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A Gentleman Boxer

Carpentier’s physical appearance was not only characterized by its putatively Grecian pulchritude.  It was also read as a signifier of class.  In other words, Carpentier wasn’t just handsome, his looks were said to be “refined,” “graceful,” “aristocratic” even.  Not only was he too pretty to be a boxer, he was too “classy” as well.  In spite of his very humble beginnings, Carpentier was packaged as, and perceived to be, the ultimate “gentleman” boxer.  The oxymoronic nature of that designation explains in large part Carpentier’s appeal.  In his last autobiography, written just months if not weeks before his death, Mes 80 Rounds, Carpentier himself hypothesizes that his popularity was largely due to the fact that he was a boxer who didn’t look like a boxer: “[…] I didn’t look like someone who punched people for a living and even less like someone who got punched […] It is this opposition, this contradiction if you will, between my angelic face and my diabolical fists, that drew attention to me and held it there.  And I admit that I always took great care with my appearance.” (217-218) Equally at ease sipping tea with the ladies, heading off to an office job in a suit and tie, or mercilessly pummeling a man unconscious in the ring, the Carpentier persona indeed seem to embody the eternally fascinating dichotomies of devil and angel, man and animal, gentleman and roughneck.

On his first visit to the United States, an article in the Literary Digest of April 17, 1920, tellingly entitled “Georges Carpentier: Gentleman, Athlete, and Connoisseur of the ‘Boxe’,” points out that he is an “excellent horseman,” “plays golf and tennis,” loves both opera and theater and “wears the clothes suitable for each function, sometimes changing six or eight times a day.” The same article goes on to note the Carpentier’s new bride  has nothing of the garishly painted and be-baubled boxer’s moll about her: “[…] her clothes, tho [sic] numerous and costly, are as conservative in cut and taste as the wardrobe of a New York society woman—perhaps more conservative, on the whole! She wears few jewels—a string of small pearls and a three-ply bracelet of very small ones were alone visible yesterday afternoon.” (132)

 And it was not just gentlemanly clothes and a refined wife that made Carpentier a gentleman; it was also his smooth style, his quiet, pleasant, well-spoken, seemingly refined social persona as well.  Here, astonishingly, was a professional boxer at ease in any social context:

It is said, and with some truth, that Carpentier may go into any company.  For one who after all is a professional boxer, he can talk on art and literature—intelligently and well.

His passion for music is deep and sincere […]

It is the breadth of his outlook, his yearning for knowledge of men and things and the world in general, his ability to detach himself from fighting, that is the secret of his greatness.[1]         

The central objective of these articles and others like them is to report the remarkable fact that the French boxer, never before seen on this side of the Atlantic, is above all else a gentleman.

Throughout his career and in France, England and the US, Carpentier was packaged as a sort of anti-brute, in complete opposition to the conventional stereotype of the boxer as representative of a rough, violent underclass. The desired—and, it seems, achieved—effect is amazement and fascination on the part of the spectator at the very idea, let alone the actual sight, of a nice middle- or even upper-class gentleman beating the daylights out of a street thug. Just as his beauty attracted record numbers of women to the fights, so did his style and appearance, perceived as conforming to middle- or upper-class conventions, drew record numbers of middle and upper-class followers of both sexes.

It is not hard to imagine that middle-class men of various ages, identified more readily with a figure like Capentier than with a hulking brute or overtly rough character.  This identification, this ability to actually imagine oneself in the gloves of the boxer in the ring, makes boxing spectatorship infinitely more compelling.  It is the surprise inherent in seeing a nice clean-cut young man, who could easily be one’s business partner or nephew or neighbor or oneself, in the ring that provides an extra thrill for the middle-class spectator.  The action in the ring becomes a more readily imaginable reality and is consequently all the more thrilling.

Many have commented on the fact that Carpentier played a crucial role in the marketing of the sport of boxing to a more socially elite audience.  Indeed, this fact is an important enough aspect of his career to warrant a mention in at least one of his (French) obituaries:  “It was George Carpentier who introduced snobbery to boxing. […] Georges Carpentier brought together boxing and people of taste.”[2] 


The sport is at once one of the most primitive and primal things imaginable—an unarmed physical fight between adult men—and one of the most civilized, a highly codified contest in which knowledge, technique, self-discipline and self-control are essential.  Carpentier, while perfectly capable of brawling when necessary, was above all a tactician in the ring, a highly skilled, highly disciplined practitioner of the complex art and science of boxing.  This is of course true of many other boxers as well but the fact that Carpentier looked like a “gentleman” allowed him to get the message across to a more privileged but less-informed audience that boxing was indeed a sport and not a mere brawl with gloves.  This too is part of Carpentier’s legacy, as the entry “Boxe” in the august Encyclopédie de la Pléïade tells us: “We owe to Carpentier his having made people understand that boxing was something other than a sport of brutes.”[3]

[1] New York World, 9 May 1920.  This quotation is from the eighth in series of articles “introducing” Carpentier to the American public. While the previous seven were (supposedly) written by Carpentier himself, the eighth and final installment was (supposedly) written by François Descamps, extolling his protégé’s attributes. Return to text

[2] François Caviglioli, “Georges Carpentier: Le Dernier Héros de la boxe,” Paris Match no. 1380 (8 November 1975), 44. Return to text

[3] “La Boxe,” Encyclopédie de la Pléïade, vol. 23 (Jeux et Sports), ed. Roger Caillois (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), 1270.  O’Brian, among others, confirms the fact that Carpentier “single-handedly made boxing fans out of a long list of Europe’s elite.” See O’Brian, 75. Return to text