The Wrestling Arena of Paris.
Published in The Herald and Torch Light, (Hagerstown, MD), Wednesday, December 25, 1867, Page 1
No visitor to Paris has failed to notice enormous placards, with a mammoth engraving of two muscular wrestlers engaged in a desperate trial of strength and skill. They are advertisements of the “Arena Athletique,” in the Rue Pelletier, where the trials of strength and skill indicated in the big placards take place every night in the week. Very few foreigners, however, seem to have taken the trouble to visit the “Arena Athletique,” and very few probably of the Parisians themselves know what goes on there. Mr. George Wilkes of The Spirit of the Times was nevertheless induced to pay it a visit, principally, it would appear, for want of something better to do, and was agreeably surprised at what he saw. Instead of a dingy ring, lighted with fetid “dips,” and crowded with “roughs” and rowdies, he found himself in “a neat amphitheatre, containing rising rows of seats, around a carpeted area of about the dimensions of a twenty-four foot ring.” As to the audience, or perhaps we should say, witnesses, “The male portion was made up of men evidently of cultivation,” and the women, of whom there were a considerable number, “were unmistakably good people.”
“While yet puzzling myself with the unexpected composition of the company, a very gentlemanly person, in full evening dress, stepped into the arena and proclaimed the opening of the performance, in the shape of a combat between monsieur St. Marcier and Monsieur Paudin. – Immediately upon the announcement, two men, who, with the exception of narrow breech clothes, were entirely naked, entered the ring and made their obeisance to the audience. There was no reception given to them; no demonstration of expression of any sort. There was merely a lively evidence of curiosity as the company scrutinized their points, similar to what is exhibited by spectators on a racecourse when the horses are brought out to start. The men walked around the ring for two or three minutes, basking in the public admiration, and then facing each other, quickly rushed together and made a succession of rapid efforts to heave each other down. Their style of wrestling is entirely different from ours, the combatants not being permitted to take hold below the waist, while any use of the legs for the purpose of a trip is rigorously ruled as foul. The result of this style is, consequently, a development of main strength rather than of science, for the whole man must be either lifted by a ‘lock’ which may be taken around the chest or neck, or be wrenched down to the early by superior force. Every muscle of the men is thus brought into play, and whatever there is of power in the human frame must come to the surface for the study of the looker-on. As the gladiators strove together, you could at times hear their very joints crack within them, and it was not unusual to see one of them thrown feet upward in the air, for an apparently inevitable landing on the head. By great adroitness, however, the combatant thus handled generally managed to squirm in his descent so as to strike the ground obliquely, and then by a quick use of his feet to prevent himself from being turned upon the back. To be cast in that way constitutes a throw: but it must be fair and square, and throne upon the back, for its whole length, and not simply a mere touching of the shoulders, to be conclusive. When a contest was thus brought to termination, the audience would reward the conqueror by a light clapping of hands, much in the style of opera applause, and if both were deemed to have acquitted themselves particularly well, victor and vanquished would be called back for a repetition of their approbation. We soon took a deep interest in these contests. They were evidently honest struggles; and as the size of the combatants enlarged with every new couple there was a corresponding growth to our excitement. The fourth combat was between a very hirsute Ajax of the name of Gascoigne, and a negro of a deep chocolate color, who was announced as Monsieur James. The former was one of the ugliest men extant, but the latter was the finest specimen of physical beauty I have ever seen either in life of marble. He stood full six feet high, and had that wedge-like form from his broad shoulders down, which distinguishes the Apollo Belvidere. He was without a fault from crown to toe, and his head and neck were carried with a Roman dignity. Even his features were regular, being free from the offensive central protrusion of the negro facial angle, and it was with difficulty I could persuade myself he was not a Moor. Nevertheless, I was assured he was a negro, hailing from Philadelphia. A buzz of admiration went through the house as this fellow walked around the ring in conscious grandeur. – It was evident he was a favorite; and it was clear, also, that his ill-favored antagonist recognized that fact by yielding him plenty of time for his conceit. A keen observer, however, who studied the hairy monster closely, might have detected on his lips a lurking sneer which seemed to say, ‘Oh, take your fill of this black beauty now, but I shall be thought the best looking man of the two when the combat is over!’ It proved to be so, for the negro was vanquished after a long desperate struggle. Nevertheless, when he was called back after the ovation which justice was obliged to render to the ugly victor, he was pampered with much the largest share of the applause. It was during this contest I discovered the philosophy of the Arena Athletique, through a remark made by a gentleman behind me. He was pointing out to a friend the superb points of the black gladiator, and he wound up with the expression that Monsieur James was a perfect reproduction of the Faroese Hercules. A sudden light broke in upon me. The problem was solved. This was a School of Art, and not an arena for pugilistic brutes; and the audience was in the main composed of sculptors, painters, and the lovers of those kindred arts. The little ladies, too, who had puzzled me so much, were doubtless, also students of the same professions; and I fancied I could detect two or three of them as members of that industrious division which one may always find copying the great pictures of Tuilleries and Louvre.
“The chief feature of the evening, however, was the appearance of a man in a mask, who was unknown to the managers of the establishment, and who had come here to-night in pursuance of a challenge which he had sent en amateur to the champions of the arena. I was not made aware of this feature of the entertainment until during the progress of the second battle. The theory of the person who communicated it was, that the masked man was some gentleman, or perhaps even a nobleman, who, having a passion for athletic sports, had taken this singular method of enjoying his superiority incog. My notion was, however, that it was a trick of business to which the managers were parties, and I therefore did not anticipate any great exploit. But the audience evidently had a different estimation of the matter. I heard frequent allusions to l’homme masque all through the evening; and, finally, when the master of ceremonies announced that he had arrived, the ampitheatre was stirred with unmistakable evidences of excitement. The two gladiators who were then in the ring, and in the very climax of a tremendous struggle, at once left oft, in concession to the superior demands of the mysterious amateur. No sooner had they returned, however, than a young giant, who was announced as Monsieur Fouet, stepped forth, and commenced slouching leisurely around the circle. This formidable fellow stood at least six feet three, and, though there was no waste flesh about him, he must have weighed two hundred and twenty or thirty pounds. The muscle bunched all over him in great clots of power, and his broad shoulder blades, exceeding all usual development, seemed to have been cast in some iron foundry for a man-of-war. He was a fearful antagonist to look at, and the spectators evinced concern for his opponent by expressions of fearful admiration. After he had been in the ring about two minutes, there was a stir in one of the passages, opposite that which gave ingress to the professionals, and the crowd being parted by the efforts of a gendarme, a figure emerged from it shrouded in complete black, and lightly stepped into the arena. His first act was to sit down on the edge of the ring and slip off his shoes. He then rose, took off his cloak, and, handing it to a female attendant, appeared in complete white hose, with the exception of his head and face, which were covered by a black hood and cowl. Not even the color of his hair was to be seen under this disguise, and the only thing naked was his hands. As he stepped forward to the centre of the ring, I scrutinized him very closely. He stood over six feet high, or, as I guessed, about six feet and an inch. Though not so large as Fouet, he was more round in body, and there was a general look of thickness, allied to symmetry, which betokened a world of hidden strength. He probably would not scale within twenty pounds of the professional, but his weight lay upon his points, and being thus happily disposed, it represented a strength that belonged to a man of twenty or thirty pounds more. His limbs were graceful, but his loins, instead of showing the Apollonian delicacy which is noticeable in Heenan, and which had been so admired this evening in Monsieur James, were braced up with broad bands of muscle, which would obviously enable him to stand the wear and tear of a protracted struggle. I particularly noticed that his feet were small, with a high arching instep, and that his hands, though neither small nor large, were very white.
“I was impressed by the man at once, and as he placed his left hand in to the great rough paw of Fouet, I insensibly took sides with him. But he did not need any aid. Fouet rushed upon him with a terrible impetuosity, with an evident doubt of his own ultimate and resources, endeavored to carry him off his feet by a coup de main. Grasping him around the neck with one brawny arm, and nailing his right hand with the other, the giant rallied him by rapid bounds across the ring, until he had him nearly capsized among the audience; but just at this critical moment Fouet’s body happened to be a shadow out of line, and this being felt by the masque, he whirled the giant off his feet, and in the next moment the two men landed beside each other on the floor. But the masque, in this new situation, was too quick for his antagonist; he succeeded in getting himself partly up and over him, next he wound his arms over Fouet’s body, and then, by a deadly, unremitting pressure, which the giant vainly endeavored to resist, he forced him slowly over and over, until, by a final wrench, he laid him on his back. There was great applause at this result, but the masque, not paying any heed to it, merely paused to have his cloak thrown over his shoulders by the female in attendance, and then hurried out, protected from any intrusive following by the (admirers) in attendance.
“I have seen this man at the arena on five occasions since, but each of these subsequent combats were attended with the same results. I have been convinced, moreover, by the manner of them, that they were all bona fide battles; and I consider that this opinion of mine ought to be better than the mere surmises of any one who was not there to see. I venture no idea upon the question as to who the man may be, but the fact that his contests have been scrutinized by the shrewdest men in Paris, who had paid their five francs to the management for the privilege of looking on, is a pretty conclusive evidence that there is no humbug in the matter. I have seen editors, actors, members of the Jockey Club, and the leading wits of Paris largely present, and it is ridiculous to suppose that such a set of persons would assist, night after night in a gross imposture, or permit themselves so constantly to be deceived. Another proof of the integrity of the proceeding is, that, though the management of the arena was coining money by the masked man’s contests, he refuses any longer to appear, unless some champion shall be produced who has ‘gone through’ the experts like himself. He retires, because, like Alexander, he has no more worlds to conquer. The masked wrestler therefore, takes established rank with many other of the world’s mysteries, and a new counterpart is added to the question of, ‘Who is Junius?’”
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