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A spirited and witty biographer of two of England's less prepossessing monarchs, George III and John (The King Who Lost America, 1971; The Marginal Monarch, 1972), Lloyd makes the transition to the steamy lowlife of 19th-century British pugilists with smashing success. Boxing, at the time, was anything but a gentleman's sport. Gone were the days when Regency bucks had patronized the bruisers; light years away, the Queensberry rules. The weight of Victorian pietism could not approve such barbaric pastimes. And barbaric they were, as Lloyd demonstrates by delving into the backstreets and taprooms of the urban underclass. The murderous 1860 stand-off between England's Tom Sayers, an illiterate bricklayer from Camden Town, and the ""Benicia Boy,"" an American challenger, is the climax of the book. Lloyd covers it round-by-pulverizing-round-there were 42 in this big-money match--until the constabulary gathered enough strength to break up the proceedings. The American, in the words of an onlooker, emerged ""almost unrecognizable as a human being,"" while Sayers collapsed in a heap. Ironically, this was the match which restored the prestige of prize-fighting--staged on a remote field in Farnborough, the pugs surrounded by a melee of spectators placing bets and taking strong liquor. Lloyd has extracted the cheering bloodlust and the swagger from contemporary press accounts; they make for spectacular reading as killer instincts vied with polite euphemisms that called blood ""ruby"" or ""port."" Decent people shuddered but gawked and fought for ringside position. Lloyd doesn't get portentous about it, but it's evident that this orgiastic mayhem provided many eminent Victorians with a respite from too much respectability. Bare-knuckled social history rendered with polish.

Pub Date: July 22nd, 1977
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan