ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S TALE OF THE PRIZE RING — Arthur Conan Doyle is known throughout the world as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective of all time. Less known is the fact that Doyle, a doctor by trade, was a boxing enthusiast.
Holmes first appeared in print in 1887 when Doyle was 28 years old. A decade later, Doyle authored a 15,000-word novella entitled The Croxley Master: A Great Tale Of The Prize Ring.
The Croxley Master tells the story of Robert Montgomery, a young medical student with a background in amateur boxing who enters the prize ring out of desperation to compete for a 100-pound purse that he needs to finance the final year of his medical education. Montgomery’s opponent is a miner from the Croxley pit, a seasoned veteran of ring wars known as The Master of Croxley.
Doyle describes Montgomery’s first sighting of his opponent on the day of the fight as follows:
“The prize-fighter had come out from his curtain, a squat formidable figure, monstrous in chest and arms, limping slightly on his distorted leg. His skin had none of the freshness and clearness of Montgomery’s, but was dusky and mottled with one huge mole amid the mat of tangled black hair which thatched his mighty breast. His huge shoulders and great arms with brown sledge-hammer fists would have fitted the heaviest man that ever threw his cap into a ring. But his loins and legs were slight in proportion. Montgomery, on the other hand, was as symmetrical as a Greek statue. It would be an encounter between a man who was specially fitted for one sport and one who was equally capable of any.”
The fight, scheduled for twenty three-minute rounds, is dramatically told. Doyle’s hero fights through adversity of the worst kind.
“Montgomery,” the narrative reads, “sprang wildly forward and, the next instant, was lying half senseless with his neck nearly broken. The whole round had been a long conspiracy to tempt him within reach of one of those terrible right-hand uppercuts for which the Master was famous. When Montgomery sprang in so hotly, he had exposed himself to such a blow as neither flesh nor blood could stand. Whizzing up from below with a rigid arm which put the Master’s eleven stone into its force, it struck him under the jaw. He whirled half round and fell, a helpless and half-paralyzed mass. A vague groan and murmur, too excited for words, rose from the great audience. With open mouths and staring eyes, they gazed at the twitching and quivering figure. The timekeeper called the seconds. If ten of them passed before Montgomery rose to his feet, the fight was ended. As if in a dream – a terrible nightmare – the student could hear the voice of the timekeeper. ‘Three-four-five.’ He got up on his hand. ‘Six-seven.’ He was on his knee, sick, swimming, faint, but resolute to rise. ‘Eight.’ He was up, and the Master was on him like a tiger, lashing savagely at him with both hands.”
But Montgomery rallies to turn the tide.
“It was a magnificent blow, straight, clean, crisp, with the force of the loins and the back behind it. And it landed where he had meant it to – upon the exact point of that blue-grained chin. Flesh and blood could not stand such a blow in such a place. Neither valour nor hardihood can save the man to whom it comes. The Master fell backwards, flat, prostrate, striking the ground with so simultaneous a clap that it was like a shutter falling from a wall. A yell broke from the crowded benches as the giant went down. He lay upon his back, his knees a little drawn up, his huge chest panting. He twitched and shook, but could not move. His feet pawed convulsively once or twice. It was no use. He was done. ‘Eight – nine – ten!’ said the timekeeper. And the roar of a thousand voices with a deafening clap like the broadside of a ship told that the Master of Croxley was the Master no more. Montgomery stood half dazed, looking down at the huge, prostrate figure. He could hardly realize that it was indeed all over.”
Doyle wrote those words more than a century ago. As I read them recently, I was struck by the fact that they could have been written about a boxing match contested today. That shows how little the essence of boxing has changed over the ages.
Author’s note: Because the copyright on “The Croxley Master” has expired, the entire book can be accessed free of charge in various formats at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org. Project Gutenberg is a wonderful site that deserves support.
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Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published recently by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.