Boxing for Combat and Entertainment During and After World War I

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 11/09/2017
  • Essay 20475

With the United States engaged in World War I in 1917 and 1918, training in boxing was seen as important both to prepare troops for combat and to boost morale and provide entertainment at stateside military camps and stations. The army made boxing a regular training exercise while the navy emphasized boxing as entertainment. In Washington, boxing teams from Bremerton's Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and the University of Washington Naval Training Station in Seattle fielded boxing teams with outstanding athletes. Former lightweight champion Willie Ritchie (1891-1975) served as boxing instructor at the army's Camp Lewis in Pierce County. Ritchie was the most prominent of a number of top West Coast boxers who became military coaches. The Naval Training Station obtained Leo Houck (1884-1950), a Seattle boxer, as its boxing instructor. Many of the military boxers continued in the sport after the war. One of them, Enos "Yakima" Canutt (1895-1986) of the Bremerton Navy Yard team, achieved fame as a rodeo champion and Hollywood stuntman.

In World War I, the Commission on Training Camp Activities established training programs unique to the U.S. war effort. With these programs, mass singing, boxing, and several other sports became mandatory activities in military training camps. Mass singing was said to improve the lungs and morale. Boxing would ready troops for hand-to-hand combat. Additionally, training in boxing would lead to success with the bayonet and boost overall confidence. For the boxing program, each major camp would have an experienced boxer as the camp instructor with assistants to work with each unit.

Willie Ritchie Trains Thousands at Camp Lewis

On October 27, 1917, Willie Ritchie, whose real name was Gerhardt Steffen, was hired to be the boxing instructor at Camp Lewis in southern Pierce County. Ritchie, who had held the world lightweight championship for two years, from 1912 to 1914, had been turned down in the draft due to hearing problems. Ritchie claimed that boxing was the best sport to train men for war. He said it employed the muscles used in bayonet combat and that men learned to take as well as give blows and gained confidence. Ritchie had 472 boxing assistants who trained small groups of 40 to 60 soldiers.

The daily boxing classes at Camp Lewis were mandatory and were strongly supported by the commanding general, Henry A. Greene (1856-1921). The boxing training was revised in March 1918 to 30 minutes daily of shadow boxing followed by 30 minutes of some other exercise. Shadow boxing taught quickness of movement and alertness. Shadow boxing was believed to foster fighting with the head as much as the hands.

Ritchie also organized benefit bouts to raise money for sports activities and to entertain the troops. During the first week of June 1918 he put together a divisional ring tournament. It was an elimination tournament that started out with 150 boxers to get to 14 champions, one in each weight category. Captain Elijah Worsham (1887-1918), a former Seattle broker, called the matches. Captain Worsham commanded the 362nd Machine Gun Company. In France he was killed in action and received posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross. Ritchie organized a number of "smokers" for troop entertainment. After the war ended, Ritchie resigned his Camp Lewis position in December 1918 and returned to his hometown San Francisco. He continued to fight for several years.

Rodeo Champion on the Navy Yard Boxing Team

The U.S. Navy also included boxing in its training schedule but not as centrally as the army effort. For sailors the sport was more important as recreation and in morale building. At the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton the boxing instructor spent much of his time finding boxers for the station team and training them. As entertainment there were bouts between fleet boxers, the boxers of one ship against those from another.

The Navy Yard at Bremerton made a strong commitment in its boxing training to find boxers for the base team. One Seaman First Class who demonstrated potential was Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt, who joined the navy in January 1918. He was a champion rodeo rider, but had no boxing experience before enlisting. Canutt's nickname dated to the 1914 Pendleton Round-Up, when a newspaper referred to him as a cowboy from Yakima. Rodeo success made the nickname stick; from then on he was Yakima Canutt. But Canutt was born near Colfax, in Southeastern Washington's Whitman County, and not in Yakima. He attended elementary school in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood, and as a teenager became a bronco rider. His first bronco riding competition was at the Whitman County Fair in Colfax in 1912. Yakima Canutt won his first world championship in 1917.

In June 1918, Seaman Canutt and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard boxing team had a week of boxing matches with the University of Washington Naval Training Station team. The navy teams fought for five days and on the last night the best fighters then fought soldiers from Camp Lewis. According to Canutt, to gain an edge the Navy Yard boxers wrapped their hands in tape and tinfoil, making them rock hard. With this advantage, they dominated the Camp Lewis team. In September 1918, Seaman Yakima Canutt obtained a 30-day furlough to compete in the Walla Walla Frontier Days rodeo and the Pendleton Round-Up. It was not a successful endeavor. Canutt lost his title and also got in trouble with the navy for wearing his uniform while competing. He left the navy in 1919, with the war over, and returned to the rodeo circuit.

The Naval Training Station on the University of Washington campus had an active boxing program. Seattle boxer Leo Houck, whose real name was Francis Fay, was the boxing instructor. Houck became one of the top service boxers and several Seattle-area boxers enlisted for duty at the Naval Training Station for the opportunity to box under his coaching. In July 1918 lightweight Houck was defeated in the Northwest Service Championship. After leaving the Navy, Houck boxed professionally until 1920.

Boxing at the Crystal Pool

Service boxers made frequent appearances at Seattle's Crystal Pool natatorium, constructed in 1915 at 2nd Avenue and Lenora Street in the city's Belltown neighborhood. The building had one of Seattle's finest terracotta facades. It also had a distinctive pergola dome. While built as a swimming pool, the ornate Italian Renaissance structure soon also became a boxing venue. For boxing the pool was drained and covered. Seating for 2,000 was placed around the ring located above the covered pool. The first fight program was held on November 5, 1917.

Bouts with service boxers were frequent events at the Crystal Pool. Among those scheduled to fight there in 1919 were two navy boxers from Bremerton. Light heavyweight Frank Farmer (1889-1930), who made his boxing career start in Eatonville in southeastern King County, enlisted in the navy from Tacoma in 1918 and was picked up by the Navy Yard boxing team. Hector H. Curnow (1887-1975), fighting as a heavyweight under the nickname "Battling Hector" or "Young Hector" was a rising star in 1919. The Crystal Pool remained a boxing venue into the 1930s.

Boxing Following World War I

The effectiveness of the World War I boxing training program is not known. In World War II military boxing was focused on recreation and entertainment, rather than being part of combat training. However, the large number of men exposed to boxing during the First World War had the impact of expanding interest in boxing in the 1920s following the war.

Some of the boxers who either discovered boxing during the war or continued the sport while in the military boxed professionally after the war. After boxing until 1920, Leo Houck stayed in the ring serving as a referee in the San Francisco area. Frank Farmer, after leaving the navy, was one of the most popular Pacific Northwest boxers. He died in the ring during a 1930 fight. An inquest found that he died of natural causes. After his navy service Hector Curnow taught youth boxing and then in 1921 started a trucking company. In World War II he served in government work and then bought the Lakedge Park resort on Steel Lake in Federal Way in South King County. The county purchased his resort in 1954 and today it is the very popular Steel Lake Park. Willie Ritchie returned to San Francisco and continued to box professionally until 1927. He was inducted in the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1962.

Yakima Canutt dropped boxing and returned to the rodeo circuit to win numerous titles in bronco riding and steer bulldogging. In 1923 he started an acting career in cowboy movies. Along with acting he also developed tricks and stunts. When his acting contract was completed in 1927 he made rodeo appearances, but soon he was back in Hollywood creating stunts for westerns. His stunts improved safety and dramatically reduced horse mistreatment. When he served as a stunt double for future Hollywood legend John Wayne (1907-1979) in 1932, the two men together developed techniques to make fight scenes look more realistic. John Wayne saw Yakima Canutt as an authentic and copied his walk and talk.

The Crystal Pool at 2nd and Lenora in Seattle was closed in World War II and the building became a church. Shortly after the turn of the twenty-first century, the structure was largely demolished and the Cristalla condominiums went up in its place. Opening in 2005, the new residential tower preserved much of the eastern and northern facades of the old Crystal Pool building with restored architectural details. The pergola dome was replicated in steel and glass to recall the original. A historical marker plaque describing the Crystal Pool was installed on the northern wall.


Alice Palmer Henderson, The Ninety-First: The First at Camp Lewis (Tacoma: John C. Barr, 1918); Yakima Canutt with John Crawford, My Rodeo Years (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2009); Elizabeth Gibson, Yakima, Washington: Images of America (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2002); "Ritchie Escapes Army By Getting Named Instructor," The Oregonian, October 28, 1917, p. 28; "Shadow Boxing Lauded," Ibid., March 15, 1918, p. 18; "Camp Boxers Are Ready," Ibid., March 22, 1918, p. 19; "Boxers to Be Feature," Ibid., July 17, 1918, p. 14; "Frontier Days Success," Ibid., September 16, 1918, p. 10; "Farmer to Fight Heavy," Ibid., December 30, 1919, p. 14; "Soldiers to Fight Tonight for Honor," Tacoma Tribune, June 3, 1918, p. 10; "More Boxing Gloves Sent from East for Camp Lewis Soldiers," The Seattle Times, December 5, 1917, p. 21; "Houck to Box for Service Championship," Ibid., July 19, 1918, p. 19; "Big Crowd Sure for Boxing Show," Ibid., November 11, 1918, p. 18; "Honors Dead Hero," Ibid., October 3, 1919, p. 5; "Jury Exonerates All in Death of Farmer," Ibid., March 26, 1930, p. 20; "Former Boxer, Hector H. Curnow, Dies," Ibid., June 26, 1975, p. H-5; Sandy Deneau Dunham, "Beauty and its Beholders," The Seattle Times, September 10, 2017, Pacific NW magazine, p. 29.

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