1750-1791: The Fall and Rise of the British Prize Ring

07.12.05 - By M.C. (Mike) Southorn: With his win over long-time Champion Jack Broughton in 1750, Jack Slack was deemed the rightful heir to the Championship throne, but despite his illustrious heritage, (he was the grandson of the Father of Modern Boxing, James Figg) Jack Slack was generally considered to be crooked. He held The Title for 10 years, but it was widely alleged that he “invested” in the fights of others in order to ensure that the number one contenders were not always the best fighters.. This factor, combined with Slack’s dirty tactics (he invented the “Rabbit Punch”), ushered in a disreputable period for boxing that would last for decades.

The one and only bright spot in Jack Slack’s career came in 1754 when The Champion allowed a challenge from France in the person of Jean Petit. This was the first international Championship match since ancient times and it was the first match between the French and the English. Slack won by KO in 25 minutes, but his moment of glory was fleeting and by 1760 he had returned to form.

Backed by the long suffering Duke of Cumberland (who lost a fortune when Slack beat Broughton) he entertained the challenge of one Bill “The Nailer” Stevens. Stevens was a self-admitted crook and Cumberland was no doubt the mark in this scam which allowed Slack to give up the ‘burden’ of The Title and make one last decent payday at the Duke’s expense. This was the first known modern Championship fix which saw The Title change hands. Cumberland was so incensed by this second massive gambling loss that he successfully lobbied to ban boxing in England.

Bill Stevens, the new Champion, cared nothing for The Title, nor for boxing. In fact, he and his new business partner, the former Champion, set about a repeat of the fix which had turned such a profit. Warming to his new career as promoter, Slack produced and then backed one George Meggs, he then bought Bill Stevens and sold The Title to Meggs in another fix which saw both Slack and Stevens profit 50 pounds. Stevens - a squealer as well as a crook - later admitted to the fix claiming, “I got 50 guineas more than I should otherwise have done by letting George beat me and damn me ain't I the same man still?"

So Meggs gained The Title and soon proved his pedigree by losing it to George Millsom, who in turn lost immediately to Tom Juchau, who in turn lost no time in succumbing to Bill Darts. Darts, although greater than the sum total of the last four Champions, was clearly not cut from the same cloth as Figg or Broughton: He lost to Tom Lyons in 1769 in a hard-fought match. Lyons, however was really just dabbling in boxing as he proved two weeks later when he surrendered the title back to Darts voluntarily upon retiring from the sport to resume his career as a ferryman.

In 1771 Bill Darts would have another chance to prove his mettle, and he would again fall short, but this time he would make history twice in the process: By losing to the first Irish Champion, and by losing in less than a minute.

Peter Corcoran was the first Irish Champion in history but unfortunately it seems either he or his patron (or both) were also crooked. Corcoran was born in 1740 in Kildare, Ireland. He was the son a poor farm labourer and from an early age it seemed that this was also his destiny. While still in his early 20’s Corcoran struck out to seek better fortune: It is alleged that he killed a local man in a drunken brawl over a woman and fled Kildare a fugitive.

Corcoran became a drifter, taking odd jobs around England: He was a coal heaver in Birmingham before moving to Portsmouth to work on the ships. It was in this rough environment that he started fighting. On turning pro, Corcoran moved to London and with his Portsmouth winnings he rented a pub called “The Black Horse Inn”. Later, as his fighting career prospered, he moved to the larger “Blakenly Arms”. He set himself up as a successful businessman, but in truth his boxing winnings were propping up his business.

Corcoran had secured a patron in the person of one Colonel Dennis Kelly, a fellow Irishman, who was known for his love of the “Sport of Kings” – horse-racing. Kelly secured several big fights for Corcoran. September 4th 1769 was Peter’s debut in the big leagues against first-class competition in one Bill Turner. Corcoran won the fight, and soon he was lined up against a string of leading contenders; Tom Dalton, Joe Davis and Bob Smiler. By 1771 Corcoran was the top contender for Bill Darts’

The fight was held at Epsom’s Down racetrack on May 18th, 1771. The odds against the Irishman were steep, yet in less than a minute the title changed hands. Both Corcoran and Kelly won very large wagers. There is no record of how Bill Darts fared.

Corcoran held the title for five years, defending it on numerous occasions against a succession of no-hopers. He only fought one noted contender, Sam Peters, whom he bested easily in 1774.

While things were going well on the boxing front, Corcoran’s pubs were losing money. By 1776 The Champion was up to his cauliflower ears in debt. It was under these circumstances that the Champion fought Harry Sellars. Sellars was lightly rated and Corcoran was a huge favourite to win. The fight lasted 32 rounds and Sellars was the victor. Immediately after the Sellars fight, Peter Corcoran’s business fortunes suddenly improved; his debts mysteriously disappeared. Sadly however, his newfound providence did not extend to his business acumen: Within a year he had lost “The Blakenly Arms”. He died in poverty and his funeral expenses had to be paid for by public subscription.

As for Sellars, he lost the title in a 90 second fight to another Irishman named Duggan Fearns in 1780. Fearns sat on the title for three years before the novelty wore off, and then he retired, returning to Ireland and obscurity. Fortunately, yet another Irishman took up the mantle and set the sport back on a course to respectability.

Born in Derby Ireland in 1750, Tom Johnson earned his living as a stevedore on the wharves of London. Johnson did not box until he was 33 years old, and he only started after offending a fighter named Jack Jarvis. Jarvis challenged Johnson and Johnson accepted. Jarvis was knocked out in 15 minutes. This spectacular win by an unheralded stevedore created great excitement in the London boxing world, which does not speak well of the state of the game at the time. The Championship was vacant, and Johnson was immediately hailed in some quarters as the new Champion.

This was all the impetus Tom Johnson needed. Declaring that he would never participate in a fixed fight, Johnson set out to single-handedly save the sport from the crooks who had ruled the roost for his entire lifetime. Two more wins in 1784 against quality opposition prompted Johnson himself to lay claim to the title, and he began a winning streak that took him into his forties. The first two of his three best known title defences came against the Champion of Ireland, Mickey Ryan (Johnson was The Champion of England), while the third was an epic 62-round war with Isaac Perrins. By 1789 the fight that everyone wanted to see was Johnson vs. Brain.

Ben Brain was a 35-year-old fighter with 15 years experience. He hailed from Bristol (one of the first great fighters from Bristol) and worked as a coal porter on the same London wharves as Johnson. By all accounts he was a massive man. Brain had first achieved notoriety in 1786 during his fight against John Boone. Boone was losing, and a dozen of his supporters took matters into their own hands, storming the ring and attacking Brain. By the time order was restored, Brain’s eyes were swollen shut. There was a doctor in the house, and Brain’s eyelids were lanced and the match was resumed. Ten minutes later Brain knocked Boone out.

Now Brain was going to get his shot at Tom Johnson’s Championship, but unfortunately he fell ill and was forced to forfeit the five hundred pounds he had put up for the fight. Once recovered, Brain got to work trying to fight his way back into contention. A 1790 win against 6’2” Tom Tring put him back on course, and he finally met The Champion in 1791 at Wrotham-on-Kent. The challenger was 37; The Champion was 40. The bout lasted 18 rounds, and Brain overcame a broken finger to win.

Tom Johnson retired from the sport and returned to Ireland where he taught boxing until his death in 1797 at the age of 47. Ben Brain also retired from boxing, and The Championship was vacant again. After three years, Brain planned to come out of retirement to fight Will Wood for the title, but he suddenly fell ill and died of liver failure in his room at Grays Inn Lanes, April 8th, 1794. He was 41.

Although the lineage was again left vacant by Ben Brain, his fight against Johnson was a turning point in boxing history because it was the first time in over 40 years that the title had changed hands in an honest fight between two honest fighters. Boxing was not only revived in the British Isles, but it stood on the horizon of a new “Golden Age”.

Article posted on 07.12.2005

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