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One thing about the Sweet Science upon which all initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better. The exact period at which it was better, however, varies in direct ratio with the age of the fellow telling about it; if he was a fighter, it always turns out to be the time when he was fighting, and if a fight writer, the years before he began to get bored with what he was doing. Fight writers, since they last longer than boxers, are the most persistent howlers after antiquity; but Doctor Jack Kearns, the 1 of active fight managers who are doing all right, turned on them in 1952, when they were being particularly derisive of his current meal ticket, Joey Maxim, a light heavyweight who, Kearns said, was as good as Dempsey except he couldn't hit. Since Dempsey could do little else, this was a combination of big talk and veracity illustrative of the Doctor's genius. Back in 1919 and the subsequent years of universal inflation, Kearns had Dempsey, and the older fight writers of the time used to ask what good man he ever licked. "They said Corbett would of killed him," Dr. Kearns recalled.
The reason Kearns has more perspective than most old-timers is that he is still eating in expensive restaurants. "What right have the writers got to beef?" the good Doctor wanted to know. "In the old days they used to have good fight writers. That Damon Runyon, before he went on the wagon, could lay on the floor and write better than most of these guys."
Writers were always nostalgic. William E. Harding, the sporting editor of the Police Gazette, who was the undisputed leader of critical thought in the '80s when that publication was the tables of the law for the American milling world, held that Jem Mace, the English Gypsy, was "the most scientific pugilist that ever stood in a ring." Mace had retired in 1871. Harding, whose woodcut portrait shows a figure of superb dignity in a wing collar, stock and frock coat, with two feet of watch chain cascading down his stomach and his elbow on an Empire desk, rendered the opinion in 1881, when he reported the Sweet Science in a state of galloping decline. The heavyweight champion (bare knuckles) was Paddy Ryan, and the challenger a young fellow named John L. Sullivan, who, Harding said, was a mere boxer, a glove-fighter. Mace, according to Harding, would have confuted the two of them in a simultaneous disputation.
Yet 1851, when Mace was launching his career by knocking out Jack Pratt of Norwich in eight rounds that lasted a mere 59 minutes—a round under London Prize Ring rules ended only with a knockdown—was a year made noteworthy in English literature by the publication of Lavengro, in which George Borrow lamented the downfall of the ring. Borrow said there hadn't been a true good bit of stuff since Tom Spring, who retired as champion in 1824, when Borrow was 21. Tom Spring takes us back to the glorious days of Pierce Egan—the fighting son of Clio, the Muse of history—who covered the combats of heroes for some 30 years and published them in magazines of his own editing for nearly that long. Egan, a better fight writer than Runyon or Harding or William Hazlitt—who was a dilettante—was not a pitched-battle man himself. He believed in the division of labor. Egan recognized, as he wrote after the demolition of Dandy Williams, a highly touted gentleman boxer, by Josh Hudson, the "True Blue Bulldog" British pugilist, in 1820, that "Drummers and boxers, to acquire excellence, must begin young. There is a peculiar nimbleness of the wrist and exercise of the shoulder required that is only obtained from growth and practice."
From about 1800 on to the 1820s, the fighters, trainers, seconds, betting men, the idly curious and the swells who backed fighters for heavy sums—a fighter was smalltime until he found a patron—used to assemble daily at the Fives Court, a covered handball court in St. Martin's Street, near what is now Leicester Square, to spar and watch the sparring. It was the place where fighters learned from other fighters, where they could show their stuff, where they did part of their conditioning and where a lot of matches were made. The Fives Court was in short the Stillman's Gym of Lord Byron's England, and Byron would hang out there between cantos when his mistresses' husbands were all in town at the same time. He liked to spar, but not in public. John Jackson, a retired champion of England, would come to his lordship's rooms in the Albany and spar with him, sometimes for an hour at a time. Jackson conned his lordship into thinking he had a hell of a right hand; he advised him never to let it go at a husband or he might kill him and have to marry the widow. There are no swell backers around Still-man's now, but there is some Garment Center money, and some of the boys are hoping to interest Robert R. Young and a couple of Texas oilmen. Admission to the Fives Court was 3s., or 75� at the old rate of exchange; Stillman's gets only 50� now, but there is no added attraction like Byron.
"Some are of the opinion that Sparring is of no great use," Egan wrote, "and that it takes from the natural powers of manhood, while it only teaches finesses, that cannot prove hurtful to a courageous adversary. This, however, is merely reviving an opinion maintained by the pupils of the Old School, in which strength generally prevailed over skill."
Whitey Bimstein, Freddie Brown and other lights of the faculty at the University of Eighth Avenue get a number of young fighters who have Old School opinions on this subject, but they generally iron them out by putting them in with some six-round kid who proves how hurtful a little finesse can be. Irving Cohen, the mildest-mannered of fight managers, a plump, fair little man with a wide baby-blue stare, says: "Fighting is like education. The four-round fights are elementary school. Six-rounders is high school. Feature bouts is college, but nowadays without the small clubs we got too many boys in college without sufficient preparation."
Ten years or so ago Cohen as manager and Bimstein as trainer had a boy who would have worn the Old School tie if he had ever worn a tie at all. He was a fellow named Rocky Graziano, who, like Jack Scroggins, one of Egan's heroes, relied purely on "downright ferocity." "Nobody never learned him nothing," Professor Bimstein concedes. Graziano had, however, a precious asset in addition to a punch, which latter is not as rare as you might think. "If he hurt you, he wouldn't lose you," Professor Bimstein's associate, Professor Brown, descanted in one of a recent series of lectures on Mr. Graziano. "He would never let you go. If he had to he would grab you by the throat and knock your brains out and apologize after the fight." Fighters who do not warm up until stung are a dime a dozen, but the colleagues have a high esteem for a fighter who warms up when he stings the other guy. Graziano's scholastic deficiencies became apparent when he stopped fighting men lighter than he was. He met two good middle-weights (he was a middleweight) in his life, Tony Zale and Ray Robinson, and they knocked him out three times in a total of 12 rounds. Against Robinson, Graziano was like Scroggins when the latter met the scientific Ned Turner, who could box and hit, at Sawbridge-worth in Hertfordshire, in 1817. "He was at sea without a rudder—no sight of land appeared in view." In between the Zale knockouts, though, Graziano knocked Zale out once, which remains as his only solid accomplishment in the record books. But as a drawing card he was, like Scroggins long ago, immense. "In point of attraction, what Kean has been to the boards of Drury Lane theatre, Scroggins has proved to the prize ring," Egan wrote in 1818.
Within an easy jaunt of the Fives Court there were numerous pubs that welcomed the trade of the milling coves and their knowing friends. The Castle, Holborn, which was kept in turn by three famous heroes—Bob Gregson, Tom Belcher and finally Tom Spring himself—was perhaps the best known. Gregson was a vast lump of a heavyweight who never quite won the championship, although he made several desperate bids for it. Tom Belcher—he had an even more famous older brother—was a cutie and a gentleman. In the Castle the critics would dissect the latest battles. The fighters would try to provoke turnups with more illustrious colleagues which might lead to official battles later on. The fighter who made a good showing in a rough-and-tumble in a well-frequented pub might attract a patron who would back him in a regular battle. If the fighter won, the patron took down the stakes, but he might give some to the fighter. When Tom Cribb beat Tom Molineaux in 1811, for example, Captain Barclay, a famous sport of the day, won �10,000 over the match. Cribb got �400—and all Boxiana thought it generous of the captain. Cribb had to fight only 11 rounds to win Barclay's bet, anyway—a breeze.
The fighters joined their admirers in lushing Blue Ruin, which was just another name for Daffy, or gin, and Heavy Wet, which was ale. There was a belief that a pint of Wet, taken after every gill of Daffy, would keep the drinker sober longer; the present notion is that a beer chaser, or boiler-maker's helper, accelerates intoxication. So does medical theory swing full circle with the ages. The Blue Ruin was calculated to put the fighters in a proper mood for ad lib assaults upon their friends. The Wet was recommended to build up their constitutions. Water was considered debilitating. Some care had to be exercised, however, even in the use of nourishing intoxicants. An 1821 treatise on training is explicit: "Our man may avoid taking the beer of two different breweries in the same day; for the variety of proportions and kinds of ingredients used, (if nought worse), will kick up a combustion in his guts."