The Fighting Irish, Jewish, and African Immigrants of the Golden Age of Boxing

During the Regency Era, Jewish, Irish, and African immigrants remained on the fringes of English society except in the realm of pugilism, where fighters overcame xenophobia and poverty by dominating the ring.

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Sep 29 2016, 5:32pm

The battle between Crib and Molineaux (Wikimedia commons)

Boxing was undoubtedly a popular activity in Britain since scholarship around the sport emerged hundreds of years ago. The practice and study of sporting activities became mainstream in the eighteenth century in the West, but boxing, in particular, had not always been on the up-and-up in English society. The English Restoration released the puritanical restrictions on public entertainment lingering from the Middle Ages and allowed for various types of spectacles to be performed in designated areas around London and other cities. Boxing emerged as a popular spectacle along with cock-fighting, bear-baiting, and the theater during the Renaissance. British newspaper The Protestant Mercury was the first to report a boxing match in 1681 with the Duke of Albemarle in attendance. The aristocratic support of the sport hit an apex in 1723, when King George I ordered the construction of a ring in Hyde Park. The King's support of boxing fostered an environment in which fighters received patronage from wealthy nobles, who supported their training and made heavy bets on the pugilists.

In 1801, Joseph Strutt published his history of British sport with the expansive title, typical of the time period, of The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May-Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions, and Pompous Spectacles, From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. This epically named tome organized and categorized sporting practices in England according to the class of people who either played or watched various sports. Pugilism is listed as a lively spectator activity for gentry and commoners alike. 1813 was a banner year for pugilistic scholarship; Pierce Egan published his famous volumes, Boxiana, and an anonymous writer produced the lesser known, but by no means less interesting, Pancratia: A history of Pugilism. Pancratia primarily consists of stories of various pugilistic encounters and is a wealth of information about how fights occurred in the eighteenth century. Boxiana is generally considered one of the foremost sources of primary pugilism accounts of the Regency Era and Egan is a particularly thoughtful and detailed scholar, especially in his portrayal of fighters who were, in basically every other facet of British life, shunned.

The late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century constituted Britain's Golden Age of Boxing, where the sport became both a "science" and a manly art. The Golden Age coincided with Britain's Regency Period, a time known for the rich pageantry of the upper-class and abject poverty in the squalid lower-classes. While Egan and other educated men celebrated the reinvigoration of what they say as a formerly gelded masculinity in England, the real work of British pugilism was enacted by lower-class men who were not, technically, even British. No, the luminaries of Britain's Golden Age of Boxing were immigrants—specifically, Jewish, Irish, and African men who were marginalized and often ignored by the very men who would praise the sport in which they excelled.

The poor immigrant population in England may have been considered the dregs of society, but bruisers with prizefighting potential had little difficulty finding a wealthy patron. John Ford explains in his book, Prizefighting, that despite normative cultural marginalization about immigrants, and the Jewish, Irish, and African populations were some of the most discriminated against at the time, men could attain greater social and economic status in the ring than in any other profession.

The Irish were, perhaps, the most despised class in England, stemming from the huge influx of immigrants streaming into England starting in the early 17th century, long before the potato famine began in 1845. The Irish were considered a threat to the very livelihood of the Englishman because the Irish, who were so prolific in number, would undercut the English laborer and therefore steal job opportunities for any salary, even a paltry one, was necessary for the Irish to feed their huge families.

The Irish were also known, in a colloquial sense, for barroom brawls and machismo-fueled battles, and their fighting temperaments and need for gainful employment made prizefighting an ideal career for young Irishmen. There were numerous successful Irish fighters, but one of the most famous, praised by Pierce Egan in Boxiana, was Jack Power, a plumber and champion pugilist.

Celebrated as a scientific boxer, Jack Power was born to Irish parents in England in 1790, and began his fighting career at the bright age of 14. Many of his fights were with other Irish working-class pugilists, including a butcher, a tailor, a sadler (one who makes saddles), a blacksmith, all of whom, in their non-working hours, sought money and bragging rights. Power was, according to Egan, "one of the most accomplished boxers of his day, viewed either as a practical fighter or an elegant setter-to."

Power made his career as a plumber, which was, at the time, a dangerous endeavor that would, eventually, damage Power's ability to perform in the ring. It is said that plumbers at the time would drink large quantities of castor oil to mitigate the effects of lead fumes, although perhaps adding to their overall level of dehydration due to the tremendous purgative property of castor oil. On November 16, 1812, Power met Jack Carter in the ring for a 100 guinea purse. Whether it was his lungs, a reported ruptured blood vessel, or the act of fighting in the freezing English rain wearing nothing but a thin pair of breeches, Power did not fare well in his fight with Carter. His constitution, significantly weakened by inhaling lead fumes as part of his work as a plumber, impacted his overall performance in the ring, and though he lost, it was considered a manly, scientific battle.

Like many lower-class men of his day, Power lived a rough life in the streets of London. His dual careers as pugilist and plumber were enough in themselves to lead to his eventual decline in health, but according to Egan, Power also lived hard. Egan explained,

Alas! possessing a gaiety of disposition which could brook no restraint: the fascinating charms of company, and the enlivening glass, proving too powerful for his youthful and inexperienced mind to withstand, he entered precipately into excesses which produced debility and a bad state of health.

But, given his druthers and the prospect of a life of poverty, it seems that Jack Power rather enjoyed his life of fighting, womanizing, drinking, and partying, being willing, after all, to forgo his health for the celebrity life of a Regency Prizefighter. His success encouraged other Irish boxers to try their hands, literally, at prizefighting, and attempt to secure some semblance of respectability in a time and place that, almost unilaterally, despised them.

Daniel Mendoza (Wikimedia commons)

At the turn of the eighteenth century, there were between 15,000 and 20,000 Jewish immigrants in the city of London. Daniel Mendoza was one of the first Jewish prizefighters to make a name for himself, both as a fighter and as a boxing instructor. Mendoza was small in stature and his of quick footwork and fast hands would engender a new of boxing that differed greatly from the bruising power and hulking size of most Regency-era fighters. Mendoza trained other prizefighters in what was called the Mendoza School or, revealing the vernacular of the time, the Jewish School of prizefighting. His style was sometimes considered cowardly because he used his footwork to evade heavy bruisers rather than exchange blows standing still, like a turnip. When he won his first professional bout in 1787, he was presented to King George III, providing the monarch with his first opportunity to speak to one of his Jewish subjects. Mendoza's prowess in the ring won him the ultimate royal patron in the Prince of Wales, who would later become George IV after his father succumbed to illness/madness (thus the name of the Regency period, marked by the Prince of Wales acting as Prince Regent in his father's stead).

Mendoza began his fighting career under the tutelage of famed prizefighter, "The Gentleman Boxer," Richard Humphries. But something later broke the relationship between the two men and in 1788, they met in the ring in front of 60,000 to settle the score. The fight was, by all accounts, a tremendous event, but Mendoza slipped in the 28th round and twisted his ankle, ending the fight. Humphries taunted his former protégé, calling him a coward, and the following year, the men met again, this time with Mendoza as the victor. But like many rivalries, especially those in which each fighter has one a match, there had to be a third fight, a reckoning to determine who was the greater man in the ring. Egan, of course, detailed the importance of that third fight in Boxiana:

The awful set-to at length commenced, and every eye beamed with anxiety; the moment was interesting and attractive, and each party was lost in suspense. The combatants were heroes of no common stamp, and feint was regarded with respect and attention; money was a secondary consideration in this case; towering fame was attached to the issue of the contest; and the proud title of conquerer rested upon its termination – they both felt its consequences, and were determined to gain or lose it, honourably.

Mendoza defeated Humphries in just 15 rounds, and the triad was complete. Mendoza would go on to fight and to teach, and of course, to be praised by Egan and other boxing enthusiasts. His last match was in 1820, when he fought at the established, if somewhat elderly at the time, age of 55, and in 1990, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, a legendary pugilist in spite of his marginalized position in society as a Jew, and the critiques of the establishment of his style in the quick-footed Mendoza tradition.

England may have not had slaves at home, but abroad, in their vast colonies, the British enslaved Africans and used them, harshly, for labor until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. But England's cities, especially London, had a large African population that, somewhat surprisingly, did not meet with as much racism as their counterparts in the United States. In 1772, there were around 15,000 Africans living in England, the majority of whom were former slaves or their descendants. Interestingly, while Jewish immigrants were met with distaste by British citizens, African immigrants did not face the same type of disgust. However, Africans were restricted to the types of employment they could pursue, so many of them continued to work in domestic employment unless they could raise enough money to apprentice a trade. Enterprising men saw a future for themselves in the ring as prizefighters, which would provide them with an opportunity to not only make money, but to potentially gain patronage and protection from a wealthy aristocrat.

Tom Molineaux by Robert Dighton (Wikimedia commons)

The first African fighter to gain true fame and a simulacrum of prestige was Tom Molineaux, a late 18th century prizefighter born a slave in New York in 1784. He later went to Britain and fought in an epic battle with Tom Cribb, then considered the World Champion, in 1810. But before Molineaux came to the forefront, his own teacher, another African, entered the forefront of British Boxing. Bill Richmond was born in New York and was later employed by the Duke of Northumberland. He trained as a cabinetmaker, but in 1804, he entered the ring and although he, too, would lose to Cribb, he won his next eleven fights and went on to become a boxing instructor. In fact, he trained Molineaux and was mentioned in Egan's Boxiana, described as "intellectual, witty and well-informed."

Thomas Molineaux, sometimes spelled Molyneux, is undoubtedly the most famous boxer of African descent in the 19th century. Molineaux's antecedents are the story of legend, as Brian Phillips revealed in his essay, "A Fighter Abroad," but what is best known about the man comes from our friend, Pierce Egan, and his tireless coverage of Regency-era boxing.

It was a cold, rainy day on December 10, 1819, when a crowd waded "knee-deep" on a clay road in Copthall Common, a neighborhood 30 miles away from the city of London, to watch Thomas Molineaux face Thomas Cribb in a prizefighting match for the ages. Egan described both fighters as "claim[ing] peculiar notice from their extraordinary efforts." Both men, in other words, were at the top of their game that day, although by the 19th round, Egan noted that "to distinguish the combatants by their features would have been utterly impossible, so dreadfully were both their faces beaten."

Molineaux and Cribb fought on a particularly dreary day, with freezing cold rain pouring over them as they battled for forty rounds. For the first twenty-nine rounds, Molineaux was roundly beating Cribb. This fight, which to the crowd, symbolized a battle for the bragging rights of a nation, symbolized the struggle for supremacy between the mother country and her naughty, prodigal child. Cribb's seconds were able to stop the fight on a technicality, and in the time that intervened, Molineaux is said to have caught a chill while waiting for the fight to resume in the icy downpour. When the men were finally called back to their feet, the American was reportedly numb and thoroughly chilled by the English rain. In the following eleven rounds, Cribb made his comeback, and in round forty, Molineaux was finally vanquished.

The two men met again the following year, but Cribb was able to defeat Molineaux rather quickly in the 9th round. There was no third fight, but Molineaux continued his prizefighting career until he lost to George Cooper in 1815. Sadly, he died destitute in Ireland in 1818, his decline reportedly exacerbated by alcoholism. But Thomas Molineaux would forever be remembered for his fierceness and his bravery, and for opening up a new space for African men to excel in prizefighting in England. Pierce Egan rather elegantly summed up Molineaux's career in the estimable Boxiana:

Molineaux came as an open and bold competitor for boxing fame; and he challenged the proudest heroes to the hostile combat. Such declaration was manly, fair, and honouralbe, and entitled to every respect and attention among the pugilistic circles.

Egan noted that much of the criticism of Molineaux came from his ambition, his threats to "wrest the laurels from the English brow and plant them upon the head of a foreigner." Molineaux was unwilling to approach his boxing career with the obsequiousness required of a servant or slave became he was not one. He was, despite his position in society and the color of his skin, a man who demanded respected and because of his performance in the ring, he earned it.

Molineaux, Mendoza, and Power exemplify the lives of immigrants and other outsiders living in England during the Regency Era. Egan's book Boxiana provides sketches of hundreds of boxers, but these three men not only embody the experience of the immigrant, they also reveal the harsh reality of 18th century boxing. Interestingly, while boxing at the time was terribly brutal in length, ferocity, and even the natural elements (Power and Molineaux both lost while fighting in the rain), for all three of these men, fighting was preferable to the typical immigrant experience. In his book, Prizefighting, John Ford postulates that although there were many other nations represented in England's immigrant population, these three nationalities dominated the fighting world because of their own race's natural tendency towards exhibitionism. For Ford, Jewish, Irish, and African fighters excelled because they are more inclined to be extroverts than the other immigrant populations, such as the Chinese or French. My natural inclination is to cry, balderdash! It is reductionist thinking at its finest to essentialize one particular race as more extroverted than another. But what other factors could lead to the explosion in prizefighters among the Jewish, Irish, and African when those other immigrant populations did not produce even a fraction as many fighters? There is, no doubt, a number of contributing factors that lead those particular immigrant populations to produce a surplus of pugilists in the Regency Era. One primary reason might be that those groups had the communal support and organization to train and prepare fighters due, in most part, to the success of those early adopters: Thomas Molineaux, Jack Power, and Daniel Mendoza.