The finest salute the prize ring ever extended to literature took place in 1909, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was offered the job of refereeing the Jeffries-Johnson fight for the world's heavyweight championship.
It seems to have been a perfectly serious offer. Jim Jeffries, the old, undefeated champion, had come out of retirement to meet the new titleholder, Jack Johnson, in the cause of white supremacy and for the biggest purse that had ever been put up for a ring battle. The bids from fiercely competing promoters had been opened in Hoboken, N.J. on December 1, and after several days of wrangling and wary negotiation, Tex Rickard and Jack Gleason had won the privilege with a proposal of $101,000 plus two-thirds of the movie rights (the movie rights came to nothing because Congress later outlawed interstate shipment of the films).
Over in England the author not only of the Sherlock Holmes stories but of those classic yarns of the prize ring, Rodney Stone, The Croxley Master and The Lord of Falconbridge, received a cable, then a letter signed by Irving Jefferson Lewis, managing editor of the New York Morning Telegraph, dated December 9:
"My dear Sir,—
March 5, 1962
"I hope you will pardon the liberty I took as a stranger in cabling to you asking if you would act at the championship battle between Jeffries and Johnson. The fact is that when the articles were signed recently your name was suggested for referee, and Tex Rickard, promoter of the fight, was greatly interested, as were many others. I believe it will interest you that the opinion was unanimous that you would do admirably in the position. In a voting contest several persons sent in your name as their choice. Believe me among sporting men of the best class in America you have many strong admirers; your splendid stories of the ring, and your avowed admiration for the great sport of boxing have made you thousands of friends.
"It was because of this extremely friendly feeling for you in America that I took the liberty of cabling to you. I thank you for your reply.
"It would indeed rejoice the hearts of the men in this country if you were at the ring side when the great negro fighter meets the white man Jeffries for the world's championship.
"I am, my dear Sir," etc.
In the bosom of his family the big, burly Anglo-Irishman was delighted with the message that had come to him from overseas. "By George," he exclaimed, "this is the most sporting proposition I ever heard!"
"Then you'll go?" asked Lady Doyle, who—knowing her husband—anticipated the answer.
"Go? Of course I'll go! This is a real honour!"
Some of his family and friends were less enthusiastic, however. Among them was his brother-in-law E. W. Hornung, who had contrived one of the most remarkable switches in modern literature by dreaming up Raffles, the gentleman burglar, some years after brother-in-law Arthur thought of Sherlock Holmes. Hornung lacked Conan Doyle's comprehensive love of sport. Of golf, for instance, he once remarked: "It's unsportsmanlike to hit a sitting ball."
In his memoirs Sir Arthur wrote: "I was much inclined to accept...though my friends pictured me as winding up with a revolver at one ear and a razor at the other. However, the distance and my engagements presented a final bar."
One of the engagements referred to was the campaign that Sir Arthur, a champion of good causes, was then carrying on against old King Leopold of Belgium as a result of the exposure of cruelties practiced on natives in the Congo. Sir Arthur always had a crusade of some sort on his hands, and his conscience was unresting.
So in the end he expressed his polite regrets, undoubtedly to the disappointment of Mr. Lewis and the Morning Telegraph and perhaps of Tex Rickard, Jeffries and Johnson. The promoter and the principals in the fight were not what you could fairly call reading men, but they knew who Conan Doyle was, and they felt for him the respect and confidence that he had won and deserved.
He would probably have made a good referee. He was big enough and strong enough to handle the fighters, and he knew the rules of the game. For many years he kept up his boxing, and said of himself: "I suppose I might describe my form as that of a fair average amateur." He was a frequent patron of the National Sporting Club in London when that exclusive body was the headquarters of British boxing. The club was stiffly aristocratic in tone, with white and black ties in all the seats except for a section kept apart for professional bruisers. But when Sir Arthur came he would say: "Put me at the back, among the boxers."
That was how Sir Arthur was able to write Rodney Stone in a manner so convincing that it brought him one of his most cherished tributes. A friend who was at the deathbed of an Australian pugilist was reading him the chapter describing the fight between the young hero and the ruffian Joe Berks. A second gives counsel to Boy Jim: "Get your left on his mark, boy! Then go to his head with the right!"
The dying fighter raised himself and said: "By God, that's got him!"