Matches often lasted for several hours with the winner sometimesdetermined by death.
By ROB STOUT
SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR
& quot;Bare Fists: A History of Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting & quot; by Bob Mee (Overlook Press, $27.95).
For all the temperance, piety and moral earnestness that the Victorians assigned to themselves, ironically they championed two of the more bloody forms of competition in the history of sports -- rugby football and bare-knuckle boxing.
While rugby became a more regulated college sport with codified rules of conduct , bare-fisted fighting retained its brutality right up until it was banned after professional boxing adopted the Marquees of Queensbury Rules, one of which required pugilists to don padded gloves.
But from the early 1700s until a gloveless John L. Sullivan last took to the ring in 1889, the bare-knuckle prize fight was a wildly popular sport, first in England and later as an export to the United States. Bob Mee, a British journalist for various sports publications on both sides of the Atlantic, draws upon his own personal archives, news reports and photographs to chronicle the evolution of the sport through its colorful participants.
Death: Needless to say, this was not an event for the faint of heart. Matches often lasted for several hours with the victor determined when one of the contestants was ruled completely debilitated or, as was common in its early days, dead. Such was the case in one of Mee's typical blow-by-blow accounts of a London match in which no quarter was asked or given:
"They both took a terrific punishment and were reeling around, virtually exhausted, when Broughton pinned Stevenson to the ring stake, took a pace back, and drove everything he had behind a punch that landed just beneath the heart. Stevenson went down and did not get up."
Although these events shocked many, the sport grew to such proportions that by the mid 19th century, crowds of up to 50,000 traveled to these bouts. The sport had crossed class lines as well, with spectators such as Dickens, Thackerary and various Parliamentarians regularly in attendance.
Their stories: But "Bare Fists" does not attempt to find depth in mixing cultural indicators with sports history. On the contrary, depth is not Mee's intention. Instead, he lets the stories of a dozen or so of the more infamous boxers tell a rather complete history of their violent art.
The career paths of such characters as Hen Pearce, Tom Spring, John Gulley and Joe Berks followed a fairly typical routine, one that strangely parallels many of today's boxing champs. Young, cocky, strong and full of innate aggression, they fought their way up to the prize ring through saloon and street fighting. After being discovered by a less-than-reputable promoter who provided some of the finesse necessary for ring matches, they competed until their bodies could no longer take the punishment, then retired to buy a pub, fell into drunkenness and died prematurely, usually of a fight-related ailment.
This did not happen to all of them but enough for the reader to realize most had been lured into a foolish pursuit for very little gain. Mee points to one exception, Jem Ward, a painter and talented musician who became even more notable as the first champion to be awarded the now standard championship belt, and also one of the few to see old age.
In America: As for the American side, the sport was illegal, but overlooked, as sparring houses were common in most cities by 1800, and the sport grew in synch (although with its own unique American brand of characters) with the British experience. Despite some opposition, by mid-century, boxing in both its plebian and refined varieties was firmly established, so much so that promoters saw immediate opportunity in holding some of its more memorable bouts between British and American rivals, each with his country's reputation on the line.
Despite a fond affection for describing the often repetitive and brutal fight passages, Mee is a fine storyteller with enough material at hand to let the boxers emerge as fully human and fascinating characters with carefully selected quotations from the sporting press.
Moments of something like humor intervene from time to time as with one of Mee's more memorable contests that will remain in the reader's mind long after the last page. In his no-frills writing style, he recounts a turn-of-the-century match between a blacksmith, born without arms, who resorted to trading blows with his head and feet. He defeated his armed opponent in just over an hour.Just imagine what Don King could have done with that.