Sport on TV: Topless boxing, bottomless well of Georgian depravity

Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor may have broken new ground, as well as noses, by being among the first women to box at the Olympics last summer. But according to Fight Club: A History of Violence (Yesterday, Wednesday) they are fighting to keep alive a tradition of female pugilism going back to the Georgian era. But in the late 18th century they were bareknuckle boxers – and that wasn't the only bare part of their anatomy; they were also topless. That's a tradition that might easily be revived by Richard Desmond's Channel 5.

The academic Lucy Inglis said: "It was over when it was over. There were no rules at all." Coming from "the lowest social strata", the women's attire consisted of a leather corset but they would rip that off because "you can just swing someone around with it. And people wanted to see their tits".

That may not sound very scholarly but it beats the hell out of Sean Bean's narration in this four-part guide to organised combat. His highbrow attitude to the subject is perhaps trying to cover up the fact that the historical evidence is almost as flimsy as the fighters' clothing. The first rule of fight club is you do not let Bean talk about it.

These "cat fights" were the original grudge matches, with women settling their scores in the slum of St Giles in the Field in London. The community gathered to watch and bet on the fights amid an epidemic of gambling in the capital. And that was not the only pernicious influence. Gin was running in the streets and women sold it from their front rooms. This meant they drank with men for the first time, and gained a strange kind of equality amid the depravity.

Mick Crumplin of the Royal College of Surgeons was on hand to tell us that the liquor didn't help the fighters. No Dutch courage here, "performance was not enhanced in anything they did". This was long before the days of Lance Armstrong, though he bears a classic bareknuckle fighter's name, and the only cycles around were those of poverty and despair.

"Just like today, it was a society riven by social problems," said Bean. There was a certain cachet to poverty, as Inglis added: "People owned their poor identity. It was very much a 'look' on the streets of London." Perhaps not much has changed, then. It's really no worse than a scrap over cheap designer- wear at the tills of Sport & Soccer.

* Gambling on blood sports was the great social leveller of Georgian times, but when the Victorians came along such spectacles were frowned upon and women's boxing died out. Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip (BBC2, Tuesday) showed how a nation learned to hide its feelings along with its proclivities, but still challenged itself physically.

He told the story of William Webb, the first man to swim the Channel. It started when Webb pitted himself against a Newfoundland dog in a swimming contest; after an hour and a half the dog gave up and swam to shore. Then Webb took on his big adventure. After he reached the French coast, he was asked, in time-honoured fashion, how he felt. He replied he had "a peculiar sensation in my limbs somewhat similar to that which is often felt after the first day of the cricket season". So more Channel of supreme self-confidence than corridor of uncertainty.

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