First world championship fight John Heenan (USA) v Tom Sayers (UK)

Sayers v. Heenan, 17 April 1860. Drawn by the lithographer W. L. Walton (c. 1811-75)

Sayers v. Heenan, 17 April 1860. Drawn by the lithographer W. L. Walton (c. 1811-75)

Exactly 150 years to the day, on 17 April 1860 an illegal bare-knuckle fight took place in a field at the back of the Ship Inn in Farnborough, Hampshire, on the Surrey-Hampshire border. Prize fighting at the time being illegal.

John Heenan (USA) v Tom Sayers (UK) the fight was in essence a world heavyweight fight. The reason for the location was that in the event of the Hampshire Constabulary turning up (which they did) the fighters could cross the River Blackwater and be over the county border into Surrey, and out of reach. Not that the constabulary were going to do much in the midst of a large bloodthirsty crowd.

The fight that took place behind the Ship Inn on 17 April 1860 between the Irish-American John Heenan and the gypsy Tom Sayers was the first world championship fight. A bare-knuckle fight, it went into 37 rounds before the ropes were cut, the ring invaded, and the referee abandoned the fight. The fight went on for a further 5 rounds, a total of 2 hours 20 minutes, before being declared a draw. Both contestants were awarded a championship belt. A crowd of 12,000 attended the illegal fight. Sayers was reported in The Times as continuing the fight with a broken arm.

Tom Sayers (1826-1865), born in Brighton, only ever lost one fight in his boxing career. After the Farnborough fight, he and John Heenan became good friends. They toured the country putting on exhibition fights to commemorate their world championship fight in Farnborough. Sayers lies in Highgate Cemetery.

The fight was the last of its kind. The nation was so shocked by the brutality of the fight that legislation was pushed through Parliament that put an end to bare-knuckle fighting.

What is strange is that there is nothing at the Ship Inn to commemorate the fight, no plaque, no poster. Although talking to the landlord some weeks ago, he did start to tell me of the fight and was very surprised to learn that I already knew of it.

Locally, no one seems to be aware the fight took place. With such an important anniversary taking place, one would expect something to commemorate the event, but nothing. Nothing that is other than a book signing in the local library by an author of a book on the fight. And even for this, no publicity, not even a poster or flyers in the Ship Inn! And the obvious place for the book signing would have been the Ship Inn, not the local library. This should not though be seen to imply any criticism of the current landlord of the Ship Inn.

The day before, local TV conducted an interview, only it took place two miles away at Mytchett in Surrey, not outside the Ship Inn!

also see

The Lion and the Eagle

Sayers vs Heenan: the bare-knuckle heavyweight championship of the world

Heenan v Sayers: The fight that changed boxing forever

International boxing anniversary marked by historians

The bare knuckle fighter who fought British champion for 42 rounds in 1860

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