13 MARCH 1953, Page 14

Sporting Aspects

Ring Heroes

By J. P. W. MALLALIEU IHATE much of what I hear about behind the scenes in Big Boxing. I have never, myself, boxed. I have never seen a prize fight and I have never seen a prize fighter, not even in the Ritz, the mortuary or Fleet Street. So it may seem sur- prising that, last week. I was upset by the death at seventy-three of a gentleman called J. J. Jeffries, especially as Mr. Jeffries fought his last, seemingly tragic, fight when I was two years and three weeks old. But it happens that I feel a personal link with that last fight. I have read or been told of many previous fights, going back to bare-knuckle days when Mike Madden fought Bill Hayes. Today, 1 suppose, a fight could last about an hour—which seems sixty minutes too long for me—but Mike Madden and Bill Hayes fought each other for six hours and three minutes.

I have read, partly in Conan Doyle's verses, of Bendigo, the champion of England, who fought all comers—though, when he was 40, it was only after his eighty-years-old mother had threatened to go into the ring instead of him, that he agreed to meet Tom Paddock and beat him in the forty-ninth round— and who spent the latter part of his life fighting Satan in revivalist pulpits. 1 have read in Theodore Dreiser about the champagne-guzzling, hard-swearing John L. Sullivan who towards the end of his fighting days, was so nettled by the swaggering talk of youngsters that he issued a challenge to all in these terms : "1 give preference in this challenge to Frank P. Slavin of Australia, as he and his backers have done the greatest amount of blowing. My second preference is the bom- bastic sprinter, Charles Mitchell of England, whom I would rather whip than any man in the world . . . but I include all fighters, first come, first served, who are white. I never will fight a negro." Sullivan was a drunkard. He was vulgar. He was vicious. Yet he was somebody. I could not even be sure that Mike Madden and Bill Hayes, Bendigo and Tom Paddock, or John L. Sullivan ever existed. But I was and am sure about J. J. Jeffries because, when I was still a child, I met and talked to someone who had actually seen his last fight.

Jeffries had retired from the ring as champion of the world. The title he gave up was eventually seized by Jack Johnson, perhaps the greatest heavy-weight boxer in history. As a negro youth, Johnson had suffered most of the humiliations which in those days were inflicted upon his race by Americans and, when he realised his own boxing skill, he used it to get his own back. Outside the ring he was flamboyantly assertive; inside it he showed a controlled and calculating mercilessness which cut a white opponent to ribbons and yet allowed Johnson time to enjoy taunting and jeering at his victim. " Aw, come in closer Tawmmy ! "he had cooed to the gasping Tommy Burns during their Australian fight in 1908. "I thought you. was an in-fighter ! Can I believe my oculars, Tawmmy, or is you turning yellow ? "

Johnson's colour, his behaviour and his continuing success drove Americans to racial frenzy. They forgot Peter Jackson, the Black Prince, known as "the whitest man, black or white, who ever entered the ring.wThey forgot another great negro, Sam Langford, who was nearly blind when he fought the last of his 700 fights yet knocked his man out by instinct—the impish Sam who, when fighting another negro, insisted on shakm. g hands at the beginning of the seventh round. "What- for do you do dat, Sam ? Dis ain't de last round ! " "Oh yes it is," said Sam. " l'se tired." They forgot that Tommy Burns had himself begun the trouble in Australia—" Come on, you yellow dog,- come on and fight!" They just wanted to see this grinning, fifteen-stone, black braggart reduced to pulp by a white man; and the only white man who could do that, they felt, was J. J. Jeffries.

My eye-witness told me about this fight, how, by the eighth round, Jeffries was all but helpless, how, in between punches, Johnson gave a running commentary to the infuriated ring- siders. "Watch this one," he shouted to Jim Corbett and sent in a right. Then, following it with a left, he shouted to Tommy Burns, "I did not show you that one at Sydney !

But Jeffries stood up to it, to undeflected blows, to Johnson's jeers, to everything that came through the mists. He was still standing in the fgurteenth round, although his seconds were begging permission to throw in the towel, and when, in the fifteenth round, he was at last counted out, he was on his knees, not on his back, still struggling to rise.

I was caught by the tragedy of the once great man who comes back to find that he is great no more. I was caught by the blinded courage of a man who will not give in even to certainty.

But it was something that happened when it was all over that really stamped this fight on my mind as though I had seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. When Jeffries recovered himself, he was asked to make a statement to the Press. He said " I am no good as a fighter any longer. I couldn't come back, boys. Ask Johnson if he will give me his gloves." That was not defeat. It was victory—victory over not only one swaggering black but over millions of race-fevered whites. It was an unforgettable lesson not only in -courage but in gentleness.

I have had other ring heroes since Jeffries' time. There was Bombadier Billy Wells, who looked perfect andb-was perfect except for a critical weakness somewhere near the point of his jaw and another, less identifiable, but suspected to be in the centre of his heart. He was said to be the best boxer of his day when in the gymnasium. He was undoubtedly among the finest looking men of his day in the illustrated papers. But the time came when he met a fighter, and the blow which Joe Beckett planted on his chin in a fourth and final round hurt me more than it hurt Wells—for Wells was unconscious after it whereas I could still feel.

Then there was Carpentier. He had Wells's looks, but the good looks, instead of being set in a mould, were alive and twinkling.

He had Wells's boxing skill and, in addition, could fight. But when he came to London to fight Joe- Beckett, I, like everyone else, was sure that he would be murdered. How could smooth- cheeked gaiety possibly withstand the 'stubbled bullishness, the experienced ferocity, of Beckett ? Yet it did. Beckett was knocked flat in fifty-eight seconds. Or was it seventy-four seconds ? Anyway, the Prince of Wales, who had bent to extinguish his cigar as the gong sounded for the first round, is said to have surfaced again only when the fight was over. How I prayed that this seeming miracle might repeat itself when Carpentier crossed the Atlantic to fight another bull, the great Jack Dempsey. It so nearly did, for, in the second round. Carpentier landed a terrific right on Dempsey's chin. If he could have followed up that momentarily staggering advan- tage, Carpentier might well have laid Dempsey alongside Beckett. But the blow had smashed his own hand, and Dempsey recovering rapidly, despatched both Carpentier and my hopes. These great ones of the Ring whom I idolised or hated or feared but never saw—they were to me legendary figures like the heroes of Askgard; they were myths like the Gods of Greece. I was a follower of Odin and of Zeus. I was a follower of Billy Wells and of Georges Carpentier. I never felt that any of the four really existed or was a part of the world I was coming to know. But for me the great Jim Jeffries was no myth. His life was no legend. Though I never saw him, have never even seen a picture of him, I had thought of him as a personal friend; and so I was sad, last week, when I heard that he had died.