We’re not sure exactly what James Whitcomb Riley had in mind 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, I like to imagine that the poet’s famous quote was an allegorical double entendre.
The word “duck” gains prominence in boxing circles every time and Manny Pacquiao take to the airwaves to fire the latest blanks in their phoniest of wars. They’ve both been at it again recently, excelling in the prize fight equivalent of the Premier League footballer’s lemme-at-him struggle, safe in the knowledge there is a 20-man buffer between the players and absolutely zero chance of the harmless handbags escalating into a physical altercation.
I’m not brave enough to risk the ire of either fighter’s fanbase 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.
Push 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 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 ain’t 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 ninth Marquess of Queensberry was a mere twinkle in Viscount Drumlanrig’s eye. A quick scan of the boxing annals reveals that, long before the Mayweather-Pacquiao pantomime, or everyone and Guillermo Rigondeaux, or Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and a London dustbin, fighters have been doing their utmost to avoid particular opponents for centuries.
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, the US-based Northern Irishman, , 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 No1 contender for John C Heenan’s championship. Heenan point-blank refused the fight and so began a series of ducks that drove Coburn halfway 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 11 June 1863. Exasperated, Coburn looked back across the Atlantic Ocean and called out the reigning English champion, Tom King. King promptly retired.
Next in line was The Swaffham Gypsy, Jem Mace. Mace acted keen but refused to make the trip to the US. 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 4 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.
The 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 TV networks has undoubtedly exacerbated the problem over the years, but ducking was around centuries before Mayweather and 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.
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