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Daniel Mendoza, Professor of Pugilism: How a Sephardic Jew in 18th-Century Britain Became One of the World’s First Sports Stars
Before Mendoza, boxers generally stood still and merely swapped punches. Mendoza’s style consisted of more than simply battering opponents into submission; his “scientific style” included much defensive movement. He developed an entirely new style of boxing, incorporating defensive strategies, such as what he called “side-stepping”, moving around, ducking, blocking, and, all in all, avoiding punches. At the time, this was revolutionary, and Mendoza was able to overcome much heavier opponents as a result of this new style. Though he stood only 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm) and weighed only 160 pounds (73 kg), Mendoza was England’s sixteenth Heavyweight Champion from 1792 to 1795, and is the only middleweight to ever win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. In 1789 he opened his own boxing academy and published the book The Art of Boxing on modern “scientific” style boxing which every subsequent boxer learned from.
Mendoza helped transform the popular English stereotype of a Jew from a weak, defenceless person into someone deserving of respect. He is said to have been the first Jew to talk to the King, George III. Mendoza was second for Tom Molineaux, a freed Virginia slave, in his fights.
Daniel Mendoza’s first fight occurred in 1780 when he was aged 16. Mendoza was working for a tea dealer in Aldgate. The fight was not a prize fight for a purse but a contest to settle a dispute with a porter over his remuneration for a consignment of tea. Mendoza stated that the porter, rather charging his regular fee, behaved in a manner unfit for a gentleman, demanding twice the usual price. After much arguing between the proprietor of the tea dealership and the porter, the porter suggested that they should settle the dispute in a duel with fists. Mendoza believing that the porter was bullying his employer accepted the challenge on his employer’s behalf. The duel took place in the street outside the tea dealership in a hastily constructed ring. The fight lasted for forty five minutes ending when the porter declared that he was unable to continue. This victory brought a small measure of fame to Mendoza, stories of the fight spread through the surrounding neighbourhoods; portraying Mendoza as the talented whippersnapper who had not just beaten but thrashed his larger opponent.
His early boxing career was defined by three bouts with his former mentor Richard Humphries between 1788 and 1790. The first of these was lost because Humphries’ second (the former champion, Tom Johnson) blocked a blow. The third bout set history in another way. It was the first time spectators were charged an entry-payment to a sporting event. The fights were hyped by a series of combative letters in the press between Humphries and Mendoza.
Mendoza’s memoirs report that he got involved in three fights whilst on his way to watch a boxing match. The reasons were: (a) someone’s cart cut in; (b) he felt a shopkeeper was trying to cheat him; (c) he did not like how a man was looking at him.