Born in Thame, Oxfordshire in 1684 the name James Figg is now more associated with a few pubs than sport, but in the 1720’s, He was the biggest sporting figure in the world. The boxer who started it all.
The world James grew up in was a brutal one. The political upheaval from the Stewart to Hanover was in full swing. Society was racked with religious sectarianism, violence and general disorder. The King, William the Third was weak and the nine years war with France and Jacobite rebellions in Scotland had left England nearly bankrupt.
Thame was not spared from the hardship. Despite poor nutrition and sanitation James grew quickly to stand six feet tall and weigh approximately one hundred and ninety pounds. When you consider that the average man of the period only stood at five foot six and rarely weighed more than one hundred and fifty pounds, James was a bonafide giant.
A sketch of Figg
Bullish, illiterate and with a cavalier attitude his personality matched his physical attributes perfectly to fill the roll of the Georgian fighting man. He began to have prizefights in Thame and the surrounding area in a variety of disciplines.
He battled foes with swords, cudgels, quarterstaffs but most importantly and often most dramatically, his fists. After one such theatrical encounter he came to the attention of Charles Mordaunt the 3rd Earl of Peterborough, a man the London Victuallers Gazette called "staunch patron of all brave and manly sports”. Someone we might now call, a fight fan.
The Earl was impressed by Figg’ as toughness and skill he sponsored him to London, to fight and teach the pugilistic arts to his aristocratic friends. With the help of Mordaunt, Figg established the world's first boxing venue.
A poster for Figg’s training school
Before California and Nevada even appeared on a world map the precursor to the great boxing venues was constructed. In 1719 the Tottenham Court Road amphitheatre was opened to the public. There Figg would time and again demonstrate his fearsome fighting prowess.
In his spare time he also coached. Mostly teaching young upper class men to defend themselves from highwaymen and would be robbers in London’s growing underbelly. He also popularised what came to be known as the ‘ ‘Boxing Booth’. A travelling show set up in a park or field where his taking on challengers at a discipline of his choice was the feature attraction. These booths existed well into the gloved era of the 20th century.
By 1719 he was recognised as the first English bare-knuckle boxing champion, and he marketed all of his fights as defences of this title.
Figg is said to have retired with a record of 269–1 in 270 fights, however there is more than a healthy chance this is as much myth as it is fact. However the story of his loss, and rivalry with Ned Sutton, as cataloged by rebound poet John Byrom.
Figg, Bottom right, performs at the Southwark Fair
In their first meeting Byrom reported "Figg had a wound and bled pretty much; Sutton had a blow with a quarterstaff just upon his knee, which made him lame”. The return bout however was stopped when Figg was "Cloven in the Foot" with a saber. Their rivalry ended with two bare knuckle boxing matches, both of which Figg won by way of retirement on the part of Sutton.
Although this has little to do with the modern discipline of boxing the brutality and stoicism shown by Figg and his rivals makes astounding reading.
In 1730, having reigned as champion for 11 brutal years Figg retired and handed his fighting glory to his three favourite students. Bob Whittaker, Jack Broughton, and George Taylor were like sons to Figg in his later years.
Taylor took over Figg’s amphitheater and promotional business when he died, but it was to be Jack Broughton who emulated his success in the ring. A Champion well known throughout the land he had many high profile bouts and was the first person to codify a set of rules for boxing contests.
Figg’s protégé Broughton
James Figg died just four years after his retirement in 1734 aged only 50. Laid to rest in Marylebone Parish Churchyard he didn’t just leave behind a wife and several children, but a legacy that echoes well into the 21st century.
The circus, the theatrics of boxing. The idea of passing down fighting knowledge and mixing effectively disciplines to win sporting contests. Many of the accepted wisdoms in both boxing and mixed martial arts come from Figg. He was a pioneer, an originator and the quintessential badass.
Upon his retirement in 1730 a portrait of him was commissioned. It contained an inscription I believe is what every fighter would like to have written about them. It reads;
“The Mighty Combatant, the first in Fame.
The lasting Glory of his Native Thame!
Rash and unthinking Men at length be wise,
Consult your Safety, and Resign the Prize,
Nor tempt Superior Force; but Timely Fly
The Vigour of his Arm, the Quickness of his Eye.”
A fitting Tribute indeed.
Ewan for SimBoxx