Thanksgiving, a day where most Americans gather with family and friends to gorge themselves on copious amounts of turkey, sides, and desserts, all for the sake of giving thanks for the abundance of blessings in their life. At least that's what's supposed to happen, in theory.
Traditionally, the turkey is the star of Thanksgiving Day. Although one can argue that watching football is a close second, if not on par with its poultry counterpart.
I know, you're probably saying to yourself, “This is a boxing platform, why the heck are you writing about turkeys and football?” Well, that’s because one will be hard-pressed to find any significant sporting events other than football that has taken place on this “National Day of Gluttony,” let alone boxing.
Even at the height of its popularity in America, very few boxing matches, if any, were scheduled on Thanksgiving Day. However, boxing doesn’t disappoint. I dug deep into the historical archives of boxing and found two fights that took place a few days before Thanksgiving and one on Thanksgiving Day.
Two of the pugilists had career-defining wins leading up to the holiday, and I speculate that they were probably thankful at the dinner table. And the other fighter was probably grateful just to be alive given the circumstances.
Thanksgiving Day November 25, 1920:
Jack Johnson became America’s first African American world heavyweight champion when he defeated Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, in 1908. Twelve years later, well past his prime and serving a one-year prison sentence for violating the Mann Act, Johnson would fight two fights on Thanksgiving Day within the confines of the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth.
According to an article written by Roberto Jose Andrade Franco for “The Undefeated,” the warden scheduled a day of boxing matches on Thanksgiving afternoon starting around 3:00 pm.
Headlining the event was Jack Johnson, who was scheduled to fight two bouts. Franco wrote that “guests started arriving at noon, and officials struggled to find enough seats to accommodate the crowd of 2,000, including 300 reporters, state officials, and other nobles. The rest of the crowd was made up of prisoners dressed in their usual striped outfits, who, after eating Thanksgiving dinner, were led out to the yard by guards and armed soldiers. A band made up of inmates played while snipers and cameras looked down on the specially constructed outdoor boxing ring.”
Franco describes Johnson entering an outdoor ring on a cold Kansas afternoon wearing a black knit cap and a bathrobe.
According to the article, Johnson, and his wife Lucille Cameron, wrote to each other frequently. In one of the letters, Johnson asked her to mail him boxing supplies before the match. As described by Franco, “He relied on his wife to send along supplies: boxing shoes sized 10E, or 10 half D, and 5-ounce boxing gloves. For his training, he asked for her to send arm bracelets to ‘pull horses.'”
Johnson would fight two African-American professional boxers, Frank Owens and “Topeka” Johnson. In the first match, Johnson earned an easy victory over Owens by knocking him down 12 times, the fight would be stopped in the 6th round. After the first fight, Johnson stayed in the ring and waited for “Topeka” Johnson to enter. That fight was scheduled for four rounds, and Jack Johnson would convincingly win a decision.
The article doesn't say much about what happened for the rest of that Thanksgiving Day in 1920. We are left to wonder if there was a Thanksgiving-themed meal waiting for Jack Johnson. We don’t know if he was thankful for having another opportunity to box, even though it was behind prison walls. However, in a written letter to his wife, Jack Johnson simply wrote, “Everything went lovely yesterday.”
November 22, 1986:
It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1986, and Mike Tyson probably didn’t have much to be thankful for in his life. Well, one can only assume. At this point, it had only been a year since his trainer, mentor, and surrogate father, Cus D'Amato, passed away. And it's safe to presume that Tyson was still probably grieving.
Nevertheless, the show must go on as the young Tyson got ready to make history. In a fight dubbed “Judgement Day,” it only took the young pugilist two rounds to write his name in the history books. Tyson destroyed Trevor Berbick and became the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing.
At the age of 16, Tyson’s biological mother passed away. Cus and his partner Camille Ewald adopted the troubled teen. After Cus died, Mike continued to live in their home with Camille until his first marriage in 1988.
Although Tyson was gracious during the post-fight interviews, no mention of Tyson’s Thanksgiving plans were discussed. However, what a wonderful ending to a turbulent journey if Tyson's victory culminated with him going home and having Thanksgiving dinner with his adopted mother.
November 25, 1980:
Two days before Thanksgiving in 1980, boxing fans anxiously waited to see if Sugar Ray Leonard could avenge his loss to Roberto Duran. Earlier that year, Leonard forwent his boxing skills and decided to get in a heated toe-to-toe brawl with the harder-hitting Panamanian.
Duran's greatness inside the ring was equally matched by his indiscipline outside of it. In between fights, Duran liked to party and oftentimes consume large amounts of food. Duran ate like it was Thanksgiving every day. As a result, he was known to balloon over 50 to 60 lbs. above his fighting weight. Leonard used this to his advantage and asked for the rematch to happen immediately. Leonard knew that he had fought Duran all wrong the first time around, and this time he was going to outbox Duran.
The rematch took place and Leonard boxed circles around Duran. A frustrated Duran couldn't contend with Leonard's boxing skills and quit in the middle of the 8th round. This fight would infamously be known as the “no mas” fight and become one of the most talked-about fights in boxing history.
Regarding either fighters’ Thanksgiving plans after the fight, fight fans will never know. Hopefully, Ray spent it with his family, and I'm sure Duran didn't miss out on an opportunity at a diverse spread that only a Thanksgiving dinner can offer in America.
Thanksgiving is a holiday to break bread, give thanks and at least try to spend one day of uninterrupted quality time with family and friends. And if you're visiting my house on Thanksgiving, instead of football, our tradition is to watch throwback fights, like the ones mentioned in this article.
Sometimes as boxing fans, we tend to forget that fighters are people just like us. They, too, have families and celebrate the holidays just like we do. The fighters we cheer for and jeer are fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, just like many of us. These athletes risk their lives every time they get in the ring, most times for not much money, not commensurate with the risk associated with the act.
I served in the United States Army for 25 years. Sometimes I was away from my family on Thanksgiving. And on some occasions, I didn’t have the certainty that I would be back the following year to celebrate with them.
Each year before I eat the amount of food necessary to induce a food coma, I take a few seconds to thank God for keeping me safe and that I get to spend another year at the dinner table with my family. I'm willing to bet that the fighters we root for will be doing the same this Thanksgiving and those to come.