Published: April 24, 2016
The first “world championship” boxing match took place on this day – not in a grand stadium like New York’s Madison Square Garden that was to host later famous gladiatorial battles, but in an open field in southern England.
The contenders were 25-year-old John Carmel Heenan, the all-American champion, and England’s “Titch” Sayers, 34, who was described on posters as “the small, clever little ring general”. He needed to be. Weighing 149lb, Sayers was just 5ft 8in tall, while 6ft 2in Heenan tipped the scales at 195lb.
This was a bare-knuckle fight, which was illegal. But that didn’t stop a huge crowd gathering at the field just outside the village of Farnborough in Hampshire, many of the spectators having arrived by special trains from London. They were said to include the writers Charles Dickens and William Thackeray as well as the Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, and even the 18-year-old Prince of Wales, destined to become King Edward VII.
As the contenders stripped to the waist, Heenan is reported to have commented: "We have a fine morning for our business." Sayers replied: "If a man can't fight and win on such a crisp morning, then he can't fight at all."
The contest began at precisely 7.29am and the two men fought on for an astonishing and brutal two hours and 27 minutes. Battered and bloodied, they were preparing to come out for the 43rd round when police stormed the ring and brought proceedings to an end, with the crowd – and the pugilists – fleeing to escape arrest.
A reporter from Bell’s Life, Britain’s leading sporting newspaper, wrote: "The final round was merely a wild scramble, both men ordered to desist from fighting. Heenan had rushed away from the ring, and ran some distance with the activity of a deer, and although he was as fit as ever, he was obviously totally blind. Sayers, although tired, was also strong on his pins and could have fought some time longer."
The fight was declared a draw and the men were each paid £200 for their pains. Neither fought again and both died while still in their thirties.