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  French professor Christopher Rivers.

Consider the handsome, aristocratic Georges Carpentier. With his classic features, graceful ways, and Continental charm, it's easy to see him as the dashing World War I pilot and early Hollywood movie idol that he was. But look again: This is the same Georges Carpentier who stepped into the ring to challenge the "Manassa Mauler," Jack Dempsey, for the heavyweight boxing crown in 1921.

Or consider Christopher Rivers, professor of French at MHC. In his own self-deprecating assessment, "thin, utterly unathletic, and possessing skinny arms, a long neck, and a distinct lack of physical courage," it's no stretch to picture him teaching a class on Molière. But wait--isn't that Rivers climbing into a New York City boxing ring to spar with former ranked junior lightweight Francisco Mendez?

The idea of expectations being turned on their heads is one that intrigues Rivers, who has begun a scholarly project on Carpentier. "You look at a picture of Jack Dempsey and, even though he doesn't have a flattened nose and that sort of thing, he looks like a boxer somehow," Rivers said. "Carpentier did not at all, and that was commented on a lot. This got me interested in the question of appearance and reality and just what sorts of expectations people have about different kinds of people and what they can and can't do."

The seemingly reasonable assumption that Rivers decided to lace up a pair of boxing gloves after being inspired by Carpentier's story is just one more expectation that fails to hold up. In fact, it was Rivers's own experience with the "sweet science" that led him to a biography of Dempsey (Roger Kahn's 1999 A Flame of Pure Fire) and its account of the Dempsey-Carpentier match of 1921.

The Dempsey vs. Carpentier poster.  

Until opening that book, Rivers, who prides himself on his knowledge of French popular culture, had never heard of the boxer dubbed "The Orchid Man" by contemporary sportswriters. Yet in his day, as the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world, Carpentier was extraordinarily famous and widely idolized. His match against Dempsey generated the first $1 million gate in boxing history, was the first heavyweight match broadcast via the fledgling medium of radio, and drew 80,000 people, the largest crowd to date. The New York Times devoted no fewer than 13 pages to its coverage of the fight. (Dempsey won by knockout in the fourth round.)

What sparked the extraordinary level of interest? The remarkable contrast between the two fighters, Rivers says, taken to extremes by a canny promoter. It was America vs. Europe, brains (Carpentier) vs. brawn (Dempsey), and, above all, decorated war hero vs. accused draft dodger (a year before the fight, Dempsey had stood trial on charges on having obtained a deferment from serving in World War I under false pretenses; although he was acquitted, the stigma of the accusation lingered in the mind of the public). It may seem strange in the twenty-first century world, but the all-American crowd was solidly in the corner of the French challenger.

Rivers is spending much of his sabbatical this fall in Paris, scouring bookstores, flea markets, libraries, and archives for contemporary newspapers, sporting magazines, and other materials. He plans to use the story of the championship bout as the centerpiece of the book he hopes to write on Carpentier.

Improbable may be the best term for Rivers's own presence in the ring. He discovered the sport during a visit to an Amherst gym three years ago, and reasoned that if he didn't give it a try at age 39, he might never. Rivers began weekly lessons with trainer Kirik Jenness and eventually connected with Mendez, who proposed a sparring match in front of an audience. Rivers at first demurred, then agreed. "I emerged unscathed and exhilarated, transformed forever and for the better."

Is there is a prizefighter lurking within? No, said Rivers. "I feel that almost anything that I do in terms of boxing is a huge accomplishment. My ambitions are very, very modest. I don't have any kind of illusions about what I could 'really' do. I'm very clear about drawing the line between fantasy and reality."

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