The Man Who Birthed Modern Boxing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because boxers weren’t always so skilled.
By Adam Ramsey
With a fist flying toward his face, the fighter raises his left forearm to block, swivels to his right and strikes back, throwing his right fist upward and sending his opponent to the ground. For the first time in a boxing ring, a fighter was successfully using what would later be called an uppercut. Back then, it was simply called “the Mendoza.”
Long before the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson or Joe Louis, Daniel Mendoza came out swinging, elevating London’s 18th-century street fighting into a science. He ducked fists, faced anti-Semitism and overcame his small stature to rise to the top, and his fine-tuned boxing techniques are still with us today.
Prior to the London Prize Ring Rules, you could more or less do anything.
Miles Templeton, historian
Born in London’s East End in July 1764, Mendoza started his pugilistic career when bigger meant better. Boxing was little more than two men standing in front of each other, throwing haymakers until the other went down, and stayed down. It was appreciated more as an opportunity to gamble than as a sport, which explains why it grew in popularity alongside bearbaiting and cockfighting.
After all, fighters did go at it like animals back then. These brutal — and notably illegal — encounters saw eyes gouged, stones thrown at heads and plenty of kicking and biting. But Mendoza helped knock all that out, ushering in a new era of rules, patrons and skills to launch the first golden age of mega fights and superstars.
When paying homage to boxing pioneers, Jack Broughton’s name often arises. In 1743, the English bare-knuckle fighter codified a set of rules that became known as the London Prize Ring Rules, bringing consistency and select regulations to the ring. “Prior to the London Prize Ring Rules, you could more or less do anything,” says boxing historian Miles Templeton.
But Broughton’s influence pales when compared with Mendoza’s, according to Pierce Egan, the so-called “Plutarch of the ring” and author of Boxiana. “No pugilist whatever, since the time of Broughton (or even Broughton himself), has ever so completely elucidated, or promulgated, the principles of boxing as Daniel Mendoza,” he wrote.
Those principles emerged in part out of necessity, because Mendoza was not your usual lumbering heavyweight. At 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, the Jewish boxer was at a massive disadvantage to his towering adversaries when it came to height, reach and weight. But unlike his flat-footed foes, Mendoza paced back and forth, skipped between punches and warped his body to dodge and deflect the heavy blows in fights that would regularly stretch beyond the hourlong mark. It was so unusual to the watching crowds that some initially thought it was cowardice that prompted Mendoza to dodge punches so frequently.
More than avoiding punishment, Mendoza extolled the virtues of the feint and of footwork. He augmented the typically exaggerated side-on boxing stance to that of a squarer, hands-up guard not dissimilar to that of another short heavyweight champion: Mike Tyson. It was these techniques that needed to be mastered, he believed. “Art will always give a man the advantage over an adversary ignorant of boxing.… A man with art, if strength and activity be also combined, may be pronounced invincible,” Mendoza wrote in the first-ever boxing textbook, The Art of Modern Boxing.
Mendoza’s invincibility was eventually tested by his former tutor, Richard “the Gentleman Boxer” Humphreys, in a trio of fights between 1788 and 1790 that captured the nation’s imagination and made stars of both men — one of the battles was (erroneously) rumored to have pushed the storming of the Bastille off London’s front pages.
Having lost the first bout, Mendoza began what can be considered the first trash-talking event in boxing, using the newspapers as his microphone. “Mr. Humphreys is afraid, he dares not meet me as a boxer … though he has the advantages of strength and age, though a teacher of the art, he meanly shrinks from a public trial of that skill,” he taunted via one paper. Humphreys’ response? An 18th-century equivalent of “Say that to my face”: “Mr. Mendoza says I am afraid of him; the only favor 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.”
At a time when most fights were held in pubs or in narrow alleys, the Humphreys-Mendoza rematch was held at a specially constructed amphitheater with tiered seating that could accommodate 3,000 spectators. Long before Ali-Frazier met in the Garden, Mendoza-Humphreys held their own fight of the century in Huntingdonshire, 80 miles north of London. Mendoza proved victorious, besting his adversary after more than an hour and 52 rounds. A third matchup — yes, they did it again — saw Mendoza beat Humphreys in just 15 rounds, cementing his position at the top.
While undeniably a genius in the ring, Mendoza sadly had less of a head for finances. For all his fancy footwork, he ended up making several trips to debtors’ prison before dying penniless in 1836 at the age of 72.
- Adam Ramsey, OZY Author Contact Adam Ramsey