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The Origin of Boxing Fan



by Lawrence L.Yearsley – Speaking in a sporting context only, I think the word ‘FAN’ is all too freely banded about these days. Football fan, tennis fan, and cricket fan are good examples. If asked most people will tell you it’s a diminutive of, or short for the word, fanatic; meaning a fanatic of the sport. Do not be fooled by this, it’s just not true, they’ve only hijacked the word from pugilistic parlance. The true meaning (or etymology) of the word is fundamentally linked and integral to the world of boxing, or prize fighting as it was originally called.

Prize fighting was born in England around about 1700, or just after. Of course there were prize fights before this; hundreds of thousands of them, but these were usually just side bets on the outcome of a private set to. It was never organised properly or fully intended for the amusement of others. There were no set rules, and more often than not weapons could and would be used. It took men like James Figg to bring it all together. Figg, if you remember was only defeated once in his entire prize fighting career (and even that is debatable,) so he knew a thing or two about boxing.

In many ways he was a bit of an enigma, he liked to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, and even had his portrait painted by the world renowned artist, William Hogarth. His patron’s list read like a glittering ‘Who’s Who’ of the day, and his personal admirers included the likes of, the Earl of Peterborough, Sir Robert Walpole (prime minister,) Alexander Pope, and Gulliver’s Travels author, Jonathan Swift. Yet, despite all this hob knobbing he still loved to get down and dirty with the great unwashed – the working classes; his roots.

He originally started by entertaining crowds at Southwark Fair back in 1719 with displays of: Backsword, foil-play, boxing and cudgeling. He was an immediate success and made enough money in the first four years to open his own private sports academy where he taught; among other things, the revered art of prize fighting. This is where he got the idea to start promoting proper boxing competitions, although they would hardly be recognisable by today’s standards because he ran them along similar lines as the later boxing booths did. Fighters came from all over the world to take part in these boxing competitions, and let’s face it he had plenty of good men in his stable to pit against them. Overall he tutored many champions but his star pupil by far was the legendary, Jack Broughton, heavyweight champion of England; who went on to write the first ever set of boxing rules and eventually open his very own prestigious boxing amphitheatre in 1743.

Visitors to Figg’s academy were an ecliptic lot and came from a diversity of different backgrounds. He noticed among the milling throngs that the poorer people seemed happy and content to simply watch the cock fighting and bear baiting displays he put on, whereas the richer clientele seemed to prefer the boxing. And what is even more important, these well-heeled clients were more than willing to invest large sums of money into the game. He was not a fool and knew where his bread was buttered and so concentrated his efforts on the latter. Among these hordes of affluent clients came the fancy. Wealthy, well dressed gamblers and their women who came to throw their money about and generally have a good time. This is how the word fan was born; fan is actually short for fancy – the boxing fancy.

Like it or lump it, this is the plain simple truth.

A SENSE OF HUMOUR

Why are so many people surprised to learn that boxing fans have a keen sense of humour? They must think we are all straight-faced half wits who go about punching the hell out of each other. But we know different though don’t we?

Admittedly we do tend to respect our sport that little bit more than most other sports fans seem to respect theirs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh about it. I may be a bit biased about it, but I personally think there is more humour per square inch in boxing than any other sport on the planet; and I don’t just mean nowadays either. Humour has always gone hand in glove with the fight game, which brings me to a rather funny anecdote from years ago which I read in a tattered old pugilistic book I found.

It said that Lord Drumlanrig; father of the Marquis of Queensbury (the one who put his name to the boxing rules) loved a fight himself. It also said he was a large powerful man who could handle himself in many ways and was a formidable exponent of the fight game. This noble laird; or Old Drummy, as he was more commonly called behind his back, would think nothing of jumping on his horse and riding for miles on end just to challenge someone to a fight (sounds like a journeyman to me.) And apparently this lord was a fair man too, holding no grudge against anyone who beat him; which in itself is unusual for the normally bullying aristocracy.

Anyway! It came to his ears one day that a neighbouring farmer had built up a bit of a reputation for knocking people out and was now considered by many to be the strongest man in the county; and in those days strength was considered to be the greatest asset a fighter could have. So, saddling up his trusty mare he set off like a man possessed to find this so called strong-man neighbour of his to see if it was true – he found him alright, hard at work as it happens in one of his fields.

From the back of his horse he called down to the man, “Friend, I’ve heard a good deal of talk about you and I’ve come to see which of us is the better man!”

Without saying a word the farmer pulled him from his horse and barely flexing a muscle threw him bodily over the hedge – then carried on with his work as though nothing had happened.
When his lordship recovered consciousness and scrambled to his feet, the farmer looked up and said, “Well, have you anything more to say to me?”

With surprising wit; considering he’d just been thrown on his head, Old Drummy replied, “No, but perhaps you’ll be good enough to throw me my horse and I’ll be on my way!”
It’s not recorded what the farmers response was.