Classics, boxing and Devon Wrestling

Dressing up beautiful young women in ancient Greek ceremonial robes became popular with the emergence of the fashion for reviving ancient Greek athletics competitions. In Britain this began with the ‘Olympic Games’ mounted in 1847 in Much Wenlock, a small town in Shropshire on the Welsh border, and culminated internationally in the 1896 Olympic Games at Athens. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, had even visited the Wenlock games. It was there that the idea of victory ceremonies was planted in his mind, so impressed was he by the ‘quotations from Greek authors inscribed on the flags and banderoles’ and the laurel wreaths.62 The Dumfriesshire railway worker-poet Alexander Anderson wrote an ode for the Kirkconnel Athletic Games on 24th August 1889, recited by Miss Campbell of Knockenrig, described in the first stanza as wearing ‘the graceful, snowy raiment of the Greek,/Her hand within a golden band was strung’.63 But when sensation-addicted men of any class were bored with women, whether wives, showgirls, prostitutes or Olympic priestesses, a boxing match was a reliable recreational choice. The Georgian craze for bareknuckle fighting was shared by labourers and royalty. Unlicensed and officially illegal, attracting huge amounts of gamblers’ money, boxing escaped the authorities because a few patrons included the richest in the land. The ‘Fancy’ (boxing fraternity), wrote Pierce Egan, was a community in which all social hierarchies were temporarily abolished: ‘a union of all ranks, from the brilliant of the highest class in the circle of Corinthians, down to the Dusty Bob gradation on society, and even a shade or two below that’.64

Egan (1772-1849) was the author of Boxiana, the foundation text of sports journalism in Britain. His background was Irish and obscure, but he began working life as a London printer’s compositor. The first part of the first edition of Boxiana, or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, written in lively, slangladen prose, appeared in 1812. Its detailed accounts of bloody matches offered the sporting public literary pleasure of a totally new kind. Since his sketches involved colourful biographies of the champion boxers, Egan was dubbed by the Irish poet Thomas Moore ‘the Plutarch of the ring’.65

Boxing’s brutality was celebrated as a manifestation of hyper-masculinity which transcended social class and even colour: some of the most famous boxers were Jewish or of African ancestry, like the East-Ender ‘The Hebrew’ (Daniel Mendoza) or the American ‘Black Ajax’ (Tom Molineaux). But Boxiana praises the divine boxer Pollux, Spartan brother of Castor, who won his seat on Olympus through his pugilist skills. Egan quotes Horace, supplying but also translating the Latin, mindful of his cross-class readership or perhaps that even many supposedly well-educated gentlemen had never really mastered the ancient tongue. His list of ancient boxers continues with Eryx the Sicilian vanquished by Hercules, Dares and Entellus, and Amycus visited by the Argonauts.66

Egan contrasts ancient boxing in weighted gloves and bare-knuckle fighting, discusses Greek and Latin boxing vocabulary, cites Virgil and Plutarch and compares contemporary prize fighters with Hercules, Ulysses, Coriolanus and Mars. He celebrates the inauguration of the national Pugilistic Society, which he claims to be the equal of the ‘Royal Society, the Antiquarian Society, the Geological Society, the Mathematical Society, the Dilettanti Society’ and the Society of

Arts. In his fantasy realm, men of all classes can be equals. He concludes this flight of egalitarian Fancy with a heady citation from Terence:

Men of rank associating together learn to prize the native and acquired powers of human nature. They thus learn to value other distinctions, besides those of fortune and rank; and, by duly estimating them in persons of far inferior stations in life, they imbibe the principles of humanity and fellow feeling for our common nature. The lesson taught them in early life, by Terence, while at Oxford or Cambridge, Westminster and Eton, is here brought into actual practice:

Homo sum, humani nil a me alietium puto.

I am a man, and consider nothing belonging to man as foreign to me.67

Sadly, such cosmopolitan humanism was not what was experienced by Tom Molineaux, the American freedman and heavyweight boxer billed as ‘The Black Ajax’.

Born into slavery on a plantation in South Carolina, he had won his freedom in a prize fight. After victories in America he had been invited to England by another ex-slave boxer, Bill Richmond. Also known as ‘The Black Terror’, Richmond ran a famous boxing academy in London.61* The Greek hero Ajax was not a boxer, but a champion wrestler; in the Iliad (XXIII.709-.39), at the funeral games for Patroclus, he is matched against Odysseus. But the injuries they reciprocally inflict will have sounded to a Regency audience like those suffered by boxers: ‘You could hear their backbones crack under the violent assault of their bold hands, and their sweat flowed down in streams, and their ribs and shoulders were covered with red. bloody weals’. The Homeric bout is declared a draw because the fighting has become increasingly brutal; while Ajax is physically stronger, Odysseus is his superior strategically. This makes the ultimate defeat of the Black Ajax at the hands of English heavyweight champion Tom Cribb, a former Bristol docker, all the more poignant.

On 10th December 1810, near East Grinstead, in front of a cross-class audience laying enormous bets, which included the roughest of itinerants as well as a few aristocrats and some pupils from Westminster School, the 26-year-old Black Ajax faced the most celebrated boxer in Britain. By the end of the match, they were both said to be half-dead, so bloody that their skin colour could not be distinguished.69 The gigantic Cribb, now the proprietor of the Union Arms in Panton Street, London, had been persuaded to come out of retirement to defend the honour, it was felt, not only of Britain versus the apostate United States, but of all white men against their black brethren. Britons felt outraged at the ease with which the Black Ajax had that summer demolished two famous English pugilists, The Bristol Terror and Tom Tough.

On what was dubbed the ‘Campus Martius’ (Field of Mars) that stormy winter’s day, Black Ajax was, according to Egan, robbed of the victory on account of the bias of the crowd, after 34 exhausting rounds.70 Molineaux’s career never recovered. He got drunk before the rematch and lost in 19 minutes. After Richmond abandoned him, he died of alcoholism in Ireland just eight years later.

Every bit as savage as bare-knuckle boxing was the ancient sport of Devon Wrestling, One of the last champions was Abraham Cann, who was nicknamed the Devon Hercules. In this painting by Henry Caunter (c. 1846), Cann is evoked as the last great exponent of the dying art of wrestling according to the brutal Devon rules. (Figure 17.4) These allowed shin-kicking in shoes soaked in bull’s blood and then baked to achieve maximum hardness. The bouts, arranged at taverns, were notoriously rowdy and attracted cross-class audiences including both gentlemen who provided the prize money and labouring men.

Cann was the son of a central Devon farmer and malt-producer, who taught all his five sons how to wrestle and shin-kick, Devon-style.71 The portrait of Cann, by including the Farnese Hercules in the picture, standing on a base which depicts a classical wrestling match, implicitly equates the ancient local custom with the sporting feats of ancient Greco-Roman heroes. Since it was rescued from the Baths of Caracalla in 1546, the Farnese Hercules has been one of the most widely recognised of all ancient statues.72 It got its name from its

Abraham Cann (1794—1864) by unknown artist, c. 1850, reproduced by courtesy of Exeter City Museums & Art Gallery

FIGURE 17.4 Abraham Cann (1794—1864) by unknown artist, c. 1850, reproduced by courtesy of Exeter City Museums & Art Gallery.

collector, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, but reproductions soon started to appear in the gardens, courtyards and dining rooms of the rich all over Europe, and the image was familiar to a cross-class audience through its use in advertisements for products ranging from bread to soap powder.73 But there is also a specific reference to Cann’s greatest victory when he won the title ‘Champion of the West of England’ in 1826. He defeated an enormous Cornish publican named James Polkinghorne by executing a full-body ‘throw’ to the astonishment of all onlookers. This invited a comparison with Hercules’ victory over the previously invincible giant wrestler Antaeus, who was rejuvenated by his mother Earth every time he hit the floor.74 So Hercules held him off the ground for as long as it took for his energy to dissipate completely.

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