It is appropriate to begin the second part of this book, which deals with Boxing in its modern sense, with an account of a fight described by all who saw it as the best ever seen. It took place thirty years ago, and things that happened thirty years ago are apt to be, superlatively, the best or the worst according to the point of the story. There seems to be no doubt, at all events, that the encounter between Frank Slavin and Peter Jackson was the best ever seen at the National Sporting Club.
Frank Slavin, as we have seen, was one of those boxers of the transition period who overlapped. He had fought both with bare knuckles and with gloves. Both he and Peter Jackson were Australians, and both claimed the championship of that country. The contest at the National Sporting Club was said to be for the World's Championship, but that is a phrase which on no occasion means very much. All that matters for our present purpose is that the match was an important one between two fine and evenly matched men.
Peter Jackson has been called the "first black Gentleman." He was born in the West Indies in 1861, and went as a lad to Australia, where, in Sydney, he was a fellow-pupil with Slavin of Larry Foley, who in turn had sat at the feet of Jem Mace. Indeed, in the past, Slavin had himself given Jackson lessons in boxing. The black had only once been beaten, and in 1891 he had fought a draw of sixty-one rounds with James J. Corbett. In those days an unlimited number of rounds-- that is, a fight to a finish-- had not been prohibited in all the states of the Union, and this remaining custom of the Prize-Ring was much abused. The battle took place at the California Athletic Club, at San Francisco, for a purse of 10,000 dollars. It was a poor affair. Jackson hit straight, Corbett crocked. But the white man was cleverer than the black at avoiding punishment by clinching at the psychological moment. Often he refused to break away until the hissing of the crowd became a positive menace. For the last fifteen rounds there was no boxing at all. The men were utterly exhausted: Corbett had hurt an arm, two of Jackson's ribs were broken. The referee at last declared the fight a draw. He might just as well have done so much earlier.
Every one who came in contact with him liked Peter Jackson for a quiet, well-behaved, sportsmanlike fellow without the slightest brag or bounce about him, which in their worst manifestations are so characteristic of his race. He was known for a first-rate boxer, and Mr. Eugene Corri, the well-known referee, declares that he was the best boxer he has ever seen. He stood 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 13 stone 10 lb. in perfect condition, against Slavin's 6 feet 1 inch and 13 stone 6 lb. There was only a year's difference in their ages: both men had been finely trained, though some, disappointed in the result, say that Slavin was a shade over-trained. He was a big-boned, square-jawed rock of a man, hairy and ferocious: while Jackson's skin shone like black marble.
The match took place on May 30th, 1892. The National Sporting Club had not been long founded, and its theatre was packed to its extremest limit. The contest was to be one of twenty three-minute rounds, and four-ounce gloves were used. Jackson's chief physical advantage was a slight superiority in reach, but it was known that Slavin's strength was prodigious, and his right-hand punch on the ribs, his best blow, was famous and terrific, He was a harder hitter than Jackson, and though up to the end of the sixth round his blows were not so many as his antagonist's, they meant more. Before the men entered the ring that night, Slavin said (Mr. Corri tells us in his book, Thirty Years a Boxing Referee): "To be beaten by a black fellow, how ever good a fellow, is a pill I shall never swallow."
It is unwise to say that sort of thing.
It has been said, too, that Slavin taunted Jackson in the ring. However that may be, the splendid black man was confident in his quiet, unassuming way, and he at all events held his tongue. His method of fighting too, was orthodox and cool. When at the beginning of the first round Slavin came charging at him, Jackson put out his long straight left, and the white man was shaken by the blow. It was his policy to get close to Jackson so that he could bring off his tremendous body-blow. It was Jackson's policy to keep him away and to box at long range, and he did this. Some young man had once said to Jackson at the club: "They tell me you black chaps don't like being hit in the stomach?" "Can you," Jackson replied, "tell me of any white man who does?" But there is no doubt that negroes are, as a rule, weaker in the stomach than white men, unless like Jack Johnson, the more recent champion, they especially cultivate the abdominal muscles. No doubt Jackson knew, too, that one of Slavin's blows was worth two of his: but he boxed with quiet assurance and defended himself with vigilant care. Again and again Slavin rushed at him and tried to force his way close in: again and yet again Jackson propped him off, reserving his strength while Slavin dissipated his. Slavin was the favourite when the men entered the ring, but it is notorious that the greatest gamblers will, in boxing, back a white man because he is white.
Peter Jackson did not entirely avoid all the white man's blows, but his footwork was wonderfully good, and even when he failed to guard against them, he generally managed to be moving away when a blow landed, so that most of its power was lost. He seldom gave Slavin a chance to put in one of his regular smashers. And in the meantime the accumulated force of the black's many but lesser hits, together with the energy wasted by Slavin in futile charges across the ring, weakened the white man. Up to the sixth round it was any one's fight, though Peter Jackson was an easy winner on points up to that time. But what are points, after all, against one punch whether it is deliberate on "lucky," which ends a fight? And Jackson very nearly fell a victim to just such a punch. He had never relaxed his vigilance, he never presumed on his opponent's weakness. He attacked when he saw a safe opening, and for the rest contented himself with holding Slavin well away with that beautiful long straight left. And yet at the end of the sixth round he was all but beaten. Frank Slavin was getting desperate. The men were fighting for a big money prize, but it is unlikely that the £1750 which would be the winner's share was foremost in the white man's mind as he strove in the ring. Jackson was a good black fellow, but he was black, and Slavin's pride of race was very strong in him. Rightly or wrongly, he felt that there was a peculiar shame in accepting defeat from a negro. But he knew that he would have to make haste. Good as his condition was, these six hard rounds had taken much of his strength. He drew every breath with labour: and though many of a boxer's movements, whether in offense or defence, are instinctive, the work was very hard work, his light boxing boots were like the boots of a diver, his knees shook a little as he stood still. He was very weary. But he meant to win. He gathered himself up and hurled himself at Jackson, and by sheer determination and weight forced the black across the ring to the ropes, and then with all his weight behind it he sent in his tremendous body-blow. Mr. Corri, who was sitting near the ring-side, tells us that it "seemed to spring from the calves of his legs and upwards to the muscles of his right shoulder and right arm." And, "I have never seen such an expression of consummate deadliness upon a human face as that which spread across the features of Slavin at this crucial stage."
The blow doubled Jackson up "like a knife." It caught him just under the heart and the sound of it was heard throughout the hall. The black man gasped and reeled. The onlookers were completely silent save for an involuntary "Oh !" which here and there forced itself to utterance. Had Slavin hit Jackson but half a minute earlier in the round he must have won. The black was helpless. Slavin must have finished him. As it was, before the white man could follow his advantage, the round ended, and Jackson had a minute in which to recover. In his corner, and loud enough for Mr. Corri to hear him, Jackson said to his seconds, "If he hits me like that again, I'm done." And his seconds worked on him, sponging, massaging, fanning, doing all that they could to restore him. When time was called for the seventh round Jackson, though no doubt weak, had recovered. He appeared to be strong and fit again, and appearances in these circumstances are beneficially deceitful. And in despite of his momentary elation in the last round, Frank Slavin came up tired.
But Jackson had to be careful, and he knew it. He did not lead, but kept his guard rigid, and "used the ring "-- that is, by brilliant footwork he kept out of danger, avoiding the ponderous and slackening rushes of his adversary. When the eighth round started, Peter Jackson had quite recovered, and Slavin was slower and more weary than ever. His weakness was evident. But it must not be thought that his was a mere exhibition of brute strength run to seed. Far from it. The white man boxed well, and he, too, kept out of danger. In the next round, however, Jackson sparred with great brilliancy, piling up many points, while just before the end he shot out a particularly good left. Slavin was obviously desperate now, and grew careless of the punishment he received, staking everything upon the chance of bringing off another mighty blow.
And yet weary as both were by now, they came up quite jauntily for the tenth round. Slavin shot out a fierce left, but it only just touched Jackson as he moved back. He rushed at the black man again, and this time Jackson avoided him altogether. Thrice Slavin dashed in with furious left and right quickly following each other. And the third time he tried this, instead of stepping back, Peter Jackson came in to meet him, and ducking Slavin's blows, planted his own left, followed by the right in immediate succession, on the white man's jaw. The second blow came over with terrific force, and Slavin reeled. But he still stood and swung wildly at his man without thought of guarding, his senses almost gone, and only a desperate pluck to keep him from falling. Jackson followed him and rained blows upon him, until Slavin stood still hardly able to lift his hands. Whereupon Jackson, good sportsman that he was, turned to Mr. Angle, who was refereeing the match, and raised his eyebrows. "Experience," say the Annals of the National Sporting Club, "has repeatedly shown that there is always a punch left in a big man, even when he appears disabled. Dallying at such a crisis is dangerous. Jackson, however, turned round in the most chivalrous manner and looked at the referee. The rules of the game were beyond dispute. Mr. Angle said: "Fight on."
There was nothing more to be said: "I must finish him, then-- sorry, Frank," and with obvious distaste he went in. Even then in his anxiety not to hurt the man he did not hit hard, and Slavin took five blows before he went down. His courage was exemplary. He could so easily have fallen. He stood, however, and took the blows like the man he was. At the fifth he fell forward on his knees and in a blind, instinctive effort to rise again, not knowing what he was doing, he clutched Peter Jackson round the legs. But he could not rise. The ten seconds were counted. For the first time in his life Frank Slavin was beaten, for the first time knocked out.
And Peter Jackson took his victory quite calmly. Without a trace of swagger he returned to his corner, and, later, helped to carry Slavin, who was really ill, out of the ring.
1 before this encounter, Lord Lonsdale, President of the Club, had especially urged his bearers not to use the word "Fight" in connection with these proceedings-- in view of the fact, no doubt, that a "Prize-Fight" was illegal. Mr. Angle may have forgotten this, or he may have been misreported. The club's sensitiveness to the use of words is very delicate, and by one of its officials I was once reprimanded at a supper following the Oxford and Cambridge matches for proposing the toast of "The Ring."
from Knuckles and Gloves by Bohun Lynch.
W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London: 48 Pall Mall, Glasgow, Melbourne, Auckland.