Home Boxing 101 History 1820-1860: The Last British Stars to Shine

1820-1860: The Last British Stars to Shine

Boxing History of the Mid 19th Century

As the industrial revolution rumbled on, despite great strides being made in other facets of life, British sport, and especially boxing, was lagging behind.  Could Britain retain its status as the powerhouse of pugilism?

Following Tom Cribb and his exploits against African American challenger Tom Molineaux, the next super star of the ring was an intelligent, defensive fighter named Tom Spring. Just like Cribb, Spring’s main challenge hailed from outside England in the form of big, brave, Irishman Jack Langan. Twice Langan challenged for Spring’s title in two very different, but equally, epic bouts.

The pair first fought in Worcestershire, 1824. An enormous crowd, well in excess of twenty thousand, gathered for the event. Boats were docked across the nearby river and men clambered up masts to gain a better vantage point. At ringside crowd control was impossible. Each time Langan seemed poised to knock Spring out, the English fans charged at the Irishman. After seventy-seven raucous rounds, realizing his man could not win, a semi-conscious Langan was pulled out of the fight by his trainer.

The rematch, later that year, was a more controlled bout. This time a wooden stage was erected and an array of prizefighters were used as stewards to keep the unruly elements of the crowd at bay. Again, an energy sapping seventy plus rounds were recorded, with both men suffering multiple injuries, most of which caused by the hard wooden canvass. In the seventy-sixth round, Spring somehow conjured up a fierce left, right combination which sent the brave Irishman crashing to the floor for the last time.

Although this second fight was a more honest and orderly affair, pugilism was becoming ever more immoral and chaotic. Purses were refused and bribery commonplace. The sport was in a dire situation.  Following Spring’s retirement, skilled fighters from Jem Ward to James ‘Deaf’ Burke were embroiled in numerous acts of dishonesty throughout the 1830s and following the ring death of ‘Brighton’ Bill Phelps in 1838; major revisions were needed.

With a growing morally-conscious and forward-thinking middle class intent on reforms, British blood sports were in serious danger. New and more professional police forces were under constant pressure to tackle the dangers pugilism.

In 1838, the London Prize Rules were devised in an attempt to regain order and make the sport fairer both in and out of the ring. The new rules allowed fighters to avoid punishment by kneeling down, in fact should a fighter’s knee ever touch the canvas they were considered down for a count. When a fighter went down the round was over and they had thirty seconds to recover before the next one commenced. The two ringside umpires were joined by a specially appointed referee who would enforce a number of additional laws including an outright ban on butting and the use of hard objects, such as rocks, in the hands. Also, out of the ring, a host of new powers meant that, in theory, financial disputes could be dealt with.

Such rules however could not restore pugilism to its past glory, and in the following decades the sport continued to suffer. Britain was losing its traditional role as the epicenter of pugilism while in America countless top challengers were emerging.

James ‘Deaf’ Burke took his title across the Atlantic in 1837 – fighting in New Orleans and New York. In 1842 the giant 7ft African American Charles Freeman embarked on two widely publicized battles with William ‘The Tipton Slasher’ Perry. Other countries such as Australia, Ireland and Canada were also forging strong links with the sport – just as Britain’s power was waning.

Despite boxings globalization, Britain still had one final great who staged a desperate last grasp for his country’s dominance. Tom Sayers was the future. A bright, honest and intelligent man, possessing extraordinary athletic ability, he was just the clean cut image of wholesome athleticism that British boxing was desperate to promote.  When, in 1853, he became middleweight champion, few took note… such was pugilisms dramatic fall from grace. Though, like many future champions, his fate was sealed due to an ironic twist. Unable to find suitable opponents at middleweight, Sayers reluctantly agreed to fight heavyweight Harry Poulson who outweighed him by 30lbs.

Sayers relied on his famed endurance to last a staggering one hundred and nine rounds before knocking out the exhausted Poulson with a short, sharp right hook to the jaw. The inspirational story of Sayers’ triumph was heralded as a ‘fairy tale of the ages’ and once more pugilism was arousing massive public attention.

At this time, ‘The Tipton Slasher’ William Perry was heavyweight champion, though his reign coincided with the dark days of pugilism. He was the very embodiment of the decadence of his era and many of his fights ended in controversy. Following Sayers’ unlikely victory over Poulson the press and public demanded a showdown between the pair. The fight was made in 1857 with the David versus Goliath element to the bout attracting much publicity. Perry, a big burly man of over 6ft and weighing more than 175lbs, compared to the nimble 5ft 9in and 154lbs frame of Sayers, was the overwhelming favorite.

In round one Perry came bombing forward intent on ending the fight quickly. But the cool, calm Sayers, renowned for high concentration levels and athletic conditioning, kept on his toes darting about the ring to avoid ‘The Slasher’s’ wild swings. Counter punching with precise timing the smaller man took almost every round as Perry was made to foolish, clumsily stumbling around desperate to grab hold of the allusive challenger. The fight lasted just ten rounds before a worn-down Perry subsided. Britain’s gallant underdog, the country’s last true hero of the bare-knuckle ring, was crowned.

Although Sayers prevailed, British pugilism would not. The new world possessed the new challengers and a new dawn of international prize-fighting was emerging. Even Tom Sayers was still to have his biggest day. Nearly two years after the triumph over Perry, a rough and ready American blacksmith, known as ‘The Benicia Boy’, who’d fought his way from the frontier towns of California to the city streets of New York was setting sail for England, and the most eagerly anticipated bout for a generation.

More Boxing History

Early 1800s: Richmond, Molineaux & Cribbs ←Mid 1800s -> 1880s: John L. Sullivan