It was the Jewish prize-fighter Daniel Mendoza who first introduced science to the rough and tumble of bareknuckle fighting in the 1780s. Mendoza was born in Aldgate, London in 1764. Prior to his involvement pugilists just stood in front of each other and traded punches. How well they did tended to be dependent on the price of whale oil on the international markets.
Mendoza wasn’t strictly the first person to make an association between boxing and science. That honour goes to Sir Isaac Newton who in 1687 during experiments into the laws of gravity discovered that an apple when leaving the branches of a tree ALWAYS fell to earth because of the pull of gravity. But, a prize-fighter was only guaranteed to fall to earth in a contest if he was offered a sizeable bribe as inducement.
Mendoza, who was small of stature for a heavyweight, more of a middleweight, was the first combatant to introduce science to the fight game. This occurred in his first fight against Fred ‘the Wildman of Hornchurch’ Smith at Hackney Marshes in 1780. Mendoza won on an 8th round cuts stoppage inflicted when he smashed some test tubes over Smith’s scalp. This victory, and its manner of accomplishment, gained the novice pugilist notoriety on the fight circuit. Mendoza, therefore, felt an onus incumbent upon him to continue using scientific methods in his contests.
In his very next outing against Sid ‘the Octopus’ Barker at the Brighton Recreation Ground, Mendoza looked to the medicinal sciences to assist his victory, as a consequence he became the first fighter to use leeches in a bout; although his manager, corner men and various hangers on objected to being called this.
Within a few years Mendoza was embracing the latest scientific breakthroughs to assist the progress of his career. The most notable was the ‘Galvanic Battery’ a charge of electricity that when applied to the corpses of executed people miraculously made the limb it touched jerk as if life had been restored. Mendoza realised that he could use this technique to fight a series of stiffs and fool the public into believing that he was facing credible opponents (this tactic was later revived in the early career of Frank Bruno).
Unfortunately, the plan backfired as when Mendoza was preparing to square up to his first dead opponent Geoff ‘the Maggot Hostel’ Veal at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the corner man forgot to remove the pail from the floor near Veal’s foot, so when the electrical current was applied to his knee he instantly kicked the bucket. The affair stunk the place out, although to be fair this was because Veal hadn’t benefitted from the use of any refrigeration facilities for the previous two weeks. One sports scribe sat at ringside whose head narrowly missed the flying bucket, did speculate that if England ever had problems winning penalty shootouts the strategy could well be worth a punt.
Veal’s purse was withheld – the Galvanic current had to be applied to his wrist so he’d release his grip on it – and a commission was formed to investigate the state of pugilism. The findings of this commission were damning and it forced boxing underground, much to the consternation of all the fighters involved (except Geoff Veal). The main conclusion of the report was that it was fairly common practice for novice fighters to use dead men as opponents to bolster their record and kudos. The evidence for this was provided by a raid on the Manchester home of the leading matchmaker in the fight world, Harry Brough. Three shovels, the timetable of the number 7 sedan chair route (that passed the local cemetery) and a list of recent obits cut from newspapers were discovered and removed from the property to the accompaniment of much booing from the outraged public assembled outside.
Mendoza had three memorable contests with Richard Humphries, between 1788-90, winning the last two, and generally became accepted as Champion of England in 1792. On his journey to the last fight with Humphries Mendoza got into two, unscheduled, fights. The first was against a street pedlar who sold him a mouldy pie and the second was against a man who had looked at him ‘in a funny way’. This would explain why Marty Feldman was never spotted amongst the celebs at ringside for any of Mendoza’s fights.
To endeavour to make up for the shame he’d helped bring to boxing, Mendoza wrote a book about the science of pugilism which became a bestseller. In it he provided tips for potential fighters which included:
1. Avoiding a Slugfest – put salt in your garden.
2. Skipping Rope – engage the services of a good lawyer who is in the same masonic lodge as the judge.
3. Weight Training – visit your local GP’s surgery (and ask for help with your slight illiteracy while you are there).
4. Shadow Boxing – Do not engage in this when the sun is at its strongest. Wait until it is overcast, your opponent will then be a pale shadow of his former self.
5. The Upper-Cut – Ensure you get a higher percentage of the gate money than your opponent.
6. The Counter-Punch – only use this when you expect to drink a lot of Pimms at a society ball.
Mendoza lost his title to the bigger Gentleman John Jackson in 1795. Jackson nullified his opponent’s evasive, defensive techniques by simply picking him up by his long hair with one hand and pummelling him in the face with the other. Mendoza had been adept at slipping punches and evading damage but avoiding the barber had been his undoing.