Who Hit Nijinsky?
Peut-on s’extasier dans la destruction, se rajeunir par la cruauté! — Rimbaud, Les Illuminations
The punches you miss are the ones that wear you out — Angelo Dundee
Someday, they’re gonna write a blues song just for fighters. It’ll be for slow guitar, soft trumpet, and a bell.— Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston, World Heavyweight Champion 1962-64
I can date my awakening interest in boxing pretty accurately: it was the first Henry Cooper – Cassius Clay (as he then was) fight in 1963 that sank the hook; (a fight, by the way, that most judges and aficionados gave to Cooper but was won by Clay when the fight was stopped because of Cooper’s bleeding cuts).
I like the fact that the house of Daniel Mendoza, heavyweight champion of England from 1792 to 1795 (and said to have been the first Jew to talk to the King, George III) is close to where I live. Complete with blue plaque, it sits in the middle of a row of Georgian houses on Paradise Row, overlooking a small park in Bethnal Green where I often stop for a smoke. After retirement, Mendoza ran a pub, The Admiral Nelson on Whitechapel Road. The building still stands although it closed as a pub in 1983.
I also like the fact that London’s premier boxing venue, York Hall, is nearby. I like taking my boys to fights there (to their mother’s enduring horror).
My pleasure in boxing has alarmed and baffled girlfriends and wives down the years.
‘Oooh, it’s so brutal…so primitive…so senseless…etc etc’, they would squeal, breathlessly aghast, entirely missing the point.
Certainly, bad fighters take a beating, in the same way that bad racing drivers crash, bad jockeys fall, bad writers produce unreadable crap, bad musicians produce turgid noise and bad film-makers make unwatchable dross.
But boxing isn’t about being hit; it’s about not being hit, or being hit where the damage will be minimal while at the same time, provoking your opponent into leaving an opening: you take a hit to return a better hit–therein lies the art.
The late A. J. Liebling wrote what I think is the finest work on boxing, The Sweet Science, actually a collection of his boxing essays that appeared in The New Yorker between 1951 and 1955. His introductory explanation of boxing’s attraction is worth quoting at length:
It is through Jack O’Brien that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. Jack had a scar to show for it.
Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose. I wonder if Professor Toynbee is as intimately attuned to his sources. The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.
I find it impossible to think that such a continuum can perish, but I will concede that we are entering a period of minor talents…
The immediate crisis in the United States, forestalling the one high living standards might bring on, has been caused by the popularization of a ridiculous gadget called television. This is utilized in the sale of beer and razor blades. The clients of the television companies, by putting on a free boxing show almost every night of the week, have knocked out of business the hundreds of small-city and neighbourhood boxing clubs where youngsters had a chance to learn their trade and journeymen to mature their skills.
Consequently the number of good new prospects diminishes with every year, and the peddlers’ public is already being asked to believe that a boy with perhaps ten or fifteen fights behind him is a topnotch performer. Neither the advertising agencies nor the brewers, and least of all the networks, give a hoot if they push the Sweet Science back into a period of genre painting. When it is in a coma they will find some other way to peddle their peanuts.
In truth, the kind of people who run advertising agencies and razor-blade mills have little affinity with the Heroes of Boxiana. A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone. If he loses he cannot call an executive conference and throw off on a vice president or the assistant sales manager. He is consequently resented by fractional characters who cannot live outside an organization. A fighter’s hostilities are not turned inward, like a Sunday tennis player’s or a lady MP’s. They come out naturally with his sweat, and when his job is done he feels good because he has expressed himself.
Chain-of-command types, to whom this is intolerable, try to rationalize their envy by proclaiming solicitude for the fighter’s health. If a boxer, for example, ever went as batty as Nijinsky, all the wowsers in the world would be screaming “Punch-drunk”. Well, who hit Nijinsky?
Liebling’s pessimism was well justified: professional boxing has, for the most part, become a sad travesty; licensed hysteria and brutality in the service of money. The heavyweight division has become a risible parade of bruisers and buffoons and the middle-weights aren’t much better. The only division that still produces fighters of skill and (to use an old-fashioned concept) honour is the lightweight division–the featherweights, bantamweights and flyweights. This is almost certainly because the big money is elsewhere. Money corrupts, in sport as it does in art and politics.
Liebling’s hero was the chronicler of boxing in Regency England, Pierce Egan. Egan’s four volumes of Boxiana, or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism, which appeared, lavishly illustrated, between 1818-24, was Liebling’s touchstone. Of it, he wrote:
Egan’s pageant of trulls and lushes, toffs and toddlers, all setting off for some great public, illegal prize-fight, are written Rowlandson, just as Rowlandson’s print of the great second fight between Cribb and Molineaux is graphic Egan. In the foreground of the picture there is a whore sitting on her gentleman’s shoulders the better to see the fight, while a pickpocket lifts the gentleman’s watch. Cribb has just hit Molineaux the floorer, and Molineaux is falling, as he has continued to do for a hundred and forty-five years since. He hasn’t hit the floor yet, but every time I look at the picture I expect to see him land. On the horizon are the delicate green hills and the pale blue English sky, hand-tinted by old drunks recruited in kip-shops (flophouses). The prints cost a shilling colored. When I look at my copy I can smell the crowd and the wildflowers.
As to those who find boxing too low-brow and brutish, I’ll leave the last word to Pierce Egan himself:
“To those, Sir, who prefer effeminacy to hardihood–assumed refinement to rough Nature–and to whom a shower of rain can terrify, under the alarm of their polite frames, suffering from the unruly elements–or would not mind Pugilism, if BOXING was not so shockingly vulgar–the following work can create no interest whatever; but to those persons who feel that Englishmen are not automatons…Boxiana will convey amusement, if not information…”
It is to be regretted that in boxing, as in so many walks of life, the automatons have, for the most part, taken over.
Verse on athletic endeavour, please.