VOLUME 8, NUMBER 1
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.
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."