Friday, October 15, 2010


It probably would surprise a lot of people who view boxing as nothing more than a crude and brutal brawl to know the words “art” and “science” were once used to describe the sport. “The Manly Art of Self Defense”, “The Noble Art”, “The Sweet Science” are phrases that originated during the 18th and 19th century English bare knuckle period. Modern boxing began in England in the late 16th century. The earliest bare-knuckle practitioners based their technique on the refined art of fencing. As a result, boxing’s footwork, straight punching, feints, blocking and parrying developed from strategies used by fencers. It is no coincidence that boxing’s most fundamental punch, the left jab, is very similar to the fencer’s straight thrust or lunge.
At the height of fencing’s popularity, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, numerous teaching academies appeared all over Europe. The best fencing instructors were highly respected for their knowledge and teaching skills. In England, and elsewhere, it was not uncommon for many of these fencing masters to be addressed as “professor”.
By the late 1700s bare-knuckle boxing had eclipsed fencing in popularity. In London, the epicenter of the sport, there were several well known boxing academies. The academies were owned and operated by famous ex- boxers, some of whom had the word “professor” printed on calling cards, or on the covers of instruction books they authored. Of course these men did not have a formal degree from an institution of higher learning. In fact some could barely read or write. But they understood the principles of balance, leverage, timing, footwork, punching technique, body alignment and strategy as it applied to boxing. In that sense they were no different than the fencing “professors” who preceded them. It was also not uncommon for master teachers of the art of singing, dancing, acting or playing a musical instrument to sport the title of “professor”.
According to Adam Pollack’s fine book “In The Ring With James J. Corbett”, Professor Walter Watson, an Englishman and “a celebrated exponent of the manly art”, was hired by the Brahmans of San Francisco’s exclusive Olympic Club in 1884 to teach boxing. One local newspaper reported that “Watson recently knocked out the famous pugilist, Professor McClellen, in New York City.” Professor Watson’s most famous pupil at the Olympic Club was James J. Corbett. Seven years later Corbett would defeat the great John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship. It was the first heavyweight title bout conducted under Marquis of Queensberry rules. After Watson left the Olympic Club, in 1888, Corbett was named instructor, thus earning the title of “professor” for himself.
I think the use of the word “professor” also served to further encourage the veneer of civility boxing was trying to achieve at this time. After all, for most of the 19th century professional boxing, especially the bare knuckle variety, was vilified and outlawed in America.
Mike Donovan, a middleweight title claimant in 1881, became “Professor Donovan” in honor of his being named boxing instructor at the prestigious New York Athletic Club. In 1893 Donovan wrote a popular instructional book titled, “The Science of Boxing”. He often sparred with President Teddy Roosevelt.
Hundreds of boxing instruction books and training manuals were published from the 1850s to the 1930s, with the words “science” and/or “art” in the title. In fact, the earliest book to include a section on boxing instruction appeared in a fencing manual published in 1747. It was titled “A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defense” by Captain John Godfrey. Although written 260 years ago years ago many of today’s boxers would gain from reading it. These words appear in the opening paragraph: “Strength certainly is what the Boxer ought to set out with, but without Art he will succeed but poorly. The Deficiency of Strength may be greatly supplied by Art; but the want of Art will have but heavy an unwieldy Succor from Strength.”
It is not clear why the word “professor”, as it applied to boxing, went out of style after the first decade of the 20th century. But during the 19th century it was not uncommon for the prefix to be used. Noted professors of pugilism included John Donaldson, Johnny Clark, Edmund E. Price, Billy McCarthy, John B. Bailey, William Miller and Jim Kelly. All were middle to late 19th century bare-knuckle fighters and trainers. William Muldoon, the legendary athlete, health fanatic, and trainer of John L. Sullivan, was sometimes addressed as “Professor Muldoon”.
Several of these names recently surfaced in the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archives, where a massive amount of material is currently being documented, catalogued and preserved. No doubt more information will be forthcoming as the Kaplan Archives continues to yield its varied treasures. I am confident of this because the whole process is in the capable hands (fists?) of an authentic professor with a love for boxing—Professor Tony Cucchiarra, Brooklyn College’s very own “Professor of Pugilism”.
*Historian and author Mike Silver is an advisor to the Kaplan Boxing Archives. He is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishers, 2009).

1 comment:

  1. Very informative post. Thanks for taking the time to share your view with us.