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the boston belt
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Pugilisms First heroes and crooks

James Figg was born in Thame in February 1684, the youngest of seven children born to Francis and Elizabeth Figg whom popular opinion believe lived in a row of cottages in Priestend. Being from a poor family in an agricultural town, his early life would not have been easy. He appears to have gained himself a reputation at prize fighting and is known to have frequented the booths at local fairs.

figg-1He made his headquarters at the Greyhound Inn in Cornmarket, Thame. However to earn a living as a prize-fighter he would have had to venture far away from Thame.During Southwark Fair he used to keep a great tiled booth on the bowling green where he entertained from noon to night.

By 1719 he was claiming to be the Champion of England and challenging all comers. Regular Prize Fights were held at a venue called the Boarded House in the Bear Garden in Marylebone Fields off Oxford Street in London.  When Figg announced the opening of his theatre he became the first person to openly advertise the teaching of boxing and exhibitions of skill. The curious thing about Figg was that he was more expert as a cudgeller than as a Pugilist, being a master of the sword and expert fencer.

It was Figg who made the sport popular and many other amphitheatres - to use the correct term – were to open after his where wooden rails, rather than ropes, formed the ring which was raised up on a stage with the ref safely conducting the proceedings from outside the ring. Figgs business card was designed by his good friend Hogarth and was distributed amongst the crowds and was the first form of advertisement used to promote the then new sport of boxing. 

 "Here I am Jemmy Figg from Thame, I will fight any man in England".

That was the cry heard around the Marylebone area of London in the early 18th Century where James Figg opened an academy of arms, including boxing.

He died in London on December 8, 1734. and is buried at the Old Parish Church of St. Marylebone, London, England. In 1723 the Boarded House held contests every Wednesday and James Figg is advertised as featuring approximately once a month. Challengers came from far and wide and included;

Christopher Clarkson (the Lancashire soldier), Philip McDonald (the Dublin carpenter), William Finn of Ireland, James Stokes Citizen of London, Rowland Bennet from Ireland.

Not only were there men fighting at the Boarded House but often women were advertised and many animals would be baited to fight each other.

A host of other fighters were on the supporting bills to these fights and James Figg gained a reputation as a tutor and trainer. He formed his school probably near to his house on Oxford Street. Figg's Amphitheatre or Great House was the prototype of several other schools of pugilism that were developed in this area of London.

This Great House stood at the corner of Castle Street and Marylebone Fields and just north of Figg's house at the Sign of the City of Oxford in Oxford Road. These streets still exist although they are now known as Eastcastle Street, Wells Street and Oxford Street. It may be assumed that Figg was also a victualer and supplemented his income as a publican with income from his school where he instructed the nobility in the noble arts.

It is claimed that Figg had over 270 fights and only one defeat. That was to Edward Sutton of Gravesend when he was ill. He won the re-match and then came the third and deciding bout with Mr Sutton which was recorded in verse by James Byrom the diarist who wrote in the Spectator.

 

Upon a Trial of Skill

I

Long was the great Figg, by the prize-fighting swains,
Sole monarch acknowledged of Mary-bone plains,
To the towns, far and near, did his valour extend,
And swam down the river from Thame to Gravesend;
Where lived Mr. Sutton, pipe-maker by trade,
Who hearing that Figg was thought such a stout blade,
Resolved to put in for a share of his fame,
And so sent to challenge the champion of Thame.

II

With alternate advantage two rubbers had past,
When they fought out the rubbers on Wednesday last;
To see such a contest the house was so full,
There hardly was room left to thrust in your skull.
With a prelude of cudgells we first were saluted,
And two or three shoulders most handsomely fluted,
Till weary at last with inferior disasters,
All the company cry'd, come the masters, the masters.

III

Whereupon the bold Sutton first mounted the stage,
Made his honors as usual, and yearn'd to engage;
Then Figg, with a visage so fierce, yet sedate,
Came and entered the lists, with his fresh-shaven pate;
Their arms were encircled with armigers too,
With a red ribbon Sutton's, and Figg's with a blue;
Thus adorned the two heroes, betwixt shoulder and elbow,
Shook hands, and to't, and the word it was bilboe.

IV

Sure such a concern, in the eyes of spectators,
Was never yet seen in our amphitheatres;
Our commons and peers, from the. several places,
To half an inch distance all pointed their faces ;
While the rays of old Phoebus, that shot-thro' the sky-light,
Seemed to make on the stage a new kind of twilight;
And the gods without doubt, if one could but have seen'em,
Were peeping there through, to do justice between 'em.

V

Figg struck the first stroke, and with a vast fury,
That lie broke his huge weapon in twain I assure you;
And if his brave rival this blow had not warded,
His head from his shoulders had been quite discarded.
Figg armed him again, and they took t'other tilt,
And then Sutton's blade ran away from its hilt;
The weapons were frighted, but as for the men,.
In truth they ne'er- minded, but at it again.

VI

Such a force in their blows, you'd have thought it a wonder
Every stroke they received did not cleave 'em asunder,
Yet so great was their courage, so equal their skill,
That they both seemed as safe as a thief in a mill;
While in doubtful attention Dame Victory stood,
And which side to take could not tell for her blood,
But remained like the ass 'twixt the bundles of hay,
Without ever stirring an inch either way.

VII

Till Jove to the Gods signified his intention,
In a speech that he made, too tedious to mention;
But the upshot on't was, that at that very bout,
From a wound in Figg's side the hot blood spouted out;
Her ladyship then seemed to think the case plain,
But Figg stepping forth, with a sullen disdain
Shew'd the gash, and appealed to the company round,
If his own broken sword had not given the wound.

VIII

That bruises and wounds a man's spirit should touch,
With danger so little, with honor so much!
Well, they both took a drain, and returned to the battle,
And with a fresh fury they made their swords rattle;
While Sutton's right arm was observed to bleed,
By a touch from his rival, so Jove had decreed;
Just enough for to; show that his blood was not icor,
But made up, like Figg's, of the common red liquor.

IX

Again they both rush'd with as equal a fire on,
Till the company, cried, hold enough of cold iron,
To the quarter-staff now lads. So first having dram'd it,
They took to their wood, and i' faith never sham'd it.
The first bout they had was so fair and so handsome,
That to make a fair bargain, was worth a king's ransom
And Sutton such bangs on his neighbour imparted,
Would have made any fibres, but Figg's, to have smarted.

X

Then after that bout they went on to another,
Rut the matter must end on some fashion or other;
So Jove told the gods he had made a decree,
That Figg should hit Sutton a stroke on the knee.
Tho' Sutton, disabled as soon as he hit him,
Would still have fought on, but Jove would not permit him;
'Twas his fate, not his fault, that constrain'd him to yield,
And thus the great Figg became lord of the field.


James Byrom, 1726

 

 

Pugilisms First heroes and crooks

Boxing became a popular sport in the early part of the 18th century with the acknowledgement of James Figg as the first heavyweight king of Britain in 1719 and to many the story of the heavyweights is the story of boxing itself When Figg announced the opening of his theatre he became the first person to openly advertise the teaching of boxing and exhibitions of skill. The curious thing about Figg was that he was more expert as a cudgeller than as a Pugilist, being a master of the sword and expert fencer.

It was Figg who made the sport popular and many other amphitheatres - to use the correct term – were to open after his where wooden rails, rather than ropes, formed the ring which was raised up on a stage with the ref safely conducting the proceedings from outside the ring. Figgs business card was designed by his good friend Hogarth and was distributed amongst the crowds and was the first form of advertisement used to promote the then new sport of boxing.

Figg resigned his title in 1734 and died in 1740 and his pupil George Taylor claimed the title which he retained until 1740 when he was beaten by Jack Broughton ,the father of boxing rules and inventor of the boxing glove, in 1740 in front of a large crowd at one of Taylor’s own boxing booths. The gloves (mufflers) at that time were only used in sparring exhibitions.

He devised the mufflers for use of his pupils, many from the aristocratic families of the day, to lessen the risk of facial damage during lessons at his private school. Presumable the lords and ladies of the day were non to keen on having Sunday lunch looking across the table at there little offspring with a face cut to bits and resembling a bag of spanners.

The Broughton rules – seven short paragraphs – barred gouging and hitting a fallen opponent but a wide latitude was still there for wrestling and rough and tumble fighting – which to be sure was taken full advantage of. Broughton lived to the age of 85, amazing when one considers his life style, and was buried with the British elite in Westminster abbey. His friendship with the Duke of Cumberland helped.

Previously boxing had been a toe to toe affair but Broughton, who studied defence and attack, introduced stopping, blocking, hitting and retreating. His rules were to govern boxing from 1743 to 1838 when the new code of “The London Prize Ring Rules” was adopted.

Broughton had been a well-respected man and after his retirement from the scene and any notions that the honesty for which he was known was to continue was soon to vanish when Jack Slack came on the scene.