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Boxing’s Herodotus: Pierce Egan and Boxiana

A literary classic
Publish Date: 02/17/2020
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

“The awful set to at length commenced.” Thus Pierce Egan, the Herodotus of the London Prize Ring, began his coverage of the titanic sixty-two round contest between Tom Johnson and Isaac Perrins on October 22, 1789. A sportswriter, a novelist, and, according to A.J. Liebling, probably a shakedown man, Egan was not the first pen wielding pundit to opine about the pugilistic arts. For that, we can go back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks. Homer left us accounts of fisticuffs in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I think we can all agree that one man punching another is as old as mankind. No doubt Cain threw a few jabs when he slew Able. With all due apologies to the authors of the Book of Genesis, Egan remains my favorite chronicler of the sweet science of bruising.

It’s a crowded field. If you look at a list of Twentieth Century writers who have spilled ink on the subject, it reads like a who’s who of literary talent. Jack London, Earnest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oats, F.X. Toole, Leonard Gardner, and Lee Hutch have taken time away from novels to discuss the fight game. Okay, maybe I exaggerated a bit on that last name. I have written a novel, but Bert Sugar I ain’t. To place Egan atop this list of wordsmiths is admittedly a bold move on my part given that he was covering bareknuckle contents a century before Jack London wrote of Johnson’s defeat of Jeffries. The fights he covered were different as well. Egan’s accounts tell us of the bareknuckle days and bouts that lasted well over thirty rounds. There were neither Marquess of Queensberry rules, nor London Prize Ring rules. The contests Egan witnessed took place under a loose collection of rules created by Jack Broughton, though the London Prize Ring rules appeared towards the end of Egan’s life. All this leads to an obvious question. With all the changes that have occurred since the death of Egan in 1849, why do I consider his work to be so timeless? Why should Boxiana: Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism have a place of honor on the shelves of every fight fan?

As a writer, I love words. So did Egan. Perhaps his reports are verbose by our standards today, though no more than most 19th Century writers (other than Russian novelists). The true joy of reading Egan comes from the descriptions he gives us. Consider his description of a bout between Tom Tyne and a man listed only as Jones. Egan said, “Tyne had recourse to all the worst parts of the art – fighting shy…and…trying to win by maneuvering instead of fighting.” From this, I surmise that our subject was not a fan of defensive boxers. I wonder what he would make of some of the defensive specialists we see today. When writing of an attack made on Jack Randall, an Irish fighter of some note, in the street, Egan states that Randall “milled Murphy so severely in the course of a few rounds” that he “liberally bestowed” punishment upon the larger Murphy until “compelled to desist” by concerns over causing a general row. Egan loved a game fighter. My favorite description he left us is of Tom Cribb, who upon “bleeding from every wound” still managed to “smile with confidence” and “rallied in the first style of manliness.” In the eleventh round Cribb’s opponent Molineaux “was in a stupor, his senses having been completely milled out of him” and Cribb was declared a winner. Of course, due credit goes to Molineaux who fought the last few rounds with a broken jaw.

Egan’s style is no longer in fashion. Reading him today seems almost quaint. The modern journalist is sparser with the language and gets to the point in a more direct fashion than the leisurely stroll on which Egan takes the reader. Life in the Twenty-First Century, with all its technological distractions, often doesn’t give us time to appreciate the finer points of “milling coves” and “foot toddling.” Thankfully, it does give us time to appreciate a good bout. In 2002, Sports Illustrated named A.J. Liebling’s collection of boxing essays, The Sweet Science, as the number one sports book of all time. I do not disagree with this assessment. If Egan was boxing’s Herodotus, then Liebling was its Shakespeare. To read those essays, or the pieces in his second collection, The Neutral Corner, one can see the imprint of Egan stamped throughout. In fact, it is Egan who is credited with first referring to boxing as “the sweet science of bruising,” although I’d wager that he may have picked up the term from the crowds and seconds who attended prizefights. Today’s sportswriter owes much to Egan, just as Liebling did.

If you are a fight fan and you have not delved into Egan, you are in luck. There is no need to foot toddle to your local bookstore, which is fortunate since they most likely would not have a copy anyway. If you have a Kindle, there are cheap and/or free copies of a few of the volumes available. Scanned copies exist on Internet Archive websites as well. Though his style takes some getting used to for the modern reader, I do think that he is a must read. If anything, it gives you a glimpse into a bygone era when princes and pickpockets rubbed elbows with prostitutes and priests as they watched two men “mill” one another over the course of an afternoon. Sometimes, I think about what Egan would make of our current crop of contenders. I’m sure he could come up with the adjectives to describe them, given his affinity for description. The true test of writer’s greatness is whether or not their words stand up to the test of time. Egan is up to the task. Writing in an era before typewriters, keyboards, and highlight reels, Egan used his words to paint pictures so clear that today’s reader can see the contest unfold as they read. So take some time to enjoy his work. You won’t be sorry.

(All Egan quotes contained herein were taken from Volume One of Boxiana)

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