For a bit of background:
All I wanted was to look at some old boxing stuff. That’s it. I picked a topic that was relevant to my interests and wanted to see how they intersected: Boxing and wrestling promotion in the early- to mid-twentieth century and if, how, they were intertwined. I knew the two crossed paths in their respective histories — same promoters, same matchmakers, same names… hell, even the same rings on occasion. I just wanted to see it: the notes, the letters, the old Ring articles mentioning both in the same breath.
Then I came across the name of a woman wrestler, Cora Combs. In a file of numerous information-less head shots and publicity photos of other women, she had a whole fact sheet. There was Googling to be done. “The first woman to wrestle in New York City,” one citation read.
NYC, home of Madison Square Garden, is the center of the world if you’re interested in rings of both the three- and four-roped varieties. But another woman laid claim to being the first to enter the Garden party.
Further Googling lead to a new focus on the history of licensing women wrestlers in New York State … and a ban on women reporters from sitting in press row ringside at boxing matches?
I scratched my head at that one. That just sounded so… silly.
With my first focus (boxing and wrestling promotion) derailed, my second (women’s licensing) was pushed into a siding to make way for a quickly-passing third (women reporters).
Women reporters could not sit ringside in press row during boxing matches. Until 1972? The whys and hows of this would be too infuriating to have floating around in my head. I just wanted to know the exact date when the New York State Athletic Commission came to its senses and overturned this ban.
Just a date. A simple date. Some information on when the first women wrestlers were licensed would be nice, but I’d settle for the date of the meeting at which the ban on lady writers was lifted.
I emailed the Commission and got a response. And it wasn’t one I expected: They didn’t have records going back to 1972.
Not even a bunch of annual reports lying around in a drawer or a history of statutes and legislation made by the Commission bound in a handbook sitting on a shelf? Apparently not. But, hey. I don’t know what they have in their office, so I rolled with it.
Sensing bullshit, however (and, when you’re a boxing fan, you automatically sense bullshit whenever anything related to any athletic commission or board comes up), I emailed the New York State Archives because the Commission is a state agency, right? State records belong to the state, to the public, and would be in state hands. Right?
The New York State Athletic Commission meeting minutes do, in fact, go back quite far. Just not in the Commission office proper. They’re in the Archives, up in Albany. And they go back to the 1910s, with records from the current Commission’s predecessors. But — and there’s always a but — there is a gap. A big one. It starts in December 1969 and ends March 1973.
Minutes for the period I’m (now) interested in are missing. Many pages from the minutes are missing. Whole months. Whole years.
But wait! There’s more!
And there’s the bullshit all boxing fans have come to expect from the sport.
How did those meeting minutes get to the Boxing Hall of Fame? Why were public records in private hands? Were those years of meeting minutes missing when they got to Canastota, NY, where the Hall is located? Are they still there, locked away in a basement with satin ring jackets and signed gloves? Or fallen behind a file cabinet in an office somewhere? Did they get lost in transit on their way back to the State? So many questions and I still haven’t gotten around to following up on my original information quest(s)!
By this point, I was no longer peering into a tunnel, trying to see how far the tracks went before disappearing into darkness. I was standing astride a research rabbit hole, shovel in hand, taking my last swigs of coffee before diving in.
- I went to Brooklyn to look at old Ring Magazines.
- I found the name of a lady wrestler who was supposedly the first to wrestle in New York.
- I learned that lady reporters couldn’t report because women with notepads and pens are a threat to the fabric of sporting civilization.
- I couldn’t get a date out of the Athletic Commission.
- The New York State Archives casually pointed out a research rabbit hole.
- I happily dove in.
And what began as a simple, carefree jaunt through faded, brittle news clippings to learn about dual-sport promoters turned into a ravenous hunt for information on these missing minutes.
It’s more than wanting to know a Commission meeting date (which I found on Google quite easily) or who was the first woman licensed to wrestle in New York. I want to know what happened to those records.
As a former New York tax payer, I want to know. As an archivist, I want to know. FOIL requests have been sent; phone calls have been made; acknowledgements are being hoped for. I really want to know what happened. Not only to find out what happened to those papers, but to learn what was recorded on them.
This gap, from 1970 to mid-1973, is when the federal government forced New York to re-license Muhammad Ali. It’s when women were demanding, fighting for, and gaining equal access to the ring and press row. We are missing a small chunk of history and that just isn’t right.
I went to Albany to read available (surviving?) Commission meeting minutes and dove into the existing legislative history of women’s wrestling in New York (back to focus #2!). In the process, I found a source that combined focus #1 (the intersection of boxing and wrestling) and focus #2 rather unexpectedly:
If the Attorney General’s Office invalidates our rule with reference to women wrestlers, we would have to license women boxers under the law. Public opinion would be against it. That is the reason we are conducting an inquiry here.
( January 15, 1965. New York Athletic Commission meeting minutes)