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A ring cycle of raw bravery

The fight of the century lasted 42 rounds, which took a total of two hours and 20 minutes. It could have been finished in the 36th, partly because one of the protagonists was being throttled but mostly because the referee had been forced from his position and the police were moving nearer, threatening to end the illegal contest.

Somehow the fighters staggered on with the ring now full of people and the boys in blue getting ever closer. At last, the ref told the men to stop. One of them ran off quickly, his face horrendously swollen, his eyes closed, the other was enveloped by fans and able to make good his exit swallowed up in the crowd.

This was Farnborough on an early April morn in 1860. The fight was between Tom Sayers, pugilistic hero of all England and John C Heenan, the champion of America. It was the first organised international fight and it captured the attention of the nation. It was one of those sporting events which lived up to its billing like few before or since. No quarter was asked, none was given. The crowds, consisting in no small part of noblemen and parliamentarians (not to mention the writers in attendance such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray), flocked there on special trains from Waterloo. The contest was an open secret but such was the need to keep its location from the authorities who would have it stopped that the tickets were marked "To Nowhere".

This is but the most spectacular contest described by Bob Mee in Bare Fists (Lodge Farm Books, pounds 15). It was held when the fight game was going through a dodgy time. Those who might have supported it were tired of fixes, gambling dens on which it depended were being shut and other sports not so full of men's blood were being taken up.

It was a long, but temporary, lull. As Mee makes clear, in a way which which is bizarrely affectionate despite the brutality it portrays, bare- knuckle fighting was big stuff in England. James Figg was its first champion early in the 18th century and the great Jack Broughton drew up the first rules in 1743. These might have civilised proceedings but they did not make them any less violent.

There seems to have been a routine career path for many of those who became bare-knuckle champions. In gilded youth they were cocky, strong and nigh invincible. Having taken all before them (and often won betting men a hefty wedge of cash) they would buy a pub, fall into a life of debauchery, lose their athleticism and die young.

This did not happen to all of them but it happened frequently enough to suggest that what they were involved in was a dangerous and foolish pursuit. But they were idols of their time as well, from Daniel Mendoza in the late part of the 18th century through a whole string of hard men embracing Jem Belcher, Hen Pearce, Tom Cribb, James Burke and Sayers. There were more where they came from.

Mee, who writes for this newspaper, has chronicled their histories fondly. There is a degree of repetition, which is a slight irritant but was probably difficult to avoid. He deals with the life and times of one of these sons of the Prize Ring and in coming to another of them a few pages later has to mention the same fight again. The editing is otherwise sound, the research impeccable and the conclusion that boxing has always been prey to foul deeds unavoidable. But so, too, in Mee's lovely character studies, is the strange but magnificent bravery of all fighting men. From bare knuckles on.