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Mad, bad, dangerous to know and a fan of the fistic arts

THE FIGHT was staged a couple of centuries ago at Hornchurch with 200 guineas wagered on each of the bare-knuckled combatants - Jackson and Mendoza. Judging by the newspaper report of the time, those present would not have been disappointed by the spectacle.

"Fourth round. This was the heart of the battle - fear was out of the question, and the combatants lost to everything but victory. Jackson, confident of his powers and knowledge, went in with great courage, treating the science of Mendoza with indifference and punishing him most terribly, when Dan fell from a severe blow upon the right eye which bled profusely. The odds rose upon Jackson."

This account, in the exhibition of British Sporting Heroes currently at the National Portrait Gallery, evokes the spirit of pugilism in the days when bouts went on until one man was broken. A neighbouring print celebrating the English champion, Tom Sayers, details contests which lasted two or three hours, involving more than 100 rounds. His final fight, against the American John C Heenan, ended in a bloodied draw after two and a half hours.

The Jackson and Mendoza report has been preserved, literally, as part of a folding screen covered in a varnished collage of boxing articles and pictures. And the man responsible for this painstaking decoupage was Lord Byron.

Certain words or phrases are acceptable in connection with Byron. Romantic poet. Demon lover. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. All fine.

But Byron and decoupage. I'm sorry. The words just will not stick together.

We are told that George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron, was sufficiently interested in the "fistic art" to have received instruction from the legendary champion, "Gentleman" John Jackson. To learn, however, that such an acceptably Byronic approach was accompanied by an activity more akin to a child covering his wall with posters of Lennox Lewis and Prince Naseem was touching.

Personally, I regard Byron as more of a hero now than I did before, even if his main sport, apart from the odd spot of pugilism, was restricted to the gaming table and the boudoir.

The exhibition as a whole raises as many questions as it answers about what constitutes a British Sporting Hero.

Victory is not obligatory. Looking into the glazed eyes of Barry McGuigan, dehydrating in a Las Vegas car park en route to losing his world featherweight title to Steve Cruz in 1986, you can see the scorched residue of a true champion.

Honourable defeat is an acceptable credential here. A 1937 picture shows Tommy Farr "recently home from his world title fight against Joe Louis" having tea with his family. The big Welshman - cup in one hand, fag in the other - has the look of a man who has returned with his reputation intact, if nothing else.

For a distressing number, heroic auras have been intensified, if not created, by premature death. The 1911 picture of the Oxford and England rugby winger Ronald Poulton, muddy-kneed, absurdly handsome, and four years away from death by sniper fire, could stand a testament to a whole generation.

The death of the man who scored five tries in his first Varsity match, and four against France in 1914, moved A Ollivant, in The Spectator, to elegy: "Ronald is dead; and we shall watch no more/ His swerving swallow flight adorn the field..." The modern era has its own sad share of those who died before their time - Jim Clark, Mike Hawthorn, Tommy Simpson.

There is a distressing strand, too, of those who took their own lives.

Among the exhibits is the riding gear worn by the jockey Fred Archer, whose invincibility in the late 19th century gave rise to the phrase "Archer wins on anything", shortly before he died at 28 - "depressed by the death of his wife, weakened by wasting, shot himself in a fit of delirium".

Others who committed suicide include Arthur Shrewsbury, the Nottinghamshire and England batsman, who shot himself in 1903, "in the belief that he had an incurable disease". Randolph Turpin, who was briefly world champion after defeating Sugar Ray Robinson, and Hugh Gallagher, the celebrated Newcastle United player.

An ongoing poll of visitors to the exhibition offers its own tacit judgement on what constitutes the British Sporting Hero. In reverse order, the current top three are Daley Thompson, Steve Redgrave and Ian Botham - three characters for whom victory has never been anything other than obligatory.

Is there any common characteristic here? Is there an essence of sporting heroism present to greater or lesser degree in all those gathered under this roof? It is sensible to beware of making any sweeping statement on the subject.

I'm thinking now of the event which The Times described as distinguishing the 20th from the 19th century "as decisively as anything that has happened in the last 30 years". It was, of course, Marjorie Foster's achievement in winning the 1930 King's Prize, that traditional preserve of male rifle shooters.