- The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America
This 2010 publication of The Manly Art is a reprinting of the 1986 edition with a newly penned afterward (pp. 225–261). When The Manly Art first appeared, critics and reviewers alike were won over by an elegant essayist imbued with a marvelous ability to make enduring historical scholarship out of the bruising, and oftentimes, ugly landscape that was/is boxing. The Manly Art paints such a series of compelling canvases that it is a delight to see this updated version coming on the market to reach out to, and connect with, a new generation of budding sports historians.
One of Gorn’s greatest assets is his spare writing style. There is the voice of a journalistic reporter set against a well-delivered storyline where his characters become people we, the reader, care about. Take Gorn’s “Prologue” that examines “The English Prize Ring” and defines the two combatants vying for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship at Thistleton Gap, London, September 28, 1811:
Shortly after noon, Tom Crib, a bellhanger turned tavern keeper and now champion of England sprang upon the stage and bowed to the crowd. Three months of training on the estate of Captain Barclay—an old patron of the ring who allegedly staked ten thousand pounds on his man—had steeled the champion’s frame with muscle. Thirty years old, five-feet-ten-inches tall; weighing one hundred and eighty-eight pounds, Crib was at the height his pugilistic powers. Tom Molineaux, an American and a black man, followed the champion into the ring. Almost the same size as Crib, Molineaux had astonished Englishmen over the previous year with spectacular displays of power and craft. Ringside betting stood three-to-one for Crib, but many feared that the title was in jeopardy. Molineaux’s foreignness disturbed the fancy even more than his color, for it raised the prospect that England might lose the championship, symbol of national virility(p. 19).
Gorn masterfully recreates the cut and thrust and batter of the savage contest played out by Crib and Molineaux and then, persuasively and artfully, shapes this competition as a theoretical model explaining the socio-cultural importance of their battle:
Molineaux and Crib were beneficiaries of boxing’s apotheosis. Patronage by the aristocracy and gentry, participation by less than genteel members of the lower class, a shared love of conviviality and high times, a shared admiration for courage, display of honor, and physical prowess, and a shared fear of national decadence and effeminacy, all made prize fighting England’s most popular sport from the last decades of the eighteenth through the first quarter of the nineteenth century”(p. 22).
Following his “Prologue” Gorn takes us on a vivid trek from Molineaux’s origins, in late eighteenth-century America, to the end of the bare knuckle era and the arrival of, arguably, the first modern heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan. His seven chapters are so well composed that they stand, and can be read, as a series of complete vignettes rather than a succession of book chapters. [End Page 324]
Gorn’s historical reach is extensive, and the richness of his trawl of materials creates a narrative that has both pace and animation. In chapter five for example, “Triumph and Decline,” among Gorn’s primary sources are snippets from Harper’s Weekly, Vanity Fair,
New York Times, Spirit of the Times, New York Clipper, National Police Gazette, nicely seasoned with William Makepeace Thackerey poetry, Irish-American street ballads, barroom songs, and five contemporary magazine illustrations. This is exciting history told with much clever charm.
The Manly Art continues to be a consummate study on boxing. Gorn’s “Epilogue” contains a memorable kalaidoscope of word pictures that encapsulate the fascinating territory that makes up the boxing subculture: “Boxers exhibited composure under pressure, unflinching fortitude, and heroic stoicism, all in the name of masculine prowess. . . . Each fight was a work of art, or more precisely a...