A ring cycle of raw bravery

BARE FISTS BOOK REVIEW

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.

STEPHEN BRENKLEY

Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk