Boxing is a tough sport and an even harder art; it can be said that pugilism has never truly been mastered. The men and women who step into the ropes to exchange blows, be it professional or amateur show a level of courage and commitment that the noncombatant will never understand and this has instilled a sense of reverence for the sweet science.
This reverence has shown itself to be boundless, unconstrained by the systems of class that we still live by. Boxing is as much a gentlemen’s past time as it is a working man’s escape and some of history’s great figures have adored the sport. From political leaders, to talented artists, military leaders, to modern celebrities and Instagram influencers. The three characters detailed more than just respected boxing, they lived alongside it, obsessed over it and used the lessons it gave them in their chosen professions.
Mostly referred to as Teddy, Roosevelt was eclectic in his professions, a politician, cowboy, statesman, soldier, conservationist, naturalist, historian and writer and served as the twenty-sixth president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. In his younger years he was a rough, tough and always looking for action and dipped his finger into boxing while studying at Harvard University and reportedly even entered an inter-university competition in which he made it to the final but ultimately lost.
The future commander in Chief kept boxing as part of his life when he left education and would invite professional boxers to train with him and spar, he was even good friends with the father of modern-day gloved boxing John L. Sullivan. Roosevelt was forced to retire his pugilistic ambitions when in 1908 he was blinded in his left eye in a sparring match with US Army officer Dan Tyler Moore, who was himself an avid boxer. Roosevelt was an advocate of pursuing what he called in an 1899 speech, “The Strenuous Life”. Boxing was only a part of the strain he inflicted upon himself but it was of utmost importance to the Republican hard man.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Noted as one of the 20th centuries most influential authors, Ernest Hemingway was a literary genius famed for his simple, straightforward prose and use of understatement. Born in 1899 in Illinois Hemingway was a novelist, short story writer and journalist. A lover of all things tough and masculine the young Hemingway dabbled in track and field and American Football in his youth but nothing caught his attention quite like boxing, allegedly turning his mother’s music room into a boxing gym when he was sixteen.
As the worded savant aged, he picked up many hobbies and interests including hunting and bullfighting but he never lost his adoration of the sweet science. He continued to train, though it seemed his idea of training was to just spar hard and take a gentlemanly pasting. He challenged others in the public eye and he was obviously somewhat delusional in regards to his own skill set.
Boxing is often said to be a metaphor for life, sometimes your up, sometimes your down and every now and then your flat on your back and Hemingway utilised this metaphorical and romanticised understanding of the sport in his own art of writing. Many of his books and writings involved aspects of boxing, one of his most famous short stories, Fifty Grand is the story of a boxer training for, and fighting a challenger to his world title. The story, first published in 1927 gave Hemingway an avenue to show off his knowledge of pugilism and behind the scenes details picked up from his personal relationships with actual boxers.
“My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything.”
Arthur Cravan, born, Fabian Avenarius Lloyd was a Swiss writer, poet and artist, born in 1887. His father’s sister, Constance Mary Lloyd was the wife of the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Much like his famous uncle, Cravan was something of a rogue, in 1903 when aged sixteen, he was kicked out of boarding school, allegedly he struck or may have even spanked a teacher and at the onset of World War one he left Switzerland in search of infamy and adventure. He travelled throughout Europe and America using a variety of mostly forged passports. Over the next few years, he took up with petty criminals, the down and outs and the real working class and apparently the posh Swiss kid took up boxing as a practical means of protection on the road.
During these tumultuous war-years violence was very much in vogue and the crafty Cravan somehow drew himself out a reputation as a real boxer. In 1916 Cravan found himself standing opposite the immortal former champion and history maker Jack Johnson who had fled to Europe to escape federal charges of transporting white woman across state lines “for immoral purposes”, both men needed money and a hyped-up boxing match in Barcelona was the way to get it. The fight was meant to be a cosy, plodding affair, a gentlemen’s deal in which Cravan could save face and receive the softer side of a beating and it was, for six rounds Johnson carried the pugilistic imposter but, then he exploded and just over a quarter of the way through their twenty round bout he knocked Cravan out cold.
The whole story of this fight is an incredible spider’s web of business, backstabbing and intrigue that would surely make a great movie. Cravan went on to box twice more in the next two years, losing to Frank Hoche by TKO and Jim Smith by KO. In 1918 the notorious maverick who was then living in Mexico disappeared and was never seen again, it is believed he drowned in the Pacific Ocean, he was only thirty-one years old. The story of Arthur Cravan is a strange piece of boxing history, a privileged, well read, bohemian, hoaxer, hobo, poet with tough man ambitions and dreams of violence with a ceaseless mind and restless legs who actually gave it ago.
“Genius is nothing more than an extraordinary manifestation of the body.”