Fight posters still getting the job done

Before the days of television and radio, a poster was a promoter's best marketing tool. American Stock/Getty Images

In a business full of charming relics, no fight game staple boasts the longevity and impact of the simple fight poster. Valued as a marketing tool even in today's digital world and cherished by collectors and enthusiasts as tangible reminders of boxing's history and golden age, they remain as fundamental a part of the fight game as ring ropes, stools and left hooks.

Fight posters have been around for as long as the boxing business itself. Prior to the advent of radio and television, posters, along with newspapers, were the primary means for advertising fights. They go all the way back. Way back. Don Scott, an Atlanta-based memorabilia collector, recalls seeing one that dated from the 1700s.

"There were no name fighters on it," he told ESPN.com. "It was just two guys squared off in a bare-knuckle pose."

That's right -- bare knuckle.

Craig Hamilton, a collector and the former manager of one-time heavyweight title challenger Michael Grant, has had posters that date to the 1820s. He says little about them has changed over the decades.

"It's all about advertising events and to this day they really haven't changed much," he said. "If you go back into the 1800s it's pre-radio and pre-television and you had to use print media to do it. You had to catch people's attention to come to an event, and this was the way to do it. It's a method of advertising.

"They did it in the 1700s in England, right up through Ali-Frazier in the 1970s," Hamilton said. "Today, the casinos do it. You go to a casino and see that a fight is taking place in three weeks, maybe you'll come back."

The one significant difference between today's fight posters and many used in bygone eras involves the amount of event information that appears on the poster. They used to list many of the undercard fights. You'd have the main event on top and the undercard fights and weight classes underneath.

There was a good amount of information about the whole show, not just the main event. Many posters today, particularly for higher-level events, display information just about the main event and are centered on the marketing angle chosen for the fight.

Promoter Dan Goossen said devising fight posters today is a collaborative effort that involves many players but is worth the effort it takes.

"I've always been a big believer that posters and fliers are good tools for increasing attendance," he said. "It's about getting attention. When you drive down the highway, you see billboards all over. It's the same thing."

Goossen said that when his company has a big fight to advertise, they get together to come up with the fight's angle and then work to create the artwork around it. If a television network is involved, they all work together to agree on the final look. It's rarely easy.

"Coming up with the artwork and a name for an event is hard but rewarding," he said, "because there's nothing else like it when you really hit the target."

Goossen cites "The War," the name given the first Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns fight in 1981, and "The Thrilla in Manila," for Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier III, as memorable examples.

Scott says posters hold an edge over other forms of boxing memorabilia because of their size and look.

"If you're going to look at something every day, you can't beat a poster," he said. "People who are putting together these big home theaters aren't decorating the walls with photographs. They use movie posters. If you're a fight fan and you're decorating a den, you want it decorated with fight posters."

Posters for fights that carried particular social or historical importance are the most valuable from a collector's standpoint. Hamilton says he was offered $50,000 for his poster advertising the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling rematch in 1938. He estimates one poster he has for one of the Ray Robinson-Jake LaMotta meetings would go for about $25,000.

Philadelphia-based promoter and collector J Russell Peltz said his most valuable poster is one that advertised the first Rocky Marciano-Jersey Joe Walcott fight in Philadelphia in 1952. Others vary in worth from $200 up to $2,000. All are from Philadelphia area events, suggesting an emotional attachment to which Peltz confesses.

It's not unusual for a fight poster to be cherished for its sentimental value.

Scott's favorite poster is one advertising the Jack Dempsey-Billy Miske fight in 1920. Why that one? "My father was a big Dempsey fan," he said.

Longtime Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer Bernard Fernandez owns one from a 1944 show in San Diego that advertised the great Archie Moore in the main event against one Jimmy Hayden.

Fernandez admires Moore as much as the next guy, but that's not why he counts the poster as his most prized boxing-related possession.

It's because of one of the undercard bouts listed on the poster: "Jack Fernandez vs. Jimmy Hatmaker." Jack Fernandez was the name under which Bernard Fernandez Sr., who died several years ago, fought one of his two pro bouts.

Fernandez says he has an assortment of buckles and trophies and such that his father accrued during a long amateur career, but the poster is his proudest possession. A prominent boxing collector, charmed by the possibility of owning a vintage Archie Moore poster, once offered him $400 for it.

"Not for $400, not for $4,000," Fernandez told him.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.