This article written by P. G. Woodhouse, first appeared in Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture in December 1901. In it Woodhouse describes the latest scientific technologies being used by boxers preparing for a fight. Some such as the heavy medicine ball have remained with us whilst others like rubbing oneself with eucalyptus oil have sadly faded from our modern training regimes.
Regardless, it’s a fascinating insight into how athletes got into match condition over a century ago and well worth a read.
GOOD condition is nowadays so absolutely essential to success in the ring, that it comes as a surprise to learn that in the days of Broughton and Slack, and even later in the days of Gentleman Jackson and the Belchers, when men fought with the “raw ’uns” until they could stand no longer, training as we understand the word was entirely unknown. That wonderful endurance was required to enable a man to fight a hundred rounds under the old conditions goes, of course, without saying. But in those times a round was not a definite space of time. It might last a quarter of a minute or a quarter of an hour. Directly one of the fighters fell, and he might fall without a blow, the round was at an end. As, moreover, a man’s seconds were allowed to carry him bodily into the ring, it will be seen that a clever boxer could so economise his strength as to enable him to dispense with any but a very rudimentary course of training.
To-day, of course, all this has been altered. A man must walk unaided to the scratch. He loses the fight if he fall of set purpose and not through being genuinely knocked down. Finally, each round lasts three minutes, a severe tax on the strength of the most powerful.
The first English boxer of note to undergo a scientific course of training, was the famous Tom Cribb, of Gloucestershire, who succeeded Pearce, better known as the Game Chicken, as champion of All England. Cribb had fought his way to fame as a fourteen stoner, which was the weight at which he beat Jem Belcher. It was not until his second fight with Molyneaux the Black that he was taken in hand by Captain Barclay and properly trained.
His appearance on the day of the battle was an advertisement for systematic training which the boxing world could not afford to ignore.
Cribb commenced his preparation eleven weeks before the date for which the fight was fixed at his trainer’s house in the north of Scotland. Starting with nothing more than the ordinary air and exercise which the average man enjoys in the country, he gradually progressed until after a time he was doing his thirty miles a day in company with the captain, who, as everybody knows, once walked 1,000 miles in an equal number of hours, and so was likely to take his man along at a far higher rate of speed than was probably pleasant to him. Nor was this all. Besides the ordinary sparring and the like Cribb had to run two miles each day at a good pace. The result was that when he came to London to fight Molyneaux, who for his part had done no training whatever, he left three stone behind in the Highlands, and beat his man easily in a little over a quarter of an hour. Since then no boxer has ever fought untrained.
The training of professionals is always of the most severe character. Some two months before the fight a boxer goes to his training quarters at some healthy country or seaside spot. A few weeks are taken up with gentle exercise such as walking and light sparring, while he is becoming acclimatised. Then the strict training begins. The routine is generally much the same in the case of all pugilists, except when, as often happens, a man has to train down to some very unusual weight, and so needs to treat himself more severely than the man who merely wishes to get himself fit. Running and sparring play an important part at this stage of the training. The boxer is well muffled up before his daily run, often in a couple of sweaters and a heavy overcoat. A sweater only is worn in addition to the fighting kit when sparring. This sparring may be light or heavy according to the fancy of the boxer In training for their famous championship fight, Corbett and Fitzsimmons pursued opposite tactics with regard to this, the former preferring to spar lightly, while the latter let his sparring-partner hit as hard as he would have done in an actual fight.
Another feature of modern training is the ball-punching. Four or five rounds a day with the ball are usually considered sufficient, each round being of the regulation length, and fought out with all the energy of which the boxer is capable.
Cycling is sometimes thought a good thing, and probably there is no better way of strengthening the muscles of the legs. Fitzsimmons, when training, is accustomed to ride fifteen or more miles a day in addition to his other exercises.
The latest development of modern training is called the medicine ball. This is a heavy round ball, in size rather larger than an Association football. The ball is tossed backwards and forwards from the trainer to his man, and is of great service in exercising many important muscles, especially those about the shoulder blades which produce hitting-power. The medicine ball is the development of an old form of training, to which Sayers, the opponent of Heenan, is said to have owed much of the wonderful force of his blows. Sayers was a bricklayer by trade, and it was part of his work to pick up bricks and throw them into a hod some distance away. The muscles employed in this action are the same as those used in a straight hit from the shoulder. The worst point, or rather the only bad point, about the medicine ball is the fact that it often leads to the straining of a muscle, a very serious matter just before an important fight
Skipping is now almost universally employed in the training of boxers, for it is unrivalled even by cycling in its effect on the leg muscles, to which, even more than to his shoulder muscles, a fighter is indebted for victory.
The rules as regards diet are strict. Toast is eaten instead of bread, and drinks are cut down to one or two bottles of beer, taken during meals. Even when a boxer has, or thinks he has, an easy job in front of him, you will never find him breaking through the rules of diet.
The amateur boxer is, of course, a good deal restricted in his training by the calls of his profession. Most amateur champions are kept occupied by their work for the greater part of the day, and cannot devote as much time as they could wish to their training. Sparring every evening, dumbbells, and walking on occasions when the average man would ride, together with a strict attention to diet, is all that most amateur boxers can do. There are several minor ways which help a man to get into condition, as for instance standing most of the day instead of sitting, rubbing the face and arms with eucalyptus oil, which has an hardening effect, and so on. At the Public Schools and the ’Varsities stricter preparation is possible. If a ’Varsity boxer cares to do so, there is nothing to prevent him training himself very nearly as strictly as a professional. He can regulate his own diet, and take as much exercise as he pleases.
At the Public Schools the tastes of the individual are not studied in the matter of food, and the boxer will probably ask in vain for toast instead of bread and the like. But in the matter of exercise there is nothing for him to complain of. In view of their constant success at Aldershot St. Paul’s School may be taken to represent Public School boxing at its best, so that the main details of the training system in force there will perhaps be found of interest. About a month before the Aldershot competition (which is all the Public School boxer lives for) a competition is held to decide who shall represent the school at the various weights. Training begins immediately after this is over. It consists for the most part of sparring practice among the various boxers, who are coached by Jerry Driscoll, the ex-champion of the Navy. A good deal of running is also done in the school grounds. The representatives box once a day during the first two weeks of training, and twice during the last two. All sweets and pastry are strictly forbidden, and beef and mutton are the only varieties of meat eaten.
When one remembers that every member of a Public School is more or less in training all the year round as a result of wholesome food and plenty of exercise, it will be seen that after a month of such strict preparation there is very little to find fault with in the condition of a St. Paul’s boxer, and it generally happens that if it comes to a very close battle, it is the Pauline representative who finishes on top.
Great to see an article by P.G. Wodehouse on this! He himself boxed for Dulwich College, his public school, and probably would have gone on to do the same at Cambridge if he’d been able to attend.
That’s awesome. I hope so little about Wodehouse – despite reading a lot about a certain Butler!
Why only toast instead of bread, I wonder?