Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to Connor’s library–er, that is . . . my library. As a former student of history I have a fondness for all sorts of old and dusty texts–that and blank notebooks–but I am particularly interested in classic fighting books. There are many, many manuals, treatises, and texts out there espousing the virtues and explaining the fundamentals of boxing, wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, Savate, longsword fencing, and just about every other martial art you could ask for. There are good ones and there are bad ones, but many of them are worth a look.
In this series, I’ll be going through and reviewing the books that I have managed to track down, ultimately recommending whether or not you ought to do the same. I’ll be grading the texts based on four criteria, the mean of which will supply the final, overall grade. My criteria are:
– Instructional Value
– Historical Value
– Quality of Writing
At the end of the piece I will also give my own personal recommendation, irrespective of the grade, as to whether or not the book in question is worth finding.
My subject today is a handy little number called The New Science: Weaponless Defence, first published in 1906 by Professor Frank Lewis, former world middleweight wrestling champion (in the days when Catch-as-catch-can Wrestling was a high stakes professional sport) and experienced professional boxer. Professor Lewis’ book is a treatise on what he considered the two most vital martial arts–namely, wrestling and boxing (no surprise there). This pocket-sized, 157-page volume features 95 high quality photographs of the author and his sparring partners demonstrating a number of techniques from the two disciplines which, combined, comprise Lewis’ system of self defense.
I found my copy on Amazon.com, a 2010 reissue by MartialHistory.com that does an excellent job of reproducing the original, typos and all.
Though he was himself an accomplished sportsman, Lewis’ book is heavily geared towards self defense. His punching methods are designed around the idea of protecting your bare hands in a street encounter. “If you swing [a cross counter],” the Professor cautions, “You are liable to break your hands on the top of his head.” Likewise, the wrestling techniques in the book are largely high amplitude takedowns–falls and throws designed to incapacitate an aggressive opponent.
It is difficult to teach the dynamic movement of a punch or takedown with only a single still photograph per technique. Though Lewis’ photographs are of excellent quality–especially given the date of publish–they fall to describe the complex movements of combat with any great accuracy, leaning heavily on the descriptions to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, Professor Lewis takes many things as given in his descriptions, renting some of his techniques inextricable. His explanation of slipping, for example–“incline the head over the shoulder”–leaves a lot to be desired, though sparring partner Burns demonstrates the true nuance of most movements very well.
The greatest strength of Lewis’ treatise lies in its instruction of APPLICATION. While the details of the guards and blows themselves can get a little fuzzy, Lewis places a great emphasis on COUNTERING, often showing the use of simultaneous blocks and attacks. To this day, many self defense systems overlook the importance of FIGHTING BACK, but Professor Frank Lewis got it way back in 1906.
The guards, or blocks, might resemble Karate more than boxing to the modern observer, but they are effective. The similarity to Eastern martial arts is easy to understand as well–like karatekas, boxers in Lewis’ trained for bareknuckle combat, or at the very most fights in small gloves, usually weighing no more than four or five ounces. His defenses, therefore, do not rely on the bulk of a glove, but rather make the most of the arm, using the full length of forearm, wrist, and edge-of-palm to ward off blows. The best thing about these guards is, once again, how well they lend themselves to counter attacks. Each of Lewis’ basic blocks tend to catch an opponent’s punch from the INSIDE, both defending the center-line of oneself while exposing that of the attacker. Another notable highlight is Lewis’ paragraphs on feinting, which he considers essential to the success of any boxer.
Likewise, Lewis takes a smart, strategic approach to street fighting. “[Weaponless Defense],” the Professor writes, “Is so arranged that you can oppose a blow with a fall [a takedown], in the same time that the Boxer would take to counter. If you throw an adversary to the floor you have much more advantage than of he remained standing . . . On the other hand, if the Boxer has a practical knowledge of the high falls and leverage holds [throws and submissions] . . . he should readily defeat the Wrestler.”
All of this makes The New Science a valuable tool for those interested in practical self defense, and even an interesting study for the more open-minded practitioners of Mixed Martial Arts. There are better technique instructionals out there, but few match The New Science in its emphasis on strategic self defense.
(As a final note to the gullible, Lewis included a closing section wherein he shares his thoughts–and they are just thoughts–on weight loss and physical fitness. His ideas in this realm are, predictably, very outdated, and of little to no value except as humorous light reading. This book is first and foremost a treatise on Lewis’ system of self defense, however, and so his medicinal and therapeutic “insights” don’t affect my Instructional Value score. Honestly, anyone perusing turn-of-the-century boxing manuals for diet and exercise tips should keep their expectations low.)
As a window into the martial arts of early modern America, The New Science is marvelous. The majority of the boxing photographs feature not only the author himself, but world heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Burns, the first heavyweight champ to break the color line and defend the world title against a black contender. Unfortunately that admirable decision cost Burns his legacy, as he was knocked out by the much larger Jack Johnson in a completely uncompetitive bout. Nonetheless, Burns was a very skilled boxer with tremendous punching power: he moved from middleweight to light heavyweight in 1905 after putting an unfortunate opponent into a coma, hoping that the larger men would prove to be more durable targets. It’s wonderful to see Burns here, looking fit and trim just after having won his heavyweight crown, flawlessly demonstrating boxing techniques alongside the Professor.
As mentioned above, this treatise is designed neither for the mat nor the ring, but for the street. Little could Lewis have known, however, that his book would, over a century after its publication, provide interesting viewing for practitioners of a combat sport that combines wrestling, boxing, and even his mistrusted Jiu Jitsu into one whole. From the standpoint of one living in the Mixed Martial Arts era, Lewis’ work is fascinating in how confidently it blends grappling and striking into one cohesive whole.
The New Science was not intended as a historical text, and it does not reveal anything about the lives of the men picture within. In fact, Lewis doesn’t even refer to his star sparring partner by name! Nonetheless, the images themselves, combined with the techniques of Lewis’ system, make this a valuable primary source.
QUALITY OF WRITING
For the most part, Lewis does a fine job of making himself clear. His explanations are concise and to the point, particularly when explaining which way the hand should be oriented for the different types of punch so as to “get home” with the knuckles and protect the fragile digits.
There are quite a few typographical errors in the text. Whether this is Lewis’ own doing or the fault of the typist who rendered this modern reissue is unclear. Regardless, the mistakes do not render the book illegible or even difficult to get through, and Lewis’ descriptions are clear.
Some of Lewis’ technical explanations leave something to be desired. As mentioned above, his description of how to slip a punch is particularly inscrutable, and he rarely discusses such minute but important details as weight transfer, other than to say “make the most of your weight when delivering a blow.” Nonetheless, the astute reader can infer a great deal from the photographs, particularly by studying Tommy Burns, whose positioning gives clues as to the delivery of a powerful punch. For example, Burns raises his left heel when throwing a left hook, suggesting the transfer of weight from left foot to right, and from front foot to back.
Overall, the writing in The New Science is straightforward and clear, if sometimes overly cursory.
Aside from the aforementioned curiosity of an early 20th Century system of Mixed Martial Arts, Lewis’ The New Science is loaded with humorous and otherwise curious tidbits.
For example, Professor Lewis extols at length the value of boxing and wrestling as tools which “build up a manly courage, that makes them [English speaking people] disdain to resort to atrocities as practiced by other nations amongst whom these sports are not known.” This courage, Lewis believes, is “the proudest attribute of our AMERICAN CHARACTER. [EMPHASIS HIS]”
The reader must keep in mind that Lewis competed and lived in a time in which combat sports were coming under heavy fire. Ten years prior to the publication of this book Bob Fitzsimmons, who would knock out world heavyweight champion Jim Corbett in 1897, was forced to fight top contender Peter Maher in a nondescript field across the Mexican border in front of just 200 people, for fear that both the Mexican and American governments might arrest every person involved. By 1906, boxing was just barely accepted as a government-sanctioned sport. It’s difficult to find any boxing manual from around this period that doesn’t vehemently swear that fighting really is good for you, no matter what it might look like.
Either way, it’s impossible to read Lewis’ book without conjuring up images of bald-headed, mustachioed, overtly patriotic strongmen–which Lewis was.
WASPy thing that it is, the book is chock full of incongruous images. As Tommy Burns snaps the author’s head back with an uppercut, he is decked out in a three-piece suit, complete with bowtie and glimmering pocketwatch chain. Later in the book, Professor Lewis pins a faux attacker to the ground, both of them smartly dressed, and raises his fist to strike his prone adversary on the jaw. “You can easily hold him as long as necessary,” the text matter-of-factly states, “Or beat him into submission, as the case requires.”
Lewis’ efforts to present his Weaponless Defense as a gentlemanly pursuit is constantly at odds with the essential violence of his art, which makes for a consistently entertaining read.
Instructional value: B-
Historical value: C+
Quality of writing: C+
My recommendation: The New Science: Weaponless Defence is most certainly worth a read for those interested in the history of mixed combat sports, bareknuckle boxing, and Catch-as-catch-can wrestling. Enjoyable on multiple levels, Lewis’ work offers a unique window into the world of martial arts circa 1900, and it is very rare to find a book of this period with so many photographs of such high quality. As an instructional, there are more immediately useful books out there, but The New Science is not without value for those interested, and a thorough and careful read can reveal some very interesting notes on effective fighting techniques–sometimes more than Lewis himself intended.
If you have a suggestion for future installments, please leave your suggestions in the comments below–I may already have your book in my collection, and if not I’m always happy to hunt down something new (or very, very old). I hope you found this first review enlightening, and thank you for joining me in my library.
Now get out of here. I’ve got books to read.
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