A Portrait Of Boxing's First World Championship

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“Stephen went down Bedford row, the handle of the ash clacking against his shoulderblade. In Clohissey’s window a faded 1860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers held his eye. Staring backers with square hats stood round the roped prizering. The heavyweights in tight loincloths proprosed gently each other his bulbous fists. And they are throbbing: heroes’ hearts.” —James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 10, The Wandering Rocks

Tom Sayers’ right arm had been broken since the sixth round, but his bare-knuckled left fist still rendered John Camel Heenan’s face unrecognizable. During Round 29, Sayers’ only working fist finally managed to make contact with Heenan’s only working eye. But even with both eyes swollen shut, Heenan managed to end Round 37 with Sayers’ neck firmly placed between his hands and the rope. Exhausted, he leaned his 195-pound frame into his opponent, whose face turned purple under the pressure.

And that was before the rope was cut and the crowd rushed the ring. They still had five more rounds to go.

It had all begun months earlier. Bare-knuckle prize-fighting was illegal, but nearly every newspaper in the world had breathlessly speculated about the world’s first Heavyweight Championship. On April 17, 1860, thousands of men knew to show up at the London Bridge Station by 4 a.m. and purchase three-guinea tickets. The destination was marked “To Nowhere,” and the trains were simply called “Southbound Specials.”

Today in London, Bonhams auctioned off a color lithograph showing around 3,000 men— rumored to include Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and the Prince of Wales—crowded behind the Ship Inn in Farnborough.

Organizers had strategically picked a spot along the Surrey-Hampshire border. If the police came, even the dukes, lords, earls, ministers, journalists, merchants and lawyers knew to run out of their jurisdiction. The butchers, barkeepers, fishmongers and day laborers knew, too, but hoped it wouldn’t come to that, and if it did, many intended to employ the weighted sticks and knives they had brought along.

At half past seven, Sayers stripped down to his breeches. At just 5 feet 8 inches, the 33-year-old illiterate bricklayer known as “Brighton Titch” had won a series of titles, but his twenty-five-year-old American opponent had a good four inches and forty pounds on him. The English reporter Henry Mills observed the size difference, but concluded Sayers’ legs “were cast in a decidedly stronger mold than that of his opponent.”

Heenan had two nicknames back in San Francisco, where he often wielded a 32-pound sledge in foundries and fought for cash on the weekends. He maintained order in the dockyards sweatshops, where he was known as “Benecia Boy,” but around election time, local politicians simply called him “enforcer.”

“Time!” yelled the referee, and the boisterous crowd hushed, watching Heenan and Sayers bob and weave, holding and punching, aiming at first for the kidneys and other soft targets.

No regulation meant no rules. Rounds weren’t scored or demarcated by intervals; they ended when a man hit the floor.

Sayers drew blood first, but Heenan countered in the second round and by the fifth, odds were five-to-one on the American. During the twenty-minute long eighth round, men were climbing on each other’s shoulders and frantically placing bets, the heavy stakes quickly rising. Journalists’ accounts were somewhat influenced by national ties, but at this point, they all began to recoil at the “hideous and loathsome” injuries incurred by both boxers. At one point, Sayers’ knuckles caused such a great gash in Heenan’s right cheek that pink flesh hung limply off his face. When they retreated to their corners, their wounds were inadequately treated with a blood-soaked sponge.

“It’s an eye for an arm now,” Sayers reportedly said, but both boxers continued to spill copious amounts of blood on the grass for hours to come.

According to the London Times, a few policemen attempted to force their way into the ring, but the crowd “kept them back by rushing on the ropes, shouting and cheering the combatants to the utmost.”

By 9:30, the exhausted pugilists were flailing about, wildly throwing punches. More police arrived, batons in hand, and the focus shifted to the melee outside the ring.

And that’s when Heenan began to crush his opponent’s neck against the rope. The Times reported Sayers “would have been strangled on the spot had both umpires not called simultaneously to cut the ropes.” Still, the mob wanted the fight to continue, so they formed a protective circle around the fighters, leaving them just six feet on which to fight five more rounds.

The police finally gained entry two hours and twenty-seven minutes after the fight started, and the fighters fled. After 42 rounds, “Heenan was unrecognizable as a human being” and ran blindly into the field, while Sayers was seen “walking firmly and coolly away, with both his eyes open and clear.” Locals argued that Sayers had won, but in the end, both men were awarded silver championship belts and 400 British Pounds Sterling. They spent the next few months performing theatrical reenactments of their epic fight around England.

The backlash against the gruesome fight was substantial. The Saturday Evening Post wrote: “Compared with the bull-fighting of Spain and the cock fighting in Cuba, it is not only more barbarous, but dashed with a peculiarly Roglish trait of vulgarity.” By 1865, Parliament accepted the “Dozen Rules,” which included three-minute rounds and “no cross-buttock throwing whatever.”

Sayers never fought again. His supporters, including members of the House of Commons, raised £3,000 for his retirement, which he mostly spent on the drink. When he died at just 39, 30,000 people attended his Highgate funeral.

As for Heenan, he fought another world championship against Tom King, in 1863, but he lost in 24 rounds. By the time he died of a lung hemorrhage in Wyoming at the age of 38, he was destitute.

At Bonhams today, the lithograph of the first Heavyweight Championship, by W.L. Walton, went for £687, as part of the Sports Memorabilia and Golfing Heritage Auction. Who was the lucky buyer, we wanted to know. “No we do not release buyers confidential details by law,” was the full verbatim response from a Bonhams representative.





Alexis Coe is now a writer living in San Francisco, but not long ago, she was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, The Hairpin, and other publications. Alexis holds an MA in history. Follow her. Image: detail from W.L. Walton’s lithograph.