The popular TodayIFoundOut.com site offers this in-depth, entertaining and mostly-accurate explanation of the generic late-19th century pugilism fighting stance.
The sweeping claim that Victorian boxers held their guards “low” (relative to the modern style) because they preferred to target the body over the face is mildly controversial. Manuals of boxing and written reports on boxing matches during the bare knuckle era consistently demonstrate punches to all legal targets. It’s worth noting that the way pugilists posed for portrait paintings and photographs did not necessarily reflect their actual fighting stances, which in turn depended very much on individual styles, measure and the stances and tactics adopted by their opponents. Also, for the record, “pugilism” should be pronounced with a soft “g”, as in “pew-jill-ism”.
Master magician, actor, magic consultant/historian and martial arts aficionado Ricky Jay has passed away at the age of 70.
Although Jay’s fame was due to his extensive accomplishments as a scholar and performer, his long-term involvement with the martial arts dated back to the 1970s, when he took up karate. He later admitted that, as a professional sleight-of-hand artist, the danger of hand injuries from intensive martial arts training had been a foolish risk.
After karate came aikido – a style that shares more than a few principles with the art of legerdemain. His aikido sensei was Fred Neumann, who would recall challenging Jay to repeat a particularly confounding sleight of hand trick while Jay was showering after a training session. Without missing a beat, and with no evident means of preparation, Jay casually performed the feat again, stunning his sensei.
Ricky Jay’s 1977 book Cards as Weapons quickly became an underground cryptohoplological classic, purporting (with a fairly straight face) to teach a unique method of self-defence via card-scaling; the venerable magician’s feat of hurling playing cards with great accuracy and force. The book combined absurdist humour, quirky historical scholarship and practical instruction, also featuring “guest appearances” by some of Jay’s acquaintances, including singer Emmylou Harris and scientist Carl Sagan.
Twenty years later, when he was cast as a villain in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, Jay was asked to exert his card-throwing prowess in a scene with Pierce Brosnan as Bond:
At one point, they wanted me to throw cards as weapons to attack Bond, but the first time they asked me to do it in rehearsal, I was an enormously long distance away from Pierce Brosnan, and I warned them that the cards went very, very hard and fast, and they said no no, they had someone in front of it to block the shot, and I again said, “I don’t think you should do that,” they said, “No, no, it’ll be okay.” And Pierce seemed to be fine with it.
So I whaled a card, I don’t know how far, 50 or 75 feet away, and they said, “Just throw it at his face,” and I hit him right above the eye, and realized that I almost ruined the most lucrative franchise in the history of film. Suddenly that scene was no longer in the movie. [Laughs.] So in a way that was horribly disappointing, but the rest of it was fun.
Here’s the master himself, performing a number of his “cards as weapons” stunts:
In 2002, Jay playfully scaled cards at action movie star Jackie Chan during a mutual appearance on a talk show hosted by Conan O’Brien.
Throughout his career, the magician frequently drew parallels between the disciplines of close-up magic and martial arts, and likened the mentor/mentee relationships of traditional magic apprenticeship to those of a sensei and his students. Although he “retired” into more sedate and academic pursuits later in life, Jay’s involvement in the martial arts continued via his close friendship with playwright, screenwriter and jiujutsuka David Mamet. Mamet cast Jay as an unscupulous fight promoter in his peculiar, cerebral martial arts movie Redbelt (2008):
And finally, here’s Jay reciting a poem written for (and about) him by the late Shel Silverstein, encapsulating the arcane dangers of a life lived in the service of deception:
Rest in peace, Ricky Jay – man of mystery, scholar of the obscure and sworn enemy of the mundane.
Instructor Christoph Reinberger (in the knee breeches) and a student demonstrate 19th century pugilistic sparring. Notably different from modern boxing, “classic pugilism” may include:
the milling guard – a dynamic guard involving rotating the fists in vertical circles
lunging left lead punches rather than short left jabs
spinning “pivot punches”
choppers (hammerfist/backfist punches)
standing grappling and throwing from the clinch position
The so-called “secret style of boxing” developed by Edward Barton-Wright and Pierre Vigny was never explicitly detailed in Barton-Wright’s writing on Bartitsu. However, it likely resembled the generic 19th century style with the confirmed addition of parries designed to injure the opponent’s attacking limbs, and with the confirmed tactical aim of entering to close quarters and finishing the fight with jiujitsu.
A six-minute item on the gentlemanly mixed martial art of Bartitsu, as featured on a recent episode of BBC2’s Celebrity Antiques Road Trip and including demonstrations by the Manley Academy of Historical Swordsmanship:
For the sake of strict historical accuracy, there’s no evidence that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually studied Bartitsu (in fact, the evidence suggests that he wasn’t even especially familiar with it). That said, it’s great to see another precis treatment of the art and its intriguing history in the mainstream media, and media doesn’t get much more mainstream than the Celebrity Antiques Road Trip.
Also worthy of note is that the show benefits the BBC’s charity Children in Need, which funds a wide range of projects helping children and disadvantaged young people throughout the UK.
The popular TV comedy series Drunk History offers its inebriated (and somewhat NSFW) take on the suffrajitsu saga, starring Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) as Emmeline Pankhurst, Maria Blasucci (Ghost Girls) as Edith Garrud and Kat Dennings (2 Broke Girls) as Gert Harding.
Chilean stickfighter Andres Morales demonstrates a shadow-fighting exercise with a ball-handled cane in this new video. Most of the techniques shown are from the Vigny style, with some reverse-grip influence from Arturo Bonafont.
A spectator at one of Pierre Vigny’s Bartitsu cane demonstrations during March of 1900 wrote:
Everybody has heard of this new defence and offence, but it was a revelation to the audience to see the splendid development, the dexterity and quickness, and even grace, of the exponents of this really wonderful science.
A striking feature of the training is that in all the exercises the pupil must become ambidextrous; in fact, the rapid transference of the walking-stick from one hand to the other was, to the uninitiated at least, one of the most powerful factors in offence and defence, and one likely to prove most puzzling to the opponent.