Tuesday, March 29, 2011

April 17, 1860 --- The Great Bout

30,000 "sportsmen" gather in a Hampshire field near Farnborough for a prize-fight between the British champion, Tom Sayers, and America's best, J.C. Heenan.  Special trains run from London.  Heenan was billed as "half-horse, half-alligator, and a bit of snapping turtle." The boxers and their handlers have managed to evade an almost nationwide manhunt mounted by "busy-bodies" hoping to prevent the long-rumored bout.

The smaller, older Sayers draws first blood, but Heenan scores the first knockdown. The bare-knuckled brawl surges back and forth for some forty rounds. Finally, the police arrive. The crowd surges forward, however, in effect protecting the fighters but reducing the ring to a 6 foot circle. At last, the contest is declared a draw, although Sayers partisans accuse Heenan of cheating by trying to strangle the plucky Briton. The combatants stagger away; Heenan - "almost unrecognizable as a human being" - literally has to be led off and Sayers, his right arm limp at his side, shows a "mouth and nose dreadfully beaten."

Such bouts - and the high-stakes gambling thereon - are illegal and the Horne Secretary promises a full inquiry. Prime Minister Palmerston, however, rumored to have been ringside himself, adroitly scuttles the probe. The Times praises the boxers for their skilled practice of a "miserable trade," but wonders what it means when: "The two great divisions of the Anglo-Saxon race [are] worked to the pitch of excitement by ... two half-naked men pounding each other's countenances for some hours in a meadow."  The Spectator is more tolerant; praising the pugilists for "their temperance, chastity, subjection to discipline, victory over animal desires and animal appetites. Few of their critics have ever subjected themselves to anything so wholesome." 

Friends of Sayers raised over £3000 on his behalf in return for a pledge to quit the ring. He lived only a few more years.  Dead at 36, he was buried at Highgate after a riotous funeral procession, prominently featuring Lion, his faithful mastiff (whose statue now keeps silent vigil at his master's grave).

[Photo of Tom Sayers: Cyberboxingzone]

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