During the late 1800s and early 1900s the term "Merikan" became popular Japanese slang for "American fighting", i.e., the sport of boxing. "Merikan fights" in that context referred to contests pitting boxers against jujitsu practitioners. These contests were popular throughout Japan, the Pacific Rim including Australia and New Zealand, Hawaii and parts of Europe around the turn of the Twentieth Century.
When contests of this type occurred outside of Japan, they were generally simply described as "boxing versus jiujitsu" matches.
On March 31, 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry and the "Black Ships" of the United States Navy forced the opening of Japan to the outside world with the Convention of Kanagawa. There followed an intensive period of interest in Japanese trade and culture from the United States and Europe, and an intensive period of social and polical re-structuring within Japan itself.
A minor by-product of the increased cultural trade between Japan and the rest of the world was speculation about how well traditional Japanese styles of hand to hand combat would fare against traditional European styles. The earliest recorded contests between boxers and jiujitsuka came in the form of street scuffles between (often drunken) American sailors and Japanese police officers in port towns such as Yokohama and Hakodate.
By the mid-1890s Merikan contests were taking place on an organized basis. In 1922, an American boxer named Harvey Miller described a Merikan fight he had taken part in during 1920, in Manila (note that the term "Jap" was not used perjoratively at this time, it was simply an abbreviation for "Japanese", in the same way that "Aussie" is a modern abbreviation for "Australian"):
The bout was to be two falls or knockdowns out of three. The Jap was to wear a sort of jiu-jitsu shirt while the American was to wear gloves. The Jap was not allowed to hit but all jiu-jitsu holds were permitted. The American was not allowed to wrestle or hold but all clean blows were permitted.
The gong rang. Quicker’n you can say ‘Sap,’ the Jap grabbed ye scribe by the right arm, twisted and pitched us on our ear in a neutral corner some fifteen feet away. One fall for the Jap. After we got the resin well out of our ear we arose only to find the little brown brother right on top of us again. But this time we beat him to it with a sweet right hand, inside and up. The little rascal only weighed 98 pounds while we displaced some 124 at that time. So we take no credit for the fact that the gent from [Tokyo] folded his tent like an Arab and silently stole out of the ring. He forfeited the third trip to the canvas, explaining that he did not expect to get hit, being under the impression that the gloves were only used as a handicap for the difference in weight.'
An article in the Japan Times, November 7, 1913, reported on a Merikan tournament that had taken place at the Yurakuza Theater in Tokyo:
Seven times boxing champion Cally faced his jujitsu contestant Kawashima with vigor and enthusiasm only to be mercilessly defeated by the Japanese 'boy.' The English boxer showed his first class form, and thrice with his formidable left and right hooks to the stomach he made Kawashima hop in the air as though he were on springs. But finally the English boxer had to surrender before the magic power of jujitsu with the score of 19 to 28. Perhaps this contest was one of the most interesting and exciting ones in the last night's exhibition at the Yurakuza.
The close fighting between Naito and Smith was another attraction. In this also Smith, the German boxer unfortunately showed that he was far from being a match to the Japanese banner-bearer. He was quick and steady in his work; when thrown over Naito's shoulder he was again on his feet in a jiffy and unfalteringly challenging his opponent. His fault was his lack of judgement of distance. He made many wild swings that missed, and tossed away his chance.
Naito successfully effected 'throwing' and 'scarf.' About half a dozen more battles were vigorously fought, and the results showed that Japanese jujitsu could offer an effective or even stronger resistance against Western boxing. One merit of the Japanese art doubtless lies in saving strength and breath; while a boxer seems to be used up after a game, a jujitsu player is only taking a respite. The exhibition last night and the Yurakuza drew a full house and there were seen a number of foreigners. Tonight commencing at 6, the last exhibition of the series will be held at the Theater and will introduce about a dozen interesting matches.'
Merikan fights were often the center of controversy. An editorial in the December 16, 1925 edition of the Hawaiian Tribune-Herald stated that such contests "serve no good purpose and merely arouse useless race prejudices." Merikan tournaments and prize-fights sometimes ended in brawls and there were often allegations of fights having been "fixed" in advance.
A survey of recorded Merikan-style fights taking place throughout Japan, Hawaii, the Phillippines and Europe between 1890-1925 reveals that jiujitsuka generally prevailed over boxers, by a ratio of about 3:1. However, because it is unknown how many of these contests were straight (genuine) matches as opposed to pre-arranged show fights, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the relative merits of boxing and jujitsu from these records.
Merikan fights occurred under a range of rule-sets but typically allowed both fighters to use any techniques within the conventional repertoires of their respective styles. Thus, a boxer was permitted to use any legal boxing defense or punch, to clinch and to attempt to break from a clinch; a jiujitsuka was permitted to use any legal throwing or holding technique. Striking techniques such as headbutts, elbows, kicking etc. were generally banned by mutual agreement.
Details such as the number of rounds fought, whether the fight was to be decided by points or knock-out/submission etc. were subject to a great deal of local variation. Most contests for which detailed records have survived appear to have been fought to K.O./T.K.O. or submission.
Boxers engaging in Merikan fights typically wore tights or shorts and singlets and 8+ oz boxing gloves, whereas jiujitsuka typically wore uwagi jackets and knee-length pants.
Hewitt, Mark "Catch Wrestling" (2005)