My top 10 boxing songs

All-star bill featuring Dan Mendoza aka the fighting Jew, manly Victorians, Joe Louis and the Dixieaires at the Battle of Jericho, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Rocky Graziano aka the Maharishi Yoghurt, Bob Dylan and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Muhammad Ali and over-reliance on computer technology, Rich Hall and the George Foreman Grill, Wesley Willis and Batman, and Ivor Cutler.

Richard Humphries' second blocks a crucial blow from Daniel Mendoza in the 1788 bout.

Richard Humphries' second blocks a crucial blow from Daniel Mendoza in the 1788 bout. Image: NPG.

I had a drink last night in the Globe in Morning Lane, one of the best pubs in Hackney for a bit of banter. The landlord since 1988 has been Steve Powell of the London Ex-Boxers’ Association, which now has an excellent website with, among other stuff of interest, potted bios of a number of East End boxers. Everyone’s heard of Charlie Magri, and pioneer Jack Broughton and Terry Spinks are also quite well-known outside boxing circles, but I’d never heard of the following gentleman, a tribute to whom set me looking for more boxing verse and songs, listed here more or less chronologically.

The list

  1. Bare-knuckle fighter Dan Mendoza (LEBA / WP), maybe of Aldgate, later of 3 Paradise Row, Bethnal Green, and finally of Horseshoe Alley, Petticoat Lane, is the villain of The Odiad; Or, Battle of Humphries and Mendoza; An Heroic Poem (1788). This is despite allegedly losing this their first fight – he won the other two – as a result of foul play by Richard Humphries’ second, Tom Johnson: for in this versification of racial-religious stereotype Mendoza is the scheming artful Portuguese Sephardi, and Humphries the honest British Christian hero. OK, it’s not a song, but it could be:

         All hail! dread Prince, who, with a British blow,
    Shall lay some Dauphin, or some Louis low:
    Hail Cambria’s Champion! in my Cause appear,
    And thou F-t-k, second Pollux, hear;
    And you fell Warriour, whose enormous Nose,
    With fierce projection, threatens obvious Foes;
    Who, far as barb’rous Afric, learning fought,
    By a Black Champion’s black devices taught. [1]Publisher’s note: The Major’s Black Valet, who acts as Drill-Serjeant on these Occasions.
    And on the Golden Day that op’d the Lift,
    Grasp’d Bloodless Guineas in your griping Fist;
    Whilst Judah sick’ning at the luckless Fray,
    Curs’d her foul fate, and empty sneak’d away.

    It’s a shame that the nationalist bollocks puts so much iambic pentameter beyond the pale, because the descriptions of society and fighting are brilliant:

         What tho’ no Cannons thunder in my line,
    Nor Chiefs that glory in their stem divine;
    Nor whizzing Darts, nor clanging Shields you hear,
    Nor glitt’ring Blades, nor waving Plumes appear;
    Dire are the Scenes – the Fist by Fist repell’d,
    Black Eyes block’d up, and into mountains swell’d;
    The shatter’d Rib – the Nose’s broken bridge,
    The Head whose bumps protrude in many a ridge;
    Dissever’d Lips, whilst rattling Teeth around,
    Driv’n from distorted Jaws bestrew the ground;
    Dry Drubs and hollow Bangs resounds my song,
    Thwack follows Thwack, and Man drives Man along.

    Humphries training methods would not pass muster now – Stingo is strong ale or beer, says the OED, “perhaps simulating a Spanish or Italian ending”:

         The Palms prepar’d, th’ important day decreed,
    Each breathes destruction, and each pants to bleed.
    First, HUMPHRIES sought the spot, some friend to Box,
    Where Wolsey fell’d his first Paternal Ox. [2]Ipswich
    Here wrapt in Swanskin, with the cock he rose,
    The cock, who kindles courage, whilst he crows;
    Round the wide heath his wakeful steps directs,
    The closing Gripe, the cautious Guard projects:
    The pois’d huge weights, and made his bellows blow,
    Anxious to match is longer-winded Foe;
    Now with fierce Ripshaw, savage as himself,
    Pull’d the rear sirloin from the bending shelf:
    Now down in copious draughts the Stingo flow’d,
    Brac’d every nerve, and in his gizzard glow’d.


         O sing, what deeds were done! what Gods appear’d!
    Who damp’d th’ exulting, who the drooping cheer’d.
    Down dropt the pallid Jew, and breathless sunk,
    A batter’d Mummy, an exhausted Trunk.
    On wings of woe the sable Carrier flies, [3]Publisher’s note: Mendoza informed his friends in town, that he would communicate the success of the battle to them by dispatching a pigeon; if victorious, a white one; a black one, if worsted.
    All ominous she hovers in the skies;
    Duke’s Place, and Hounsditch, at the portent look,
    And all their black-ey’d Daughters shriek’d and shook.
    Him, as he wallow’d low, and sprawling lay,
    His chap-fall’n brethren bore with groans away;
    But swell’d with triumph, and with bruises too,
    The gaping Throng their Christian Champion view;
    On their broad brawny backs the Victor raise,
    Amidst the thunder of a Mob’s huzzas.

    Mendoza’s treatise and tutor, The art of boxing (1792), is still a good introduction. In 1795 he followed his own advice and closed on John Jackson, longer-armed and heavier, but hadn’t anticipated his opponent in the fifth round seizing his hair and pummelling him beyond recovery. Mendoza’s subsequent career include a splendid episode in 1809 when, working with other Jewish toughs, and paid by the theatre owners, he engaged in a campaign of violence and intimidation against those protesting higher ticket prices – the so-called Old Price Riots. When boxing was a Jewish sport by Allen Bodner may be of interest.

  2. Changes in the language mean that “The boxers” by Mr. Appleby, in Parsley’s Lyric Repository for 1790, may now have a certain appeal for camp aficionados of, for example, Turkish wrestling:

    Ye brawny-bon’d fellows, come lift to my ditty,
    Where boxers assemble to fight let’s away;
    Black eyes, bloody noses and cross-buttocks must fit ye,
    ‘Tis the ton, ’tis the tippee, the rage of the day;
    Then bruisers attend,
    To the call of a friend,
    Come haste to the battle, and make no delay;
    Come see boxing felicity,
    Which is all the delight of the grave and the gay.

    Here‘s a version of the tune, “Come haste to the wedding“, recorded from Mrs. Ben Scott (violin) and Myrtle B. Wilkinson (tenor banjo) by Sidney Robertson Cowell (much more than just the wife of Henry) in Turlock, California on October 31, 1939:

  3. Ian and Jennifer Partridge perform a cliché-ridden, and therefore essential, Victorian boxing song on their album Play the game:

    Tis but a sense of duty when you’re championing a beauty
    To defend her in a manner quite surprising

  4. The Dixieaires, “Joe Louis was a fightin’ man” (1950) – “was”, because Louis had announced his retirement in 1949:

    Now all you great fighters, you listen to me
    (Just like the battle of Jericho)
    You’ll never win a battle until you get on your knees[4]This trope, popular with Charles Stanley and other later religious entrepreneurs, seems to be Matthew 26:36-40, which however doesn’t mention knees:

    Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.
    And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
    Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.
    And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
    And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?

    (Way down in Jericho)
    Old Peter, Moses and James and John
    (Just like the battle of Jericho)
    Joshua fit the battle, and the battle was won
    (Way down in Jericho)
    Now let us talk about the Brown Bomber
    Tell the nation the story
    Let us talk about the Brown Bomber
    Joe Louis was a fighting man.

  5. The fight game (1963; host page), a “radio ballad” of boxing songs and interviews with Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, and Peggy Seeger. This segue and what follows are magical:

    Who would have a boxer for a husband or a son?
    A fighter in the family means your worrying’s never done
    They leave the house as right as rian, they’re off to win a prize
    But they get so knocked about they’re often hard to recognise.

  6. Rocky Graziano, NBA world middleweight champion 1947-8, as The Maharishi Yoghurt, in a Beatles parody from the late 60s (the images are priceless):

    I may indulge in yoga, it depends on where I sit
    I sometimes eat some yoghurt, just to keep me fit
    I don’t smoke funny cigarettes, and never take a drink
    Cos nothing gets me higher, than just to sit and think.

  7. I know nothing about Mister Calypson, but the sound and lyrics on “Muhammad Ali” point to 1970. The song refers to Ali’s early world title fights against Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Henry Cooper, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley; to his suspension following his refusal to be drafted for Vietnam; and to perhaps the most curious incident in his career, his “loss” to Rocky Marciano in a fantasy match organised by one Murry Woroner in 1969 using data analysis carried out on an NCR 315:

    The computer conspired against Mohamed Ali
    In the computer fight, aha, with good old Rocky
    Ali names the round he will stop you in and decide your fate
    The speed of a lightweight, the punch of a heavyweight.

  8. Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” (1975) is about the faulty murder conviction of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who challenged for the WBC/WTF world middleweight crown in 1964:

    Rubin could take a man out with just one punch
    But he never did like to talk about it all that much
    It’s my work he’d say and I do it for pay
    And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way
    Up to some paradise
    Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice
    And ride a horse along a trail
    But then they took him to the jailhouse
    Where they try to turn a man into a mouse.

  9. Rich Hall, “George Foreman grill” (1990s?):

    He went eight rounds in Kinshasa with Mohammed Ali
    He didn’t float like a butterfly or sting like a bee
    He just lay on that canvas all quiet and still
    But he was dreaming of the plans for a cheap sandwich grill
    I’ve got a George Foreman Grill, George Foreman Grill
    If you won’t cook my dinner, George Foreman will.

    Bonus track: Teresa Sykes‘ gospel tribute to the kitchen appliance in question:

  10. Wesley Willis, “I wupped Batman’s ass”:

    Batman got on my nerves
    He was running me amok
    He really killed me calling me a bum

  11. Finally, no Top 10 would be complete without a stadium song. King J over at Bleacher Report has a good list, including the Rocky theme, “Eye of the tiger”, and loads of hiphop, though he omits “Pop goes the weasel,” leitmotif in the Three Stooges’ boxing short Punch drunks (1934). But I dream of the moment when a loop of Ivor Cutler’s “I’m happy (and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not)” accompanies some brave soul to the ring:


Some excellent numbers have been omitted: for example, Prince Buster’s “Sting like a bee” and “Linger on”, both dedicated to Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, because they are instrumentals:

Another example, Buster “Buzz” Ezell’s “Joe Louis blues” (1943), which contains bebop fight onomatopoeia, but whose lyrics I can’t decipher:

A third example, Paul Simon’s “The boxer”, which doesn’t do it for me, even in this cover by Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Shawn Colvin:

Suggestions welcome. For example, I don’t think I know (of) boxing songs in other languages, except for Pindar’s ode to the champion Hagesidamus in 476 B. C., which I met today in Diane Arnson Svarlien’s English translation:

There is a time when men’s need for winds is the greatest, and a time for waters from the sky, the rainy offspring of clouds. But when anyone is victorious through his toil, then honey-voiced odes become the foundation for future fame, and a faithful pledge for great deeds of excellence. This praise is dedicated to Olympian victors, without stint. My tongue wants to foster such themes; but it is by the gift of a god that a man flourishes with a skillful mind, as with anything else. For the present rest assured, Hagesidamus son of Archestratus: for the sake of your boxing victory, I shall loudly sing a sweet song, an adornment for your garland of golden olive, while I honor the race of the Western Locrians. There, Muses, join in the victory-song; I shall pledge my word to you that we will find there a race that does not repel the stranger, or is inexperienced in fine deeds, but one that is wise and warlike too. For neither the fiery fox nor loud-roaring lions change their nature.


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