Part 16: America's Founding Shin Kicker

In the interim, though, good old sports like shin kicking and backswording also faced growing opposition.

A small print tucked away in Campden's town hall commemorates a famous backsword match held at Dover's Games, possibly the same year they were shut down.

The local champion, Ebenezer "Nezzy" Plested, and a man called Spiers are locked in combat, wearing breeches and blousy shirts, with one hand bound to their thighs.

The bout lasted a long time—maybe up to an hour and a half. In the end, Plested won the match but lost an eye, while Spiers was "incapacitated for further work" and died two weeks later.

Fatal encounters like that triggered calls to ban the sports.

Thomas Hughes defended backswording but drew the line at shin kicking: "I suppose there are more unsettled points in wrestling, or it is harder to see whether the men are playing fair," he wrote after watching a bout in his home village in 1857.

"Besides, the kicking, which is allowed at elbow and collar wrestling, makes it look brutal very often."

Nevertheless, shin kicking was a crowd-puller.

In the wrestling style that Hughes refers to, competitors gripped their opponents' jackets by the collar and elbow while kicking and throwing each other. Collar and Elbow wrestling--still the national style in Ireland--was even exported to America.

As a teenager, George Washington had been a champion Collar and Elbow wrestler (and at least two other presidents followed his example).

During the War of Independence, Washington supposedly took time out to wrestle seven of his soldiers, throwing them one after the other; not bad for a man of 47.

It's unclear whether America's Founding Father stooped to shin kicking, but Collar and Elbow wrestling did allow tibial attacks in Britain.

George Washington: Shin Kicker... and Zombie Hunter

While Hughes frowned on kicking in the West Country, on the east coast of England, "Collars and Elbow men" would batter each other in a now-extinct style known as Norfolk wrestling.

(Incidentally, Norfolk was the birthplace of Cotswold Olimpicks founder Robert Dover.)

A veteran gamester wrote a pamphlet on "The Whole Art of Norfolk Wrestling" in the 1830s.

In it, Charles Layton, nicknamed "The Celebrated Game Chicken" (roosters attack with their claws in cockfights), described the wrestlers' footwear as long socks and genie-style shoes with curled-up toes to help them hook each other's ankles.

Officials would check combatants' legs and feet beforehand to prevent cheats from using shin pads or shoes with nails in them.

"It requires a good temper and a great deal of caution" to avoid "getting desperately kicked," Layton wrote. "Kick sharp or faint, kick high, kick low, to kick certain is the main thing."

©J.R. Daeschner

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