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NONFICTION : THE MANLY ART: BARE-KNUCKLE PRIZE FIGHTING IN AMERICA by Elliott J. Gorn (Cornell University: $24.95; 316 pp.).

December 28, 1986|Earl Gustkey

For followers of 20th-Century pugilists such as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Marvin Hagler and Mike Tyson, Miami University Prof. Elliott J. Gorn offers a look at such 19th-Century battlers as James (Deaf) Burke, Abraham Vanderzee, Jack Slack and Sam O'Rourke.

He weaves a portrait of early 1800s urban America--to prize fighting's roots in its ethnic communities, to showdowns between neighborhood champions. Boxing, Gorn found, began as an urban working-class phenomenon, when Americans suffered from appalling job-related mortality, when half of New York City's children died before age 6. In the era's maleness, Gorn concludes, boxing made bloodshed "comprehensible." Urban working-class men were inspired by a boxer "facing danger with courage . . . (returning) violence rather than passively accepting it."

Gorn begins his readable history with the early 1800s American black, ex-slave Tom Molineaux, and ends it with the last bare-knuckle champion, John L. Sullivan.

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