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A look back at Boston boxing history, from John L. Sullivan to Jack Johnson & more

Many may not know that Boston is a city that has had a long and rich history with the sweet science. On Saturday, May 23, world championship boxing is officially back in Beantown when Premier Boxing Champions on NBC returns with a showdown between Andre Dirrell and James DeGale at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.

The last time Boston saw a world championship fight was May 23, 2006 when two world title fights took place at TD Bank Garden, formerly the Boston Garden. That night saw British superstar Ricky “Hitman” Hatton defeat Luis Collazo in a welterweight world title fight, while Eric Aiken upset previously undefeated Valdemir Pereira for a featherweight world title.

“Fighting in the Boston Garden was a great honor, never mind in a world title fight, but even a four rounder,” said Tony DeMarco, who won the welterweight world title in 1955 at the Boston Garden. “I had more fights there than anybody (28), including my pro debut. It’s always good fighting at home. You’re more comfortable at home. The fans know and honor you. Boston fans were real fight fans.”

Boston has been deeply invested in boxing since the early 20th century. From 1902-1908 the small town of Chelsea that borders Boston became the mecca for boxing as the sport was banned throughout most of America. However, Chelsea had a special ordinance that legalized boxing. It was during this time that Jack Johnson was faced with what he admitted was the toughest fight of his career, when he defended his heavyweight title against Sam Langford on April 6, 1906. Johnson won by a 15-round unanimous decision and refused to fight Langford again.

In addition, Fenway Park, famed home of the Boston Red Sox, hosted 29 professional boxing cards between 1919 and 1956. Beyond just hosting big fights, Boston has also produced a slew of Hall of Fame talent who were either born in Massachusetts or called the state home.

Noteworthy names include Roxbury heavyweight champions John L. Sullivan, Brockton heavyweight Rocky Marciano and Brockton resident and middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Boston’s own featherweight champions Sandy Saddler and George Dixon plus Boston promoter Rip Valenti have all been enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

“Fighting in Boston was a great experience,” said John Ruiz, a two-time heavyweight world champion from Chelsea. “Like any sport, Boston sports fans are true fans who follow your progress. I could feel their emotion wherever I fought. I will never forget them. I fought in Las Vegas a lot and there were always Boston fans there supporting me. I always appreciated them traveling all over the country to my fights.”

A father-son duo from Arlington, Mass. both had an impact on the heavyweight landscape decades after each other. Tom McNeeley fought heavyweight world champion Floyd Patterson in 1961 and dropped the champion before eventually succumbing to a fourth round knockout. Over 30 years later, his son Peter was the first man to fight Mike Tyson after he was released from prison, with the fight ending in McNeeley being disqualified.

One of the more unique athletes to come out of Boston, Dr. Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure was an Olympic Gold medalist, a doctor of psychology and a Massachusetts boxing commissioner. While at the 1960 Olympics, McClure served as the co-captain for Team USA and was the roommate of fellow gold medalist Cassius Clay. While he never reached his potential as a professional, he received opportunities against world class opponents Luis Manuel Rodriguez twice and Jose Torres, losing all three by decision. He also lost a decision and fought to a draw against Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. After his professional boxing career, McClure served as a Massachusetts boxing commissioner before eventually retiring in the Boston area where he resides to this day.

Another greatly revered fighter to come out of the Boston-area is Lowell’s Micky Ward. Hugely popular for his exciting style, Ward compiled a 38-13 pro record with 27 knockouts. He was most known for the three epic fight of the year award-winning battles with the late Arturo Gatti. Ward’s life and career was portrayed in the award-winning film “The Fighter”, which starred Mark Wahlberg as Ward.

“It was great fighting in Boston. The fans were very supportive and knowledgeable about the game,” said Ward. “It was like I was fighting at home…it was home for me as a fighter. Fans traveled a lot to my fights, too. They were a little crazy, drank lot of beer and were more vocal than most places I ever fought. I loved it.”

On Saturday, May 23 a new crop of young and hungry fighters will lay it all on the line, hoping to write the next exciting chapter of boxing history in the city of Boston. The action begins at 1:30 p.m. ET inside of Agganis Arena.