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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 3 (June 1, 1935)

The Battlefields of Sport. — Bare-Knuckle Days

page 52

The Battlefields of Sport.
Bare-Knuckle Days.

It is a commonplace of the boxing ring that a good big man will always beat a good little man, but there is at least one name in British boxing history which disproves this assertion as overconfident. That name is Tom Sayers; he held the championship of England from 1857 to 1860, he was defeated only once and never beaten for the championship, and he held his place at the head of the fighters of the world by thrashing men up to four stone heavier than himself.

Sayers, “the Little Wonder,” was an Irish Cockney bricklayer from Brighton. He helped to build the Great Western Railway and lived most of his life in Camden town. He weighed only ten stone during his fighting career and his greatest difficulty in getting championship matches was due to his lack of brawn. His courage and skill were unquestioned, but no one could see him giving away weight and winning. His early victories were gained with neatness and dispatch, and when he improved to the stage of being able to force Jack Grant, an able and experienced fighter, to throw up the sponge, Sayers definitely entered the front rank of fighters below the rank of heavyweights. Then he fought a sixty round battle with Nat Langham, middleweight champion of England, who was looked upon as invincible by a man of his own weight, and narrowly lost. Langham had the advantage of knowledge. He excited and irritated Sayers by the trickery with which he used to nurse himself against the twenty-six-year-old boy, but for all that, Sayers lasted the better and would have won the fight but for the fact that Langham's blows closed both his eyes. Though Sayers was defeated here it was a useful lesson, for it taught him the way in which to beat heavier men. Using his greater activity to keep out of reach, he battered their faces until their eyesight was affected and he had them at his mercy. In this way he beat Harry Paulson, who was considerably over 12 stone and who had beaten Tom Paddock, the previous champion, and in this way he beat Aaron Jones, who was 23 pounds more than Sayers and three inches taller. That brought Sayers his chance at the championship, and in gaining the belt he thrashed the 14-stone Tipton Slasher in a battle which lasted ten rounds and in which, by making the powerful champion fight in his own style, Sayers revealed that intelligence which gave him supremacy over all his English rivals.

Sayers had little difficulty in staying at the top because he had heavily thrashed most of his potential rivals before he got there. He twice beat Bill Benjamin, a hope rather than a champion, he won from Bob Brettle, the pride of Birmingham, by a blow which dislocated Brettle's shoulder, and he fended off an attempt by the old champion, Paddock, to make a comeback in a bout which revealed Paddock at his worst and Sayers at the pinnacle of his career.

Prize-fighting in those days was far from the exact display that it is in this century. The “rounds” lasted almost as long as the fighters were willing to carry on without rest—when Sayers met the Tipton Slasher one round lasted for half-an-hour—fights of over sixty rounds were common, the bouts were staged under great difficulties and constant threat of arrest of the principals, prize-fighting being a breach of the peace. A purse of £400 was a large one, and often the fighters battled until darkness fell. It was when the United States made a serious attempt to win the championship belt that the system was seen at work on a scale never before revealed.

John C. Heenan, the “Benicia Boy,” who had worked in the Benicia Workshops of an American steamship line, had fought and struggled on the California goldfields and finally took up pugilism, was the man chosen to represent the United States. He was narrowly beaten by John Morrissey for the championship of America, the fight being determined by Heenan's accidentally striking a stake of the ring and badly injuring his hand, and the ability he revealed was such that the Americans were confident that he would be able to beat Sayers. This match, which came to be known as the battle of the century, was made in 1860. It was surrounded with adventure from the first, and it came to one of the most dramatic conclusions in the history of sport.

To reach England at all Heenan had to disguise himself to avoid the American police who wanted him for some minor breach of the peace, and all through his training operations he was harried by the British police force. Warrants, sworn out by foes of prize-fighting, pursued him all over the country, and finally a policeman in disguise was introduced to his training quarters. Though clad only in his stockings, he made a desperate attempt to escape, but was arrested and released on £50 bail. Sayers, who was allowed to finish his training in peace, knew no peace thenceforth, for the police made a most determined effort to prevent him from reaching the scene of battle, and he had to be smuggled there in the disguise of a stable-boy attendant upon some racehorses which were shipped by the fight train. The impending battle aroused the greatest excitement all through England. “Amongst youngsters at school, in all the universities, at clubs, in military circles, in the lobby of the House of Commons, at the Stock Exchange, indeed everywhere,” says a contemporary historian, “the great prize-fight was the topic of conversation.” Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, was among the crowd of 12,000 which witnessed the struggle, and two special trains, packed to the doors, were run from London (starting at 4 a.m.) to Farnborough, the scene of the encounter.

Tom Sayers was first in the ring, attended by his seconds, Harry Brunton and Jemmy Welsh, and when Heenan arrived the two had a quiet chat before they turned to their seconds for the finishing touches, for both had arrived in fighting kit. Heenan was the first to strip, and his page 53 magnificent form, 4 1/2 inches taller than that of Sayers, caused a murmur of admiration from the crowd. Every muscle of that magnificent torso stood out in splendid relief. Sayers, brown-skinned and well-knit, also showed himself as perfectly fit; during a breathless hush “Time” was called and the battle to decide the championship of the world commenced.

Heenan was the first to attack, advancing to where Sayers stood with the sun in his eyes and leading with his left, only to find Sayers quickly jump back. Again the Benicia Boy led and again Sayers was too quick. Then Sayers stood his ground and as the American closed in there were some sharp exchanges. Sayers landed heavily on his adversary's nose and there was a yell from the crowd as the blood began to flow. They came together again and Sayers planted another blow in the same place, but received a heavy counter on the head. They sparred cautiously after that, then worked in to close quarters and Heenan got his arm round Sayers's neck but received some half-arm blows which shook his hold, and Sayers slipped to the grass laughing.

Faces were flushed and both showed signs of heavy hitting on their bodies when the second round began. Heenan slowly fell back into his corner, then halted and let drive with his left. Sayers blocked cleverly, but missed with his counter and the American rushed in, gripped his foe, threw him and pinned him. There was a yell from the numerous Americans who were offering two to one on their man, as they saw that Sayers was no equal of Heenan at wrestling. Sayers quickly recovered from this jar and realised that he must keep away from his heavier opponent. Quickly the Englishman altered his tactics and dodged about the ring while Heenan tried to close in on him. Sayers proved the cleverer general, yet at the finish he underestimated Heenan and paid the penalty, the Benicia Boy catching him on the nose with a heavy blow which knocked him off his feet.

Sayers's customary grin had vanished when he began the third round.

The succeeding round determined the fight. It was evident now that Sayers had decided to hold his ground and fight back, no matter what the risk, and he took up a position in the centre of the ring. Heenan led, there was a volley of terrific blows and then one of the American's tremendous swings at Sayers's head drove the Englishman's guard back on his face. It was a terrific impact and the champion's arm became swollen and purple; a bone was broken. It was evident that Sayers was suffering. He held his injured right arm (his “auctioneer” the crowd called it) close to his body and drove his left against Heenan's cheek. The American lashed back at his opponent's forehead and again Sayers went down. The succeeding rounds were an epic of heroism. A brilliant fighter with a broken arm held off a terrific hitter for twenty-five rounds. Sayers astonished the Americans with his great agility, slipping away out of dangerous corners, causing Heenan to miss and waste his strength, darting in and connecting and dodging out of range before a counter could land. In the twenty-ninth round Sayers seemed to have gained his second wind and, as in his other fights, he had maintained an attack on his foeman's eyes until they were painfully swollen, one being all but closed. The champion's arm was twice its normal size, his face and body were bruised and battered, but Heenan was almost blind. The Englishman's chance lay in closing the Benicia Boy's one good eye. Again Sayers landed a punch to the face and a second shouted, “That's it Tom, put up his shutters and the show is over!” By the thirtieth round Heenan could barely see; there was a consultation in his corner, but he was told to go in and make the best use of his strength at close quarters. He forced the fighting again, still the stronger of the two, but matched against a quicker man. At the height of the struggle there was a yell from the crowd. The police had come.

The scene which followed was the most remarkable in the history of prize fights. The crowd held the police back while the men fought round after round. In the thirty-sixth Heenan tried to hold Sayers against the ropes, but the Englishman escaped and in the next round Heenan's hands, swollen like boxing gloves, were able to do little damage to his adversary. Sayers landed twice on the American's good eye and completed his blindness; unable to see, Heenan rushed at the champion and by luck encountered him. Using all his strength the Benicia Boy forced Sayers back over the ropes and would have strangled him if someone had not cut the ropes just as the police reached the ring. In a moment referee and seconds were scattered, ropes and stakes were knocked down and the crowd milled around in the enclosure. Amidst the confusion the two fighters, ignoring the referee's command to cease, went on with a mad, reckless fight. Sayers was knocked down and almost trampled on by the mob, Heenan's name was called as winner and then the Englishman was up raining blows on his enemy's face. During a momentary lull Sayers was on his second's knee when Heenan rushed across the ring and knocked over Jemmy Welsh with a blow to the face, seized Sayers and rolled with him on the grass. At this time the referee intervened and once more commanded them to stop. By now the police were present in such force that it was obvious the battle must end. So closed the great international fight which was also the last appearance of Sayers in the ring. The contest was pronounced a draw, each man being awarded a belt.