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The Lion & the Eagle by Iain Manson

Release date: 19th November, 2008
Publisher: Sports Books Ltd

List Price: £14.99
Our Price: £10.99
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The Lion & the Eagle
By Iain Manson

4sportsbooks.co.uk price: £10.99, saving £4.00 on rrp

Over the past two decades, Britain's ruling political class has become particularly adept at ensuring that blind eyes are turned whenever it's deemed politically expedient. Perhaps it's because we know this that no-one ever resigns, even when caught red-handed, though one wonders whether our political masters would consider keeping quiet if a high-profile sporting event ever threatened to break the law.

This might sound like a hypothetical question, but back in 1860, the biggest prize fight ever held in Great Britain very nearly didn't take place for it was a bare-knuckle affair fought at Farnborough between England's Tom Sayers and America's John Heenan.

That was until the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Palmerston, instructed his police force to let the fight go ahead because to ban it would probably have caused civil unrest. However, Palmerston didn't simply tell the police to turn a blind eye, he too was so excited by the prospect of seeing the two men do battle that he actually attended the fight in person.

Iain Manson has written a terrific account of what was boxing's first world championship bout, a duel that caught the public's attention in a way no previous sporting event had.

A report from the Illustrated Times described the nation's mood ahead of the fight which, it said, "had been the subject of conversation in every circle of society for a month past." The popular newspaper maintained that "the people were all in favour of the fight coming off." On the morning of the bout, when the train carrying the great and the good left London en route to Hampshire, the paper reported that it "carried numbers of both Houses in plenty. Authors, poets, painters, soldiers and even clergymen were present."

Policemen on horseback in "knee-length navy blue coats and stovepipe hats, armed with cutlasses, watched their progress with grim impassivity." They followed the train's progress, but did not intervene. Upon reaching Farnborough, the train's occupants alighted and trudged across open fields and through hedges on their way to the clandestine open air boxing 'ring'.

Their numbers were swelled by villagers formerly "cowering behind their closed windows" who charged up to catch a view of proceedings and watch now muddied noblemen (there were 87 of them) part with a colossal ten shillings (50p) an enormous sum for the time, to gain entry into the inner-ring.

Manson has undertaken a huge amount of research in piecing together the build-up and the aftermath of this famous fight. In part, it reads like a well-paced social history, the narrative simply racing along as we career towards the world championship bout itself, rushing like Farnborough's inhabitants to see what happens.

It would be unfair to reveal the outcome here, although boxing aficionados will already know the result. That should not prevent them and anyone else with a love of sporting history reading this excellent account. Every member of Parliament should read it too.


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