This article has been cross-posted from Cageside Seats and is part of a semi-regular series exploring the "shoot" era of professional wrestling.
"Professional wrestling... has no history, only a past."
- The Phantom of the Ring
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
- John Ford
Author's Note: Some contemporary sources contain terms in reference to various ethnic groups, which some may find derogatory and/or offensive. While neither I, nor this site, condone the viewpoints expressed with their use, we also do not condone pretending such sentiments did not exist. For that reason, they have been left in. Hopefully, they will not detract from your reading experience.
For the earlier history of battle royals see "Wrestling with the Past: The Bizarre Origins of the Battle Royal - Part One."
"Everyone fought hysterically...
It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else. No group fought together for long. Two, three, four, fought one, and then turned to fight each other, were themselves attacked..."
- Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison
As we saw in
"Wrestling with the Past: The Bizarre Origins of the Battle Royal - Part One", battle royals first appeared in England in the early 18th century, having been spawned directly from pugilism. They quickly became a popular attraction, but just as quickly, died out on the boxing stage -- only surviving as a competition practiced by slaves in the United States.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, battle royals would see a resurgence following the American Civil War and the post-war Reconstruction, starting in the Southern States but eventually spreading across the country.[EN5] But it was always below the Mason-Dixon line that they proved most popular.Following the introduction
of the Marquis of Queensbury rules, they were now fought wearing gloves, although other niceties, such as rounds and weight classes, were ignored. Sometimes the participants were also blindfolded, had one arm tied behind their back, or sometimes both. In almost all cases, the participants in the battle royals were black.[EN6]
While African-Americans had
"It was announced in the newspapers as an "Athletic Show" and it began with a "battle royal" boxing bout among five Negroes.
"Five burly men, stripped to the waist, entered a roped arena on a platform. At the stroke of the bell two couples immediately began sparring. The fifth man then pitched into one of the boxers who seemed to be having the best of it, thus breaking up the pair. The released man turned to the other group and picking out one of the men began without warning to punch him.
"And so the fight proceeded.
"No matter how cleverly a man might be holding his own, he was always in danger of having someone come at him from behind with a none-too-well padded fist. Scientific boxing was not in evidence. The contest was one of brutal physical endurance. When a man could keep it up no longer he left the ring and the winner was the man who stayed in longest.
"As announced, the winner was to receive $4.00 the second place man $2.00 and the third $1.00."
taken part in battle royals while in bondage, they were usually held for the entertainment of their own community. Now, the primary audience was white, attending shows that made sure to announce that the combatants would be"five 'duskies'" or that "special seats will be reserved for white patrons."
It is not a coincidence that it gained popularity during a time known as the "nadir of American race relations," nor that they were most common in the former slave states where racial tensions were at their worst. The inherent message of these battle royals, according to Andrew Kay, author of The Pussycat of Prizefighting, was easy to discern.
Manufactured disunity amongst blacks was the barely concealed plot redolent of the old days on the plantation.
of this obvious symbolism that Ralph Ellison chose to open his novel, Invisible Man, with a "blind battle royal". The contest presented by him would serve as a metaphor for America's treatment of its black citizens, sadly with very little embellishment.
Ironically, as much as these battle royals were obvious racist theater, they also provided opportunities to many aspiring black fighters. Entry and victory in a battle royal could provide an opening into the world of professional boxing; a route taken by some of the most legendary of "colored" champions.
Joe Gans, the World's Lightweight Champion and first black champion in boxing, famously got his start in 1890, when, at the age of 16, he entered a Baltimore battle royal against "seven sons of Ham", for the chance at a $5 first prize.
Another lightweight champion, Beau Jack, also made his mark in battle royals, knocking out his own brother in one such contest. He was so impressive in a battle royal victory at the Augustus National Golf Club - the same place he had previously shined shoes - that golfer Bobby Jones helped bankroll his entry into the professional ranks. Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson had an even more impressive showing, according to George Silar: