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BOOK EXTRACT: Fighting Talk by Sir Robert Jones.
His latest book sees Sir Robert examines the use of boxing terms in our everyday language.
AT THE DROP OF A HAT
This expression can be traced back to 18th-century Irish bare-knuckle pugilism (ready to fight at the drop of a hat) and is a variation of ‘throw your hat in the ring’.
A more literal usage comes from 19th-century America, where a hat was sometimes dropped to signify the commencement of a fight or a race.
‘Most consumers are ready to believe that the products will improve their health or appearance at the drop of a hat’, Thai Professor of Neurology Dr Thiravat Hemachudha told the Bangkok Post in July 2010, in a criticism of herbal supplements.
‘Now that [foreign investment] has been superseded by Government intervention at the drop of a hat and without consultation . . . ’ editorialised The New Zealand Herald in March 2008, on a xenophobic, politically motivated government intervention.
The phrase is used today to indicate a readiness to do something without precautionary consideration, rather than its original boxing application to mark the commencement of proceedings.
SAVED BY THE BELL
A boxer is said to have been saved by the bell if it rings to terminate a round while he is under attack or taking a count and in poor shape. In the outside world the phrase is applied to someone being rescued from a harrowing or potentially dangerous situation. It was first used figuratively beyond the ring in 1959.
The phrase originated in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel. In a description of a boxing match in February 1893, one of the fighters, Martin Flaherty, was described as having been ‘saved by the bell in the earlier rounds’. Despite that, Flaherty won by a knockout in the 32nd round.
Since about 1990, rule changes adopted globally mean floored boxers can no longer be saved by the bell and, except for the last round, referees continue counting over a downed fighter after the bell. If he doesn’t rise by the count of ten he will be deemed to be KO’d. This change was introduced as a safety measure to prevent badly stunned boxers being partially revived by their cornermen and sent out for the next round.
The common use of a bell to mark the beginning or end of a school period means the phrase is frequently applied in the school setting. An American television sitcom based in a school, which ran from 1989 to 1993, was titled Saved by the Bell.
An article by a Sydney Morning Herald columnist in 2009, in which she described her relief at the end of the school holidays and the return of her children to school, was wittily headed ‘Saved by the bell’.
In January 2012 Britain’s Guardian newspaper used the heading ‘Saved by the bell’ on an article recounting the value of bell-ringing, cycle-riding fruit vendors in Sri Lanka.
While the phrase was popularised through boxing, some social historians suggest an older and even more dramatic origin. In 16th-century England, when the graves of long-buried deceased were dug up so the bones could be moved to a bone house and the coffin reused, it was noted that a small percentage of the coffins had scratch marks inside. The precautionary practice of tying a length of string to a corpse’s thumb and linking it up through the grave to a bell was therefore introduced. From this practice came the term ‘dead ringer’, which means a certainty. It faded out when, unsurprisingly, no-one came back from the dead.
It should be noted that this explanation for ‘saved by the bell’ is considered by etymologists to be mythological. Nevertheless, the fear of being buried prematurely is not uncommon. Both George Washington and Frederic Chopin gave deathbed instructions to wait for three days after their demise before burial. ‘Safety coffins’, which had provision for escape, were patented as recently as 1955 in America.
RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
When Muhammad Ali fought champion George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 for the heavyweight title, the flamboyant promoter Don King branded the contest ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, thereby beginning the practice of attaching a catchy marketing label to a major bout. Hitherto, only the label ‘Fight of the Century’ had ever been applied to a fight.
After beating Foreman, the following year Ali defended the title in the Philippines against Joe Frazier, again a King promotion. King dubbed this contest ‘The Thrilla in Manila’.
Journalists have since borrowed ‘rumble in the jungle’ and used it to describe conflicts in a wide range of non-boxing contexts.
In December 2000 the New Statesman began an exposé on alleged genocide in the Amazon, ‘A rumble in the jungle’.
Britain’s Daily Mail titled a story on a pay row over the I’m a Celebrity — Get Me Out of Here television show ‘Rumble in the jungle’ in November 2008.
Acerbic British journalist Julie Burchill wrote a story in The Independent on Sunday in November 2010 in which she condemned the catchcry ‘You are what you eat’. The item was titled ‘Why the holier-than-thou hypocrites will always be rumbled in the jungle’.
The Economist headed an editorial in April 2011 ‘Rumble in the jungle’, this describing growing African concerns about Chinese investment on the continent.
The magazine used the expression again the following month, heading an account of destruction of the Brazilian rainforest ‘A rumble about the jungle’.
In April 2012 The Economist used the phrase yet again, this time atop a story about a legal row between computer giants Oracle and Google: ‘Rumble in the Java jungle’. The magazine illustrated the story by showing the company’s bosses grappling in a ring as wrestlers, despite the boxing-sourced headline.
FIGHTING HIS CORNER
While an obvious reference to a boxer’s cornermen and the guidance they offer, this is an odd expression given that the cornermen do no actual fighting. That has never deterred some trainers and managers from talking about their charges in the first person. Jack Kearns, the elderly manager of Archie Moore, the world light heavyweight champion, croaked to bemused journalists in 1951, ‘I’ll fight anyone in the world. I’ll fight Marciano or failing that I’ll take on Walcott.’ At the time Marciano was the world heavyweight champion, Walcott was his predecessor, and Kearns was 76 years of age.
Inspired by this, the famed New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling wrote an essay in the magazine the following year titled ‘Kearns by a Knockout’ following a Moore victory.
Kearns was matched by Marciano’s similarly aged manager, Al Weill, who would unabashedly tell journalists how he, Weill, had knocked out Walcott, Moore, etc.
In his 2008 book Four Kings, veteran Boston boxing writer George Kimball recounted how cut-man Eddie Aliano claimed to have ‘stopped’ (KO’d) the great 1980s boxer Thomas Hearns in his championship fight with Iran Barkley. Aliano was in Barkley’s corner, but his cut-healing services were not required to be called on, a minor consideration that did not deter Aliano from personally claiming the victory.
Not all cornermen talk this way. Responding to the suggestion that he was the world’s best trainer, America’s Freddie Roach modestly told USA Today in March 2010, ‘When the bell rings I sit down and they fight. The key to my success is hanging out with good fighters.’
Conversely, boxers frequently describe themselves in the plural, for example, ‘We trained hard for this fight’, the ‘we’ obviously incorporating the boxer’s cornerman team, despite, again, the cornermen personally doing no training.
This practice is equally commonplace in politics, commerce and law, all being stressful, adversarial activities. In 2008 Barack Obama campaigned with the catchcry ‘Yes we can’, and his audiences joyfully and mindlessly chanted it back in unison. What we ‘can’ was never elucidated, but the pluralistic rhetoric served its purpose of masking the less altruistic reality of all campaigning politicians, namely personal ambition. In fairness, it was subsequently revealed that this slogan appalled Obama when it was first put to him. He dismissed it as corny and childish, but his wife Michelle talked him into adopting it.
However, Obama’s 2008 collectivisation of his personal ambition was a mere trifle compared to that of aspirant Rick Santorum in the 2012 Republican race for the presidential nomination. The word ‘I’ literally vanished from his every utterance, replaced by ‘we’.
So too with 90-year-old Californian preacher Harold Camping, who amused the world with his emphatic assurance of an imminent Judgment Day apocalypse in early 2011. When the predicted day came and went, he claimed he had miscalculated and set a new date for later in the year. After that too failed, he apologised in early 2012, saying, ‘WE were mistaken’.
There’s a clear pattern to this collectivising of an individual’s onerous activities and ambitions, best epitomised by lawyers. Legal practitioners universally use the word ‘we’ when referring to their clients’ cases, but cease abruptly and instantly distant themselves from their clients, changing their references to ‘you’, should the litigation fail. The same abrupt change happens with losing boxers’ cornermen.
‘When I win a fight, we won it. When I lose a fight, I lost it’, 1960s light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano once observed.
Given the emotional stress attached to so many adversarial activities, it is perhaps understandable that combatants should use the collectivising plural as a comforting device that they are not alone in their battles.
A new millennium trend in boxing is for the cornermen to be ignored and instead credit given by a winning fighter to God, who apparently is a fight devotee, evidently not averse to divine intervention on behalf of his favourites. Assessed on such attributions, God is a particular fan of Latin American and black American fighters.
God stepped up his involvement to a more participatory role in July 2010, at least according to the IBF (International Boxing Federation) world super featherweight champion of the time, American Robert Guerrero. After successfully defending his championship Guerrero assured a television interviewer, ‘It was not me who threw the punches but God; every one of them.’ For the record, God punched straight and fast and demonstrated excellent durability under pressure, although his infallibility lapsed briefly when he took a short count in the final round.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was plainly unaware of God’s fistic activities for in a speech in March 2006 he erroneously claimed, ‘God has no interests . . . God is never fighting his corner; never pursuing private goals.’
The metaphor ‘fighting his corner’ is commonplace in political journalism, where it refers to the supporters who are able to be mustered by a politician who is under pressure or aspiring to higher office. But it is also widely used in diverse situations when someone is vigorously defending their position on a contentious issue.
‘Kilroy-Silk leaves BBC still fighting his corner’ was the headline on a January 2004 article in The Scotsman on the television host’s controversial anti-Arab remarks.
‘Foot is still inside Labour fighting his corner’ reported The Guardian in July 2005, on the former party leader’s 92nd birthday.
‘. . . since “Western” civilisation is essentially a conservative exercise, one can still expect to find the old WASP values fighting their corner hard’ wrote Professor Norman Davies in his 2006 book Europe East and West.
‘Abbott can fight but he needs a solid cornerman’ was the heading to an article by political columnist Peter Hatcher in The Sydney Morning Herald in February 2010. This was a reference to Opposition leader Tony Abbott and the problems he faced through the erratic behaviour of his shadow finance minister.
‘Fighting in Mr Petricevic’s corner was Bruce Stewart QC . . .’ reported New Zealand’s Dominion Post newspaper in May 2010, in reference to a court appearance arising from an insolvency dispute.
‘. . . the Church is used to fighting its corner’ opined The Economist in August 2010, in a feature on the decline in European Catholicism.
‘. . . he had to rely on proxies to fight his corner’ The Economist reported in June 2011 of exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister was contesting the Thai election as his de facto stand-in.
Sir Bob Jones is a leading businessman, colourful and controversial commentator and boxing aficionado. Over a period of years he made careful note of how often boxing terms cropped up, and then retracted their etymological origins in boxing history.