Daniel Mendoza and The Modern Art of Boxing

mendoza-by-gillray

Daniel Mendoza by James Gillray

“It is undoubtedly a fact, that some men of turbulent and vindictive dispositions have made a bad use of their pugilistic powers, and have thereby become obnoxious and disgraceful members of society; but these instances occur not frequently, and when they do they must be acknowledged to result from the abuse, and not from the right use of the art. The robust and athletic should never forget that excellent observation of Shakespeare: ‘It is good to have a giant’s strength, but merciless to use it like a giant.’” -Daniel Mendoza, Memoirs (1816)

The first thing you learn in boxing is that if you don’t guard yourself with your hands up, you’re going to get hit in the face. It seems like common sense, so you might surprised to learn that this was not always done. Before English boxing’s heyday in the latter half of the eighteenth century, prizefights were still popular among the lower classes who tended to fight by taking turns hitting one another until someone won. Boxing as we know it today–a sport of skill and stamina as much about blocking and dodging as hitting–comes from the technique developed by Jewish-English prizefighter, Daniel Mendoza.

By the time Mendoza was born in 1764, Jews had only been allowed to settle in England for about a hundred years after officially being readmitted by Cromwell in 1656. Communities of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews were forming primarily in London’s East End, and although they were generally accepted in London, they were still met with a degree of suspicion and antisemitism.

Georgian London attracted diverse people from around the world, but it was by no means a haven of tolerance. Jews in particular were viewed as small and weak, a stereotype Mendoza spectacularly disproved. During his career, he formed his own boxing academy and taught students there as well as giving private lessons for the wealthy, and wrote a boxing manual, The Modern Art of Boxing (1788), that is still read today.

Memoirs

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Daniel Mendoza by Henry Kinsbury, 1789

In 1816, Mendoza published Memoirs of The Life of Daniel Mendoza, an intelligent and witty autobiography still available today and surprisingly accessible to modern readers. In Memoirs, he recounts notable events in his life and career for dozens of subscribers credited in the first several pages.

Mendoza displayed proficiency at boxing from the age of fifteen, when he was apprenticed to a glass cutter. His master was kind, but the man’s son abused Mendoza’s Jewish heritage on numerous occasions until he gave the boy the thrashing of his life, before voluntarily leaving his position. Unwilling to burden his parents, he moved through a succession of odd jobs through his teens and early twenties, working for a greengrocer, a tea merchant, and a tobacconist, before inadvertently accepting a job escorting smuggled goods from the coast into the City. Once he discovered what they expected him to do, he quit this job and worked for some time as a biscuit maker, “baking Passover cakes” and so forth until fighting became a full-time job.

Although Mendoza was arguably one of the most naturally talented athletes in history, he never meant to make boxing his career. Still, the fights kept finding him. The “scientific” method of boxing he invented was very effective and drew huge crowds to see his fights and self-defense demonstrations. Unlike other boxers at the time, Mendoza fought with his knees bent and his arms guarding his face in a stance we would still recognize today. This stance allowed him to block and quickly dodge in a way his opponents could not. His natural ability coupled with this method proved a formidable combination: by 1788, he had won twenty-seven fights in a row. The same year, his long time rivalry with his one-time mentor Richard Humphreys, “The Gentleman Boxer,” came to a head in four fights and a series of letters published in The World.

Mendoza vs. Humphreys

In a match against Richard Humphreys in 1788, Mendoza suffered an injury that temporarily left him unable to walk and significantly slowed his career. Humphreys was declared the victor by default, but his victory was a hollow one as he had not beaten Mendoza as a result of skill.

richard-humphreys

Richard Humphreys by John Hoppner

While Mendoza was recovering from his injuries, he became aware of rumors he had handled himself poorly during the fight and that his injuries were exaggerated or even false. He felt compelled to write to The World to clarify his side of the events (no misconduct on either side) and that his injuries were very real and had been sustained by unfortunate accident (he fell out of the ring onto his head and injured his pelvis) rather than from the fight itself. He further suggested that if Humphreys would like to reschedule the fight, he would be more than willing to oblige. Humphreys took exception to this and responded with a letter of his own.

Mendoza accepted Humphreys’ challenge with his characteristic patience (and perhaps just a touch of well-earned superiority) and what follows in his Memoirs amounts to two chapters of Georgian smack-talk, faithfully recorded word for word as they worked out the details of their next fight.

Some highlights:

“Notwithstanding my declaration, previous to the battle between me and Mr. Mendoza, that whether I was beaten, or I beat him, I would never fight again, yet as in his address to the Publick, through the medium of your paper, he has insinuated that in his late contest with me at Oldham; his being beaten was the mere effect of accident, I do now declare that I am ready to meet him, at any time not exceeding three months from the present date.” -Humphreys

“As the world is decidedly of opinion that Mr. Humphreys is superior in the art of boxing, the third proposition I make is, the man who first closes shall be the loser. The time of fighting is impossible to mention, since the injury I have received in my loins may continue its effects to a distant period, but the moment I am relieved from that complaint, and declared capable by the gentleman who now attends me, I shall cheerfully step forward and appoint the day.” –Mendoza

“I cannot help remarking that neither Mr. Mendoza nor his friends seemed decided where they should fix this unlucky disaster. At first, it was his ancle; and there were people who could have sworn they saw three of the bones come out. The disorder moved gradually to his hips, from whence, lest it should be mistaken for a rheumatic complaint, it is settled, with more excruciating pain on his loins; where I am aware it may abide as long as he finds it convenient.” -Humphreys

“Mr. Humphreys is afraid, he dares not meet me as a boxer; he retires with the fullest conviction of his want of scientific knowledge; and though he has the advantages of strength and age, though a teacher of the art, he meanly shrinks from publick trial of that skill, on which his bread depends,” -Mendoza

“Mr. Mendoza says I am afraid of him; the only favour I have to beg is, that he or any of his friends will be kind enough to tell me so personally, and spare me the trouble of seeking them.” -Humphreys

After months of going back and forth, Mendoza and Humphreys finally met for not one, but three rematches beginning in May of 1788. It is worth noting that boxing matches often went on much longer than they do today, some of them lasting two hours or more through dozens of rounds.

Beyond superior technique, Mendoza’s major strengths were patience and stamina. Both the first two fights with Humphreys ended anticlimactically when Humphreys suddenly fainted, unable to keep pace with Mendoza. Although Mendoza was coming back from an injury, he was in the best shape of his life: he taught boxing at his academy and in private lessons as well as touring the country giving self-defense demonstrations to massive crowds.

The third and final fight with Humphreys lasted an incredible seventy-two rounds before Humphreys quit from exhaustion. He didn’t challenge Mendoza again.

Humphreys learned his lesson, but the public wouldn’t let him forget it. A song was written to commemorate their fight at Stilton in Huntingdonshire, which Mendoza helpfully includes in his memoirs. The song was one of many on the subject, but Mendoza reports this one in particular was “sung with great applause at several convivial meetings.”

For all this was basically a drinking song, it can be read as a neat summary of the public’s changing view of Mendoza wrapped up into a few verses from suspicion and antisemitism through to surprise and eventually praise. They are on Humphreys’ side (Richard has become “Dicky” here), but when he starts looking at the “curst little Jew from Duke’s place” like Goliath looking at David, we understand “Our Dicky” is in for a surprise…

SONG,
On the Battle Fought Between
HUMPHREYS and MENDOZA
At
Stilton in Huntingdonshire

O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear,
Such a wonderful Dicky is not found far or near;
For Dicky was up, up, up, and Dicky was down, down, down
And Dicky was backwards and forwards, and Dicky was round, round, round
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

My Dicky was all the delight of half the genteels in the town;
Their tables were scarcely compleat, unless my Dicky sat down;
So very polite, so genteel, such a soft complaisant modest face,
What a damnable shame to be spoil’d by a curst little Jew from Duke’s Place!
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

My Dicky he went to the school, that was kept by this Danny Mendoza,
And swore if the Jew would not fight, he would ring his Mosaical nose, Sir,
His friends exclaimed, go it, my Dicky, my terrible! Give him a derry;
You’ve only to sport your position, and quickly the Levite will sherry.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

Elate with false pride and conceit, superciliously prone to his ruin,
He haughtily stalk’d on the spot, which was turk’d for his utter undoing;
While the Jew’s humble bow seem’d to please, my Dicky’s eyes flash’d vivid fire;
He contemptuously viewed his opponent, as David was viewed by Goliath.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

Now Fortune, the whimsical goddess, resolving to open men’s eyes;
To draw from their senses the screen, and excite just contempt and surprise,
Produced to their view, this great hero, who promis’d Mendoza to beat,
When he proved but a boasting imposter, his promises all a mere cheat.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

For Dicky, he stopt with his head,
Was hit through his guard ev’ry round, Sir
Was fonder of falling than fighting,
And therefore gave out on the ground, Sir.

Poor Dicky. Somehow, we can’t quite feel bad for him.

Mendoza’s boxing career continued through the end of the eighteenth century, at which point he dedicated himself to teaching and touring. In his efforts to find other sources of income, he eventually became landlord of The Admiral Nelson pub in Whitechapel. He won and lost a fortune, and passed away in 1836 at the age of 72.

Legacy

daniel-mendoza

Mendoza. Did I mention he was gorgeous? I feel like that was implied…

Daniel Mendoza’s contribution to boxing cannot be overstated. During his lifetime, he became a major public figure. He won the patronage of the Prince of Wales in 1787 and became the first Jew to speak to George III. He was known throughout Britain on sight, thanks in no small part to the engravings of him sold to fans as well as his frequent appearances in Gillray cartoons (top). He was so well known, songs were written about his victories, and he was even mentioned by name in many of the plays of the day, including The Duenna and Road to Ruin. At least as significant as his contribution to boxing, he paved the way for acceptance of the Jewish community in Britain by challenging prejudices and winning respect, one fight at a time.

Though he’s not as famous today as he once was, proof of his influence can be seen every day. The next time you turn on the TV to watch some boxing or MMA, imagine how boring the matches would be if the boxers just stood there and took turns hitting each other.

Jessica Cale

If you’re interested in learning more about Mendoza’s fighting stance, English Martial Arts has a terrific video on it you can watch here.

Further Reading:

Egan, Pierce. Boxiana, or Sketches Of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812)

Gould, Mark. Boxing Pioneer Remembered At Last. The Guardian, September 2nd, 2008.

International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Daniel Mendoza.

Jews in Sports. Daniel Mendoza.

Mendoza, Daniel. The Modern Art of Boxing (1788)

Mendoza, Daniel. Memoirs of The Life of Daniel Mendoza (1816)

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