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Boxing Historian
"Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes"
Impressionistic rendering by Alessandra Mazzilli


The First Lady
of Mixed Martial Arts

Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes
fought with fists and swords in the 1770s,

sometimes against men

By CHRISTOPHER JAMES SHELTON

www.ringsideboxingshow.com

 

When the world�s greatest female fighter fought women with fists and men with swords, the piano, by the Italian, Cristofer, and the mercury thermometer, by the German, Fahrenheit, were relatively recent inventions. 

 

As Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes prepared for public fisticuffs, the current popular music included Vivaldi�s opera �La Silvia� and Bach�s Brandenburg concertos.  King George I ruled England while the mother of his children rots in jail for infidelity.  Sir Isaac Newton, aged 80, body filled with mercury, works on a chronology of history about the rise and fall of empires.

 


Listen to Christopher Shelton's
interview on this topic
on the Aug. 7, 2011 edition
of The Ringside Boxing Show

 

Across the ocean, a Massachusetts colony, Deerfield, had been attacked by Native-Americans over two days, with 40 English killed and 100 carried off.  A New York English colony faced a Black slave revolt.  21 slaves were ordered executed while 6 others committed suicide.  As Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes prepares to bare-knuckle fight, a Massachusetts teenager, Benjamin Franklin, an apprentice printer, publishes his writings in the New-England Courant, including a first-person account of a sexual relationship with a male minister, while pretending to be an adult female.  George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were yet to be born.

 

I extend appreciation to 21st-century Italian artists Federica Coppolecchia and Alessandra Mazzilli for their Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes drawings.  It seemed like a good idea:  �Women artists should interpret the greatest female fighter in history,� until Alessandra decided on a �surreal� approach while Fede placed this 1720s English woman (who wore a long dress) in pants because:  �No woman would fight in a dress unless men forced her.�

 

Among the 10 men executed on September 24th, 1722, were Robert Wilkinson, James Lincoln and Thomas Milksop. Wilkinson was the worst of a group of infamous gang members.  Lives Of The Most Remarkable Criminals Who Have Been Condemned and Executed For Murder, the Highway, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining or Other Offences (1735):  �The only employment (Wilkinson) ever pretended to was that of a prize fighter or boxer at Hockley-in-the-Hole, where, as a fellow of prodigious dexterity, though low in stature, and very small limbed, he was much taken notice of.  And as is usual for persons who have long addicted themselves to such a way of living, he had contracted an inhumanity of temper which made him little concerned at the greatest miseries he saw others suffer.� 

 

"Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes"
Impressionistic rendering by Federica Coppolecchia

 

Evening Post (April 9th, 1928):  �Elizabeth Wilkinson does not appear to have been happily mated in her first matrimonial venture, as she was married to Robert Wilkinson, who was a stage fighter at Hockley-In-The-Hole, which was situated near Clerkenwell Green.  Robert must have been a shiftless, good-for-nothing fellow, as he joined a gang of footpads and murderers, and even among them was singled out as a perpetrator of cruel and blood acts.  He was eventually arrested for complicity in the murder of a poor Chelsea pensioner.  In company with James Lincoln and Thomas Wilson, two members of the gang, Robert Wilkinson, at the age of 35 years were hanged at Tyburn on 26th of July, 1722.�

 

If a future 19th century, American Wild West analogy might be offered that Jesse James and Billy the Kid were deemed �lovable� for their escapes or charisma, the less remembered John Wesley Hardin was viewed as plain mean.  Joseph Blake and Jack Sheppard continue to be remembered as charismatic English 1720�s criminals, while the lesser known Wilkinson was the worst.  He once attacked an armless man and threw him into a ditch.  His comrades, Shaw and Burridge, pulled Wilkinson away as he strangled the disabled man.  Wilkinson regularly robbed women, stripped them naked and then tied them to trees.  His partner, Milksop, was an admitted rapist. 

 

While robbing an �F. Clarke� of his sword and money, they were spotted by a witness.  Wilkinson fired a bullet which hit a wall near the window of the ducking woman.  Wilkinson was such an awful person that in a rare decision the Ordinary of Newgate refused to administer the sacrament to him before his execution.  Wilkinson not only robbed men, but would unnecessarily bludgeon them with his fists or sword.  The end for Wilkinson was the robbery and murder of pensioner, Peter Martin.  Wilkinson and his comrades demanded that he surrender his money and gun.  Wilkinson was an experienced fencer, so he began to methodically stab Martin, to the back shoulder and butt, while Martin steadfastly refused to give them his pistol. 

 

Wilkinson plunged his sword nine inches into the pensioner�s back while he lay on the ground and then ordered him to stand.  One of the men said, �How should ye expect the man to go forward when he is dead?�  Wilkinson was arrested and offered information on everyone in exchange for freedom.  Another member of the gang also informed on everyone so Wilkinson was convicted and hanged.

At the conclusion of the Robert Wilkinson essay is an addition of the most famous boxing challenge in history.  Lives Of The Most Remarkable Criminals Who Have Been Condemned and Executed For Murder, the Highway, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining or Other Offences (1735):  �I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the stage and box with me for three guineas, each woman holding half-a-crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops her money to lose the battle.� 

 

"James Figg"

(on the right, bald head)
Rendering by William Hogarth

 

The reply:  �I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate Market, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words, desiring home blows and from her no favour.�  Sporting Magazine, July, 1808, refers to this advertisement source from a Diurnal Print, June, 1722.  James Peller Malcolm (1810), refers to this June, 1722, article as the London Journal:  �Boxing in public at the Bear-Garden is what has lately obtained very much among the men; but till last week we never heard of women being engaged that way, when two of the feminine gender appeared for the first time on the Theatre of War at Huxley in the Hole, and maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators.�

 

Marylebone and St. Pancras:  Their History, Celebrities, Buildings and Institutions, by George Clinch (1890) � broadside:  �At the boarded house in Marylebone Fields, to-morrow being Thursday, the 8th day of August (1723), will be performed an extraordinary Match of Boxing between Joanna Heyfield, of Newgate Market, basket-woman, and the City Championess, for Ten Pounds Note.  There has not been such a battle for these 20 years past, and as these two heroines are as brave and as bold as the ancient Amazons, the spectators may expect abundance of Diversion and Satisfaction from these Female Combatants.  They will mount at the usual hour, and the Company will be diverted with Cudgel-playing till they mount.  Note a scholar of Mister Figg, that challenged Mister Stokes last summer, fights Mister Stokes scholar 6 bouts at Staff, for three Guineas; the first blood wins.  The weather stopt the Battle last Wednesday.�

 

  The 4/9/ 1928, Evening Post, story of a widowed Elizabeth Wilkinson has at least one obvious mistake: the date of Robert Wilkinson�s execution.  Beyond that, it serves as a reminder how poor is pugilism academic research.  Most stories are the same: �She was born Elizabeth Wilkinson.�  There is no proof, and it is even illogical, that this would be her birth name.  She could have been widowed as the story claims. The only women who testified at the Robert Wilkinson trial, with an unsuccessful attempt to lie for him, was a married woman named Mary Hyde, and another woman named Katherine Wells.  If nothing else, with her open challenge to Hannah Hyfield, Elizabeth Wilkinson was openly admitting to low social class activity (in a society that prioritizes class), and even illegal, criminal behavior.  Future historians seem shocked that she would not openly offer a birth name.  It is more logical to utilize an alias.  Would she adopt an alias?  Those who surrounded Robert and Elizabeth Wilkinson�s region held a variety of fake names.  The death of this horrible murderer within two months of the emergence of this bare-knuckle fighting heroine may not be accidental.  Would she claim, perhaps untrue, to be this notorious murderer�s widow? 

 

Elizabeth Wilkinson was a feisty, angry, threatening fighter, committing illegal activity, so it is not unreasonable for her to assume a stage alias.  There is no doubt that she achieved a celebrity status which she would parlay into a certain respectability.  Boxing, or bare-knuckle fighting, remained an illegal activity throughout 1722-23.  James Peller Malcolm (1810):  �The police were at length convinced of bear-baiting and prize-fighting were in the City of London; and sent the proper officers to Spital-Fields, in June 1724, where a stage had been erected for the first time for those purposes, which was immediately pulled down by their orders.�

 

Malcolm�s Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London During the Eighteenth Century (1810):  �We, Mathew Masterson, Serjeant from Gilbralter, and Rowland Bennett from the city of Dublin in the kingdom of Ireland, masters of the said science, both having lately tasted our error by unwarily receiving wounds from Mister Figg, and resolving if possible to return the keen rebuke by our chastising swords, make this challenge the hostility of our confederate arms.�  Captain John Godfrey (1747):  �The art we had from the French�.  They brought in the flansonade and many tawdry Embroideries, which they are as inventing as, I am sorry to say, we are degenerate enough to imitate, and even mimick.  Pity!  That we should be so fond of imitating a Nation, who have always been deceiving us.�

"James Figg"

(bottom right, on horseback)
Rendering by William Hogarth

   James Figg is currently listed as the �Champion of English Boxing� from 1719-30.  This would be a surprise to Figg himself.  He was famed as a fencer and MMA fighter with a quarterstaff or dagger.  Boxing had been a novelty sport of minor standing at the theater named after him.  Figg had organized occasional boxing matches, which made money and were crowd pleasers, but he was not offering himself to fight.  Sporting Magazine (March, 1817): �It was about the year 1720.  The science of boxing might then be considered in its very dawn.  The superior knowledge that (Figg) possessed of the sword and stick.�  Captain John Godfrey (1747):  �(Figg) was the Atlas of the Sword�.  In him, Strength, Resolution and unparellel�d Judgement conspired to form a matchless Master.  There was a Majesty shone in his countenance, and blazed in all his Actions, beyond all I ever saw.  His right Leg bold and firm, and his left which could hardly ever be disturbed, gave him the surprising Advantage already proved.  He had that peculiar way of stepping in, a Parry; he knew his Arm and it�s just time of moving, put a firm Faith in that, and never let his Adversary escape his Parry; he was just as much a greater MASTER, than any other I ever saw, as he was a greater Judge of Time and Measure.�  The battles that Figg had with an older Irishman named Perkins suggest that fencing, as with boxing, was a contrast of style and experience. 

 

    Godfrey (1747):  �I have seen (Figg) in Battles with him, stand in a kind of Confusion, not knowing which way to move; for as (Figg) offered to move, the old Man would also move so warily upon the Catch, that he would disappoint him in most of his Designs.�  Sporting Magazine (1817):  �Neither Ned Sutton, Tim Buck, nor Bob Stokes, could resist his skill and valour.  (Figg) had never been defeated but once, and then by Sutton.�

 

 Malcolm�s Anecdotes Of The Manners and Customs of London During the Eighteenth Century (1811):  �August, 1725, produced a conflict for the entertainment of the visitors of Mister Figg�s amphitheatre, Oxford-road, which is characteristic of savage ferocity indeed.  Sutton, the champion of Kent, and a courageous female heroine of that County fought Stokes and his much admired consort of London; 40 Pounds was to be given to the male or female who gave most cuts with the sword, and 20 (pounds) for the most blows at quarter-staff, besides the collection in the box.�  It is reasonable to believe that this is Elizabeth Wilkinson as the �much admired consort�. 

"Irish Mary Welch"
Impressionistic rendering by Alessandra Mazzilli
 

She would partner with Stokes and advance her professional fighting beyond bare-knuckle to include fencing and other mixed-martial arts.  An Irish female MMA fighter, who does not appear to fight bare-knuckle, would become her #1 rival.

Monday, October 3rd, 1726, offered the Irish equivalent of Elizabeth Wilkinson (for the first time suggested as married).  The Weekly Journal/British Gazetteer, via Rictor Norton�s online, Early 18th Century Newspapers:  �Whereas I, Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught, and knowing the noble science of defence, and thought to be the only female of this kind in Europe, understanding there is one in this Kingdom, who has exercised on the publick stage several times, which is Missus Stokes, who is stiled the famous Championess of England; I do hereby invite her to meet me, and exercise the usual weapons practis�d on the stage, at her own amphitheatre, doubting not, but to let her and the worthy spectators see, that my judgment and courage is beyond hers.�

 

 Much of the earliest female bare-knuckle fighting were Irish women, mostly referred as �street women� or prostitutes, without names preserved.  Mary Welch must have been a special athlete worthy of her own recognition.  She had built some sort of fame as an MMA fighter before she had heard the name, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes.  Welch would have had to surrender home stage advantage to Stokes, and it appears that she was likely defeated.  It appears that Elizabeth Wilkinson married Stokes, but I could not locate a London marriage certificate for the 1720�s.  If she had been married prior, especially to a talented fencer, it would explain how she could have learned MMA technique. 

 

There must be some explanation as to how Wilkinson developed these skills.  She would have been assisted by her husband, also an MMA athlete, but fencing is not the sort of sport that you suddenly develop.  Mary Welch was an experienced swordswoman, along with quarter-staff and daggers.   If an opponent was not experienced, especially with money on the line, she would be repeatedly slashed and profusely bleed.  �I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, being well known by the name of the Invincible City Championess for my abilities and judgement in the abovesaid science; having never engaged with any of my own sex but I always come off with victory and applause, shall make no apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the reputation I have hitherto, establish�d, and shew my country, that the contest of it�s honour, is not ill entrusted in the present  battle with their Championess.� 

 

It is clear that Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes claims to have never fought MMA against anyone except men.  One sort of assumes, though it may be sexism, that the 1725, MMA mixed gender contest, pitted the men against each other, and the women vice versa.  Perhaps some would think it unlikely that a �gentleman� would engage in fencing with a woman.  We know that Robert Wilkinson and his criminal comrades used their fencing swords to rob and sexually assault women.  We also know that Ned Sutton, from that 1725 MMA mixed-gender fight, would one day use his fighting sword to cut up several women.  So it is not completely far fetched to suggest that men and women could MMA dual against one another.

A Ned Sutton fight was captured for posterity, against the greatest English MMA Champion swordsman, James Figg.  Sutton was the only person to defeat Figg, and had done so, when they settled their rivalry.  It is worth noting that Sutton appears to have nearly won this fight, as the Champion Figg received a severe wound, but convinced the umpire(s) that he inflicted this against himself. 

 

Courtesy of Doctor James Byrom (1726):

 

�And swam down the river from Thames to Gravesend;

     Where lived Mister Sutton, pipe-maker by trade,

Who hearing that Figg was thought such a stout blade,

     Resolved to put in for a share of his fame,

And so sent to challenge the champion of Thame.

 

     Figg struck the first stroke, and with a vast fury,

That lie broke his huge weapon in twain I assure you;

     And if his brave rival this blow had not warded,

His head from his shoulders had been quite discarded.

     Figg armed him again, and they took t�other tilt,

     And then Sutton�s blade ran away from its hilt;

     The weapons were frighted, but as for the men,

     In truth they ne�er-minded, but at it again.

 

Such a force in their blows, you�d have thought it a wonder

     Every stroke they received did not cleave �em asunder.

 

     But the upshot on�t was, that at that very bout,

From a wound in Figg�s side the hot blood spouted out;

     Her ladyship then seemed to think the case plain,

     But Figg stepping forth, with a sullen disdain,

Shew�d the gash, and appealed to the company round,

     If his own broken sword had not given the wound.

 

Well, they both took a drain, and returned to the battle,

     And with a fresh fury they made their swords rattle;

     While Sutton�s right arm was observed to bleed,

     By a touch from his rival, so Jove had decreed;

Just enough for to;  show that his blood was not icor,

     But made up, like Figg�s, of the common red liquor.

 

     So Jove told the gods he had made a decree,

     That Figg should hit Sutton a stroke on the knee.

     Tho� Sutton, disabled as soon as he hit him,

Would still have fought on, but Jove would not permit him;

     �Twas his fate, not his fault, that constrained him to yield,

     And thus the great Figg became lord of the field.�

 

Every participant of a boxing or fencing match was called a �champion�.  A person who fought with their bare fists was a �pugilist�.  James Figg stood above all as an MMA fighter but he did not fight with fists.  It is inaccurate to state that this was a bare-knuckle fighter �champion� from 1719-1730. The most famous bare-knuckle fighting male fighters of approximately 1725-26 were �The Venetian Gondolier�, and an Englishman named, Whittaker.  James Figg helped bring them together to fight at his amphitheatre.  Figg had promised �fair fighting� and the bout made a great deal of money.  January, 1727, broadside, via Rictor Morton�s online, Early 18th Century Newspapers:  �Whereas the British nation arrogates to itself the Precendency of all other Nations in the performance of the noble Olympick games, viz, Wrestling, Boxing, and such like Exercises as serve to discover the Manhood, more especially since the Conquest over the Venetian:  But seeing that Victor is since overcome by the famous Gritton, who bears the character of the greatest Boxer in England; now to convince the world.�  This media release was from Figg�s own amphitheatre.  The 1727 English male boxing Champion was Gritton, not James Figg.

 

The European pugilist champion was The Venetian Gondolier.  Captain John Godfrey (1747):  �(Gondelier) was a Man of extraordinary Strength, and famous for breaking the Jaw-bone in Boxing�.  His Arm took up all observation; it was surprisingly large, long, and muscular.�  The Venetian Gondolier arrived in England to fight its best bare-knuckle boxer.  Figg handled much of the negotiations, and the Englishman he deemed the best was not himself, but a guy named Whittaker.  Captain John Godfrey:  �(Whittaker) was a very extraordinary for his throwing, and continuing to pitch his weighty Body on the fallen Man�. He was a hardy Fellow, and would bear a deal of Beating.�  The Whittaker technique of throwing a man to the ground and landing atop him would dominate English bare-knuckle boxing for the next one hundred years.  The Venetian style of bare-knuckle fighting were punches thrown to the face and head region.

"James Figg"

(arms folded)
Rendering by William Hogarth

 

  An American manager of a heavyweight boxing contender once told me:  �The English judges robbed (my fighter) down there.  Well, you know, you cannot beat one of their fighters by decision in their own backyard.�  The Venetian champion would learn this in 1725 or 1726 with a bout he dominated until a body shot landed against him.  The Englishman, Figg, deemed it legal, while The Venetian Gondolier thought otherwise and stormed away.  Figg disqualified The Venetian so that Whittaker was declared the victor to the delight of the crowd.  Captain John Godfrey (1747):  �(Gondelier) pitched himself forward with his right Leg, and his Arm full extended, and, as WHITTAKER approached, gave him a Blow on the Side of the head, that knocked him quite off the Stage, which was remarkable for its Height�.  It was then all clear, and WHITTAKER had nothing to stop him but the bottom.  There was a general foreign Huzza on the side of the Venetian, pronouncing our Countryman�s Downfall.�  It is unclear how long it took Whittaker to rise and fight again.  But he arose and threw the controversial body punch (1747):  �With one English Peg in the stomach, quite a new thing to Foreigners, brought (Gondelier) on his breech�.  Finding himself so unmannerly used, (Gondelier) scorned to have any more doings with his slovenly Fist.�

 

Captain Godfrey spells the name �Gondelier� in his 1747 book.  Future �historians� would name him �Tito Alberto di Carni�.  I believe this name originated from  knowledgeable guys who created their own prize-fighting computer game.  People stole their information, believing it to be real, and then posted it onto other internet sites.  Paper published authors stole from the stealers so this fake Venetian name has become �fact�. Historians must be wary of the endangered �Tree Octopus� and other internet jokes and traps.  It is also not nice to list British Gazetteer (a mid 19th century English anecdote collection) or the London Journal as a source for 1720�s information if the historian has not seen the actual publication.  It is lazy, sloppy research and unfair to whomever they �borrowed� as their actual source.

 

The Venetian Gondolier/Whittaker bout was a great success for Figg at the venue named after him.  They had many wealthy patrons in attendance and the profits surprised Figg.  So he promoted another bare-knuckle bout at his venue, with Whittaker now recognized as the best fighter in England.  Figg matched Whittaker against a fellow Englishman named, Nathaniel Peartree.  It would still be 1726.  Captain John Godfrey:  �(Peartree) was a most admirable boxer, and I do not know one he was not a Match for, before he lost his finger.  He was famous for fighting at the Face�.  (Peartree) was cunningly determined to fight at (Whittaker�s) Eyes�.  In about six minutes both WHITTAKER�S Eyes were shut up.�  Whittaker attempted to fight blind by feeling around for Peartree but soon surrendered:  �I am not beat, but what signifies my fighting when I cannot see my man?�  There is no record of how Peartree lost his title or how Gritton would be named (even by Figg) as the English bare-knuckle champion of 1727.  A �Gretting� shows up at this time as one of the best English bare-knuckle fighters, along with Pipes, and the man who would dominate the sport for the next twenty years, Jack Broughton.

 

Sometimes, when writing about history, it is tempting to view someone as an innovative link to the future.  This is not the case of Elizabeth Wilkinson, now Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes, who remains an MMA anomaly without future peers.  She was not boxing at this time but continued with fencing, daggers and quarter-staff matches.  James Peter Malcolm, 1810:  �In Islington Road, on Monday, being the 17th of July, 1727, will be performed a trial of skill by the following combatants:  �We, Robert Barker and Mary (Welch), from Ireland, having often contaminated our swords in the abdominous corporations of such antagonists as have had the insolence to dispute our skill, do find ourselves once more necessitated to challenge, defy, and invite Mister Stokes, and his bold Amazonian virago, to meet us on stage; where we hope to give a satisfaction to the honourable Lord of our nation, who has laid a wager of twenty guineas on our heads.  They that give the most cuts to have the whole money, and the benefit of the house.  And if swords, daggers, quarter-staff, fury, rage, and resolution will prevail, our friends shall not meet with a disappointment�.�

 

The reply:  �We, James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the city of London, having already gained an universal approbation by our ability of body, dexterous hands, and courageous hearts, need not preambulate on this occasion, but rather choose to exercise the sword to their sorrow, and corroborate the general opinion of the town, than to follow the custom of our repartee antagonists.  This will be the last time of (Elizabeth) Stokes performing on the stage.  There will be a door on purpose for the reception of the gentlemen, where coaches may drive up to it, and the company come in without being crowded.  Attendance will be given at three, and the combatants mount at six.  They all fight in the same dresses as before.�


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Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes did not conclude her career on the sporting stage.  Retirement would have been understandable.  She had been on the stage for at least six years.  She was now married and perhaps motherhood was a consideration.  Her success, along with James Figg, gave them a reputation that encouraged challenges.   The following is another example of mixed-team gender MMA fighting.  It offers an Elizabeth Stokes, with pride and a noisily bad temper, along with the only hopeful proof that James Figg ever delivered or received a bare-knuckle punch, though I believe it was more likely a weapon landed against the champion swordsman.  New York Tribune (10/16/1858), a letter discovered in the possession of an American from Buffalo, via Lectures On The English Language by George Perkins Marsh (1861):  �I, FELIX MAGUIRE, first master on the Kingdom of Ireland, tutor to the noted Mister Holmes, who has fought the celebrated Mister Figg this season to general applause, the last of which battles I was engaged with him myself, whereas I hit the said Mister Figg on the belly and gave him other convincing proof of my judgement therein, on Wednesday, the 11th instant, when, contrary to all expectations, Missus Stokes, styled the invincible, matchless, unconquerable city championess, took on her to condemn the method of Mister Holmes; displaying his skill before a grand appearance assembled, which, with regret, I was obliged to hear, and in regard, though said gentlemen was my pupil, I so far resent it that I hereby invite Mister James Stokes, together with his said Elizabeth, his wife, at their own seat of valor, and at the time appointed, to face and fight me and a woman I have trained up to the science from her infancy, one of my own country, and who I doubt not will as far exceed Missus Stokes as she is said to have done those she has hitherto been concerned with.�

 

January 4th, 1727, broadside,  approved by James Figg, via Rictor Norton�s online, Early 18th Century Newspapers:  �Wrestling, Boxing and such like Exercises as serve to discover their Manhood, more especially since the Conquest over the Venetian Gondolier:  But seeing that Victor is since overcome by the famous Gritton, who bears the Character of the greatest Boxer in England.�  Gritton was challenged for his world champion status by a Russian bare-knuckle boxer, from Muscovy.  �I, John Gritton, Champion of Great Britain, will not fail agreeing with every Article�.  When, instead of Twenty guineas, if any will back their Nation for Two Hundred.� 

English Historical Boxing Championship Timeline (inaccurate):  Male � 1720�s, James Figg.  Female � 1720�s, not important�.  English Historical Boxing Championship Timeline (accurate):  Male � 1725/26, Whittaker, Peartree, Gritton. 1727, John Gritton.  Female � 1720�s, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes�.  There is better proof that the The Venetian Gondolier fought bare-knuckle fighter than the historically renowned, James Figg.  If there could be something more offensive to the English �sporting gentleman� of the 18th century than a superior French swordsman, or a superior Irish anything, it would be a talented and popular Italian bare-knuckle boxer Champion.  The Venetian Gondolier lost due to a controversial disqualification �quit� involving a legal/illegal body punch, but this was officially recorded (paraphrased):  �as proof of the Masterful technique and superiority of English blood, science, determination and intellect.�

 

The Daily Post, 1728, via New York Times (7/23/1882): �Whereas I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington ass driver, well known for my abilities in boxing in my own defence wherever it happened in my way, having been affronted by Missus Stokes styled the European Championess do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing for 10 pounds fair rise and fall; and question not but to give her such proofs of my judgement that shall oblige her to acknowledge me Championess of the Stage.� 

 

The reply:  �I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, have not fought in this way since I fought the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate 29 minutes, and gained a complete victory, (which is six years ago); but as the famous Stoke Newington ass-woman dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses.�  Boxing had undergone an enormous popularity shift within England from 1722 to 1728.  The Venetian Gondolier/Whittaker bout had proved its enormous popularity and financial profits.  The Stokes/Field bare-knuckle fight was the main bout for this October 7th event.  Men would be fighting as the under card.  There would be cudgel fighting of some sort as an opening act.  It would be followed by a male bare-knuckle bout, not for ten pounds, but a single guinea.

 

On August 21, 1730, Ned Sutton was arrested for assault involving women and his sword. Weekly Journal (8/27/1730), via Rictor Norton�s online, Early 18th Century Newspapers:  �Saturday, August 22nd�. Yesterday, Mister Sutton the prize-fighter was taken into custody, and carried to the county gaol of Surrey, for desperately wounding several women in the Mint with his sword, and in particular one woman, who has received a dangerous wound in her thigh.�  Two months later, James Figg defeated Holmes again in a purely fencing fight, but unusually violent because it is suggested he had tired of persistent challenges and chose to send a message.  James Peller Malcolm (1810):  �The horrid Mister Figg, who fought his 271st battle in October, 1730, with a Mister Holmes, whose wrist he cut to the bone.�  This may have been Figg�s final competitive fight.  He continued with exhibitions, including a December, 1731, broad-sword exhibition, against Sparks, for the Duke of Lorrain, Count Kinski.  There were thrusts but few cuts and both fighters were awarded a generous gratuity.

 

English painter, William Hogarth, included James Figg in a group scene, approximately 1732-33.  His previous two sketches of Figg displayed a bald man holding quarter-staff and a large sword.  This group painting revealed an older, possibly retired fighter, who has found his place among the elite of English society. Gone is the slim athlete, and in his place, is a large, paunchy man wearing a white wig.  In 1734, Figg was stricken with an unexplained apathy or lethargy, and was soon dead.  Whether his fighting career contributed to his early death is undetermined.  English fencing, unlike France or Italy, allowed blows to the top of the head.  The quarter-staff and back-sword, as described by Captain Godfrey, also allowed for hard blows to the body and head.  The Gentleman�s Magazine (1735):  �Brave Figg is conquer�d, who had conquer�d all, yet death can boast but little by his fall, for, half afraid, he threw a leaden dart, and maim�d him, e�er he pierc�d his noble heart.  Th� undaunted hero, grimly as he fell, look�d for his arms, and swore by heav�n and hell.  Death never shou�d his conquest have secur�d Had he fought fairly with a staff or sword.�

 

International Boxing Hall of Fame, 1992:  �James Figg is considered to have been the first heavyweight boxing champion�.  By 1719, Figg�s claim to the bare-knuckle championship was secure.  He fended off several challengers, including three-time opponent, Ned Sutton.  Figg defeated Sutton with his fists, sword and cudgel�.  Figg retained the championship until his retirement in 1734�.  Figg died in 1740.�  Their (unaccredited) primary source is likely Pierce Egan, Boxiana, 1823, a great book, but the Figg stuff is mostly inaccurate.

2012 will feature the first female Olympic boxing competition.  The Olympic committee has mandated, much to the consternation from women athletes, that they wear skirts.  Many women boxers believe this attire rule to be sexist and degrading.  In that sense, not much has changed in nearly 300 years.  Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes was an important bare-knuckle pugilist, irrespective of gender.  There is little reason for James Figg�s inclusion in the International Boxing Hall of Fame other than as a businessman or promoter.  Historical proof concurs that Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes fought bare-knuckle during the 1720�s, but not James Figg. 

 

Despite handling a dagger, fighting with a quarter-staff, wielding a fencing sword against men, while landing and receiving punches, the 1720�s �Invincible English Championess� has not been included in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.  If Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes were boxing today, she would have to wear a skirt, not by option, but as a mandated rule.  If the guys on the Olympic committee were to insist Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes �dress like a girl�, they might not want to inform her while she is holding that sword.


 


ALSO BY CHRISTOPHER JAMES SHELTON
Down goes Frazier! 'The Sunshine Showdown'
Last of the bare-knuckle championships
Death of an Irish pugilist
Sharkey-Corbett: A battle of unbeatens
200 years ago ... without gloves
The final interview of legend Al Fenn, manager of Zora Foley

Johnson vs. Jeffries, the 100th anniversary
Sonny Banks, who died fighting, would have been 70

Wyatt Earp's boxing scandal, 1896

 

 

 

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 Christopher James Shelton is a product of the American West Coast. He has lived in Los Angeles and San Ysidro, California, Tijuana , Mexico, and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Shelton was the editor of CHEEERS Soundboard, the first solely written/produced mental health recovery center newsletter in America.  He has several credits as researcher/writer/interviewer for CyberBoxingZone including: �Scandal In San Francisco (1896).� �The Last Bareknuckle Championship Bout (1889)� and �The Art and Science of Daniel Mendoza.�

  His research discovery credits include 19th century pugilists George Godfrey, Professor Hadley, Tom Hyer, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain.  Family interviews, mixed with historical research, include lightweights Jack Britton and Billy Hawkins. 

Shelton conducted the final interview with legendary Phoenix manager Al Fenn, and asked candid questions about George Foreman and H.I.V. with former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison.  HIs favorite historical article, �124-year-old woman challenges John L. Sullivan for the title," recounts the life story of a feisty 19th-century female slave named Sylvie Dubois.

 

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