Who Takes the Hardest Bumps?
Every sportsman seems to think the other fellow’s game is hardest
H. H. ROXBOROUGH
ON ONE of those sweltering July nights when humidity approaches the saturation point and physical effort is as welcome as rain on a holiday, Stanislaus Zbysco and “Jack” Taylor were strenuously endeavoring to pin a pair of shoulders to the floor of the wrestling ring in Toronto’s Arena. For forty-five minutes the Polish champion and the Canadian-born heavyweight star mauled and grappled with all the gentleness of a couple of grizzlies. They heaved one another through the air with an ease that would have cheered an expressman’s heart. They wriggled with amazing skill from punishing arm-locks, half-nelsons, body scissors and similar favorite clutches.
Frequently they twisted in agony, crushed by cruel toe-holds and painful leg-splits. Even on an iceberg, with the Northern Lights flashing across the floes; such a strenuous effort would have induced a healthy perspiration. Indoors in such a torrid atmosphere, that tackling, tossing and slamming served to remind us forcibly that the days of gladiators are not yet gone and that men still punish themselves to gain athletic supremacy.
After the Taylor-Zbysco bout while I was chatting with the internationally famous Pole who for many years was undisputed world’s champion, I asked him this question: “Is wrestling as tough as it looks?”
“It certainly is,” was the emphatic reply. “I have been very lucky, for I am now nearly fifty years old; but most wrestlers don’t last long. Hackenschmidt, the big Eussian, was forced to quit when he was only thirty-one. Even when a wrestler is in good condition he . will lose from seven to ten pounds in weight in a one hour match. And wrestling hurts too. Did you see that toe-hold Taylor had on me to-night? It was terrible.”
And, by the way, just a couple of weeks later Taylor was taken from the Arena to St. Michael’s Hospital, suffering with a broken leg.
Following my talk with “Biscuits,” as the former champion is often called, Ivan Michailoff, a former Olympic wrestler, and now promoter of wrestling exhibitions, frankly admitted that wrestling is not the only tough game. “Every bird thinks its own swamp is the worst,” was Ivan’s philosophical observation, “and I suppose I should say wrestling was the hardest sport. It can be ‘dirty’ and men can be easily injured, but just look what happens to boxers! Missing teeth, flattened noses, cauliflower ears, broken hands, and even worse than these—blows to the head often make boxers ‘punch-drunk,’ and many a good fellow has gone ‘goofy’ because of terrible head wallops.”
And it’s true.
Even before a boxer enters the ropebound, resin-covered play-yard, he is compelled to suffer. Boxers fight in such closely-matched weights that a pound of flesh overweight may cause the loss of many ducats. The fighter is therefore compelled to train on a strict diet, to “pound” the highways constantly, to abstain sometimes from drinking even water so that he may dry out; and all this scale worry induces a mental strain that tries even the most successfulswingers of the padded mitts.
In 1924, “Jackie” Johnston was sent ' to Paris to represent Canada in the Olympic boxing championships and, after enjoying the ocean voyage, Johnston was one-half pound overweight at the “weighingin” time; in spite of massages, baths, and strenuous exercise, Canada’s 118-pound Champion was unable to make the required poundage and was declared ineligible. A close student of both boxing and wrestling recently made this observation:
“If a lad in perfect condition weighs 140 pounds and decides to take up wrestling, he will endeavor to build his weight up to a higher mark, but if he decides to become a boxer, he immediately begins to do everything to ‘pare down’ his weight so that he can, by effort, just make the 135-pound class.”
But after the boxer has solved his weight problems and has entered the ring he must perform “in the open.” In some sports, a competitor is an almost unnoticed gear in a swiftly-moving machine, but a prize-fighter works under the brightest of lights, where every defect in condition and courage is as perceptible as a red tie at a funeral.
Then, if a boxer is outclassed, he can’t quit; he must continue until he is battered into such helplessness that a. sympathetic referee stops the carnage, or until the horizontal fighter sees the stars flicker and hears the birds sing. And if a boxer becomes a champion, he still has little leisure, for every rung on the ladder holds a battling youth who is constantly fighting his way to the top; even the best must continue to protect his crown or retire from the throne. Boxing is therefore a real he-man’s game, and is such a hard sport that a thirty-year-old topnotcher is as rare as raw steak.
“The Poor Rugby Player’’
AND yet, just as Ivan Michailoff, a -L*. wrestling expert, could appreciate the punishment absorbed by a boxer, so too did a professional prize-fighter once expand to me in pity for the poor rugby player. This friend of mine was possibly the best 118-pound boxer produced in Canada, and after he had watched Argonauts and Ottawa Roughriders go through their pigskin battle, he felt quite satisfied to stick to the ring.
“When I get kicked in the shins or punched in the jaw 'I want to know who did it, but in a rugby game you feel the smash all right, but you never know who fired the gun,” was the candid opinion of this bantam-weight champion.
And he was not far wrong, for a rugby field is a proving ground where every human weakness in physique, mentality or courage is exposed. If the player is a halfback he must have ability to hold the oval ball, regardless of the two hungry outside wings who are ready to toss him heavily immediately the catch is completed; he must boot the ball “high and wide,” even though the oncoming linesmen are hurling themselves at all points of his anatomy; he is compelled to dash gamely ahead in spite of the fact that 180 pounds of rugged manhood is stealthily waiting to upset him so forcibly that seismographs will record motion, duration and direction of an apparent earthquake. Of, if the player’s position is up in the “front line trench,” he must gamely hold back his line—smash opponents, crash an opening for a ball-carrier or dive through a whirling mass of cleated shoes and grab the ankles of the swiftlymoving runner.
Then, too, wrestling and boxing are sports that are not affected to any unusual degree by climatic conditions, but the rugby player must be impervious to rain or snow and heat or cold. Even when weather is ideal, rugby is scarcely a favorite pastime for anyone possessing even the slightest “yellow tinge;” but when the muddy field is as slippery as a seal’s back, or when the ground is so hard that it feels like rock, then the game becomes more than a contest between two teams of twelve men each, for it rather seems to symbolize a daring and a hardihood, little recognized by those who cry down the “softness” in Canada’s youth.
What About Hockey?
AND yet—without minimizing the Ll hazards of rugby—there are many sport followers who unhesitatingly assert that our national winter sport punishes a player even more severely than does our great autumn game. One of those who has avowed this belief is “Jess” Spring. “Jess” has been a Canadian champion heavyweight boxer, a sensational lacrosse player, onë of the best baseball players produced in Ontario, a prominent rugby player, and is now a member of the New York Americans professional hockey team. Spring’s opinion is therefore that of an all-round expert, and he has this to say:
“In my experience, hockey is the toughest sport of all. Rugby is hard all right, but you get a lot of rest when the ball is not in play. But when you are on the ice, the area is so small and the play so fast that you have to keep hustling all the time. It is true that substitutes give relief, but as hockey is now played, a forward, even in good condition, can skate himself dizzy in ten minutes and when you get a rest you need it.”
“Jess” is a defense player, but he. knows it is the “poor” forwards who are most often injured by flying skate or prodding stick; who are tossed high and wide by a teeth-rattling body-check, or who provide the filling when a 400-pound defense combines to make a sandwich.
And yet, even though we mourn for the tough life of a wing or centre player, let us keep a few words of sympathy for the game goalkeepers. During last season, Roy Worters, winner of the trophy presented to the most valuable player in the National Hockey League, was the victim of a couple of accidents that would test the courage of any athlete. Early in the year this capable “goalie” was guarding the New York American net when Danny Cox, of the Toronto Leafs, released a terrific shot that Worters, with a partially blocked view, was unable to detect, and the rubber bullet crashed his upper lip and broke four teeth. The midget defender retired for repairs, and it was generally supposed he would not play for several games; but ten minutes later he returned to his net, conquered the pain, overcame his dizziness and furnished a sensational exhibition. Later in the season' Worters was so badly cut that four stitches were inserted into his wound, but once more, with head wrappings resembling those of an Indian Prince, the star goalkeeper refused to retire, and again locked the gates to the opposing sharpshooters.
In New York City, where hockey is comparatively new, the critics are still unable to understand why the Canadian boys play so strenuously. A veteran sport-writer wrote last winter: “I can’t understand these men. They are all hired to furnish amusement for the populace, and they are banging each other up, night after night. Why don’t they get together and ease off a bit.”
Why don’t they? Well, Canadians have never considered hockey to be a parlor game; they have been taught in their early teens to accept the bumps as part of the contest, and to soften it would be unwelcome to those who really enjoy the combat.
BUT boxing or wrestling and hockey or rugby are not the only games that attract the hardy, two-fisted youth, for our Canadian runners have also demonstrated a grit and determination that rival the gameness of competitors in the athletic pursuits already mentioned. For example, just three years ago, Percy Wyer, a Canadian distance runner, who is overweight when the scales register a 100 pounds, competed in the internationally famous Detroit Marathon. During the running of the race, the track was sloppy, one of the winter’s heaviest blizzards combated the efforts of the distance-plodders, and the conditions were made to order for a strong runner. Yet this ninety-eight-pound “pony express” battled against men and elements through the twenty-six-mile test, and emerged the victor. Only last summer, Phil Edwards, representing the Hamilton Olympic Club in the half-mile Ontario Championship race, was so badly spiked when going through to take the lead that one of his shoes was wrenched from his foot. Without hesitating an instant, Edwards continued and ran the last lap on a cinder track with one foot bare. After he had won the event, the doctors examined the abused foot and inserted three stitches to close the dangerous cut. And these two recorded instances are only samples. The next time you watch a close race, just concentrate your gaze upon the faces of the runners as they battle their way down the stretch, and you will often see a picture that reveals unmistakably the violent effort and the tremendous energy that have been expended in the attempt to conquer.
And similar scenes are portrayed on basketball courts, baseball diamonds, lacrosse grounds and soccer fields—for each of these games are just as hard as those already described. But so far we have instanced only land sports. Surprisingly enough, most of the experienced sport-lovers with whom I have discussed hard pastimes have selected as the toughest of all, two battling games that are contested not in a crowded arena, under a weather-resisting roof, but out in the open beneath a canopy of sky and on the surface of any suitable waterway. In almost any discussion of sport-hardships the final verdict will be with marathon swimming and rowing.
IN THE fifteen-mile marathon swim at the 1929 Canadian National Exhibition, it was my privilege to observe closely the fighting spirit of the swimmers, and the more one knew of the tremendous obstacles that were overcome, the more increasingly definite became the conviction that our manhood is still robust and durable.
Marvin Nelson, who didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit,” swam himself into such utter exhaustion that his attendants were compelled to take him out of the water just fifty yards from the finish line, or the game Iowa corn-husker would have been drowned. Ernst Vierkoetter, who now aspires to Canadian citizenship, not only gamely shook off severe cramps, but finished the race in second place, despite the pain resulting from a large flesh wound that had been rubbed “raw” through contact with his bristly chin. And these instances are only typical of the many sufferings of the two hundred and thirty-seven starters.
Why do swimming marathons lure tens of thousands of men and women? The true answer is not found in the speed, for the time is long, nor in the picture, for it becomes monotonous, but rather because the spectator’s imagination is fired with the thought that he will see men who will swim themselves into utter helpless• ness before they will submit to be conquered by paralyzing fear; penetrating cold or persistent pain.
The Toughest of Them All
AND similarly with rowing. One of the best-informed sportsmen in Canada is Alex Sinclair. “Big Alex” was foro mLTany years one of the most brilliant inside wings in Canadian rugby; he was also a capable hockey star and a prominent oarsman. Today Mr. Sinclair is a competent boxing referee, an experienced track and speed-skating official, a personal friend of many of the leading professional swimmers and coach of the Argonaut Rowing Club. Owing to the variety of his athletic training he should be as well qualified as anyone to answer the question How severe is rowing?”
“Rowing is the toughest game of all,” is Sinclair’s belief, “and I’ll tell you why. If the rower is a singles sculler he must' learn to punish himself, and that is the hardest kind of punishment. In most sports a man can absorb a punch ora bump or a hard fall because it is administered by someone else and therefore seems inevitable, but an oarsman’s courage is greater because he not only suffers in his effort, but his suffering results from pain that he inflicts, upon himself. Then if a rower is in an eight-oared crew he must further punish himself to keep abreast of the best oarsman in the crew, for a boat is only as fast as its slowest man. A member of an eight can’t quit;
. if he does, the other seven cannot continue; if he even slows up he may upset the boat. Then just remember the training. Through the winter the oarsman trains on indoor machines; then as soon as possible in the spring he gets out on the water, rowing twice a day,—early in the morning and again after his day’s work. Is it any wonder that oarsmen frequently drop twenty pounds in weight during a training period? And don’t forget that while boxers may receive many thousands for a single fight, and a good hockey player will get ten thousand dollars for a season, and a swimmer has a chance to corral twenty-five thousand dollars in one race, an oarsman works for personal pride or club glory alone.”
Which Canadian sport makes the greatest mental and physical demand
; upon the athlete? It all depends on your yardstick. Rugby may have the most numerous injuries, hockey the most painful, boxing the most punishing, wrestling the most jarring, or swimming and rowing may be the most exhausting. Each sport mentioned in this article has some claim to recognition for being a hard game. And the very fact that they are so numerous is a healthy sign.
Today, it is often claimed that the ; tendency of Canadian youth is to seek softer sports, or not to play at all. True, some sports may be declining in prominence; but don’t let us be deceived by surface indications, for when you dig, deeper to actual facts you are amazed at the popularity of so many games that challenge the stoutest hearts, that inspire the greatest courage, and that demand the last ounce in energy and enthusiasm. And long may they continue, for they demand a physical fitness, a sacrifice, a loyalty and a self-control that softer games can never inspire.