Born into a poor farming family, James Figg is considered the father of Modern Day Boxing. The youngest of seven children, Figg grew up in Thames Village, Oxfordshire. He had achieved renown as a master of the short sword and the cudgel before he took on the role of bare knuckles boxing.
Figg used The Greyhound Inn in Cornmarket, Thame, as his base of operations, from which he traveled the “fair” circuit, plying his skills to challenge all comers in both armed and unarmed combat. He was six feet tall, weighing 185 pounds, and a multi-talented athlete. The Earl of Peterborough soon became Figg’s patron, and the boxer traveled to London under the earl’s directions. In London, he opened a fighting academy in the Tottenham Court Road district, one of the many arenas devoted to staging matches. “The ‘ring’ that had originally been formed by spectators, sometimes holding a rope in their hands, became an elevated square platform, enclosed with wooden rails.” (International Boxing Hall of Fame) Figg served as an instructor to some 1000 students at his “Figg’s Amphitheatre.”
The artist William Hogarth designed Figg’s business card, which declared him “master of the noble science of defence.” He also added a portrait of Figg to the card, one showing the fighter in a lace shirt and wig, and holding his clenched fists before him. (International Boxing Hall of Fame) Hogarth’s publicity worked; Figg was the first to attain national celebrity as a prizefighter. (East Side Boxing)
“The boxing of Figg’s day was not so much boxing as street fighting. Bare knuckles and open-hand blows were allowed, as was grappling, and hip-throws. Kicking a man when he was down (known as ‘spurring’) and eye gouging were permitted as well. In these respects the sport was less civilized than it had been in ancient Greek times, and in fact, it closer resemble Pankration (Greek no-hold-barred-fighting) than it did Pygmahla (Greek boxing). Thanks to his Academy, Figg popularized both armed and unarmed fighting techniques, and added the parries of the sword and staff to the conventional unarmed combat of the time.” (East Side Boxing)
In 1719, Figg declared himself Champion of England, a title no one disputed. In 1720, Figg sold the “franchise” ownership of Figg’s Amphitheater and began again in the Bear Garden district, located in Marleybone Fields on Oxford Street in Lonodn. At the so-called “Boarded House,” one could watch contests between men, between women, and between man and a baited animal. “A printed article from the period featuring a challenge from one Rowland Bennett of Ireland asserts that, having seen a demonstration by James Figg, Bennett became ‘fully persuaded that if the proper method is executed against him, he (like Sampson with his hair off) is like other men.’ Bennet offered the following challenge: ‘For a trial of which I do now invite him to meet me and exercise the usual weapons fought on the stage.’
“Bennett is referring to the custom of the time that had fights consist first of a sword duel to first blood, then of a fistfight to first fall, and finall of a match of cudgels (clubs) to first fall. The winner of two out of three of these matches would win the contest. This method of combat was all the more risky considering antibiotic medicine did not exist, and there was little to prevent an infected would from becoming fatal.” (East Side Boxing)
Figg was triumphant over the boastful Bennett. In fact, Figg is believed to have held a record of 269-1. In 1726, Figg lost to Ned Sutton, a pipe maker. He claimed to have been ill at the time of the match and was granted a re-match, which Figg won. In a grudge match, Sutton was stabbed in the knee and had to withdraw before they could move to the bare knuckles round. Figg was named as the Champion.
“Figg popularized sparring as a public entertainment, and his schools were frequented by the upper classes, with noblemen often arriving in groups to try their hand at boxing or fencing. Since bare knuckle exhibitions were also tremendously popular with the working classes, Figg continued to make appearances in public, often at London’s Sourthwark Fair, in a boxing booth where he could take on all comers. Fighting infrequently in formal matches, Figg retained the championship until his retirement in 1734 when his premier student, George Taylor, declared himself successor to the title. Figg, who socialized with the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family, died in 1740, leaving a wife and several children. Although some considered him a better swordsman than boxer, Figg is called ‘The Father of Boxing’ for his role in popularizing and teaching the sport.” (International Boxing Hall of Fame)
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