“John L. Sullivan, the Boston pugilist, had a benefit at Harry Hill’s Theater yesterday afternoon, the feature of which was an offer of $50 for any man to box with him four rounds according to the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury, which are rounds of three minutes each, with one minute between each round. During the afternoon, while the sparring was going on between the volunteers, Dick Holliwood appeared on the stage with Steve Taylor and stated to the audience that Taylor was there to accept the challenge of Sullivan. It was then announced by Mr. [Richard] Fox that Sullivan would fight any man in the world in the ring for $1,000 a side, according to the rules of the English prize ring. This, however, was not taken up…”
– New York Herald, 1881
“Grand International Glove Contest, for the Middleweight Championship of the World and a Purse of $12,000 between Jack Dempsey, The Nonpareil, and Bob Fitzsimmons, The New Zealand Wonder … General Admission $10.00.”
– Advertisement for Fitzsimmons vs. Dempsey, New Orleans Item, 1891
“Although Kid McCoy and Tommy Ryan have made a match to fight some time when a philanthropic club will give a purse of $3000–for they have agreed not to fight for less–it is evident than McCoy doesn’t intend to remain idle in consequence.”
– Boston Herald, 1896
“Battling Nelson and Joe Gans are to are to battle for the lightweight championship of the world at Goldfield, Nevada, tomorrow afternoon. They will battle for the biggest purse ever offered little men–$30,000, $20,000 of which goes to Nelson, win or lose. Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack Hall were supposed to have battled for a $40,000 purse at New Orleans, but Fitz, the winner, never saw the money.”
– Philadelphia Inquirer, 1906
“Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey split a purse of slightly more than $450,000 for their battle Thursday, according to Tex Rickard’s estimate. It was the fourth $1,000,000 fight in ring history, in all of which Dempsey has been a principle. The former champion now is assured a cut in his fifth big money fight when he meets Gene Tunney in a return title bout … Dempsey’s Share, $252,759.00.”
– A.P., Dallas Morning News, 1927
“How much money can a prize-fighter make in a year’s time? With a furtive glance towards the income tax department, Promoter Jimmy Johnston of Madison Square Garden estimates the annual “earning power” of some of the leading leather pushers as follows: $100,000 class–Jack Sharkey, Tony Canzoneri, Mickey Walker, Kid Chocolate, “Bat” Battalino. $75,000 class–Tommy Loughran, Jimmy McClarnin. $50,000 class–Ernie Schaaf, Maxie Rosenbloom. $25,000 class-Dave Shade, Ray Miller, Eddie Shea, Al Brown. Primo Carnera grossed $300,000 in his first year in the United States, but had to pass most of it over to his various managers.”
– I.N.S., Evening Tribune, 1932
“If the gate goes to $1,000,000, the net will be about $850,000. Of this Louis will receive the champion’s cut of 40 per cent, $340,000, his largest purse, and Schmeling will be 20 per cent, $170,000. The $340,000 would bring Louis’ ring earnings for four years to $1,363,000, a first-four-year earning record that may stand for years.”
– James E. Doyle, Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II pre-fight, Plain Dealer, 1938
Once upon a time, an incredibly reachable and accessible social institution became a niche sport, oft ridiculed and dismissed by the mainstream. Blame for that seems evenly dispersed upon managers, promoters, advisers, alphabet sanctioning organizations and, of course, television networks.
A facet of the sport that has surely skewed, though, is the earning potential — and reality — of popular figures in boxing.
One of the more memorable incidents in recent years that highlights this exact concept is Floyd Mayweather, Jr. turning down a six-fight, $12.5 million HBO contract in 2000, and dismissing it as “slave wages.”
In lieu of the pay-per-view powerhouse that Floyd is currently, extremely poor wording aside, the deal may actually have been a poor one for him to accept, further highlighting the issue.
The common assertion among the boxing history buffs is that the older guys were tougher, meaner, better, and above all, more willing to take risks for less compensation. Maybe they were, and maybe they weren’t. Rather than meander through the how’s and why’s of boxing’s journey to the monetary now, the above quotes may lend a look directly into the mouth of madness.
***Adjusted for inflation…
$1,000 in 1881 is roughly $22,000 today
$12,000 in 1891 is roughly $287,000 today
$3,000 in 1896 is roughly $77,000 today
$30,000 in 1906 is roughly $720,000 today
$252,000 in 1927 is roughly $3,100,000 today
$100,000 in 1932 is roughly $1,500,000 today
$340,000 in 1938 is roughly $5,200,000 today