1824-1833: Cannon, Ward, Crawley and Burke

17.01.06 - By M.C. (Mike) Southorn: Following his retirement from the ring, Tom Spring joined his former manager and corner man, Tom Cribb in the promotion of another up and coming talent named “Tom”, this one dubbed Tom Cannon. Born in 1790 in Eton, Cannon had been fighting sporadically on the fairground circuit since the age of 19. An all-around athlete who was also an expert cricketer, Cannon was discovered by Cribb and Spring in 1824.. His last fight had been 7 years earlier, and he was already well into his 30’s when he took up with the former Champions, so it is likely that either Cannon had fallen on hard times and approached them looking for fights, or he was discovered and convinced that riches could be his if he would just enter the ring again.

At any rate, Cribb and Spring saw him as their heir: Spring’s old rival Josh Hudson was claiming The Title, and the former Champions needed a challenger to prevent Hudson from legitimizing his claim. Why they would select
Cannon as their heir was not certain, although they obviously thought he could beat Hudson. Cannon, however, had only had two significant fights in his life and he was not an especially large man. Perhaps they were trying a promotional trick by pushing a cricketer into the ring.

Cribb and Spring matched Cannon against Hudson, on 23 June 1824 at Blackwater, Hants. Hudson lasted 17 rounds before he failed to come up to scratch. The rematch was a replay on 23 November at Stanfield Park in Warwick: After 16 rounds Cannon was again the victor, and he claimed The Title. Whatever revelry Cannon undertook to celebrate his Championship is lost to history, but if precedent serves it had much to do with gin.

The party was not to last, however, as Cannon was soon challenged by a talented boxer with an infamous reputation who went by the nickname, The Black Diamond. Jem Ward, one of two fighting brothers, was a fine fighter and a powerfully built man, yet he had the historic distinction of being the first fighter in British history ever to be disciplined for throwing a fight. Unbeaten since his debut at age 15, Ward suddenly and unexpectedly lost to the unheralded Bill Abbott in 1822. An investigation by John Jackson’s Pugilistic Society, found that Ward had shouted across the ring to Abbott, loud enough for the gathered crowd to hear: “Now, Bill, look sharp!

Hit me and I’ll go down!” Following this revelation, Ward admitted he had accepted 100 pounds to take a dive. He was banned from the sport but continued to box nonetheless, under assumed names and against run-of-the mill opposition on the fairground circuit. He was reinstated the following year, and lost his next bout to Josh Hudson, which led Hudson to lay claim to The Championship, which led in turn to Cribb and Spring’s sponsorship of Tom Cannon.

On 19 July, 1825 Ward met Cannon at Stanfield Park on an intensely hot day and he easily mastered The Champion in just over 10 minutes. Cannon retired from boxing, but then he tried a failed comeback in 1827 before retiring for good. He committed suicide in 1858.

The new Champion also enjoyed a rest from the ring, and proceeded to follow the path of most Champions of the time, namely the path to dissipation. The rest was not to last however: A challenge was laid down by Irishman Peter Crawley, but Ward ignored it until public demand for the fight finally forced his hand on 2 January 1827. The seemingly washed-up Champion was easily bested by young Crawley, but the Irishman retired two days later, and Ward reclaimed The Title. Ward went back to the pub and remained inactive and unofficially retired.

The public was not pleased with Jem Ward’s inactivity and there were whispers that he was hiding from a younger, and superior fighter. A deaf Londoner named James Burke had been pursuing The Championship with a vigour unknown in recent times. Coming from the wharves of London, the 23 year-old Burke was known for fighting epic battles with much larger men – and winning. In 1828, Burke, then just 19, fought his debut against Ned Murphy. The men fought until the sun went down and the bout was declared a draw. The following year, the 20-year old prospect beat Bill Fitzmaurice in 166 rounds, and then, 2 months later, he dropped a hard-lost match against Bill Cousens after over 2 hours of fighting. Now Burke was on a winning streak with 7 wins in a row, each over quality opponents.

In July of 1832 Burke challenged The Champion. In response, Jem Ward officially retired.

Jem Ward, unlike so many of his contemporaries, flourished in retirement. A talented painter and musician, he established a second career for himself, by selling his works and performing on the violin in concert halls... And of course, he bought a tavern.

Meanwhile, determined to prove his worth as Champion, Burke challenged 6’2”, 200 lbs Harry Macone and beat him after over an hour of fighting in January of 1833. He then challenged Simon Byrne to battle in London. The match was another marathon, lasting over 3 hours, and before it was over Burke’s ear had been bitten clean through. Finally, with nearly 100 rounds contested, Burke dropped Byrne and cemented his claim to The Championship. Burke’s jubilation was short lived, however, when Byrne died three days later. He was acquitted of murder on 11 July 1833, but the men who would have once Challenged him were now reluctant to try their luck.

Instead of buying a tavern and embarking on a binge, the new Champion instead sought to keep busy by touring the fairgrounds giving boxing exhibitions. Some said he had gone soft since the Byrne fight, but Burke claimed that he was raising money for a fight with Jem Ward, who was supposedly considering another comeback, but deep down he must have known that Ward was finished. James Burke wanted to be a fighting Champion, but the opposition just wasn’t there – his fearsome reputation was destroying his career.

Finally, with the clock ticking, Burke took a dramatic decision to do what no Champion had ever done before: He got on a ship bound for America.

Article posted on 18.01.2006

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