Famous 19th century Irish-American boxer Paddy Ryan, who was often referred to as the 	“Heavyweight Champion of America”

Boxing: An American Immigrant Story
By Charles Carr

There has always been a special relationship between boxing and immigration in the United States. In the late mid to late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States had immigration quotas and restrictions, but its borders were more open than they are today.  This enabled large groups of immigrants to come to this country and pursue the “American dream.”  Many of them spent their life savings immigrating to the United States only to face invidious discrimination in the labor market.  Life was difficult.  But, many immigrants found an outlet in boxing.

Like the United States’ immigration policies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, professional boxing welcomed participants from all over the world.  It had no race or nationality restrictions, and size was irrelevant because there were multiple weight classes.  Determination and perseverance could compensate for a lack of natural talent.

Moreover, immigrants could closely identify with the boxer’s struggle. Boxing required more stamina and mental toughness than any other sport.  Professional boxers fought every month—in fifteen round contests—and they trained everyday in between. In the early 1900s, the mafia controlled boxing and many boxers were forced to throw matches and sign unfavorable contracts.  Even though some boxers obtained fame and fortune, immigrants knew their favorite boxers struggled just like they did.


In the early twentieth century in New York City, immigrant-boxing champions were heroes and role models in their communities.  Immigrants desperately sought boxing tickets in order to catch a glimpse of their favorite boxers inside the famous Madison Square Garden. If they could not afford a ticket, they waited outside the arena or listened to fights over the radio.  Boxing gave the immigrant community hope and a sense of pride.  

The United States’ borders are much harder to cross than they were one hundred years ago.  Basketball and football have surpassed boxing in popularity.  The United States is a much richer and bigger nation than it was in the 1800s and early 1900s, presenting immigrants with more opportunities to succeed. Nonetheless, immigrants are still intimately connected to boxing.

Today, Latino immigrants, who make up a large portion of those immigrating to the United States today, are boxing’s biggest fanbase. During the past thirty years, many of the most celebrated boxers were Mexican.  For example, Julio Cesar Chavez, Ricardo Lopez, and Juan Manuel Marquez achieved legendary status within the Mexican-American community. Puerto Rican immigrants admired fighters like Miguel Cotto, Hector Macho Camacho, and Felix Trinidad.

In contrast to early United States boxing history, second-generation immigrants have become world champions.  Oscar De La Hoya, an Olympic gold medalist, is one of the most celebrated boxers of all-time. The son of Mexican immigrants, Oscar was born and raised in East Los Angeles, and was a multi-division World Champion.  Fernando Vargas and Roberto Guerrero are also second-generation immigrants who won World Championships.

Nicaraguan World Champion, Alex Argüello, and Panamanian World Champion, Roberto Durán, have inspired Central and Latin American immigrants. And first and second-generation Filipino immigrants continue to celebrate Manny Pacquiao’s success.  The list goes go on and on.  Indeed, especially as long as there is immigration, boxing will always be a popular sport in the United States.