Boxing Pioneers were Heroes

Boxing pioneers were heroes

Early greats endured much

by Ron Jackson

Most of the meanest boxers in the world will probably wince when they hear what the sport’s old-timers endured.

Elaborately tattooed, boasting scary nicknames and earning large amounts, modern boxers try to convince spectators, media representatives and sponsors that they are tough, courageous, ferocious fighters.

But take away their padded gloves, their inflated purses and their lightweight shoes and tell them to fight according to rules that were in place a couple of centuries ago and watch how they switch to a different sport.

Boxing, like all old sports, has changed and developed almost unrecognizably over the years; largely for the better. But it remains a fascinating exercise to delve into its history.

It used to be called prize-fighting, a form of entertainment that attracted spectators to the Theatre Royal in Dorset Street, Salisbury Square in London in 1698.

The first prize-fighter of whom there is any record was James Figg, who is still regarded as the first champion. He reigned from 1719 to 1730.

Figg is credited with being responsible for the rebirth of boxing because he advertised an exhibition at his booth at Southwark, London, in 1719.

Jem Mace, who was born in 1834 and died in 1910, was considered the last British “Champion of the World” under London Prize Ring Rules and also the last of the bare-knuckle fighters.

However, other English prize-fighters, such as Tom Allen, Joe Goss and Joe Wormwold, who came after Mace, could have claimed to be the champion.

As a boxing historian I have always been interested in the bare-fist fighters of the 18th and 19th century. And when I began researching the careers of the legendary characters of prize-fighting a fascinating history opened up.


The research prompted a desire to visit the old fight sites and the birth places and burial grounds of the pioneers.

I first went to the British Library in London where I found and read a copy of A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defense, written by a British soldier, Captain John Godfrey, and published in 1747.

Experts consider it as the first book about boxing, and original copies are extremely rare. There are two in the British Library and three in other libraries in Britain.

The book is bound in red leather and has a gilt-patterned edge and the crest of King George II on the front and back. Most of the book is devoted to sword fighting, but there are approximately twenty pages about boxing instruction and some leading boxers of the day.

The 150 years between 1720 and 1870 were marked by the rise, decline and extinction of what was regarded as the noble art of prize-fighting.


Bare-knuckle fights attracted much interest among dukes and princes, writers, poets and painters, as well as ordinary citizens. Large bets were made on the often brutal battles.

Leading fighters were presented with elaborate championship belts, trophies and ornaments. They were feted by the elite, idolized by the workers and eventually honored with imposing tombs.

With the possible exception of cricket, boxing acquired the largest literary and pictorial legacy of any sport.

Yet, despite the extensive documentation, details of some old-time fighters remain vague.

Figg was probably born in 1695 and died, as far as can be ascertained, on December 8 1734. He was buried at the Parish Church of St Marylebone in London but no one has found his grave.

The amphitheater where he fought is believed to have been at the corner of Wells and Castle Street; now known as Oxford and Eastcastle.

No certainty exists of the dates and venues of his early fights but they probably took place at that amphitheater.

To attend fights those days was expensive. When Figg fought Ned Sutton in 1727 the entry price was two shillings and sixpence, a day’s wages. To watch a day’s cricket cost two or three pennies.

After Figg, Jack Broughton was the leading fighter. He was born in 1705 but there is doubt about the place. It was probably London.


He died in January 1789 and it is generally accepted that he was buried at St Mary’s at Lambeth. But there is no evidence to prove it. He might have been buried at Westminster Abbey, across the Thames from Lambeth.

A stone slab in the Cloisters is inscribed “Mr John Broughton. Died January 8, aged 86years.”

Broughton, known as “The Father of Boxing,” introduced scientific moves in the ring and wrote the first set of rules in 1743. He also introduced padded gloves and mufflers to his training rooms in the Haymarket.


Daniel Mendoza, England’s first Jewish champion, was born in July 1764 or ‘65. He was active at a time when boxing regained its standing after a period of bribery and chicanery.

Prize-fighting was illegal at the time but local magistrates apparently turned a blind eye to fights because the Prince of Wales was a regular among the spectators.

Paul Magriel wrote about Mendoza: “Money, he made lots of it; he spent it like a drunken sailor and died in poverty.” That is probably why Mendoza continued fighting. He was 57 when he fought 51-year-old Tom Owen.

It has been said that Mendoza was so popular that the Storming of the Bastille and the outbreak of the French Revolution were reported on the inside pages of news journals in 1789. The front pages carried news about Mendoza’s book, The Art of Boxing.

One of the earliest and grandest monuments to a prize-fighter was erected in 1847 above the grave of “Gentleman” John Jackson in Brompton Cemetery, London. It has a large plinth, with a colossal lion crouching on top of it and was unveiled two years after Jackson’s death.


Only months after Jackson’s stone was erected, Tom Cribb died. He was one of England’s greatest sports heroes. Born in July 1781, he was not regarded as a particularly skilful fighter but his courage was unmatched.

Cribb beat the 42-year-old American Bill Richmond; the first black fighter of note. But the victories that turned him into a national hero were against Tom Molineux, a former American slave.

Their first fight, at Copthall Common, south of London in December 1810, lasted 55 minutes. They fought again, at Thistleton Gap in Rutland in September 1811. There were 25 000 spectators.

It was later claimed that Molineux had had a whole chicken, an apple pie and four pints of beer before the fight. He closed Cribb’s eye, but was stopped after 28 minutes.


Cribb later owned The Union Arms in the Haymarket in London. It was later renamed the Tom Cribb Pub. It was still there when I popped in some years ago to take a look at the sketches on the walls of his fights and those of other bare-knuckle fighters.

Cribb’s ashes were placed in the Woolwich Ferry Thames side churchyard in the spring of 1848. In 1851 Vincent Dowling, the editor of Bell’s Life, together with some friends and admirers, decided to erect a monument to honor Cribb.

It was placed in position in May 1854 – a big lion, carved from a 20-ton block of Portland stone. It is still there, with the lion looking across the Thames.

Cribb’s protégé, Tom Spring, beat Jack Langan after 76 rounds at the Worcester Racecourse on January 7 1824. It was the first time a grandstand was erected for a prize fight. There were 30 000 spectators.

Spring, whose real name was Winter, died at his pub, The Castle Tavern in Holborn, and was buried at the Metropolitan Cemetery in West Norwood, London.

He lies beneath what used to be a classical Greek obelisk, but the grave has been badly neglected. The monument bears little resemblance to the imposing obelisk that was published in Pugilistica.


One of the most publicised bare-knuckle fighters was Tom Sayers, who was known as the Napoleon of the Prize Ring. He was at the forefront when the sport experienced a tremendous surge in popularity, but it declined rapidly after his last fight.

Sayers was born in Pimlico, Brighton, south of what is now Tidy Street. The exact day is unknown but it was in May 1826, even though Pugilistica gives it as 1828. The inscription on his tombstone shows his date of birth as the May 8.

Sayers was never more than a middleweight and was said to be small, with “very fine shoulders” and suppleness and strength. His fight with American John C Heenan on April 17 1860 was the first international bout for the championship after Tom Cribb’s clash with Molineux in 1811.

The fight at Farnborough in Hampshire, about 50 km from London, created huge interest. About 12000 spectators turned up, some starting the journey at 4am at London Bridge Station.

The bout, regarded as the most famous fight in history, began at 7.29am. In the sixth round, Sayers tore a tendon in his right arm, but he fought on, using only one hand.

By the 36th round Heenan’s face was a mess, but he still had enough strength to pin the smaller Sayers against the ropes, put all his weight on his throat.


He did it again in the 37th round before the police moved in to stop the fight. However, the spectators closed in around the ring and the two men fought for another five rounds before the officials called a halt.

Sayers never boxed again. Alcohol and tuberculosis caused his death in November 1865, when he died in Camden Town, London, at the age of 39.

He was buried at Highgate Cemetery and about 100 000 people gathered on the route between his home and the grave to pay their respect. The hearse moved slowly, followed by an open four-wheeled carriage in which Sayers’s companion, a huge mastiff named Lion, travelled alone, wearing a black collar.

Friends and admirers collected money to have a monument erected at Sayers’s grave. The last time I was there, visitors had to pay two pounds for a guided tour of the “Old Highgate” cemetery where one can see the imposing monument under shady trees.

At the foot of it is a carved stone figure of Tom’s life-long friend, his dog Lion.

After Sayers’s death, the sport was taken over by unsavory characters. Unfortunately for Jem Mace, his ring career coincided with the last disgraceful days of prize fighting.

Mace, who was involved in the sport for 50 years and was truly “The Father of Modern Boxing” came to South Africa in 1903 and held exhibitions with Jack Valentine in Cape Town.

He died in November 1910 and was buried at Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool. There is no headstone, but there is a cross in his honor next to his father’s grave in the churchyard in his birth town of Beeston in Norfolk.

Bare-knuckle prize fighting became what we know as boxing. It began as a brutal sport, yet the fighters were admired by aristocrats and honored by artists in paintings and drawings and on plaques, porcelain and earthenware jugs and plates.

Leave a Reply