Boxing and its Connection to the Military

Baker Geist Updated
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In honor of Veterans Day, I began thinking of how boxing has had a longstanding connection with the military. Whether it be fighters who have served, or events that have taken place while a conflict was occurring in the background of American life, here are some interesting facts that show the intertwined history of boxing and the Armed Forces.

(Pictured above, L to R: Joe Jouis, Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey)

Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis June 22, 1938 — Most boxing fans know of this story. I came to the sport later than most, so I really learned about their fight after reading a book on it in order to examine the social significance of boxing for a paper I wrote in college.

Thought to be broadcast to the largest radio audience in history, Schmeling and Louis squared off in a rematch that symbolically pitted America against Germany in the months prior to the beginning of World War II. After defeating Schmeling, Louis eventually served in the Army, and even donated two of his purses to the war effort, according to an article posted on Want to learn more? Click here to listen to the fight and gain a deeper perspective on the significance of arguably the first “Fight of the Century.”

Many, many boxers have served the military – lists 185 boxers as World War I Veterans 343 as World War II Veterans, 22 as Vietnam War Veterans, 44 as Korean War Veterans two as Spanish- American War Veterans and seven as Iraqi War Veterans — including both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Additionally, Jack Dempsey served in the Coast Guard from 1942 to 1952 and former WBC heavyweight champion Ken Norton served in the Marine Corps from 1963-1967. There are undoubtedly many more examples as well.

Who knew? – OK, while the name probably gives it away, Steve “USS” Cunningham enlisted in the Navy at age 18. What fans may not know is that his first ever experience boxing came while stationed at the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, according to an article by Jason Bracelin on Talk about a hidden talent, Cunningham is a former International Boxing Federation (IBF) cruiserweight champion with a professional record of 29-9-1 with 13 knockouts.

Bringing boxing to the troops — According to a Dec. 1976 New York Times article, as part of promoter Don King’s efforts to create an American heavyweight tournament, in 1977 he brought fights to the USS Lexington in Pensacola, Florida. Among the bouts featured, heavyweight Larry Holmes — then ranked No. 6 in the world — took on Tom Prater.

Lastly . . . thank you to my dad, Dave Geist and brother Bailey Geist for their service in the Navy. Dad is a Vietnam Veteran while my brother was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan. To all veterans who have served in all branches of the military, thank you very much for your service and sacrifice to our country!

I’m sure there are more examples of boxing’s connection with military service. If any come to mind, feel free to leave them below in the comments section.

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