There is much drama to this sport in which the essence of its athletes is revealed as in no other human activity, save war. But, as with war, there is no romance to boxing despite what some writers (Hemingway) would have you believe. Trust me on this.
Great books, though, and a ripe area for collection. The cornerstone volumes are:
MILES, Henry Downes. Pugilistica: Being One Hundred and Forty-Four Years of the History of British Boxing. Containing Lives of the Most Celebrated Pugilists, and Full Reports of their Battles From Contemporary Newspapers and Periodicals, with Authentic Portraits from Original Prints, Paintings, and Busts, Biographical Details, Personal Anecdotes, Sketches of the Principal Patrons of the P.R., Etc. The Only Complete and Chronological History of the Ring, from Fig and Broughton, 1719-40, to the Last Championship Battle of King and Heenen, in December, 1863. London: Weldon & Co., [n.d., 1880]. First complete edition. With one hundred portraits and miscellaneous text illustrations in black and white.
The first volume of this massive history of the “sweet science” in Britain was issued in 1866 and has become exceedingly scarce with only three copies located in KVK/OCLC, and LOC providing only a description from a contemporary catalogue. The whole was not actually completed and published until the edition of 1880, which contained a new preface by the author.
“As may be anticipated in a work consisting of more than 1500 pages, covering a period of 144 years, these volumes give probably the most comprehensive coverage of all the similar works” (Hartley, History & Bibliography of Boxing Books).
EGAN, Pierce. Boxiana or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism from the Days of the Renowned James Figg and Jack Broughton to the Heroes of the Later Milling Era Jack Scroggins and Tom Hickman (1812).
Early 19th century English sportswriter/journalist Pierce Egan (1772 - 1849) wrote magazine pieces about boxing, which at the time was conducted under the Broughton Rules of 1743 despite being banned in England; fair play amongst outlaws. (The Broughton rules would be superceded by the London Prize Ring rules of 1838 which, in turn, were replaced by the Marquis of Queensberry rules of 1867 upon which the modern sport is based).
It was Egan who bestowed upon the sport its immortal descriptive moniker, “The Sweet Science.” (“The Sweet Science of Bruising!” in its complete form).
His boxing articles were collected into bound volumes and published under the title Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism. The first volume was published in 1813 (although the title page reads 1812, due to the arrangement, common at the time, where the book was sent to subscribers in installments before being released to the public.) Four more volumes followed, in 1818, 1821, 1824, and 1829. Illustrations were by George Cruikshank and are amongst his earliest work.
Egan and Boxiana were reintroduced to a modern audience by journalist A.J. Liebling, whose series of essays on boxing published in The New Yorker from 1950-1964 frequently referenced Egan. Liebling titled his first collection of these boxing essays The Sweet Science (1956) in Egan’s honor. (The other Liebling boxing collection is titled A Neutral Corner, 1990)). Liebling is THE finest writer on the sport, ever. In 2002, Sports Illustrated named The Sweet Science as the number one sports book of all time.
Liebling, a trenchant critic of the press, is primarily known for his eternal verities, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one;” and “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” He was also one of the twentieth century’s best writers in English about food.
First editions of Boxiana are scarce. The Folio Society issued a reprint of the first volume in 1976, and in 1998 Nicol Island Publishers of Toronto issued a reprint of the first volume and announced plans to reissue all five volumes.
Boxiana can be accessed and read via Google Book Search.
Here’s a bit of boxing ephemera I picked up in 1976. The guy pictured looks like Larry Talbot on a bad night during a full moon. As I’ve written elsewhere, each piece of ephemera tells an interesting story. The story here is short, sweet, and, given my milquetoast childhood and adolescence, completely unbelievable, so much so that I can hardly believe it myself: You hit me, it’s a misdemeanor. I hit you, it’s a class A felony, the judge throws the book at me, it hits me square up-side the head, and I have plenty of free time, 5-10 years, to read to my heart’s content: Mr. Bemis on Cell Block 9.
Hartley 1365 (Pugilistica). Graesse II 464 (Boxiana).