Eighteenth Century Boxing

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Eighteenth Century Boxing
  246 Eighteenth Century Boxingby: Randy RobertsLouisiana State University “If I go to him, with my armed fistI’ll pash him o’er the face.”Troilus and Cressida,Act II, Scene III.There is an axiom which holds that nothing draws a crowdas quickly as a fight. This appears to be true. No sport isas old as pugilism;its roots are deeply entrenched in thehistory of civilization. Down through the centuries boxing hasproved to be a medium for all types of artistic expression.“Writers from Homer to Ernest Hemingway, from Plato toWilliam Hazlitt have been concerned with what might be calledthe most basic form of competition. . .” 1  Yet, for some in-explicable reason, the history of boxing has eluded the graspof serious and conscientious historians. The task of writingboxing’s history has instead fallen by default into the hands of hack historians and sensationalistic journalists. The result hasbeen disastrous; the true history of pugilism has remainedcloaked in a shroud of popular fantasies, traditional myths, andridiculous falsehoods. The following paper is an attempt topull back the shroud and to view the history of eighteenthcentury boxing as a facet of an expanding society rather thanas a part of a circumscribed legend. I Like the Pheonix which rises from its own ashes to regainthe freshness of youth, pugilism was destined to blossom inthe eighteenth century with the same splendor it had enjoyedduring the Golden Age of Greece. Its rise was partially aidedby the despicable character of the other sports of the day. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the sports of bear-baiting and bull-baiting were coming under increasing attack.Although these sports were not officially outlawed until 1835,the more fashionable set had stopped its patronage of theseslaughters by the second quarter of the eighteenth century. 2  247 Pugilism offered a more civilized sport for the wealthy topatronize ;it helped to bridge the crevasse between the in-humane, bloody sports and the modern team sports.Pugilism also had a tranquilizing effect on eighteenth cen-tury English society. Before the rise of boxing as an artfulform of self-defense, the only recourse to the settlement of anaffair of honor was the pistol or the sword. If, as Sir WalterBesant cogently observed, the threat of duelling “demanded andcultivated carefulness of speech, courtesy of manner, and im-posed some checks on conduct”; it also encouraged the bulliesand adventurers to force their way into high society by sheerterrorism. 3  By offering another, less deadly field of honor,pugilism helped the duel to die out. 4  This therapeutic effectthat pugilism had on English society is most accurately conveyedby the following passage written by Pierce Egan, the mostfamous boxing chronicler of the eighteenth century: Where, then, is the relative, however high in pride andpomp, on viewing the father, husband, or brother, killedin a duel—but what would rather than they shouldhave had recourse of the manly defense of BOXING,than the deadly weapons of sword and ball; from whicha bloody nose, or black eye, might have been the onlyconsequence to themselves, and their families, andneither in their feelings or their circumstances beeninjured; reconciliation with their antagonist—faultsmutually acknowledged—and, perhaps became insepera-ble friends ever afterwards. 5 At the onset of the eighteenth century, pugilism was asamorphous as the molder’s unused clay. The first puzzle to besolved was which sex would dominate in the battle for thepopularity the ring had to offer. Indeed, this question whichseems amusing in retrospect, was a serious issue during pugil-ism’s infancy.For example, in June of 1722 the London  Journal printed the following challenge : I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clarkenwell, having had somewords with Hannah Highfield and requiring satis-faction, do invite her to meet me on the stage and boxwith me for three quineas, each woman holding half-a-crown in each hand, and the first woman that dropsher money to lose the battle. 6 Mrs. Highfield signified her acceptance of this challenge whenshe replied,I, Hannah Highfield, of Newgate Market hearing of the resolutness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail,  248 God willing, to give her more blows than words, de-siring home blows, and of her no favour. She may ex-pect a good thrumping. 7 The  London Journal later reported that “they maintained thebattle for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spec-tators.” 8 This is but one example of an event that was by nomeans unique;female pugilism was so popular that the womencrowned their first championess, Mrs. Elizabeth Stokes, atapproximately the same time as the males proclaimed their firstchampion. 9 The question of rules and the proper fighting style was thesecond enigma that faced early pugilism. Until 1743 pugilismremained without any official set of rules. And if this lack of formality regarding rules seems crude, the fighting styles werecruder still. “The human fist—however suitable for saluting,making a threat, or knocking on a door—was not constructedto strike repeated blows against hard objects without some kindof protection.” 10 Hence boxing methods had to adapt to thisfrailty of the human anatomy. One method of adaptation wasto strike an opponent with the bottom part of the fist, theway one would strike a table. 11  Still other, less dignifying,forms of adaptation involved gouging, hair pulling, ear twisting,wrestling throws, and kicking. 12 Thus although pugilism wasa more progressive sport than bull-baiting, it was still a highlybrutal and savage game ; the winner of a bout was more oftendetermined by endurance and the ability to withstand punish-ment than by skill or punching power.Out of the amorphous character of the early ring one manemerged to give the sport some semblance of order and internalstability. In 1719 James Figg, a powerful six-footer fromThame, Oxfordshire, traveled to London and quickly establishedhimself as the premier master of all forms of self-defense. 13 Although he was described by Egan as “more of a slaughterer, than a neat, finished pugilist,” Figg proved extremely success-ful within the ring. In a career which spanned eleven years,he never lost a bout.” He also proved successful in business;his amphitheatre attracted the patronage of the upper classesand gave pugilism the respectability it needed.Figg had manyfriends and admirers among the fashionable and the literaryset—Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole; Jonathan Swift, theessayist; Alexander Pope, the noted poet; and William Hogarth,the foremost artist in England. 15  Thus under Figg’s tutorage  249 pugilism began a meteoric rise which would continue, for themost part, the rest of the century.This meteoric rise of pugilism, however, was not experiencedin other countries. Indeed, the English regarded a good, cleanknockout blow—preferably a noisy roundhouse right—as apeculiarly Anglo-Saxon characteristic. And the English jealous-ly guarded their sport; to them a foreign challenger was notto be tolerated. An illustration of this pugilistic nationalismcan be seen in the bout between Bob Whitaker, a student of Figg’s, and Alberto di Carni, a gigantic Venetian.Captain JohnGodfrey, one of the first to write about pugilism, described the1733 battle as follows: The battle was fought at Figg’s amphitheatre beforea splendid company, the politest house of that kind Iever saw. . . . The Gondolier pitched himself forwardwith his right leg and his arm full extended and asWhitaker approached gave him a blow on the side of the head which knocked him quite off the stage, whichwas remarkable for its height. . . . There was a generalforeign huzza on the side of the Venetian pronouncingour countryman’s downfall; but Whitaker took no moretime than was required to get up again when he. . . .with a little stoop, ran boldly in beyond the heavymallet, and with one English peg in the stomach, quitea new thing to the foreigners, brought him to thebreech. The blow carried too much of the Englishrudeness for him to bear, and finding himself so un-mannerly used, he scorned to any more doings with hisslovenly fist. 16 After the bout the Venetian left England. He also left thesport of pugilism to the English.If pugilism exhibited nationalistic characteristics early inthe eighteenth century, it also showed a growing interest inscience.Pugilists regarded a knowledge of the human anatomyas essential to their trade. Through trial and error, they dis-covered certain anatomical principles. They found, for example,that a blow placed lightly under the ear, on the jugular vein,caused the blood proceeding from the heart to the head to beviolently forced either to the heart or the head, leaving theiropponent prostrate, bleeding from his eyes, ears, and mouth. 17 They discovered that a punch delivered between the eye-browscontributed greatly to a victory because it caused “a violentechymosis, or extravasation of blood, which falls immediatelyinto the eye-lids;” the swelling which resulted from such arap left one’s adversary “artfully hood-winked.” 18  The list of   250 other such cause and effect relationships is long enough toconvince even the most ardent skeptic that science did play animportant role in eighteenth century pugilism.The first obstacle to the progression of pugilism came withFigg’s retirement. At thirty-five he fought his two-hundredand seventy-first battle in October 1730, and then bowed grace-fully out of pugilism. 19 A handful of adequate pugilists followedhim, but none could capture the public’s fancy like Figg had.The championship was shuffled from Tom Pipes to Grettingand then from Gretting back to Pipes, but the public could havecared less. 20  George Taylor and Tom Boswell distinguishedthemselves as first-rate pugilists, but both lacked courage.Captain Godfrey, when speaking about Boswell, said: Praise be to his power of fighting, his excellent choiceof time and measure, his superior judgement, dispatch-ing forth his executing arm!Farewell to him, withthis fair acknowledgment, that, if he had a true  English bottom, (the best fighting epithet for a man of spirit)he would carry all before him. . . 21 Thus at this crucial period in the ring’s history no one couldattract the public’s imagination, and the much needed royalsupport was withdrawn. But again one man would emerge torevive pugilism and bring back the royal patronage.II“Advance, brave Broughton!Thee I pronounce Captain of the  Boxers. As far as I can look back, I think I ought to openthe characters with him. I know none so fit, so able, to leadup the van.” 22 As Captain Godfrey surmised, John Broughtonmust rank among the greatest fighters of all time for variousreasons; his reputation as the father of British boxing is welldeserved. 23 Under Broughton’s guiding fist, boxing took a sharpturn upward. Public interest was aroused to a feverish pitchand the patronage of the nobility was again secured.LikeFigg, Broughton was a heavy-set, power man (196 pounds and5 feet 11 inches).However, unlike Figg, Broughton was a welleducated, intelligent, and courteous gentleman. Although Figgwas the ring’s first champion, it was Broughton who revolu-tionized the sport of boxing.Under Broughton’s guidance boxing became a recognizedprofession.Before his time a boxer had to be a master of thequarterstaff, sword, and foil, as well as the fist. After Brough-
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