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Golden Gloves Grew Out of El Paso's Love of Boxing
By Elvi Nieto
“... Eight ... Nine ... Ten!”
The referee counts from one to ten waiting for a contestant to either get up and keep fighting or stay down and lose the fight. Whether you're sitting ringside at an Oscar De La Hoya fight in Las Vegas or watching local youngsters sparring at a recreation center, anticipation is a major part of the excitement that boxing fans experience. Although every prizefighter puts on a performance showcasing his or her strength and endurance, only long, hard years of training and experience can result in triumph in the ring.
Boxing can be traced back about 7,000 years to Sumer (modern Iraq). Hieroglyphs have been found in Egypt depicting these contests which date back to 5000 B.C. Young Greek military men participated in a form of boxing that helped prepare them for combat. These matches weren't so much about winning or losing as they were about building personal endurance and demonstrating their skills and strength.
Image caption: Fighters Matthew Martinez and Jorge Hernandez spar in a two-minute round at the Junior Olympic Tournament on May 7, 2005, in El Paso. Photo by Adrianna Alatorre
By the time the sport came to Rome in the fifth century, contestants were wearing glove-like leather bands called “cestuses” on their hands. The bands, which were usually weighted with iron or lead and trimmed with metal studs or spikes, took their name from the Latin word caestus meaning ”to strike.”
The development of boxing in the modern world is credited to an 18th century Londoner, James Figg, who opened a school to teach bare-knuckle fighting while also fighting willing newcomers for prize money. Figg was the first acknowledged heavyweight champion and remained so until his retirement in 1730.
In 1743, after accidentally causing the death of an opponent, Jack Broughton attempted to refine boxing by outlawing the commonly practiced brawling tactics. Broughton, who has been called “The Father of Boxing,” is credited with inventing “mufflers,” the first padded boxing gloves. The rules that he drew up for the sport became known as the London Prize Ring Rules. These became the standard for all bouts in 1838, lessening the brutality of the sport in England.
In 1867, the Marquis of Queensbury made some significant changes to the existing rules. The Queensbury Rules provided for three-minute rounds, one-minute periods between rounds and the ten count for a knockout. These rules, with some modifications, remain the authority in amateur and professional boxing today. The first worldwide credited champion under the Queensbury Rules was John L. Sullivan.
El Paso witnessed several of the sport's legendary fighters. According to historian Leon Metz in his book, El Paso Chronicles, major fights came to town by the end of the 1800s. In February 1892, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett was in El Paso putting on an exhibition fight before his scheduled bout with John L. Sullivan. In 1896, a fight between Peter Maher and Bob Fitzsimmons (see Related Sources sidebar) attracted many fans to El Paso, including legendary lawman Bat Masterson. (see Sonnichsen, Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande p. 362) According to an El Paso Times article, “local officials banned [the] Bob Fitzsimmons-Peter Maher bout, so they moved it to a sand dune on the Rio Grande.” Although boxing was not legal in Texas, private and “bootleg” fights frequently took place.
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Early on in the United States, the sport was widely opposed and illegal in many states because of its brutal nature. As boxing grew in popularity, largely due to the appeal of John L. Sullivan, states began to legalize the sport. In 1920, New York legalized boxing, and other states soon followed. Each state established a commission to regulate and control the sport. Texas did not legalize boxing until 1933.
Like every other sport, boxing has its amateur equivalent where young people can hone their skills and abilities and learn new, more effective ways of executing their chosen sport. In 1923, Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward encouraged the paper to sponsor an amateur boxing competition. The winners of each weight division received a trophy in the form of a tiny golden boxing glove.
Public bouts remained illegal in Illinois, however. Not until 1928 was another such amateur competition held, after boxing became legal in Illinois. This was the beginning of the Golden Gloves Association of America, named for the trophy awarded at the first amateur competition in Chicago. The New York Daily had sponsored a similar event, and amateur fighters from Chicago and New York met to determine national championships.
El Paso became involved in 1942 when the El Paso Times sponsored the first Golden Gloves tournament. In 1942, El Paso sent a well prepared team to their first state competition, where the boys came in second overall. In their second year, El Paso won the team championship trophy. In the 1950s, the organization reached its peak of popularity. In 1953, stories about these fighters made the front page, and thousands of enthusiasts packed the El Paso County Coliseum to view the fights.
Vicencio pointed out that during the early days of El Paso's Golden Gloves boxing, as in the rest of the country, the contests were a “watered down version of pro boxing, but not anymore.” Vicencio said there are many safeguards that have been put in place to protect the fighters from injury, such as mandatory headgear and bigger gloves.
The El Paso Golden Gloves Athletic Association counts among its directors two former state Golden Gloves champions: Jake Martinez (1955, 1956, 1957) and Vicencio (1971, 1975, 1976). The Times remained the tournament's sponsor until 1978, when it was taken over by the El Paso Parks and Recreation Department.
Besides being a safe forum for young athletes to practice their sport, Golden Gloves is an opportunity for young men and women to become part of a unit. Women began participating in this organization in El Paso in the mid 1990s. And they are winning. On July 15, 2006, Jennifer Han won the Women's National Golden Gloves 125-pound championship. With this victory, the UTEP senior has won six national championships and three Golden Gloves titles.
Among the most important contributions that Golden Gloves has made to the city's youth is the awarding of scholarships to its fighters to continue their education at the University of Texas at El Paso. The El Paso Golden Gloves Athletic Association usually gives out one scholarship per semester, though two have been awarded before. This not only rewards deserving boxers, but also highlights the importance of education. Golden Gloves encourages its fighters to continue their education or learn a trade.
Vicencio emphasized, “We don't encourage our boxers to go into pro boxing,” adding that Golden Glove fighting “is an activity where boxers can build character and learn to live a healthy life.” He credits the organization with helping wayward kids get their life back on track. Over 100 years later, El Paso's love of boxing is as strong as it always has been, whether professional, amateur, local or national. And now, fighters may be men or women.