Prizefighters are a versatile lot who are likely to turn their hands to many things besides punching. Mickey Walker is a painter whose work has its admirers. Gene Tunney once lectured at Yale on Shakespeare. Hundreds of boxers have been actors on the stage and screen. Further back in history at least two fighters were prominent in politics. John Morrissey went to the U.S. Congress (1870) and John Gully to the British Parliament (1832).
And once there was a pugilist who was a poet.
He was not much of a poet but he was greatly cherished by Thomas Moore. His name was Bob Gregson, and Moore wrote of him:
For a short turn-up at a sonnet,
A round of odes, or pastoral bout,
All Lombard Street to nine-pence on it,
Bobby's the boy would clean them out!
July 9, 1961
Gregson was a big man from Lancashire, standing 6 feet 1½ inches and fighting at 15 stone 6, or 216 pounds. He is said to have won many bareknuckle battles before he went up to London. If Bob was not a great man in the ring, he was a tough and dangerous one. He fought two of the best men of his time for the championship of England. His first opponent inside the ropes of the classic London Prize Ring was John Gully, the future M.P. The two fought each other for 36 bloody rounds in a ring pitched on turf; it almost ended in mutual exhaustion, but when they were both staggering like drunken men Gully managed to land a last feeble punch. Down went Gregson.
That was in October 1807. In the following May they confronted each other again. Once more Gully won, then announced his retirement.
This left the championship vacant, and it was agreed that Gregson should fight the promising Tom Cribb. They met in October 1808. After 23 rounds Gregson was unable to come up to the scratch and Cribb won.
Gregson retired and became a saloonkeeper. The Castle in Holborn, London, also known as Bob's Chophouse, was for several years the prime resort of the Fancy—including Tom Moore. And it was there that Bob began to display his poetic gift in the lyrics to be sung at sporting dinners.
Moore's favorite among these was composed before the fight between Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux, the American Negro challenger:
...John Bull cries aloud,
We're neither poor nor proud,
But open to all nations, let them
come from where they will.
The British lads that's here
Quite strangers are to fear—
Here's Tom Cribb, with bumpers
round, for he can them mill!
Gregson was weak on scansion and syntax—but he had heart.
So delighted was Tom Moore with Bob and his writings that he even wrote several lyrics on his own and attributed them to "the Poet Laureate of the Fancy," as he called him. One of these forgeries was entitled Lines to Miss Grace Maddox, the Fair Pugilist. Miss Maddox was the sister of a fighter of the day named George Maddox. Grace would sometimes act as her brother's second and was handy with her own fists.
Who would not prize, beyond honors and pelf,
A maid to whom Beauty such treasures has granted
That, ah, she not only has black eyes herself
But can furnish a friend with a pair, too, if wanted!
In 1814 Bob left London. His last years were spent in Dublin, running another pub. He died in 1824, aged 46, and the poetry of the ring—as written by a fighter in the ring—died with him.