Collecting Panini Boxing Stickers
The 1960s through the 1980s - A Knockout Era for the Sweet Science
by Kevin Glew
It was the golden era of heavyweight boxing.
And even if you didn't follow the sport from the 1960s through the 1980s, you'll still recognize names like Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Mike Tyson.
So why then were there no mainstream boxing card sets produced in the United States during this era?
Adam Warshaw, author of America's Great Boxing Cards, says it could have been because U.S. manufacturers wanted to steer clear of controversy. Liston, for example, had ties to the mob and Ali had divisive stances on religion and the war in Vietnam; however, the veteran collector also adds that there may have been practical reasons for not creating the sets.
"It might have been that it wasn't that simple to license them or to find the boxers and take [their] photos," he said. "Just think about how diverse boxing is - to put [a set] together you'd have to get the images from all sorts of different sources."
Long-time hobbyist Scott Sarian also suggests that practicality may have hindered the production.
"How many boxers could you put in a set?" he asks somewhat rhetorically. "You could maybe find 50 or 60 boxers to go in a set. So perhaps that's why - maybe it was the low number of boxers you would be able to include in a set."
Fortunately for collectors feeling nostalgic about that golden era of boxing, Italian company Panini did manufacture stickers. Set Registry enthusiast Greg Mosakewicz says that for the 1960s through the 1980s, Panini was the "standard brand for boxing" in the hobby, not unlike Topps was for baseball.
So if you're looking for boxing cards from this period, the Panini stickers are the only mainstream choice.
"There are Hall of Fame boxers from that era that don't have anything other than the Panini stickers," noted Warshaw. "If you really want to collect the greatest boxers in the history of the sport, these Panini stickers are great because they fill in that gap."
Formed in Modena, Italy, in 1961, Panini was best known for their soccer stickers, but from the 1960s through the 1980s, they released approximately 20 multi-sport sets that contained stickers of famous fighters.
A few of these stickers - most notably those with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson on them - can command lofty sums in high grade, but for the most part, they remain affordable.
"That's the beauty of these stickers from a collecting standpoint," noted Mosakewicz. "I'm always drawn to these stickers because you can get some of them for so little - and if you're diligent about collecting, you can find great bargains."
Marc Perna, a long-time boxing card collector and dealer, points out that most American boxing fans were unaware that the Panini stickers existed between the 1960s and 1980s. Mosakewicz was one such fan in the 1980s.
"You never saw boxing cards [back then]," he said. "You saw the cards from the 1950s every once in a while at a show. I had 50 Mike Tyson magazine photos on my wall, and I wasn't even aware that they had made a card of him until 1991."
Some North American boxing fans are still discovering these stickers, and the fact they were originally distributed in Europe makes them a little more challenging to obtain.
"I think a lot of the stickers have made their way over to the United States now," said Sarian. "If you look on eBay and see who's selling them, there are a lot of them here."
But finding these stickers in top condition represents another challenge altogether. Perna points out that these stickers were printed on thinner paper stock, which made them tougher to preserve in flawless form. They were also designed to be pasted into albums, so they're regularly uncovered either affixed to album pages or with paper missing from their backs. But Sarian and Warshaw say that the centering, particularly on the older Panini stickers, is the biggest condition obstacle.
"A lot of them are diamond cut or are slightly diamond cut," said Warshaw. "Almost every set has narrow borders, and that makes it almost impossible [to find the stickers centered]. If the sticker is even a couple of millimeters off, it doesn't look good."
But the thrill of the hunt to uncover these stickers in high grade is what motivates many of the collectors, and more people have been pursuing them in recent years.
"Interest in these cards has increased ever since they started hitting eBay in numbers," said Warshaw. "That's really been the biggest factor. You go on [eBay] now and you can find them all the time in the boxing section."
Here's a rundown of five of the most desirable Panini sets that include boxing stickers from the 1960s through the 1980s:
1966 Panini Campioni Dello Sport
This multi-sport issue offers 420 stickers from a wide range of sports, including 49 boxing stickers. The white-bordered fronts showcase photos surrounded by a thin black frame, with the card number and the athlete's name at the bottom. The backs boast red and black text on a white background. These were not peel-off sticker backs, but collectors were encouraged to glue them into albums.
Boxers are represented on stickers #347 to #395. The most notable boxing sticker is the Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali single (#377).
"That's his first mainstream card, because Panini was kind of the Topps of boxing at the time," noted Sarian.
This single features a head-and-shoulder shot of the charismatic pugilist with his Olympic gold medal around his neck. Mosakewicz says there are a number of condition issues with this sticker.
"It's a very flimsy sticker-type stock, so they're prone to bends and creases," said Mosakewicz. "Centering and print dots are also a problem."
Of the 71 submitted, there have been nine PSA MINT 9s and 22 PSA NM-MT 8s. One PSA 9 sold for $3,875 on eBay in February 2014.
There's also a rarer "Valida" back variation of the Ali. This was a promotional sticker that was reportedly randomly inserted into packs and was designed to be redeemed for prizes. This makes it much rarer than his regular Panini issue.
"They didn't make a lot of the Valida cards to begin with, and then some percentage of them were sent back [for prize redemption], so they didn't endure in people's collections very long," explained Mosakewicz. "It's an unknown market for that sticker, and they're really scarce."
Just 11 of these have been submitted and Mosakewicz owns the highest graded example, which is a PSA NM 7.
The 1966 set also harbors the first mainstream offering of former heavyweight champ Sonny Liston (#391). This sticker presents a haunting image of Liston with a red hood over his head. Forty-two Liston stickers have been evaluated and there has been one PSA GEM-MT 10 and 11 PSA 9s.
Other notable boxers in this issue include Emile Griffith (#373) and Floyd Patterson (#394).
1967 Panini Campioni Dello Sport
This 534-sticker, multi-sport series includes 74 boxers (#415 to #488) - the largest quantity of boxers in any Panini series from its era. These stickers are also white bordered, and the athlete's card number and sport are indicated in a color bar at the top, while their name is emblazoned in a color rectangle at the bottom. The backs present red and green Italian text on a white background. Sarian believes the stock on these was a little firmer than the 1966 stickers.
The most prominent boxer to make his Panini debut is Joe Frazier (#464). This single exhibits a profile shot of Frazier, the former heavyweight champ who is best known for his bouts with Ali, smiling in a warm-up robe. His name is highlighted in a green bar at the bottom. Just 15 of his stickers have been evaluated and there are two PSA 9s.
There's also a rare "Valida" back version of this single, but the only four that have been graded have been deemed PSA GOOD 2s.
This set also features the second-year stickers of Clay (#451), Griffith (#452) and Liston (#455), as well as stickers of retired greats like Joe Louis (#480), Rocky Marciano (#481), John Sullivan (#482), Jack Dempsey (#483), Gene Tunney (#484) and Sugar Ray Robinson (#486).
1973 Panini Campioni Dello Sport
After a two-year hiatus from its Campioni Dello Sport brand, Panini returned with this 400-sticker, multi-sport offering. These white-bordered stickers showcase large photos surrounded by a black frame with the card number, sport and name in black print at the bottom. The backs feature orange and black text in Italian on a white base.
Of the 27 boxers in this issue (#288 to #314), George Foreman (#289) is the most prominent to debut. "Big George" defeated Frazier to claim the heavyweight title in 1973, only to be defeated by Ali in the "Rumble in the Jungle" the following year. His 1973 sticker offers a great image of a buff, muscular Foreman in his boxing shorts and gloves peering down at the canvas. Of the 23 submitted, the seven PSA 8s are the highest graded examples.
This issue also contains the first Panini sticker of Roberto Duran (#301) and coveted stickers of Clay (#290), Frazier (#292) and Griffith (#297).
1981 Panini Sport Superstars (Eurofootball)
This 360-sticker, multi-sport series highlights 17 boxers. The white-bordered stickers feature a large photo with the athlete's name sandwiched between their country's logo on the bottom left and a small illustration of their sport on the right. The backs offer black text in several different languages. The English text reads: "Collect these picture cards in the album available from your shop."
Several of the top boxers of the early 1980s make their Panini debut in this issue, including Larry Holmes (#66), Sugar Ray Leonard (#67), Marvin Hagler (#68) and Thomas Hearns (#71). Roberto Duran (#70) also appears on his second Panini sticker.
"In the 1980s, they called them the four kings - Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns - those were the guys that were in the press between the era of the heavyweights, which ended in the late-1970s, and the Mike Tyson era," noted Warshaw. "Those four guys carried the sport during that time period."
The Marvelous Marvin Hagler sticker (#68) has generated a little more interest. His sticker presents a head-and-shoulders shot of the world middleweight champion from 1980 to 1987. You can see the bulging muscles in his neck and shoulders. Just 12 have been graded and one PSA 7 sold for $112.50 on eBay in September 2015.
Note: There has been some debate as to whether this set was released in 1981 or 1982. At this point in time, PSA has opted to follow the year (1981) printed on the index page of the sticker album that was produced specifically for this set.
1986 Panini Supersport Italian
This 221-sticker, multi-sport issue includes 16 boxing stickers. These white-bordered singles flaunt a photo of the athlete in the middle with their flag and country name at the top and their name and an illustration of their sport at the bottom.
The Mike Tyson (#153) is by far the most coveted boxing sticker in this series. This sticker, which features a side headshot of the menacing champ talking into a Madison Square Garden microphone, was released several years before any of his traditional trading cards. Veteran collector David Peck was able to trace this photo back to Tyson's 14th fight, a bout against Sammy Scaff on December 6, 1985.
There are Italian and U.K. (English) versions of the sticker. You can differentiate between them by the language of the text on the backs.
"The Italian version is the one I prefer. It came out first," said Peck, who was one of the first collectors to have a Panini Tyson sticker graded by PSA.
Peck managed to purchase some unopened packs of the Italian stickers from a seller in Cyprus, the island country located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, off the coasts of Syria and Turkey. He points out that there are six stickers in a pack and 100 packs in a box.
"The packs that I got my Tyson stickers from had the exact same sequencing," he said. Peck also goes on to comment on the condition of the packs, describing how they were "really thin" and how he had packs in his box where "the stickers were kind of sticking out of the top."
This, combined with the thin sticker stock, made it difficult to pull high-grade examples. It's also important to note that the back of the Tyson sticker peels off and it was designed to be adhered into an album.
One of the rare PSA 10 Italian examples sold for $5,100 on eBay in May 2015. In recent months, Peck has seen high-grade examples of this sticker rise rapidly in value, and he thinks this trend could continue.
"At the end of the day, Mike Tyson is a staple of pop culture," he said. "The other thing that's important to note in sports cards is that the photograph plays a major role in how well a card can do. And this sticker presents a great photo of Tyson. He doesn't have the tattoos on his face. It was taken when his career was really starting to take off. It's a true rookie in that sense."
In the 1986 U.K. set, there's also a silver foil sticker that features both Tyson and Hagler (#109), while Hagler is featured with Donald Curry on this same numbered sticker in the Italian set. Obviously the sticker with Hagler and Tyson is more desirable.
"That foil sticker is very difficult in high grade," noted Peck. "They have real problems with the surface"
Of the 30 Hagler/Tyson foil stickers graded, there have been three PSA 9s, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and eight PSA 8s.
Sarian has seen the U.K. Panini Supersport set packaged like a factory set.
"I've seen them come as a sticker album shrink-wrapped with the 250 or so stickers," said Sarian. "And the stickers were together in elastics in stacks of 20."
He says the elastics dented the stickers.
"My friend's father had a few of these sticker sets [packaged] like this, and I busted a few of them open. The Tyson cards only graded [PSA EX] 5s and [PSA EX-MT] 6s because they had some indentations on the edges," he said.
Both the Italian and U.K. sets also offer their first respective Michael Spinks stickers (#146), as well as singles of Hagler (#144), Hearns (#148) and Leonard (#151).
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to David Peck, Scott Sarian and Greg Mosakewicz for all their extra efforts and for providing cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of April 2016.
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