Having long since tired of discourses on the density of Harold Wilson's pipe smoke, the height of Julie Christie's miniskirts and the length of the Rolling Stones' hair, affluent British businessmen are looking elsewhere for idle-hour entertainment. They are turning, in increasing numbers, to private boxing clubs—elegant establishments serving food, drink and prizefights. They may represent London's last fling at a sport that can now count only 500 professional fighters in all of Britain. There are 11 of these houses of posh and pow, but the grandest of all has always been the National Sporting Club, founded in 1891 as a middle-class substitute for the Pelican Club, where a group of aristocrats and bohemians once bet on bareknuckle fights and shouted, "More gore," whenever a fight was not exciting enough.
As bloodthirsty as the Pelican at first, the National Sporting Club gradually reformed, and by 1929 had brought professional boxing within the bounds of legality. The Queens-berry Rules for Endurance Contests were the lever, which meant rounds were limited to three minutes, with one-minute intervals and not more than 20 rounds to a contest. The referee halted the bout if one man was unfit to continue and, most important, the club rejected barefisted fighting.
Down through the years the National Sporting Club became the place for the sport of boxing in England. "What the Covent Garden Opera House is to the world of music, the National Sporting Club is to pugilism. No artist can say he has arrived until he has proved himself on the stage of one or in the ring of the other," said the Marquess of Queensberry. This marquess was Marquess No. 10—twice removed from Marquess No. 8, who wrote the rules. Translated into Madison Square Garden terms, Marquess 10 was saying simply, "The club has all the big ones."
The big one in the club's first season was Ching Ghook's stirring win over the "Bit o' Gorgonzola," Bill Cheese. Frank Slavin, Peter Jackson, Sam Langford, Georges Carpentier and Tommy Burns were among the fighters later to appear at the club. During its long history it has staged an astonishing total of 135 British and seven world championship fights, not to mention concerts, amateur and professional billiards competitions and other sporting displays. Yet it was not until 1938 that the club actually had a clubhouse—the first and second floors of the Hotel Splendide on Piccadilly. After one move, the club settled in 1955 into its present quarters in the Café Royal, just off Piccadilly Circus, where much of its past glory has been successfully brought to life and the blend of brandy and cigars is as perfect as ever.
For his yearly subscription of ¬£25 ($70) a member can watch 21 boxing tournaments promoted by the club between September and June. National Sporting Club nights, strictly black-tie events, with women rarely permitted, follow an orderly, gentlemanly ritual. Members and their guests meet around 7 for drinks in the Derby, Queensberry and Lonsdale rooms. Dinner follows in the Du Barry and Dauphine suites (one recent menu: iced melon, minestrone, sirloin of Aberdeen Angus or steak-and-kidney pie with French beans and potato in a jacket, followed by fresh pears in kirsch, lemon water ice or sponge fingers), and by 9 sharp everybody is seated at ringside in the Napoleon Room, surrounded by sparkling chandeliers and grandiose mirrors. Waiters move quietly down the rows of tables and chairs distributing brandy, whiskey and champagne and lighting cigars. Betting is quiet and subdued, and it is a rule of the club, usually adhered to, that applause may occur only between rounds.
Recently 650 members and guests gathered on a fight night to watch four matches, the final one of which was described by London's Boxing News as "the bonniest punch-up so far of this club season." Signifying their approval of all that had gone before, members rose up in the traditional manner to shower the canvas with "nobbins"—silver coins and rolled-up bills.
After it was over, while the boxers changed in what are normally ladies' powder rooms and the members rolled down the great curve of Regent Street in their limousines, a club official explained how modern sensitivities had changed and, with them, the ways of the National Sporting Club. "The old Corinthians encouraged an atmosphere that was more like a cockfight," he said. "Boxers at the club in the past were fighting for their lives. We have a more sophisticated membership today. We're a little more appreciative of people's feelings."