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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?