Dear reader, pray come follow me as I draw back the curtain of time, and eavesdrop upon a now forgotten race to reveal to thee the life and times of a most extraordinary fellow.
In late seventeenth century England the average life expectancy was around 35, even less for the poor. The population of England and Wales at that time was incredibly small, by today's standards, and was estimated to be between 5-6 million. Disease, debauchery and drunkenness was rife. Day to day living was so different from ours, so different in fact that it is almost impossible for us to comprehend. Imagine a world with no electricity for instance, street lamps hadn't been invented, basically after sunset everywhere became as black as hell.
Times were dreadfully hard and many poor families lived and worked on small plots of farmland. There were no schools for the poor. As soon as you reached the age of eight or nine you were sent out to work in the fields. Throughout the country many families were crammed into wooden huts consisting of 2 or 3 rooms.
Glass, for example, was tremendously expensive, and windows, for the less well off, had to be covered with a sheet of canvas soaked in linseed oil, and to have a chimney was a real luxury. It had only been a few years since people first began eating with knives and forks! Your toilet was a bucket, and when full the usual manner of disposal of the contents was to throw it out of the window, firstly giving a suitable warning to those who may be passing by at the time.
If you were unlucky enough to fall ill, you would be at the mercy of someone who had virtually no real idea of human anatomy or medicine, due to this ignorance many had suffered at the hands of these primitive medicine men. There was no social services safety net, and no National Health Service. If you were poor and ill you either got better or died.
The country had suffered a bloody civil war, 1642-1651 ending with the execution of King Charles 1 and the rise of the Parliamentarian. Plagues were still very much around, political radicalism and religious rebellion was on the rise, and the hunting and hanging of witches, though in decline, was still a popular pastime, contrary to popular belief witches were hanged and not burned, most of the time, the last witch was hanged in England in 1685.
However, 'the times they were a changing,' and the world was being slowly shaped by visionaries and geniuses who began to push the boundaries of human intelligence to its limits, their works still remain unsurpassed to this day. Men like Sir Isaac Newton with his formulas on the laws of motion and gravity, and in 1687 his incredible work, Principia Mathmatica, was published. Newton's impact on the world was probably greater than any other scientist in history thus far. Nicholas Fatio de Duillier, a colleague of Newton said that he was 'frozen stiff' by Newton's genius."
The great philosopher and physician John Locke's 'theory of the mind' was published which challenged the concept of human consciousness. He states that we are born without any preconceived ideas, we start with a clean slate, and only gain knowledge through experience. This theory was radical at the time and contrary to the belief that we were born with hereditary notions.
The famous artist, and arguably the greatest satirist William Hogarth was at the height of his fame during this period. Edmond Halley the famous English astronomer who studied reports of a comet approaching Earth in 1531, it appeared again in the same area of the night sky 1607 and 1682. He established that these sightings were actually the same comet returning from its endless elliptical orbit. The comet was then named after him. The genius and great architect Sir Christopher Wren unveils his astonishing building St Paul's Cathedral in 1710, which is still a wonder to behold.
England was on the cusp of becoming the most powerful country on earth and was building an Empire which would become the largest and most powerful in history.
Into this world, one cold February morning in 1684 in the village of Thame, Oxfordshire England one James Figg was born. James Figg became England's, and therefore the worlds, first boxing champion and in doing so became a household name throughout England and beyond. Figg's early life is sketchy and not too much is known. However, It seems that young Figg's first experiences of fighting came via the local fairs where he would take part in bare-knuckle boxing matches, taking on veterans of the prize ring and beating all comers. This was where he learned the noble art that would eventually propel him to riches beyond his wildest dreams. In his teens he decided to leave Oxfordshire, and seek his fame and fortune in London, this is his story.
The regular bare-knuckle fights at the fairground boxing booths combined with the arduous farm work had forged Figg's body into a hard as rock fighting machine. He was by all accounts shaven headed with a muscular physique. At 20 James Figg stood six feet tall and he weighed in at 185 pounds. He was an expert with the sword, quarterstaff, cudgel and fists.
It was the journalist and sports writer Pierce Egan, who said of Figg, in his 1812 book 'Boxiana ', Figg was more indebted to strength and courage for his success in the battlefield than to the effects of genius.'
I think that was a little unfair as Figg was a quick learner and recognised as one of the first fighters to introduce a modicum of science to the manly art by using angles of attack and parrying methods, no doubt gleaned from his fencing experience.
The first mention of Figg fighting in London came from an advert placed in a publication called The Daily Courant in June 1713, which stated that he was being trained by Timothy Buck of Clare Market The Strand.
The training methods of eighteenth century fighters consisted mostly of wrestling, running, and walking great distances, some going up to 50 miles a day. Walking backwards was said to be a common practice as well.
The fighters tended to concentrate on building stamina as some bare-knuckle fights could exceed 50 rounds. And therefore could go on for hours, in some cases a fight would have to be resumed the next day as it became too dark to continue. The fisticuffs of the eighteenth century is nothing like the modern boxing of today. The fighters back then rarely punched to the face, they preferred to attack the soft areas like the side and back of the neck, the kidneys and the stomach. This would limit the damage to their hands. The hand is a delicate instrument made up of many small bones, which can become damaged beyond repair. That's why boxers wear gloves to protect their hands. Their heads were shaven, which was to negate hair pulling, and the hard edges either side of the skull were used for butting.
Figg knew what it was like to be poor and surrounded by the well off members of society. Sometimes in life there comes a moment when everything can change, it's just a matter of recognising and seizing that moment. James Figg seemed to have had an instinctive sense of his own future. He had acquired the services and friendship of the aforementioned great artist William Hogarth, who designed a superb advertising flyer for the amphitheatre. The flyer is a splendid little work of art in its own right and reads:
'James Figg master of ye noble science of self defence on the right hand in Oxford Road near Adam and Eve Court teaches Gentlemen the use of the small backsword and the quarterstaff at home and abroad.'
Hogarth had put Figg on the map, and also in a number of his paintings and etchings. You can see Figg entering from the right in the famous etching by Hogarth called Southwark Fair. The picture is a depiction of life, shown in all its forms, in London. Some nobles are there, a famous actor and playwright Colly Cibber can be seen, and amongst the bawdy mayhem the rather strange, menacing figure of James Figg arrives on a black horse brandishing a backsword, and challenging all comers to join him for a belly-full in the ring at his amphitheatre. Figg would stand outside the entrance and cry out 'I'm jemmy Figg and I'll fight any man in England'.
He was a visionary and saw an opportunity to make something of himself, and with the help of some investors like the Earl of Peterborough he grasped the lightening rod of an idea and opened a huge 1,000 capacity amphitheatre in Marylebone Fields, which was situated north of Oxford Street in London. The place was known as 'Figg's Amphitheatre' and sometimes referred to as the Boarded House. This is where Figg would make his mark and forge a formidable reputation. In the 1720's Figg was at the height of his fame and handing out regular brutal beatings in front of large blood thirsty crowds.
The fights were held in a fenced off, raised wooden platform, the first round was fought with swords! Each fighter coming out to do battle wielding a backsword, a single edged razor sharp weapon. The combatants were bare chested when they fought, and Figgs torso is said to be 'covered in a lattice work of battle scars like spider webs.' The next round was a bare-knuckle boxing match which included grappling, gouging, kicking, wrestling, strangling, and throwing techniques.
The match concluded with cudgel fighting, the heavy wooden staffs were topped with a large nodule on the business end. Understandably, many fighters were forced to retire quite early in their careers due to the excessively cruel punishment of the old prize ring.
Throwing your opponent to the ground with a judo like throw called 'a cross buttock' was a technique that was frequently used. Many fights, careers and sometimes lives were ended this way as the opponents would often land on their heads. There were no soft canvas or sprung floors in those days, just rock hard floorboards. Figg's record is said to be between 270-300 fights. His only recorded loss was to a man called Ned Sutton a pipe maker from Graves End. Figg avenged the loss quite quickly and another match was hastily scheduled for the decider.
The popular poet John Byrom was ringside, and wrote an account of the fight soon after the event. His account was published in the Spectator and The London Journal. Here is an extract.
The match started with a round of backsword fighting during which Figg- after breaking his own sword with a stroke, so brutal it would have 'discarded' Suttons head had it not been deflected. Figg soon found himself wounded in the side, an injury that he discarded with 'sullen disdain' and smart-mouthed banter with the crowd.
Figg rallied in the next round and after an exchange of blows with cudgels Sutton's knee was shattered which ended the bout and set the record straight for good this time.
Boxing and fencing were not the only entertainment on offer at Figgs amphitheatre. Dog fights and bear baiting were regular occurrences, one account taken from a newspaper at the time describes 'a pack of dogs being set upon a bull which was painted green and covered in large fireworks. The crowd had taken great delight as one of the dogs was said to explode! Women fighters were also very popular and drew huge crowds. Figg, now a part time promoter, acquired a top woman fighter to his stable, the formidable Mrs Stokes, who was known as the 'Invincible Championess.'
Figg, the ever evolving entrepreneur, did not make the mistake of some past and present boxing champions and knew that he couldn't go on fighting forever. And so as he got a little older he was seen less frequently in the ring and eventually decided on a teaching career. Clearly Figg must have made an impression on people, and not just with his fists, royalty and the great and the good could regularly be seen under his instruction in the manly art of self defence at his amphitheatre. A number of good fighters were persuaded to train at his amphitheatre as well, where he promptly took over their affairs. Jack Broughton was arguably the best fighter to come out of Figg's training camp.
So the hands that once smashed faces and bashed in skulls were now being used to count the takings instead. James Figg retired from the prize ring in 1730 and then relied on his stable of fighters to provide the pugilistic entertainment. He went on to train gentlemen and nobles in the manly art up until his death on 7th December 1734. He died at his home in London aged 50, leaving a wife and several children behind. James Figg was buried at the Old Parish Church of Saint Marylebone in London, the cemetery was bombed during the Second World War and most of it was demolished in 1949. However a small part of the cemetery was saved. A plaque on the wall of the little courtyard denotes some of the famous people that had been buried there, including one James Figg. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. A blue plaque was unveiled at The James Figg Pub (formerly The Greyhound Inn), in his honour at his home town of Thame.
Figg was boxing’s first heavyweight champion, and paved the way for others to follow. He was the first to really embrace the manly art and bring it out of obscurity and turn it into a business, in doing so he left the boxing world a legacy that is thriving to this day.