One popular way of collecting in any sport is to assemble a collection of rookie cards of Hall of Fame inductees. For boxing that means the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, and for many it means the glamor division, the heavyweights. Determining what constitutes the rookie card of a boxer can be even more controversial than identifying baseball player’s rookie card.
Boxing is a 300-year-old worldwide sport with cards issued in over 100 nations spread across six continents. There were also big stretches of time when no boxing cards were issued in the United States, so a Hall of Famer’s rookie card might originate just about anywhere, especially if he was born in Asia or Africa or first achieved fame overseas or as an amateur fighting for an Eastern Bloc nation during the Cold War era.
The difficulty in ferreting out a boxer’s true rookie card is not only geographical. Boxers self-issued cards as promotional items, boxing postcards have existed for over 120 years and often predated other forms of cards of specific fighters, and there are cabinet cards, trade cards and premiums galore. Is it right to call something a “rookie” card just because it came in a tobacco or candy package when the fighter has been on multiple earlier collectibles for years? This is the sort of question that makes for great discussions over drinks in the evenings at the National host hotels’ bars. Some of the rookie card discussions are settled, others probably will rage on forever.
Here are a few notable Hall of Fame heavyweight champions’ boxing rookie cards and controversies:
1882 Mora John L. Sullivan Cabinet or 1882 E.B. Duvall Sullivan Trade Card or 1887 N174 Old Judge?
Cue our first controversy: should cabinet cards or trade cards be counted as rookie cards? Well, the case of The Great John L., the undisputed heavyweight champion and greatest boxing figure of the 19th century, is a perfect test. The argument for Sullivan’s Mora cabinet as a rookie card is simple: the cabinet cards were verifiably issued in 1882 (some of the mounts are dated 1882) for sale to the public, years before the first product insert cards of Sullivan (1887 N174 Old Judge issues).
The Mora cabinet was shortly followed by a variety of cabinet cards and trade cards, including a rather bloody Sullivan trade card issued as part of a set of 6 “jolly” subjects also made in 1882, a date stated in a tiny legend on the bottom left of the card itself. The argument against the Mora cabinet is that it is a cabinet. The argument against the trade card is that it is a trade card and a caricature.
The argument against the N174 is that it was preceded by quite a few other cards of various formats. There is no clear market decision. Mora cabinets have sold for as much as a few thousand dollars but often sell for less when on an undated mount, likely because the seller does not realize that the card is so early. Beware of pirated images of the same card issued in the 1890s on various non-Mora mounts. The trade cards can sell from $100 on up. Any N174 Sullivan that is intact will set you back hundreds of dollars. A Mora-mount cabinet of Sullivan is probably the most difficult of the three to find.
1899 Hall Jim Jeffries Cabinet or 1901 Ogden’s Jim Jeffries
Jeffries, the great heavyweight champion known as The California Grizzly, has three early cards that various factions treat as rookies. On the “yes” side of the cabinet card controversy is a splendid 1899 cabinet of Jeffries at the height of his reign in a photograph by W.A. Brady that was issued by Hall for commercial sale; on the “no” side of the coin are two tobacco insert cards issued in England by Ogden’s in 1901 as part of its gigantic series of popular subjects, ironically using a Brady image from the same photo session. Jeffries would not have an American insert card until 1909; he was depicted on multiple American postcards from 1904-1909. The Hall cabinets are difficult to find and sell for hundreds when they pop up.
The Ogden’s cards in various series are readily found on eBay at relatively modest prices (overall, the set represents one of the better bargains in the field of boxing HOFer collecting as several HOFers are on these very early cards, are available, and are inexpensive).
1909 Ogden’s Pugilists & Wrestlers Jack Johnson or 1909 Playing Card
Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, was not immortalized on pasteboard until after he captured the crown in Australia by defeating Tommy Burns. Even then, it was in Europe where his first insert card was issued, as part of the 2nd series of the 1908-1909 Ogden’s tobacco insert set (followed in 1910 by a cornucopia of Johnson cards in American tobacco and caramel packages in the build-up to his July 4, 1910, bout with Jeffries). Johnson Ogden’s cards are available on a regular basis.
The first American Johnson card was issued as part of a playing card set by Jim Jeffries in 1909. Johnson is depicted on the 10 of Spades card in a pre-fight pose with fellow HOFer Sam McVey. The Jeffries set itself sells for $300-$900 depending on condition and whether the ephemeral pieces (a card of the manufacturer’s building, a pamphlet of boxer biographies, and the box itself) are present and in good condition. They too are readily obtained.
The argument for the Ogden’s card is that it is a product insert card of one subject; the Jeffries playing card has two subjects and is a playing card. The market trend favors the Ogden’s card; a PSA 2 has sold for upwards of $300.
1919 Underwood & Underwood Jack Dempsey or 1919 Moser-IFS Photo Card
The Manassa Mauler gives Babe Ruth a run as the most popular athlete of the Roaring Twenties. He came out of small-town Colorado and in the space of a decade brawled his way up the ranks from Western mining town bars to fighting before 100,000-person crowds in baseball and football stadiums. The guaranteed purse for one of his fights nearly bankrupted the mining boomtown of Shelby, Montana.
In terms of cards, Dempsey is one of the most widely depicted athletes of the 1920s-1930s but what is most accepted as his first card comes from a set of two blank-backed postcard-sized cards made in 1919 depicting Dempsey and the then-current champion Jess Willard ahead of their July 4, 1919, showdown in Toledo, Ohio.
U & U Dempsey cards are among the better bargains in the hobby, rarely selling for more than $100 in vg condition. One or two are usually available on eBay at any given time.
There is another candidate for Dempsey rookie card, though. In the wake of the Willard bout I.F.S. issued a set of postcards and blank-backed photo cards depicting scenes from the fight and a handsome portrait of the new champion.
These cards are much tougher to find than the U & U cards but sell for about the same when they do come up.
1922 Exhibit Gene Tunney
The Fighting Marine, the man who unseated Dempsey as champion in 1926, came out of World War I as a military boxing champion and was first immortalized on cardboard as a light-heavyweight as part of the 1922 boxing series issued by The Exhibit Supply Company of Chicago.
1922 Exhibit Boxing cards are not rare but assembling a set is a challenge because finding a specific card can be difficult. Tunney’s card comes up for sale less frequently than most; no idea whether this is the result of demand or short printing. There are no other definitive rookie card candidates. The cards are dated on their backs, which makes them easy to distinguish from later Exhibit issues.
1935 Pattreiouex Joe Louis Large and Small or M120 Detroit Free Press
The Brown Bomber, thought by many to be the greatest heavyweight of all time, turned pro in 1934 and less than a year later was regarded as a true contender for the title. British tobacco maker Pattreiouex (no, I do not know how to pronounce that) issued two Louis cards in 1935 for insertion in its packs, using the same image for each card. One card (small size) was issued as part of its Sporting Celebrities series, the other (large size) as part of its Sporting Events and Stars series. The large format Events series is commonly found; the small format Celebrities series are very difficult to find and quite expensive.
The other contender in this category is the M120 Detroit Free Press premium of Louis, issued on July 21, 1935, as an insert with the paper. Some collectors will discount these because of size and method of distribution but they are in the mix, especially since the Pattreiouex cards are British. M120 premiums do not show up for sale often, typically once or twice a year on eBay. A final note on the M120: it is one of the few cards of the normally deadpan Louis that shows him smiling.
1951 Ringside Rocky Marciano
One of the few undisputed rookie cards is that of the only undefeated champion, Rocky Marciano. Topps had the foresight to include the Brockton Blockbuster in its 1951 Ringside set, mere months before he knocked Joe Louis out of the ring and into retirement, putting himself in line for an eventual shot at Jersey Joe Walcott’s title in 1952. Thus far it is the earliest Marciano card, though it is possible that a rare postcard issued to promote Slim Jim Bowties was made in 1951 as well, as it does not reference Marciano as champ (he crushed Walcott and won the title in late 1952, so the postcard could be a 1952 issue).
Ringside Marciano cards are readily found in a range of conditions and can fit any collecting budget. Also known is a rare eight-card 1951 Ringside salesman’s sample card that includes the Marciano rookie card.
The Greatest and His Rivals: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman
From 1971 to 1977 the heavyweight division enjoyed its greatest run of all time thanks to four spectacular HOF champion fighters: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman. Try to say this in one breath: Frazier beat Ali but Foreman beat Frazier while Norton beat Ali yet Ali beat Foreman and Norton and Frazier and Foreman and Norton did not fight. Less confusing by a longshot are their rookie cards:
–Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay): 1960 Hemmet’s Journal. There had been a cadre of collectors who refused to accept this issue as an Ali card because it was on paper and part of a collection issued in four-card sheets for placement in a collection binder. That controversy appears to be settled now because a hand-cut Hemmet’s Ali has sold for as much as $90,000 in PSA 10. They aren’t common but do pop up in the market, including eBay.
There is also the 1962 Rekord Journal card of Ali issued on the front cover of a Swedish magazine as part of a long-running series of athlete strip-style cards issued two at a time.
If neither of those is to a collector’s liking, there is a 1962 disc issued by Po-Po in Argentina, a 1964 sticker-stamp card issued by Chocolates Simon in Spain, and a 1964 game card issued by MacRobertson’s in Australia. In the USA, the earliest Ali card is the Exhibit issue in green tint from the early 1960s. It has not been possible to determine the year of issue of that card but it is certainly before 1965.
–Joe Frazier: 1964 Bobbie Chewing Gum and 1964 Nestle: Not much of a controversy here, as both cards are accepted as Frazier rookies and represent his Olympics appearance. The Bobbie card is the more coveted of the pair since it is photographic (though the photo is blurry and poorly cropped) while the Nestle card is a drawing that shows Frazier fighting out of his characteristic crouch.
Both European insert cards were intended to be glued into albums. The Bobbie card runs several hundred dollars in nicer condition.
–George Foreman: 1973 Panini. Although Big George won Olympic gold in 1968, it was not until 1973 that he found himself on a card.
It’s far from common here, but you can sometimes find them on eBay.
–Ken Norton: 1975 Menko-style card from Malaysia. This is a rare and interesting card. In the mid-1970s Muhammad Ali fought in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. As this was the first time a reigning heavyweight champion had gone to Asia to fight, it attracted massive attention.
When he fought in Malaysia in 1975, the local card makers issued multiple series of small, perforated edge cards in a format similar to a Japanese ‘menko’ card. A few of the menko-style cards featured Ali opponents and bouts, including Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn, George Foreman and Ken Norton. The Norton card is his rookie card, made years before other cards of Norton.
1977-79 Sportscasters Larry Holmes
It seems fitting somehow that one of the most overlooked champions made his debut on one of the most overlooked issues. The 1977-79 cabinet card-sized Sportscasters issue was made for sale in a variety of countries and in a number of different languages.
Holmes’s first cardboard appearance is in this massive series. His next card is the 1981 Panini issue from Italy. As very few Sportscasters cards are highly valued, the English version a Holmes rookie can be readily purchased on the cheap. If you want one in Finnish, not so much.
1986 Brown’s Boxing Evander Holyfield
In 1985 a small card company in Knob Noster, Missouri, owned by Johnny Brown started issuing sets of boxing cards. Brown claimed print runs of 2,000 sets or less. In 1987 he incorporated the business as a non-profit to raise money for needy ex-boxers.
All in all, Brown issued 13 sets between 1985 and 2001. In 1986 the issue hit full throttle, publishing rookie cards of 1984 Olympians Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker and Mark Breland. This is the Real Deal’s real rookie card.
1987 Panini Mike Tyson
Iron Mike’s rookie card is definitely this Panini issue, but we still have some controversy. The Italian language version of the card almost certainly was issued first, with the English version issued in the UK later, possibly as late as 1988 according to some researchers. While readily found, this card has skyrocketed in the COVID bull market, with even midgrade versions of the Italian card selling for four figures.
1990 Brown’s Boxing Riddick Bowe
Big Daddy’s rookie card is the 1990 offering from Brown’s. It features a full bleed blue background and the cardboard is the usual thin Brown’s stock, so the slightest wear will show. The cards are not expensive and it may be better to buy the full set because it will get you a bunch of other HOFers and potential HOFers in addition to Bowe.
1991 Kayo and Ringlords Lennox Lewis
Three different boxing sets were issued in 1991 and two of them included rookie cards of Lennox Lewis. They are readily found in great condition for very little cost. For an added challenge there are various prototypes, advertising samples, and promotional samples.
Kayo, for example, has a tough yellow-backed advertising card format as well as prototypes, samples, and even cards imprinted with the 1991 National legend (they were in the infamous goodie bags handed out at the door at the legendary 1991 Anaheim National Sports Collectors Convention). It is not clear whether Lewis was issued in every format, so there is a nice challenge for the collector.
2001 Brown’s Klitschko Brothers or 2000 Ukraine Calendars
In 2021 Wladimir joins big bro Vitaly in Canastota in his first year of eligibility. The 2001 Brown’s set contained the first American card issues of the Klitschko brothers. While the Brown’s cards are widely treated as the brothers’ rookie cards, they were actually the subjects of cards issued in their home country the Ukraine in 2000. Those cards have calendar backs.
Multiple cards are known, including one issued by the Ukrainian Olympics committee. The calendar cards are obscure and difficult to locate but sellers from Ukraine and Russia have been offering them for sale sporadically on eBay.