IN THE Opponents' CORNER

William Vasey, in a speech at the Newcastle Debating Society (4 November 1824) couched his recognition of the boom in pugilism’s popularity in terms that suggest an insidious element: ‘so greedily do persons follow the study and exercise of this art, that there would seem to be a sort of fascination about it which proves fatal to all those who come within the circle of its allurement’. He proceeds to elaborate on the possible desensitisation of society to witnessing general brutishness, claiming, rather than being inclined to ‘shudder at the inflicted severity’, spectators would inevitably ‘grow callous to human suffering and thirst for scenes of additional barbarity’. Vasey is another who equated the mushrooming of interest in pugilistic affairs to a miasmic craze, and the sport’s followers as ‘those infected with its spirit’.

'As to those miserable ruffians, whether the ornaments of a gaol or the disgrace of a noble house, who […] call fighting for a few guineas English-spirit, they are most probably out of the reach of literary ridicule, which must be read before it is felt: but we shall use our strongest endeavour to hold up them and their admirers to the contempt of others who might not take their murderous business for manliness. What! Shall English noblemen croud the highways to admire the exploits of a few thieves and butchers [..?] What an amiable vivacity!' (Leigh Hunt, ‘Prospectus’, The Examiner, 3 January 1808).


Egan promoted the idea that the pugilist honing his fighting potential would become a potent presence on the battlefield. Perhaps, when examining the promulgation of this ethos, it is useful to consider how it contradicts Vasey’s adamant contention:

'It is said that the milling art is necessary to the excitement of courage and the preservation of our national character […] But, a century ago, Englishmen knew not Pugilism […] and yet we are told, however fabulously I do not pretend to say, that, many centuries since […] courage was a striking part of the British character and has continued to be so'.

Significantly, Vasey does not seek to diminish British military feats, only to discredit the role claimed for the sport: ‘It is not by Pugilism, but by the policy of councils, and the movements of fleets and armies, that a nation’s glory is sustained. It was not by the fist that Nelson was renowned, or Waterloo so wonderfully won’.


Hunt meted out further condemnation in a ‘dreamingly speculative’ poem, 'The Choice' (1823): ‘as for prize-fights, with their butchering shows, / And crowds of blacklegs, I’d have none of those; / I am not bold in other people’s blows’.

Evidently, Hunt was disinclined to try the ‘emulation’ prescribed by Egan, contesting the notion that spectating at prizefights provoked 'a continued admiration of prowess and hardihood’ (Boxiana I).