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Champ’s belt had 400 diamonds - by Ron Jackson

Thousands of boxers have won belts but only one, the legendary John L Sullivan, ever wore one made of pure gold, studded with approximately 400 diamonds.

Residents of Boston donated $10 000 to present that wonderful trophy to their hero on August 8, 1887. The belt had a centrepiece that showed the flags of the United
States, Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as an image of Sullivan.

That was the big daddy of all boxing belts but some of the diamonds were sold before the Smithsonian Institute acquired the belt in 1983 for its sports history collection.

Spectators and television viewers have become accustomed to belts, some carrying
much prestige and others of dubious status, being presented to boxers. Few are aware that the first belts to be presented as boxing trophies were awarded nearly two centuries ago. In fact, the tradition will be 200 years old in 2010.

The first English heavyweight champion to receive a belt was Tom Cribb, who was
awarded one made of lion skin and decorated with silver claws. It was presented to
him in December 1810 by King George III after his victory over American Tom Molineaux.

However, the first international fight in which a belt was at stake, took place only
half a century later.

British boxing authorities commissioned the making of a silver belt in 1855. The rules stipulated that it would become the champion’s property only if he retained his title for three years.

The first recognised international bout for a belt was between US champion John C
Heenan and the British champion, Tom Sayers, in 1860.

Belts were not automatically awarded to a fighter who won a championship. Some boxers received belts only if their fans were able to raise enough money to pay for such an expensive trophy. Those belts were made especially for each fighter and were, therefore, all different.

In the 1880s, English promoter Bob Hajjiban presented belts for specific weights.

The first Lonsdale belt made to be awarded as a boxing trophy was presented in
1909 by the Fifth Earl of Lonsdale, Hugh Cecil Lowther, who was also the first president of the National Sporting Club.

However, the first belts did not bear the Lonsdale name. They were known as “The
National Sporting Club’s Challenge Belt.” Only after the British Boxing Board of Control was formed in 1929 did they become known as the Lord Lonsdale Challenge belts.

The original Lonsdale belts were handcrafted from porcelain and 22-carat gold and
they had a central panel depicting two boxers in a fighting stance.

A boxer could win a Lonsdale belt outright if he won three championship bouts, consecutive or not, held under the auspices of the National Sporting Club. If there were no challengers, the champion could become the owner of the belt by remaining the undisputed holder for three consecutive years.

The British Boxing Board of Control, which took over from the National Sporting Club, issued its own belts from 1936, with a portrait of Lord Lonsdale on the central panel.

The rules stipulated that a fighter had to win three championship bouts to win the belt outright. This has been changed to four title fights.

Henry Cooper, a British heavyweight champion, was the only boxer who won
three Lonsdale belts outright.

In 1987, the board decided not to award more than one belt in the same division to
any fighter. However, a boxer can win belts outright in different weight classes.

The holders of the first Lonsdale belts were:
• Flyweight - Sid Smith, 1911
• Bantamweight - Digger Stanley, 1910
• Featherweight - Jim Driscoll, 1910
• Lightweight - Freddie Welsh, 1909
• Welterweight - Young Joseph, 1910
• Middleweight - Tom Thomas, 1909
• Light-heavyweight - Dick Smith, 1914
• Heavyweight - Bombardier Billy Wells, 1911.

After the National Sporting Club had become virtually defunct in the early 1930s,
losing control of the sport to the British Boxing Board of Control, the first holders were:
• Flyweight — Benny Lynch, 1936
• Bantamweight — Johnny King, 1937
• Featherweight — Johnny McGrory, 1936
• Lightweight — Jimmy Walsh, 1936
• Welterweight — Jake Kilrain, 1938
• Middleweight — Jock McAvoy, 1937
• Light-heavyweight — Jock McAvoy, 1937
• Heavyweight — Tommy Farr, 1937.

Lonsdale belts are probably the most valuable boxing belts. The one that Bombardier Billy Wells won in 1911 is now kept at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, South East London, and is not on display to the general public.

The belt awarded to Randolph Turpin was auctioned for £23 000 (approximately R345 000).

Ring magazine, which was founded in 1922, awarded its first championship belt to
heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in 1922 and the second to flyweight champion Pancho Villa. The magazine stopped presenting belts to world champions in the 1990s but resumed the practice in 2002.

South Africa’s only universal world champion, the late Vic Toweel, was the only SA
boxer who ever received a Ring belt. The belt was later stolen in a burglary and its whereabouts are unknown.

Major organisations such as the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council,
World Boxing Organisation and International Boxing Federation, as well as the International Boxing Organisation, World Boxing Foundation and World Boxing Union all have their own championship belts.

Belts are awarded in each of the 17 weight divisions and the champion retains possession of the belt even upon losing the title.

With 68 championship belts up for grabs from the four major organisations, and many more from the others, it is hard to keep track of boxers who have received belts.

THE OLD BUCK BELT

In South Africa, the most prestigious belt remains the Old Buck belt, which was introduced in 1977 and presented to the SA Boxing Board of Control by the distillers of Old Buck Gin. There was one for each division. The belt was redesigned in 1980, and new belts, made of sterling silver, 22-carat gold and specially selected calf’s leather, were produced. A bigger and more elaborate Old Buck belt was later designed.

To win a belt outright, any SA champion had to retain his title in three successive defences. However, this was amended to five on June 7, 1991. The rules also stipulate that no fighter may hold more than one belt in the same weight class.

The first boxer to win an Old Buck belt was Tsietsie Maretloane, who also became the first outright owner by retaining his national featherweight title in three successive defences.

There was also an Old Buck world championship belt presented to the winner of any
world championship bout held in South Africa, even if neither contestant was a South African. The winner kept the belt for life.

In January 2006, Boxing SA introduced their own championship belt for boxers who
became national champions for the first time. They retained the belt after winning the championship. As a result, the Old Buck belt was phased out.

Recently Boxing SA also introduced a Baby Champs belt.

Several other belts have been presented in South Africa, such as the Fight Magazine belt, the Sammy Price belt, the Sunday Express belt, the Heilbron belt, the Lionel Crawford belt, the Pepsi-Cola belt and the Willie Corner belt, which was presented to Empire champions.

There is a photograph of Petey Sarron, the former world featherweight champion, receiving the Sunday Express belt, in the book The Fighters written by Chris Greyvenstein

The first SA “coloured” lightweight champion, Sonny Thomas, was given the Sammy Price championship belt when he won the title in 1946.

Laurie Stevens held the Heilbron belt, which was donated by leading referee Louis
Heilbron to be presented to SA welterweight champions. Oscar Jacobsohn and Ernie Eustice also held Heilbron belts.

Empire title holders Dennis Adams, Johnny “Smiler” van Rensburg and Willie Toweel were awarded the Willie Corner belt.

A local promoter, Lionel Crawford, presented a belt bearing his name at two of his
tournaments in the 1960s. They were for the best boxer of the night. Stoffel Steyn was one of the recipients.

Pierre Fourie, a four-time challenger for the world light heavyweight title, and Anthony Morodi received Pepsi-Cola belts.

Brian Mitchell was awarded the Eder Jofre belt for his achievements as a WBA champion.