The Boxing Duck: Modern Fad or as Old as the Sport Itself?


duck1We’re not sure exactly what James Whitcomb Riley had in mind when he very neatly illustrated the philosophy of inductive reasoning with his famous, if it walks, swims and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, line.

  While it may have been simply a flippant remark to end a tiresome debate on the intricacies of membership of the Anatidae family, I prefer to think he was speaking allegorically.  More than that, I like to imagine that the Indiana poet’s famous quote was actually an allegorical double entendre.

The word duck gains prominence in boxing circles every time Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao take to the airwaves to fire the latest blanks in their phoniest of wars.  They’ve both been at it again in recent days, excelling in the prize fight equivalent of the Premiership footballer’s lemme at ‘em struggle, safe in the knowledge there is a twenty man buffer between him and his nemesis and absolutely zero chance of the harmless handbags escalating into a physical altercation.

I’m not brave enough to risk the ire of either boxer’s fan base by volunteering an opinion on the Pacman v Money debacle, but I am presumably on safe enough ground to ridicule the charade as just another symptom of a sport whose health has been on the wane for decades, right?

Hang around any boxing gym in the land and some grizzled, old-timer will soon testify to that.  Doing nothing to disguise his disdain of the mollycoddled modern day fighter, he’ll tell you that, in his day, the best fought the best and the champ took on all-comers, no questions asked.

duck2Push him for details and you’ll have the likes of Jack Britton and Ted “Kid” Lewis spat back at you with vengeance.  The Hall of Fame welterweights traded leather on 20 separate occasions totalling an astonishing 224 rounds.  In June of 1917 alone they fought each other three times.

That was when men were men and a boxer wouldn’t consider ducking if you threw a lit Molotov cocktail at his head.  Mayweather and Pacquiao aint fit to lace Jimmy McLarnin’s gloves the old boy will grumble as he shuffles away, already reliving Robinson LaMotta VI in his mind.

It is nice to believe that boxing once thrived in such an environment of clean, honest, proud confrontation but the reality is that boxers have been ducking one another for varying reasons since the 9th Marquess of Queensberry was a mere twinkle in Viscount Drumlanrig’s eye.

A quick scan of the boxing annals reveals that, long before the Floyd and Manny pantomime, or everyone and Guillermo Rigondeaux, or Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and a London dustbin, examples of fighters doing their utmost to avoid a particular opponent have pockmarked the fistic landscape for centuries.

duck3In an 1805 chapter of his classic tome, Boxiana, Pearce Egan is already speaking of ducking in his review of The Game Chicken, Henry Pearce, versus Elias Spray; a bout that was subject to a late change in venue from Hampton Court to Molesworth Meadow on the other side of the River Thames.

“Considerable confusion took place in finding vehicles to convey the numerous followers across the river, where several not only experienced a good ducking, but some narrowly escaped drowning, in their eagerness to reach the destined spot.”

Facetiousness aside, ducking in a pugilistic sense genuinely was alive and kicking not long after boxing’s first great scribe died in 1849.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, the US-based Northern Irishman, Joseph Henry Coburn, was the hottest prospect in boxing.  Famed for his fleetness of foot and a blow like a pistol shot, Coburn started his career at middleweight with a 160 round draw with Edmund “Ned” Price.

He quickly outgrew that division, however, and a run of victories at heavyweight soon positioned him as the number one contender for John C Heenan’s championship.  Heenan point blank refused the fight and so began a series of ducks that drove Coburn half-way around the world in search of meaningful action.

The second man to frustrate Coburn was Mike Norton; he simply didn’t show up for their scheduled bout in Brooklyn on the 11th of June, 1863.  Exasperated, Coburn looked back across the Atlantic Ocean and called out the reigning English champion, Tom King.  King promptly retired.

duck4Next in line was The Swaffham Gypsy, Jem Mace.  Mace acted keen but refused to make the trip to America.  Coburn solved that problem by jumping on a ship and crossing the pond himself.  Once back in the motherland, terms were agreed for the bout to take place on the 4th of October, 1864.  But as the date approached, Mace’s early bravado diminished and in demanding that he install his own choice of referee, he managed to dodge Coburn for a full seven years.

The fighting Irish were just as likely to be the duckers as the duckees, however.  When the limited Paddy Ryan was crowned heavyweight king in 1880, he was determined to hold on to his belt for as long as possible.  This effectively meant evading sport’s first global superstar, John L Sullivan, for as long as possible.  Ryan was successful for almost two years until Sullivan destroyed him inside 11 minutes in Mississippi City as Jesse James and Oscar Wilde looked on from ringside.

And what of the Boston Strong Boy himself?  Though it is impossible to question his talent, courage or self-belief, his famous boast that he’d “lick any son of a bitch in the house” carried an unspoken caveat: that son of a bitch could not have a shade of skin darker than his own.  Cue extravagant sidestepping of Australia’s Peter Jackson for the remainder of the 1880s – coincidentally the very decade that James Whitcomb Riley is thought to have penned his celebrated duck line.

duck5The situation did not improve any with the dawn of a new century.  In fact, the action of ducking was rapidly developing into an art form.  After Al McCoy knocked out George Chip on the 7th of April 1914 to become the first southpaw world champion, he did everything but put his belt on the line.

While the likes of the aforementioned Britton and Lewis were forced to blatter seven shades out of each other for little more than a love of the game, McCoy fought 45 consecutive non-title bouts until Mike O’Dowd was finally given a shot in November 1917.

We could go on but I think the point has been made.  Mob involvement, the advent of competing governing bodies, and the power of television networks has undoubtedly exacerbated the problem over the years, but ducking was around centuries before Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao became the most prominent exponents, and I fear it will still be prevalent long after they hang up their gloves for the final time.

Scott Harrigan
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