EMBELLISHING THE FINAL PRODUCT
Regarding the powers of invention often required to avoid any banality of an event being replicated in its commentary, Vincent Dowling’s enthusiastic promotion of the Boxiana series betrays a major difficulty to be surmounted:
'Every battle of importance is given in detail, with memoirs of the heroes who distinguished themselves in the Prize-ring, interspersed with amusing and characteristic anecdotes, each volume also comprising humorous poetical effusions […] for which the “doings” of the ring have afforded ample scope' (Fistiana, 1841).
It is the extent of the ‘detail’ which is problematical. Egan had already announced, in some fight commentaries, that it would be ‘superfluous’ to detail what has proved to be repetitive action, or that because the miscellaneous manoeuvres ‘would fill a volume […] we must confine ourselves to an explicit, but short epitome’ (Boxiana III). However, the sheer volume of fights covered meant the danger of duplication, triteness, or monotony seeping into reports remained.
The techniques employed, involving language and imagery, to enliven pugilistic writing are a constant theme, including the use of flash jargon and the ‘spectacularisation’ of events. In the preface to his own pugilistic novel, Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) announces: ‘the true artistic material of the story is the comedy of the contrast between the realities of the ring and the common romantic glorification or sentimental abhorrence of it’ (Cashel Byron's Profession, 1886). Given his unstinting praise of the supposed courage, honour, and moral probity encouraged by prizefighting, Egan is certainly culpable of ‘glorification’. Yet, his methods and objectives cannot be so simplistically assessed and, as Shaw’s later comments inadvertently attest, embellishment was necessary:
'The sport was supposed to have died of its own blackguardism by the second quarter of the century; but the connoisseur who approaches the subject without moral bias will, I think, agree […] that it must have lived by its blackguardism and died of its intolerable tediousness […] In barren dreariness and futility no spectacle on earth can contend with that of two exhausted men trying for hours […] for the sake of their backers'.
This pivotal sentiment is underscored as Shaw posits that the situation was exacerbated by insipid reporting: ‘the fight between Sayers and Heenan had been described in The Times as solemnly as the University Boat Race’. It was ‘tediousness’ or, as Egan might have written, ‘yawning and ennui’ that the Boxiana style, primarily, sought to avoid.
In his trawl through some of the major pugilistic contests in the sport’s history, Denzil Batchelor applies his own slant on the above fight. He includes some imagery that would have sat comfortably in a Boxiana volume: ‘The little pinnace comes in with a wet sail, looses its cannonade, and tacks out of the reach of the galleon’s thunderclap reply […] Excited whispers echo through the ranks of spectators’ (Big Fight, 1954). Later, Batchelor accentuates the concept that an event of great consequence has taken place, whilst simultaneously perpetuating the notion that the ‘Sporting World’ is a disparate entity:
'The sun is rising in the clear blue sky above the bare hedges and the unruffled stream behind the ring. Two hours are gone by since the first blow was struck. It is half past nine of a brilliant April day: already the men of Farnborough are eating their breakfast bacon, and […] a top-hatted business man sits reading his Morning Post in the special train making its sedate return journey to London Bridge. But Farnborough is a battlefield; Farnborough is earning the crossed swords it deserves to be marked with in every map of England'.
Opinion on the import of the day’s contest may have been divided, but the style employed in this retrospective account blends the imaginative and quixotic to produce an entertaining yet reflective commentary.
Shaw had reported on the gloved fighters of his generation, and twentieth-century boxing appears far removed from the bare-knuckle prizefighting covered by Egan. There is a discrepancy between the form of prizefighting reported by Egan and the legitimised, arguably diluted, sport that has enjoyed the spotlight of intense media scrutiny.