Tyson. Smith won 179 professional bouts as a junior middleweight during a career that lasted from 1987 until 2000.
Boxing's future in Oklahoma has remained promising. Canceled after the 1958 season, Golden Gloves competition returned to Oklahoma City in 1987. In 2001 Oklahoman Tony Holden emerged as a nationally prominent promoter, and his Oklahoma shows were featured on network television. Due to the efforts of state boxing administrator Steve Bashore, Oklahoma was one of the nation's most active professional boxing states in 2002.
Devon Abbott, "Gentleman Tom Abbott, Middleweight Champion of the Southwest," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 68 (Spring 1990).
Arly Allen, "Jess Willard and Carl Morris: Heavyweight Boxing in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 83 (Winter 2005–06).
Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 24 March 2002.
Oklahoma Gazette (Oklahoma City), 27 September 2001.
Bill Tharp, The History of Oklahoma Golden Gloves, 1932–1952 (Oklahoma City: Bob and Helen Haney, 1991).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Jon D. May, “Boxing,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=BO029.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.