Because this is turning out to be “Swiss adventurer week”, here’s another remarkable individualist who left his land-locked land to find glory on, and ultimately in, the seven seas.
There are four facts which by law accompany any mention of the name Arthur Cravan: 1) he was Oscar Wilde’s nephew, 2) he was a poet, 3) he was a boxer, and 4) he disappeared off the coast of Mexico in mysterious circumstances in 1918.
Of those four pillars supporting the Arthur Cravan myth which so recommended him to the Dadaists, it’s number 3 which concerns us today.
Cravan, born in Lausanne in 1887, first tried to make his name in pre-World War I Paris (perhaps wisely, the name he tried to make was not the one he was born with, Fabian Avenarius Lloyd). The city at that time was in thrall to boxing and particularly its American stars and Cravan, capitalising on his 100-kilo bulk, took up the fashionable sport in a bid for attention.
It was not, it must be said, a pursuit from which he emerged bathed in glory. The highlight of his early career came in 1910 when he won a boxing championship for “amateurs et militaires” – but only by default because his opponent didn’t turn up. It was an even bigger conflict that Cravan himself was hoping to avoid, and so he left Paris for fear of being drafted (as unlikely as this eventuality was for a Swiss citizen). He moved to neutral, liberal Barcelona and gave boxing lessons.
Having already planned a further move to the US, Cravan saw an opportunity to raise the fare by returning to the ring. He challenged Jack Johnson, who happened to be in Spain, to a match. Johnson, having spent much of the previous decade as world heavyweight champion, hardly needed to lower himself to this mouthy upstart’s level, but he consented.
On 23 April, 1916, 5000 people turned up to a Barcelona bullring which could hold many more and witnessed the unbecoming spectacle. Cravan was apparently trembling before the match, and the crowd grew restless once they realised how mismatched the two were. In the end, Jackson toyed with Cravan for five rounds and finally, in the sixth, put him out of his misery. Cravan never boxed again.
We will, you can be sure, return to the endlessly fascinating personality of Arthur Cravan. For now, take a look at this rare footage of Cravan sparring with an unidentified Spanish boxer, in which Cravan’s tactical advantage seems to consist in moving as little as possible and tiring his opponent out: