Brian Phillips Writes About The 1810 Boxing Fight Between An Escaped Slave And The Heavyweight Champion

Theodore Gericault via Grantland.com

Boxing matches from two hundred years ago may not drive all of our readers into fizzy paroxysms of delight, but the history involved and the match itself is surprisingly relevant to mixed martial arts and other combat sports we engage in today. Those of you who have read John Nash/nottheface's historical pieces on the Golden Age of Mixed Martial Arts, the development of Brazilian jiu jitsu and the worldwide nature of combat sports should love this Brian Phillips piece on the heavyweight championship bout between Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux.

It is hard to come up with a better quote pull than this early paragraph:

The fight cemented a set of stock characters - the fast-talking, ultra-talented, self-destructive black athlete; the Great White Hope; the canny coach who's half devoted to his pupil and half exploiting him - that have echoed down the centuries.1 In fact, so much about the fight feels familiar today, from the role of race to the role of the media, that if you had to name a date, you could make a good case that December 10, 1810, was the moment sport as we know it began.

Phillips is a sports writer who built the Run of Play site that is essentially the FreeDarko of soccer - providing coverage of a very strange sport with some "uses-big-words-in-entertaining-ways" writing leavened with a ton of sly humor and awesome pictures. He writes about a few different sports for Grantland and may be the only voice consistently worth paying attention to over there.

After the jump, two more quotes showing how the olden days of boxing were surprisingly MMA-like and how the people we pay attention to in sports are not necessarily the best people, despite all narrative attempts by the promoters and commentators to the contrary.

John Nash/nottheface told us earlier how the boxing of back then bore a surprising resemblance to the style of Nick Diaz and laid it out for us as quoted below:

The ruleset that Mendoza fought under during his time was the one divised by Jack Broughton in 1743, the very first codified set of rules in the history of the sport, which were fittingly named Broughton’s rules. They were very simple, numbering seven in total, dealing with such things as the size of the ring, the holding of the purse, and the choosing of umpires. Of the seven, only the last had anything to do with what tactics were allowed during competition.

VII. That no person is to hit his Adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist: a man on his knees to be reckoned down.

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To elaborate: the only thing banned was the hitting of a downed opponent or any wrestling below the waist. Everything else – hair-pulling, grappling above the waist, wrestling or tripping your opponent to the ground, and, of course, striking with the bare fists – was allowed. And since no gloves nor hand wrappings were used, throwing with all one’s might or aiming blows to the head was naturally discouraged lest you break your hand. In fact, striking ability often rated below wrestling ability with regards to importance in gaining a victory, as seen by our three examples below with the the text being from the 1855 compilation Fights for the Championship; and Celebrated Prize Battles (the full title is much, much longer) and the images from Famous Fights: Past and Present, a boxing newspaper that ran from 1901 to 1904.

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Phillips independently correlates that and lays out the specific rule set that Phillips and Molineaux used:

Bouts were held outdoors, on bare ground, in rings marked off from fields. The fighters wore no gloves, which probably made them safer. (Gloves were introduced to protect the hands, not the head, and allowed fighters to punch harder.) But rounds didn't end until one man or the other went down. And there was no limit to the number of rounds that could be fought. After a fall, fighters had 30 seconds to return to the scratch, a mark in the middle of the ring.15 The battle went on until one of them either surrendered or couldn't make it. Boxers fought on through concussions and broken bones, sometimes suffering dozens of knockdowns severe enough to stop a fight today. Wrestling throws and holds above the waist were permitted, but it was illegal to strike while the foe was down. To add to the fun, constables occasionally descended in the middle of a match to arrest the fighters and fans. Spectators were occasionally known to rush the ring and attack one of the fighters. The overall effect was somewhere between modern boxing, MMA, and a bar fight.

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However, beyond the rule sets and the black/white racial dynamics of the fight (which are sadly inescapable and a product of the time), what Phillips briefly delves into with the discussion over whether winning is connected to moral goodness is excellent.

In early 19th-century England, the culture of sport was undergoing a rapid transformation. Sport was becoming a mass entertainment on a national scale. Athletes were now celebrities, covered by a dedicated professional media.11 Important contests were preceded by something like modern hype.

Most important, sport was turning into something that could reflect the larger social questions of the day. One of the major anxieties that shows up again and again in the English sportswriting of the era is whether sport weakens society or makes it stronger. Is there some innate connection between winning an athletic contest and moral virtue? Do the qualities that matter in the ring pass themselves on to spectators? What exactly are we getting out of this? Why do we like it so much?

We are fortunate to live in an era where racial discrimination is vastly diminished, although still not eradicated, in sporting culture, yet I do not believe we have ever truly gotten anywhere in unpicking and improving upon the "winners = great people" meme that was developed hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Quite a few athletes have achieved enormous personal and professional success without ever being warm, fuzzy, strictly law-abiding or commercially viable in a way that advertisers want. Does that mean that they are any less good at their sports or less deserving of permanent memory than others?

I do not believe so, but for now I will let more skilled writers than me like Brian Phillips and Ben Fowlkes puzzle that out. Again, the Phillips article is well worth your time and many of the dynamics within can be applied in adjusted form to fighters like Chael Sonnen, Alistair Overeem, King Mo or Brock Lesnar.

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