There is no denying that British boxing finds itself in a very good place these days. With champions such as Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua continuing the legacy of boxers from the previous decade such as Tony Bellew, David Haye and Amir Khan, the popularity of the sport is alive and kicking like never before.
Most people have seen Tyson Fury’s extravagant ring entrances, Anthony Joshua’s and Fury’s boxing matches in the desserts of Saudi Arabia, organised by commercially driven promoters like Eddie Hearn who understand that there is a lot more money to earn on that side of the world. This should give a good example of how the sport has grown and where it is now: very instagramable, lucrative and truly global.
Having said that, the sport has its origins in much more humble beginnings. Warrior Code is in London, UK, this week and descended upon one of London’s oldest and biggest boroughs just south of the river, Southwark, to soak up a bit of the history of boxing in England and London more specifically.
You can tell that this area still lives and breathes boxing with a gym located on pretty much every other corner on every other street. Rumour has it though that this is not the area where the current world champions train but it’s the amateur boxers competing in Britain’s famous white collar boxing competitions that keep the legacy and history of the area alive.
Located on the Blackfriars Road, just south of the Thames lies a seemingly anonymous pub called The Ring. For anyone stepping into the pub and walking straight to the bar to order a drink and perhaps something to eat, you would almost miss that all the walls of the boozer are covered in history and boxing memorabilia.
London is one of the world’s best covered cities in terms of world class sporting venues and one such arena, sadly now long vanished, was The Ring, a boxing stadium. Located opposite the pub on Blackfriars Road of which Warrior Code is standing in front.
The Ring is considered to be Britain’s historic home of boxing. Many boxers who went on to become world champions often fought their first matches in this stadium.
Though The Ring first opened its doors to boxing fans in 1910, the stadium itself apparently dates back to 1783. It was originally designed as a chapel by a local reverend who reportedly opted for the unusual, round design so that there would be no corners in which the devil could hide. Little did he know what important foundation he had laid.
Several decades later, the man responsible for overseeing the chapel’s redevelopment into a boxing ring was Dick Burge, a former English middleweight champion who had just been released from prison after having been convicted for bank fraud. At the time, Blackfriars was one of London’s roughest areas. Today, it’s one of London’s commercial centers.
The Ring opens its doors
Supported by his wife Bella after being released from prison and after an intense renovation funded by the local area, The Ring finally opened on the 14th of May in 1910, quickly attracting huge crowds. The arena soon went onto staging events four to five times a week. It was clear the local community had found something to indulge in and a much needed distraction from the struggles of everyday life.
Just four years after The Ring opened, the first world war erupted and Dick signed up to the army. Tragically, the former boxer fell ill in 1918 and died a few months before the war was over.
Whilst Dick was no more, it didn’t spell the end of The Ring. Shortly before Dick passed, he made an agreement with his wife Bella that she would keep the business going once he would be gone. Not only did she continue to run the venue for years to come, she also became the world’s first female boxing promoter.
Bella was very well respected in the local area and knew how to put on a good show when it came to running the stadium. Much loved by the local community, the pioneering promoter soon earned an affectionate nickname; ‘Bella of Blackfriars’.
The venue was so popular that even the The king of England - who was a keen fan of the sport himself - decided to pop by and enjoy an evening’s boxing at the Ring. The main fight that night was between two highly regarded fighters; Manchester’s Len Johnson and Birmingham’s Jack Hood.
By the late 1930's however, and with the threat of world war 2 looming, The Ring began to experience financial problems which soon became so tough, Bella was forced to sell her jewellery and other valuables in order to pay the salaries of her employees at the stadium.
Sadly, her attempts would prove to be in vain. At the height of the Blitz (the second world war), one night in October 1940, The Ring suffered a direct hit.
Though the venue was no more, the legacy both Bella and Dick Burge left to the British have been captured in well written biographies and are worth a read for anyone interested in the sport that is now so globally well-known.
Whilst some boxers nowadays are accused of chasing the wrong dollars in the wrong places, who knows where the sport would have been if it hadn't been for Dick Burge and Bella establishing The Ring. Not only was Dick a keen boxer himself, he and his wife also understood the power of boxing as a form of entertainment and as a way to unite the community and keep the spirits up in tough times. It’s in particular that last point we need to give the two people credit for. How is sport able to transcends cultural boundaries and other type of hierarchies in society?
Whilst Bella and Dick may not particularly like what has come in place of their beloved Ring, they sure can be proud of the foundation they established for the sport.