When Boxing Was a Catholic Sport

By Clarence George on December 31, 2015
When Boxing Was a Catholic Sport
Father draws the line at MMA, "which should be banned for its incitement of bloodlust."

Though Manny Pacquiao is now an apostate, Tyson Fury remains a hardcore believer and practitioner. Sorta…

“Other sports such as baseball, tennis and squash racquets have their place, but their common drawback is that their players get to strike each other only inadvertently.”—Father George Rutler

My title is a takeoff of Allen Bodner’s When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport. Of course, boxing was never really a Catholic sport, per se, except in the sense that it was once dominated by the Irish and Italians. Impossible as it is pointless to name all the names, but some obvious ones come to mind, including John L. Sullivan, Gene Tunney, James J. Braddock, the two Rockys, Graziano and Marciano, and Floyd Patterson, who said, “If the Church bans boxing I would quit boxing immediately.” Though Manny Pacquiao is now an apostate, Tyson Fury remains a hardcore believer and practitioner. Sorta.

Did Sullivan take the easier road by becoming a boxer instead of heeding his mother’s wishes that he enter the priesthood? Maybe, given Know Nothing America’s pathological and downright homicidal hatred of all things Romish, especially if the Romish was Irish. Perhaps The Great John L. knew even before Al Capone that you can accomplish more against a hibernophobic nativist with a crucifix and a (right) cross than with a crucifix alone.

As the champ who could “lick any man in the house,” the Irish Catholic Sullivan proved an enormous influence on Catholic fathers and Fathers in teaching young boys the manly art of self-defense, an influence that spread far beyond Irish homes and parishes. Up until the 1960s, almost all Catholic lads were taught how to use their fists. It’s only in relatively recent years that sinister and insidious elements within the Church have condemned boxing, calling for it to be cast into the exterior darkness, oblivious to the resultant weeping and smashing of teeth. God save us from the Jesuits!

By the same token, God bless Father George Rutler, who wrote an article for the April 8, 2013, edition of Crisis, in which he extols the benefits and virtues of the Sweet Science.

In “The Christian Boxer,” Father writes, “Sane moralists insist that neglect of self-defense can be moral dereliction.” A lesson Father knows only too well, having once been kayoed by a future crispy critter robbing the poor box. “It was then that I began instruction in boxing, which I still try to keep up about once a week.”

While Father appreciates many aspects of the King of Sports, including its physical and cerebral demands and rewards, he just plain likes hitting. Or, as he puts it, “the immediate instinct to punch someone who has punched you, issues in a thrill when you do so.”

Football is all right, he writes, “but banging into one another is not as graceful as using fists.” Shuffleboard, badminton, billiards, and golf can “be played in a state of physical neglect or advanced pregnancy,” while “Fencing may match boxing for mental elegance, but the use of protective devices has made it a shadow of ancient duels.”

Father does speak highly of wrestling, however, impressed by its venerability. He’s dismayed and disgusted that wrestling will no longer be an Olympic competition, ludicrously replaced by such “sports” as ping pong. “The degradation of our culture has entered its fin de siècle phase of the Decadents,” he observes.

Father Rutler neither advocates nor condemns professional boxing. A priest, after all, he recognizes that “There is a real moral doubt about professional boxing,” just as there was in the days of John L. Sullivan. “This is based both on its deliberate intent to inflict serious injury and on the corruption of promoters, which has figured in the decline of its popularity.” But while he calls for pro boxing, particularly at the heavyweight level, to be monitored, he doesn’t seek to have it abolished or even restricted. After all, “In a fallen world there always will be excesses.” Father does draw the line, however, at MMA, “which should be banned for its incitement of bloodlust.”

Father doesn’t train young lads in the art of fisticuffs, but he does quote the Apostle Paul: “I so fight, not as one beating the air,” noting that “No young man should venture into the larger world without having sparred with his peers, and boxing should be required of every seminarian who would preach like Paul.”

Father Rutler is pastor at the Church of St. Michael at 424 West 34th Street in Hell’s Kitchen. There’s a poor box there, I’m sure, and maybe a sign, “Beware of Priest.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Walter Wojtowicz 11:20pm, 10/23/2018

    Great response time John!

    Someone should build a statue of Clarence George!

  2. John 10:40pm, 10/23/2018

    Latest medical research shows knocks to the brain are cumulative. So every punch in training and matches is making you dumber and less equipped to deal with an ever increasingly complex world,

    But why boxing, instead:-
    1. First aid course.
    2. Health and nutrition courses.
    3. Hospital tours showing real suffering from drugs, alcohol, smoking.
    4. Home tour of a poor boy bashed and now brain dead at home looked
    after by his parents. (the reality of a lost street fight).
    5.Conflict avoidance course not boxing that is a confrontation tactic, you then use your brain not your fist. No job in the real world pays on fist power, they pay on brain power,
    6. Finance courses. So these boys aren’t in the debt trap their whole lives.
    7. Catholic priests world wide teaching the most vulnerable kids in the world a skill that gives them a skill that is a deadly weapon.

    Boxing is really a stupid stupid thing to teach young boys. You will not use it as all attacks happen in packs and you can’t fight off 3 to 5 other people no mater how good you are.  Even the animal world including snakes and lions will always choose avoidance as their first strategy of survival.

  3. Clarence George 10:57am, 01/05/2016

    Still Catholic, Peter, but more nominally.  Father Rutler is pretty much in a class by himself.  When I still attended the New Mass (which I haven’t done in years; it’s the Latin Mass or nothing), Father always omitted the Sign of Peace.  Bravo!  Gotta say, never cared for Father Barry.

  4. peter 09:03am, 01/05/2016

    Because of the Irish and the Mexicans and the Filipinos, boxing continues to be a Catholic sport—but I don’t know how many George Rutlers are left…Or Fatherly Karl Maldens.

  5. Clarence George 02:19pm, 01/01/2016

    Ha!  Thanks, Irish, glad you’re enjoying it.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:24am, 01/01/2016

    Lost my ass at the Casino so this is cheering me up….along with numerous Mimosas, that is!

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:21am, 01/01/2016

    Great posts in the New Year with back and forth between Eric and Clarence George!

  8. Clarence George 10:37am, 01/01/2016

    Right you are, Eric.  In fact, I think it was Mike Silver who recently told me about Graham’s one and only pro bout (fighting under his real name, Wayne Coleman).  And I believe you’re right about Johnson.

    By the way, the WWE had a terrible time last year in terms of injuries.  Seth Rollins, for instance, will be out till at least June and there’s ample reason to think Daniel Bryan will never return.

  9. Eric 10:17am, 01/01/2016

    Clarence…Superstar Billy Graham apparently fought in the Golden Gloves as well and even had at least one professional bout at the old Madison Square Garden on October 21,1966.  According to Graham, Gil Clancy agreed to train him for his professional debut against a fighter named Willis Miles. The main event that night was Johnny Persol vs. Amos Lincoln. As Graham tells it, he floored Miles a couple of times in the 1st and once again in the second round. Graham went for the kill in the 3rd round only to be caught himself by a straight right.  Graham rose at the count of 8, but the referee stopped the bout awarding the bout to Willis Miles via a TKO in 3. Superstar would try professional football next before finding his true calling in the world of professional rasslin’. I believe Rocky Johnson claims to have boxed some as well.

  10. Clarence George 06:57am, 01/01/2016

    Several pro wrestlers were Golden Gloves champs.  Rowdy Roddy Piper, for example, and I think the same is true of Heath Slater.

  11. Eric 06:35am, 01/01/2016

    Mike Casey…Read an old Sports Illustrated article talking about a proposed match with then heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano vs. wrestler Lou Thesz.  I’m sure this bout would have been one of those well rehearsed deals like Ali-Inoki or Wepner/Andre The Giant had it actually taken place. Danny Hodge, an all-American wrestler in the 50’s, had a brief boxing career, I believe Hodge lost his last bout to Nino Valdez. Hodge had a hell of grip and I think an elderly Hodge can still be seen on Youtube crushing an apple with his hand. And you can’t leave out Paul Berlenbach, who was a talented wrestler as well as the light heavyweight champion of the world. Wrestling was indeed part of the training routine of Jim Jeffries. Given the success of wrestlers in MMA, I wouldn’t rule out a Gotch victory over Jeffries had they engaged in a legitimate match back in the pioneer days. hehe. Now a Jeffries vs. Dempsey match would have really been something. I also believe one of Marciano’s contemporaries, millionaire thoroughbred owner, Peter Fuller was a pretty talented amateur wrestler and boxer as well. HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!!!

  12. Clarence George 08:15pm, 12/31/2015

    Thank you, Irish.  Yes, I remember that scene very well.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:22pm, 12/31/2015

    Clarence George-Strong finish to 2015 with this article! Sister Mary’s (Ingrid Bergman’s) footwork and head movement was pretty darn nifty in The Bells of St. Mary’s ....until she got clipped when she zigged when she should have zagged, that is.

  14. Clarence George 01:50pm, 12/31/2015

    Happy New Year to you, Walter, and thanks for your great post.  Father Crawford reminds me of Monsignor Kelliher (of whom I wrote recently) even more than of Father Rutler.

  15. Walter Wojtowicz 12:47pm, 12/31/2015

    Happy New Year my pugilistic loving brother!  Good stuff.. Thanks for the article.  Brings back some memories of my old neighborhood.  The closest we had to Father Rutler was the great Father Crawford.  The good Father passed back in 1979 when I was only in 4th grade.  Never had the pleasure of getting smacked up side the head by him..  However, Father McNicholas did send Lenny and I to the canvas once over a can of Schlitz.  My parish was St. Rita which had a grammar and high school.  St. Rita High School had a fantastic boxing program throughout the 50’s, 60’s and into the early 70’s.  The success of course was totally due to Father Crawford’s devotion to coaching.  Father Crawford was legendary not only in his ability to produce Park Districit, CYO and Golden Gloves champs but more so on his impact as a teacher, mentor, Father and overly enthusiastic and effective disciplinary..  When hearing tales of Fr. Crawford it always seemed fitting since the man taught at an all boys school on the south side of Chicago named after the patron saint of wayward men..  We never regained a club nor has boxing been back in the Catholic schools since the great Father and those like him have retired or passed. In Chicago land, only one Catholic school, Mt. Carmel HS has an intramural program which produces a good deal of competitive eliminating bouts each year.  My Freshman year we tried to organize a club and a group of us were successful in helping organize a fight night my Sophmore, Junior year.  We were never able to get the club off the ground (insurance, lack of coach, etc..) and the fight night is no longer happening.  I think they have a volleyball team now for Christ Sake..!

  16. Clarence George 07:20am, 12/31/2015

    Thank you, Mike, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  17. Mike Casey 05:59am, 12/31/2015

    I appreciate the skill of synchronized swimming. I just don’t appreciate watching it. Watching ping-pong between two top players is a lot of fun as they get further away from the table with each power shot and head towards the street. Eric’s point about wrestling is very interesting, because fighters of old were encouraged to wrestle as part of their training. Dempsey recommended it highly. The great Frank Gotch apparently trained for a fight with Jim Jeffries but then thought better of it. See, Clarence, these are the kind of meandering conversations that your fine articles ignite!!

  18. Clarence George 05:07am, 12/31/2015

    You’re right, Eric, and apologies—you and Father Rutler can rest easy, as wrestling has indeed been reinstated.  I, too, like ping pong.  As Father observes, however, it’s a “game,” not a “sport.”  I don’t think they should drop synchronized swimming, if only because I find it unintentionally hilarious.

  19. Eric 04:56am, 12/31/2015

    I thought they changed their mind about not including wrestling as an Olympic sport, if not, they very well should. You think boxing a few rounds is tough on the old ticker? Try wrestling for a couple of periods, those guys are some of the fittest athletes on the planet. Wrestling was one of my favorite sports to watch in the Olympics. BTW, I love watching ping pong as well, and used to be quite good at the “sport.” Ping pong has long been an Olympic event and will hopefully remain. Drop synchronized swimming but not ping pong and certainly not as an important Olympic event as wrestling.

Leave a comment