In-depth blog about former slave and boxing legend Bill Richmond (1763-1829); subject of Luke G. Williams' biography, published by Amberley in August 2015.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Black eye for the noble art?

Floyd Mayweather's victory against Manny Pacquiao has caused the usual rounds of hang-wringing, moralising and pontificating - not only among die-hard boxing fans, but also among those 'mainstream' observers who rarely see fit to comment on the sport.

An article by Chris Chase in USA Today seemed to sum up the prevailing perception of anti-climax that attached itself to the aftermath of the fight, proclaiming that "boxing is dead" and that "Mayweather-Pacquiao killed it", while describing the contest itself as "glorified sparring".

At the heart of the largely negative reaction to the fight is a debate that has existed within pugilism since the sport's advent as an organised pubic spectacle in the 1700s - namely, the conflict between those who see 'defensive' boxing as the height of pugilistic artistry, and those who dismiss it as a form of calculated cowardice.

As Oliver Brown correctly noted in the Daily Telegraph, a large element of "unsatisfied bloodlust" among the general populace helps explain the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Mayweather's masterful but defensively-minded display, an approach which utterly defused Pacquiao's increasingly forlorn and ineffective attacks.

"Mayweather exemplifies boxing at its purest, as a man who hits with supreme accuracy while avoiding being hit," wrote Brown. "The reason he is resented is that that he does not belong to that more romanticised species called fighters."

Brown has a valid point. As alluded to earlier, for as long as boxing has existed, those boxers who have fought 'defensively' have been criticised for a perceived lack of 'courage' or 'cojones'. For example, Larry Merchant, who has been around boxing long enough to know better (but seldom demonstrates that he does), once implied that Chris Byrd's fighting style was 'unmanly', a breathtakingly insulting judgement of a natural middleweight who somehow forced his frame to compete in the heavyweight division, where he often bravely ceded huge advantages in height and weight.

A similar judgemental streak existed during the Georgian heyday of bare-knuckle boxing, when the philosophy of milling 'on the retreat' exemplified by the punch-avoiding artistry of 'the Jew' Daniel Mendoza and 'the black' Bill Richmond, was often decried as un-English or as a symptom of cowardice. (Funnily enough, Englishman Tom Cribb, another master of boxing on the retreat, received far less criticism for similar tactics. However, that's another story...)

The great Pierce Egan's riposte to such accusations, like much of his prose, remains unrivalled in its eloquence:

"Would it not be absurd to say to a man, whose only care is the preservation of his life - “You must not avoid your enemy’s sword by changing your ground; you must not make use of that activity of which you are capable, because it is unmanly”’.

Another reason why Mayweather incurs widespread public opprobrium is, of course, his domestic abuse history. In assessing the extent to which the distasteful details of his private life should disqualify us from admiring his sporting artistry we find ourselves traversing shakier moral ground.

After all, if we were we to eliminate all those boxers against whom accusations of domestic violence have been levelled from consideration of sporting greatness then the man commonly regarded as the greatest boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson, would be summarily struck from the pantheon of boxing's Mount Olympus, as would his near namesake Sugar Ray Leonard.

Sadly, fistic artistry, does not preclude a man from being a lousy human being, no more than being a wonderful writer, composer or painter does - indeed, the history of the arts, sciences and sports seems to indicate that the correlation between being a 'genius' and an arsehole seems to be pretty strong.

I can't help but conclude that if only more of our heroes could live up to the example of Bill Richmond, the world would be a much better place. As my research into his life has shown, Richmond was a gentleman both in and out of the ring, and a man whose sporting philosophy was matched by an admirable personal life, as well as a laudable lack of personal bombast. It's what makes him, for me, that rarity among boxers - namely a role model as well as an athletic artist.

Richmond summarised his philosophy of boxing and life thus, and they are words to treasure:

"A gentleman, sir, only uses his hands to defend himself, and not to attack; we call the pugilistic art, for that reason, the noble science of defence. Depend on it, sir, you can never give, without receiving, and the very worst spoon can mark you a black eye. “Keep quiet, sir,” that is the golden rule, it will save you from many a licking.”


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