The mere mechanical construction of a film projector has been overestimated … it was boxing that created cinema.
So someone once wrote (actually it was me), and even if the statement was done for effect, there’s some truth to it. Cinema was created for a purpose, which was to make money by amusing an audience, and many of the first viewers of motion pictures wanted to see boxing. The Edison peepshow Kinetoscope (first exhibited commercially in 1894) recorded several bouts, albeit specially staged for the camera; the first projected film to be shown commercially was the Lathams‘ Young Griffo v Battling Charles Barnett (first exhibited in New York on 20 May 1895); and films first extended for over an hour when Enoch Rector‘s Veriscope Company filmed the world heavyweight championship of 1897 between Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons with three camera in parallel, the 63mm film stock being specially designed to frame the full view of the boxing ring – boxing in a very real sense creating cinema.
The history of boxing and early cinema is now to be given its first thorough history with the publication of Dan Streible’s long awaited Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. Published by the University of California Press next month, the book covers the rich period where the new medium of cinema collided, or colluded, with the ignoble art, as the the former built up its mass appeal and the latter sought to drag itself out of a state of illegality into legimatised entertainment. It’s a story of technical innovation, exploitation, criminality, fakery, brutality, star power, racial tension, and the rise of mass appeal sport and the media in the early twentieth century.
This history has been researched by Streible for many years now, and it seemed for too long that the book would never come out. It ought to be a crossover seller, appealing both to the early film studies community and the sports history afficionados, to go by his previous writings on the subject.
But that’s not all. Because in May the enterprising Reaktion Books publishes Kasia Boddy’s Boxing: A Cultural History. I know nothing of the provenance of this work, but it sounds tempting enough from the blurb:
Throughout this history, potters, sculptors, painters, poets, novelists, cartoonists, song-writers, photographers and film-makers have been there to record and make sense of it all. In her encyclopaedic investigation of the shifting social, political and cultural resonances of this most visceral of sports, Kasia Boddy throws new light on an elemental struggle for dominance whose weapons are nothing more than fists. From Daniel Mendoza to Mike Tyson, boxers have embodied and enacted our anxieties about race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Looking afresh at everything from neo-classical sculpture to hip-hop lyrics, Boddy explores the way in which the history of boxing has intersected with the history of mass media, and sheds new light on the work of such diverse figures as Henry Fielding and Spike Lee, Charlie Chaplin and Philip Roth, James Joyce and Mae West, Bertolt Brecht and Charles Dickens. This all-encompassing study tells us just how and why boxing has mattered so much to so many.
It probably isn’t going to go into the practical details of how many arc lights the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company employed to photograph indoor fights in 1900, but it does sound like it will give us an eclectic and entertaining cultural history, outlining boxing’s special resonance and appeal, and placing film’s role within that history.
I’ve never been to a boxing match. I can’t watch televised bouts of today. But the history, the characters, the themes of boxing in the past are just so compelling, and – to be honest – the distancing effect of seeing brutal fights only in black-and-white and silently helps sanitise the subject.
To finsh off, here’s an example of how YouTube can serve as an archive bringing life to films you might never expect to see again. Dan Streible himself brought this to the attention of a film archiving list I subscribe to: the Selig Polyscope Company’s 1900 film McGovern-Gans Fight Pictures. It features the lightweights Terry McGovern and Joe Gans, the first native-born black American to win a world title (in 1900). This bout wasn’t for the world title, and it became controversial (and still is, judging from the comments accompanying the film) for Gans reportedly admitting to taking a dive. See what you think.
The film comes from a 1930s or 40s short produced by Forrest Brown, no longer existing in its original 1900 form, so far as is known. Amazing to be able to see such things still, and there’s many more such early fight pictures on YouTube, generally taken from sports shorts made decades later – see, for example, Joe Gans v Kid Herman in 1907 – though many more are lifted from programmes by ESPN, which has the world’s largest collection of archive boxing films, mostly gathered by Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton of Big Fights Inc., who when they weren’t amassing an amazing collection of fight films were managing the young Mike Tyson. Tyson has probably seen more archive films of boxing matches than anyone. He’s going to love Streible’s book, I’m sure.