‘The urge of men – especially men – to fight’, asserts the ‘Boxing’ entry in the Encyclopaedia of Wales (2008), ‘is age-old, and the Welsh experience does not disappoint or edify.’ Since writing those words some years ago, and as one of the editors of Wales and its Boxers, I have seen no reason to change my mind. To quote a better writer, and a woman, ‘Boxing at its moments of greatest intensity… seems to contain so compete and powerful an image of life – its beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage – that [it] is life, and hardly a mere game.’ Joyce Carol Oates is quite right: you play football, you do not ‘play’ boxing.
The ring is where men – there is no escaping the fact that boxers are mostly men – are equal, and it has been a powerful magnet to writers from William Hazlitt (‘The Fight’, 1821) to Norman Mailer (*The Fight*, 1976); it has exerted a potent attraction to a whole fistful of film directors, most notably Martin Scorsese (*Raging Bull*, 1981). Its paradox is that its essentially primitive nature makes it the most complex of all sports, offering savagery, skill, courage and vivid ritual in equal measure.
The contributors to Peter Stead and Gareth Williams (ed.), Wales and its Boxers: The Fighting Tradition (University of Wales Press, 2008) pursue this paradox and that complexity. Their essays engage with notions of masculinity, ethnicity and identity. They have all been captivated by the sheer theatre of boxing, while at the same time sharing a fascination with the ways in which the culture and aesthetics of the sport have been rooted in certain societies at various stages in their development. Wales has notably been one such society, and only by locating these boxers in their historical context of time and place can they properly be understood.
This book opens with bare-knuckle mountain fighters and fairground boxing booths, and culminates with title fights in London and the United States. When a hundred years ago the boxing public acclaimed Cardiff’s ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll, Tylorstown’s ‘Mighty Atom’ Jimmy Wilde, and Pontypridd’s enigmatic Freddie Welsh (whose career, writes Dai Smith, ‘oozes the essence of post-modernism: iconic, playful…open to endless interpretation’), it was recognising the emergence on the international stage of a nation of fighters.
The widely researched essays in this book highlight the emergence of heroes who were admired not only for their bravery, strength and tenacity but also for the grace of their movement and their instinctive understanding of the sheer science of controlled combat, underpinned by an awareness that they embodied the values and ideals of the communities from which they came.