Heenan v Sayers: Boxing’s Brutal Birthplace

Ali v Frazier, Louis v Schmeling, Johnson v Jeffries. Many fights in boxing’s golden century were dubbed ‘The Fight of the Century’, each one epic contests that spread beyond the ring and drew the world’s gaze. The preceding century too had a ‘Fight of the Century’, but it has for the most part been lost to history in a way that its 20th century successors have not.The trans atlantic showdown between John C. Heenan and Tom Sayers is so peculiar and alien when compared to the modern sport that it is now scarcely mentioned. However, it is precisely the cacophony of chaos that was this fight that dragged boxing out from the murky depths of obscurity and illegality into the cultural zeitgeist of the western hemisphere. The characters, the madness and the inconceivable nature of what is now remembered as boxing’s first ever world title fight, makes for a chapter in boxing history that reads more like a work of fiction than a sporting retrospective.

In 1860 bare knuckle prizefighting in England was illegal and all boxing matches were conducted covertly, attracting crowds of what had become known as ‘The Fancy’, those in the upper class who would sneak out to view boxing. They were derided in the media as blood thirsty and savage for their interest in the pugilistic arts, and had to go to dingy venues in far flung corners of England to satisfy their desire for combat. Soon however a traveling giant would create enough uproar that the clandestine would become the mainstream, that man was the ‘Benicia Boy’ John C Heenan.

Standing a whopping 6”2 and 190lbs he towered over the population who at the time had an average height of 5”5 and rarely weighed over 150lbs, a gargantuan man whose stature was just as imposing as the heavyweights of today. A self Styled ‘enforcer’ Heenan had cut his boxing teeth by using his stature to help rig local elections and break strikes for cash. The gregarious 25 year old toured the pubs of England declaring himself the Champion of America and the only man capable of beating the English Champion, Tom Sayers. Calling him the ‘Brighton Titch’ (an insult that was probably far more effective in 1860 than it is today) he began to drum up mass interest in a fight, something that had never happened for a boxing match in living memory. Although disapproved of the interest was undeniable the Times newspaper reported on the vast interest the British public were showing in the bout saying; “There is no disguising the fact that this challenge has led to an amount of attention being bestowed upon the prize ring which it has never received before; and, much as all decent people disliked the idea of two fine men meeting to beat each other half to death, it was nevertheless devoutly wished that, as somebody was to be beaten, it might be the American.” *

Sayers was a far smaller man standing only 5”8 and never weighing more than 150lbs but unlike Heenan he was a proven champion, at 34 years of age he was nearly a decade the Americans senior and had a decorated record of wins over some of the toughest challengers, up and down the country, only losing a single bout. A more stoic individual, but with a more gentlemanly outlook than the American he accepted Heenan’s challenge by means of a scribbled letter of few words. The letter survives to this day and is currently up for auction alongside various other odd and ends that remain from the fight**. With this he set alight a frenzy as boxing became the talk of the civilized world. Renowned boxing historian Bob Mee described the fervour that wrapped both sides of the Atlantic in anticipation of the fight saying: “In drawing rooms and drinking houses, in the workhouse and in Westminster, men chewed over the merits, day and night, of Heenan and Sayers.”*** The Manchester Guardian said of the bout “no pugilistic contest ever decided has excited so great an interest, both in this and other countries, as the forthcoming conflict between Sayers and Heenan.”. The stage was set for a spectacle that few sporting events had ever garnered, the talk and intrigue was more befitting of a Napoleonic battle than a prize.

On the Morning of the 17th of april, before the sun rose, the most popular three guinea tickets were all stamped ‘To Nowhere’ as the destination of Farnborough was concealed from the prying eyes of the Metropolitan Police. As the trains poured out onto the fields besides the tiny village the two boxers were rushed to the center as poles were hammered into the ground and tied round with rope to form the ring. The throng included a who’s who of the british gentry; several members of Parliament, the Duke of Sutherland (upon whose property the bout was staged) , the Marquis of Stafford, and even Colonel Peel whose policemen were the ones trying to stop the bout from going ahead. People hung out of trees to get a better vantage point as the thousands jostled for a glimpse of the two men undressing in the ring. Heenan, still the loud mouthed showman of the pair was heard to remark “We have a fine morning for our business, If a man can’t fight and win on such a crisp morning, then he can’t fight at all”. At 7:29 in the morning the first bell sounded and the two men marched up to the scratch.

The bout began quickly with the mammouth American landing hard blows, knocking Sayers down in the 3rd and 4th rounds and injuring the Englishman’s arm in the 6th. Sayers was far from done however soon returning fire with his good arm and in what one reporter described as “a fine specimen of stratagem and skill” he caused enough swelling to shut Heenan’s eyes completely. They continued back and forth blow for blow for round after grueling round of vicious tit for tat assaults on one another as the baying crowd whooped and jeered, cheering on Sayers who was overcoming his disadvantages in size with his dogged fighting spirit. By the 37th round Heenan was a mask of blood, lacerated badly across his face, his other eye had now almost completely shut from a left hand in the 33rd round, some in attendance said that by this point he was virtually unrecognisable. Frustrated at his fortunes in the bout, Heenan grabbed Sayers by the throat and began to choke him against the top rope of the ring. Although the Marquess of Queensberry had not yet codified his rule set a gentleman’s agreement had been entered into according to the principles of bare knuckle fighting that had been used in the illegal boxing circuit up until this point. Choking one’s opponent was unsurprisingly prohibited. The crowd, upon seeing this, were outraged and began to rush towards the ring in protest, some even hitting Heenan with their canes to get him to stop. In a moment of inspiration Sayers chief Harry Brunton cut the rope to free his man, and although it worked it also had the unhelpful side effect of allowing the surging crowd to flood into the ring on all sides.

The police, hearing of the riot began to approach the field but before they could arrive the crowd once again parted and the ring was reformed. Far from declaring this the end of the bout the crowd bayed for Sayers to take revenge for the dirty tactic, to continue his beating of Heenan. This time the ring was smaller and further towards the edge of the field but the men fought on continuing to fight for five more rounds until ultimately it was up to the police to put a stop to the bout. A ringside reporter for Bell’s Life Magazine described the final round as “merely a wild scramble, both men ordered to desist from fighting.” Although both had just fought a whopping 42 rounds over an astonishing 2 hours and 27 minutes they continued to try and hurt one another and had to be forcibly pulled apart.

At the conclusion Heenan was completely blind, unable to see anything that was going on around him, Sayers too was discombobulated but managed to evade the police and escape fast enough that it is reported he spent the evening drinking champagne at a pub called The Swan on the Old Kent road. Later both would agree the fight was a draw and split the £400 winner takes all purse that had been up for grabs. They reconciled their differences and each were given a hand made championship belt and joint honours from the fight, they had become household names on both sides of the Atlantic and although they had gone down in legend, like so many great pugilists their stories have tragic ends.

Sayers’ arm was so badly damaged from the fight he was forced to retire, out of pity Heenan asked him to be his second for a championship bout against Tom King, but it ended well for neither as King brutally stopped Heenan in the 24th round. With this they both were forced to retire. Sayers made only one more public appearance as illness consumed him; the newspapers described him as “haggard, thin and wretched” as he met with Heenan once again in the ring this time as guest of honour at another boxing match. Weeks later, at the age of only 39, he was dead. He was buried in Highgate cemetery with a statue of his beloved dog on his tomb but Heenan did not attend his funeral. Heenan struggled to make ends meet as he moved back to the United States, ravaged by the civil war there was little work and despite a brief stint as a stage actor he too died poor, like Sayers at the age of just 39.

There was one winner however, Boxing. In a tale that has been repeated hundreds of times since this fight boxing has flourished at the expense of the good men who choose to earn a living doing it. It had been widely reported after the fight that Lord Palmerson, the Primeminister had actually been in attendance at the fight and it sparked fierce debate in the House of Commons. The scale and popularity of the event had swung public opinion and despite the contests’ brutality the decriminalisation of boxing was now actively part of the agenda of the government. By 1865 the “Dozen Rules”, drawn up by the London Amateur Athletic Club, was accepted by parliament as grounds for the legalization of boxing and by 1867 the Marquess of Queensbury rules, written by John Graham Chambers and endorsed by John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry unified the sport under a single banner. This introduced; gloves, 3 minute rounds, 10 counts, 24 foot rings, the definitions of a knockdown and the powers of a referee , the very same rules we still use to this day. This fight was the spark that lit the first that is modern boxing, its centraliastion, regulation and popularity as mainstream entertainment.

Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx

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1- Brian Dobbs, Black and White the Birth of Modern Boxing (2020)

2- Link to the auction house if you wish to purchase the note- https://sports.ha.com/itm/boxing-collectibles/memorabilia/1859-tom-sayers-handwritten-signed-letter-accepting-heenan-fight/a/7041-81101.s

3- Bob Mee, Bare Fists: a World Where Only the Brutal Survive (2000) ABEBooks.

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