Bach, Beyoncé, and Boxing

By Robert Ecksel on September 10, 2018
Bach, Beyoncé, and Boxing
The Prince of Wales watched as the legendary Jimmy Wilde was stopped by Pete Herman.

Primo Carnera fought there twice in 1932, and even Reggie and Ron Kray graced the ring at Royal Albert Hall in 1951…

“Save me, Joe Louis!”—Apocryphal last words of Allen Foster, a 19-year-old black man executed in a North Carolina gas chamber in 1936

References to boxing in non-boxing circles are few and far between these days. It’s not unusual during a political debate for a candidate to register a “knockout,” even though the participants remain more or less upright and conscious, or for some snarky comment to be described as a “low blow,” which only serves to dignify the undignified. But expressions like these are as rare as an overturned decision or an honest broker in the “noble art.”

Unlike my taste in sports, which is limited in the extreme, my taste in music is catholic and both Bach and Beyoncé can rock my world, depending on the circumstances and time of day.

I recently read a piece of music criticism on the Proms, a musical tradition at Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London, by the organist and critic David Yearsley. The author focused on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a canonical masterpiece by one of history’s heavyweights, yet he successfully inserted several boxing references in an article otherwise faithful to another classical art.

Boxing is no stranger to the Royal Albert Hall, but their relationship was as fraught as it was inconsistent. Promoters were eager to stage fights there as early as 1893, but the authorities, for reasons not stated but understood, “disapproved of the introduction of professional pugilists into the Hall.”

By fits and starts things loosened up in subsequent years. The Hall hosted amateur fights in connection with the 1908 London Olympic Games, albeit at another venue, and in a display of patriotism after the Great War, Soldiers and Sailors of His Majesty’s Forces fought the American Services in the first proper tournament.

Progress was slow but steady. Prize money was forbidden, at least at first, but gold trophies took their place and the fighters, some of great renown, followed in their wake. Georges Carpentier fought three exhibition rounds on the day after Christmas in 1919. And on January 13, 1921, the Prince of Wales, in a show of solidarity, sat ringside as the legendary Jimmy Wilde (139-2-1 at the time) was stopped by Pete Herman (87-27-13) in the 17th round of a scheduled 20-round bout in his second to last fight.

Prize fights commenced in 1925, which caused consternation on some sides. Gambling was prohibited, for fear of antisocial elements, but the Rubicon had been crossed and there was no turning back.

Primo Carnera fought there twice in 1932, and even Reggie and Ron Kray, before they embarked on their life of crime, graced the ring at Royal Albert Hall in 1951.

Henry Cooper fought there several times. Muhammad Ali fought exhibitions at the Hall in 1971 and 1979. And fighters as memorable as Nigel Benn, Jack Kid Berg, Frank Bruno, Joe Bugner, Tommy Burns, Chris Eubank, Herol Graham, Naseem Hamed, Ricky Hatton, Gerald McClellan, John Mugabi, Azumah Nelson, Lennox Lewis, Ted Kid Lewis, Mike McCallum, Billy Joe Saunders, and Michael Watson, among others, appeared at the iconic venue.

Returning to David Yearsley and his review of the Proms at Royal Albert Hall, this is some of what he wrote:

I had thought about going to the 63rd Prom the night before in the same cavernous venue, the Albert Hall, opened by Queen Victoria in 1871 in memory of her husband, who had died ten years earlier of typhoid fever. This vast rotunda can hold up to 5,500 people and has a long association not just with great concerts—most famously the Proms—but also boxing matches and other sporting spectacles. Muhammad Ali made two exhibition appearances in the auditorium in the 1970s. There is something weirdly bracing to know that blows have been traded in the same arena where classical music heroics are enacted in front of eager fans, the most rabid of them standing at the foot of the stage like cornermen peering through the ropes of the ring. One is reminded that big-time sporting events and concerts have much in common: hearing and watching a world-class pianist go the distance with a heavyweight Russian concerto (Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky) or take on a dangerous passel of central European solo études by Chopin or Liszt is often as grueling and exciting as a title fight. There is always the possibility of a knockout—technical or otherwise.

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Tommy Burns Last Fight – Stopped By Joe Beckett July 16, 1920

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  1. Lucas McCain 01:25pm, 09/13/2018

    The Proms are a lot of fun for classical music (I’ve only been once).  But with the rise of Eastern European fighters, maybe they can have double headers—a Hungarian or Romanian rhapsody to start (though I’d be completely drained after one, and would doze through the bout).
      Surprised nobody asked you how many holes it took to fill the Albert Hall.
    P.S.  The restoration on the Beckett-Burns fight is amazing! Watching it is like going through a time warp.  They look like modern boxers rather than flickering, grainy ghosts.

  2. fan 08:39am, 09/11/2018

    To please the crowd, boxing should have some exhibition headup.

  3. Kid Blast 06:24pm, 09/10/2018

    What Beyoncé and Reggie and Ronnie Kray have in common is ...............

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