Tom Sayers

02.02.06 - By Mike Southorn: Tom Sayers was born in Brighton, 25 May 1826 and was the son of a cobbler and a serving maid. Seemingly destined for illiteracy and a lifetime of labour, Sayers started young, working as a ‘Jack in the Water’ at age six. This job involved pushing pleasure boats in and out of the water, and cleaning them off between trips. At age 13, he got a better paying job working on the Brighton to Lewes railway. It was at this job that he first seemed destined to be a fighter.

While working at the beach young Tom had learned the mannerisms of the middle class and he seemed arrogant to his co-workers, who shunned him. Finally, after intervening with another worker who was coarsely wooing the foreman’s daughter, the resentment between Tom and his co-workers flared into violence.

The biggest of his peers threw down the challenge to young Tom, (who was only 5’8” and weighed less than 120 lbs.) and a makeshift ring was erected with the foreman acting as referee. Sayers evaded his 6’2” opponent long enough to wear him down before finishing him off with a one-two combination. The win did little to improve his standing among his peers, though, so Tom left Brighton and set out for London.

His first job in the big city was as a brick-layer, but again it didn’t take long for his ‘airs’ to upset his peers: This time it was a 6’3” Irishman who laid down the gauntlet and the two met at Wandsworth Common that night to settle their differences. The ground was muddy, and Sayers fought barefoot, biding his time while the larger man’s boots became heavy with mud. After two hours and twenty minutes Tom judged his opponent ready to go, and he delivered a vicious uppercut that knocked the Irishman cold. The unfortunate opponent was seen by a doctor that night who was so alarmed at the man’s condition that he informed the police and Sayers was forced to return to Brighton.

There is little doubt that Sayers’ early career as a labourer conditioned him for fighting. Malcom Henson’s treatise of English Prizefighting entitled ‘Old School’, offers a contemporary description of Sayers thusly:

Tom Sayers was one of the smallest men who ever got to the top of the tree in prize fighting; and the physiologists were for a long time puzzled to account for his extraordinary powers. A learned discussion on the subject seems to have ended in showing that his great strength lay in the lower part of the shoulders; and thebroad muscles of this part of his body had been unusually developed by the practice of heaving bricks, into lighters, where they were caught by other workmen and stowed away for water carriage. Anyone who likes to test this theory may do so by tanding at the side of a pile of bricks, taking them as quickly as he can from the pile, and ‘chucking’ them a good distance to his left over the left knee. It will beseen that the attitude of the feet exactly resembles that recommended to boxers,while the action of the left hand and arm is almost equally similar to the delivery of a correct blow from the shoulder. The hands, both while picking the bricks off the eap and heaving them, remain level with the head or shoulders; and thus a man who spends hours at this sort of work becomes habituated to the posture required while in the ring.

It wasn’t long before Tom was back in London, this time working as a horse-slaughterer for a former prize-fighter named Jack Atcherly. Tom had finally found work where he fit in and he was soon married (common law) and renting a pub in Camden. Soon he had two children, and a complete life. Atcherly had heard stories about his young apprentice, and he took to training Tom after work. Atcherly was quickly convinced that he had a prodigy on his hands, and, after some convincing, Sayers agreed to try prize-fighting. Atcherly booked him against 6-foot Abe Couch on 10 March, 1849. Sayers was twenty-three years old.

Couch was a dustman by trade, but he was also a journeyman fighter with years of experience. Sayers, still no more than a 5’8” middleweight finished him off in 12 minutes. The crowd was astonished and soon the London boxing community was abuzz with stories of ‘The Little Wonder”.

Of his boxing skill, Henson wrote:

The few contemporaries of Sayers who had sufficient knowledge to criticise his style, tell us that in force of hitting whether with the left or right hehad no equal whatever. The blows came as from a catapult, and struck the mark with a sound like cricket-balls hitting a wall. Their effect was immediately enhanced by the wonderful judgement with which the striker ‘timed’ them, catching his man as he came forward or as he shifted his ground, and before he had a chance of drawing back to lessen the shock. On the other hand, that same skill in ‘timing his man’ enabled the champion, when it was impossible to escape a blow, to take it in the most modified form. Like Entellus, in the Virgilian prize fight, he guarded much more with his cool quick eye and with the movement of his body, than by shielding himself with the arms, and appeared to vanish miraculously just when the enemy, after long manoeuvring, had worked his way in and seemed sure of a telling hit. The perfect balance in which his weight was sustained on both legs enabled him to attack and retreat with such speed and ease as to disconcert a heavier athlete; and when ,over-matched in reach and strength, he found the other coming to close quarters, he would ‘take the blow’ to all appearance unflinchingly, though by relaxing the right knee at the same time he took away all the resistance, and drawing back his head fell almost with the lightness of a feather under the stroke.

Although he was now the talk of the London boxing set, Tom was still not fully commited to prize-fighting. His job at the abbatoir and his pub were enough to provide for his family, but his wife Sarah saw potential for higher living and she pushed him back into the ring. He fought Dan Collins twice in 1850 and a third time in 1851, with the third being the only fight which went uninterrupted by the police. Sayers won in 44 rounds. The following summer he beat Jack Grant in 64 rounds. The tactics that he had used against his old co-workers were his preferred method – wear them down with artful movement and then knock them out with artful punching.

After a win over Jack Martin in the summer of 1853, Sayers challenged middleweight Champion Nat Langam. Langam accepted. Sayer fell ill however, first with the flu, then with boils. He should have postponed the fight but he didn’t and Langham beat him handily over 61 rounds in October of that year. Sayers’ seconds finally succeeded in preventing him from coming up to scratch for the 62nd round by physically restraining him. Sayers was bitterly disappointed in his defeat and vowed that it would not happen again. It never did.

Tom challenged Langham to a rematch, but Langham retired instead and Sayers was named Middleweight Champion of England, but he refused The Title and instead set his sights back on the big men. In 1854 he defeated George Sims in under 7 minutes.

Sayers took a sabbatical from boxing after the Sims fight; it seemed he had enough of a fight at home: It was well known that his wife had cuckolded him with one of his pub’s patrons, and Sayers was soon married in name only for the sake of the children.

When the dust finally settled on his personal life, Sayers resumed his boxing career, with his sights set firmly on The Champion of England, Tom Paddock.

His first ‘comeback’ fight would be the same Harry Poulson that had given Paddock three tough fights (and some hard time) two years earlier. Poulson was still a worthy win, and it took Sayers 109 rounds to beat him. Next he set his sights on Aaron Jones, who had given Paddock the toughest fight of his career. Sayers met him at Canvey Island, Essex on 6 Jan 1857. The fight lasted 3 hours and was declared a draw once night fell. The rematch took place less than a month later at Banks of Medway. This time Sayers won after 85 hard rounds.

With convincing wins over Paddocks two toughest opponents, Sayers now challenged The Champion, but Paddock was too busy trying to get former Champion Bill Perry into the ring for a rematch. Sayers cunningly cut off that escape route by securing the Perry fight himself in June. He beat the 38 year old former Champion soundly in just 15 minutes after badly splitting his lip.

Again Sayers called for Paddock, and again Paddock refused, so Sayers claimed his Title. The boxing community would have none of it though – they were demanding a match between the two. Finally Paddock relented and the fighters met 16 June 1858 at Canvey Island. It took only 21 rounds for Sayers to legitimize his Title claim. Paddock was by now living with chronic ill health, the nature of which is lost to history. He fought
only once more, in 1860 and then retired.

By the time he was Champion, Tom Sayers had already cleaned out the division. He could have followed the example of so many of his predecessors and sat on the title for a year or two before retiring, but Sayers would now prove that he was not a ‘run of the mill’ Champion. He fought Bill Benjamin in April of the following year – true, he had already beaten Benjamin easily before meeting Paddock, but at least he was fighting. A fight with Bob Brettle followed in the fall and was won easily by Sayers in 7 rounds.

The Heavyweight Champion of England was a top-notch celebrity, especially in Sayers’ adopted home of London. With The Title followed the prestige that came from the admiration of the nobles. Sayers’ toffee-nosed manner, once despised by his working-class peers, now ingratiated him to the upper-crust of London’s social elite. He learned to ride and took great pleasure in cantering daily with his daughter. He began to consider retirement. The boxing community had other ideas.

The United States of America had evolved their own boxing community throughout the early 1800s and they now had their own champion in the person of John Heenan. Heenan, fighting out of Benicia, California and had claimed the American title upon the retirement of John Morrissey. He had lost to Morrissey in 1858 after just 11 rounds after breaking a hand on a ring post. Heenan was generally accepted as the new US champion, and he was endorsed by Morrissey. The American public wanted more out of their new champion; they knew where the real Championship lived, and they wanted Heenan to bring it home to America. From California, Heenan contacted the management of Tom Sayers.

Sayers was at first reluctant to fight again, let alone to fight an unknown, let alone another ‘champion’. The lure of a ‘World Championship’ appealed to him, but ultimately it was Heenan’s size that appealed to Sayers: John Heenan was big, and Sayers had always met with success against big men.

The fight was made for 16 April, 1860 in Farnborough, England. Sayers stood 5’8”, weighed 150 lbs and he was 34 years old. Heenan stood 6’2, weighed 190 lbs and he was 24 years old. It was the first time two national Champions had met with the intent of determining who would be “The Heavyweight Champion of the World”.

One of the 12,000 spectators on hand that day was Henry C. Coke, who wrote his account of the fight years later in his 1905 autobiographical work, ‘Tracks of a Rolling Stone’:

Mitford and I went to some public-house where the 'Ring' had assembled, and where tickets were to be bought, and instructions received. Fights when gloves were not used, and which, especially in this case, might end fatally, were of course illegal; and every precaution had been taken by the police to prevent it. A special train was to leave London Bridge Station about 6 A.M. We sat up all night in my room, and had to wait an hour in the train before the men with their backers arrived. As soon as it was daylight, we saw mounted police galloping on the roads adjacent to the line. No one knew where the train would pull up. Ten minutes after it did so, a ring was formed in a meadow close at hand. The men stripped, and tossed for places.

Heenan won the toss, and with it a considerable advantage. He was nearly a head taller than Sayers, and the ground not being quite level, he chose the higher side of the ring. But this was by no means his only 'pull.' Just as the men took their places the sun began to rise. It was in Heenan's back, and right in the other's face.

Heenan began the attack at once with scornful confidence; and in a few minutes Sayers received a blow on the forehead above his guard which sent him slithering under the ropes; his head and neck, in fact, were outside the ring. He lay perfectly still, and in my ignorance, I thought he was done for. Not a bit of it. He was merely reposing quietly till his seconds put him on his legs. He came up smiling, but not a jot the worse. But in the course of another round or two, down he went again. The fight was going all one way. The Englishman seemed to be completely at the mercy of the giant. I was so disgusted that I said to my companion: 'Come along, Bertie, the game's up. Sayers is good for nothing.'

But now the luck changed. The bull-dog tenacity and splendid condition of Sayers were proof against these violent shocks. The sun was out of his eyes, and there was not a mark of a blow either on his face or his body. His temper, his presence of mind, his defence, and the rapidity of his movements, were perfect. The opening he had watched for came at last. He sprang off his legs, and with his whole weight at close quarters, struck Heenan's cheek just under the eye. It was like the kick of a cart-horse. The shouts might have been heard half-a-mile off. Up till now, the betting called after each round had come to 'ten to one on Heenan'; it fell at once to evens.

Heenan was completely staggered. He stood for a minute as if he did not know where he was or what had happened. And then, an unprecedented thing occurred. While he thus stood, Sayers put both hands behind his back, and coolly walked up to his foe to inspect the damage he had inflicted. I had hold of the ropes in Heenan's corner, consequently could not see his face without leaning over them. When I did so, and before time was called, one eye was completely closed. What kind of generosity prevented Sayers from closing the other during the pause, is difficult to conjecture. But his forbearance did not make much difference. Heenan became more fierce, Sayers more daring. The same tactics were repeated; and now, no longer to the astonishment of the crowd, the same success rewarded them. Another sledge-hammer blow from the Englishman closed the remaining eye. The difference in the condition of the two men must have been enormous, for in five minutes Heenan was completely sightless.

Sayers, however, had not escaped scot-free. In countering the last attack, Heenan had broken one of the bones of Sayers' right arm. Still the fight went on. It was now a brutal scene. The blind man could not defend himself from the other's terrible punishment. His whole face was so swollen and distorted, that not a feature was recognisable. But he evidently had his design. Each time Sayers struck him and ducked, Heenan made a swoop with his long arms, and at last he caught his enemy. With gigantic force he got Sayers' head down, and heedless of his captive's pounding, backed step by step to the ring. When there, he forced Sayers' neck on to the rope, and, with all his weight, leant upon the Englishman's shoulders. In a few moments theface of the strangled man was black, his tongue was forced out of his mouth,and his eyes from their sockets. His arms fell powerless, and in a second or two more he would have been a corpse. With a wild yell the crowd rushed to the rescue. Warning cries of 'The police! The police!' mingled with the shouts. The ropes were cut, and a general scamper for the waiting train ended this last of the greatest prize-fights.

We two took it easily, and as the mob were scuttling away from the police, we saw Sayers with his backers, who were helping him to dress. His arm seemed to hurt him a little, but otherwise, for all the damage he had received, he might have been playing at football or lawn tennis.

We were quietly getting into a first-class carriage, when I was seized by the shoulder and roughly spun out of the way. Turning to resent the rudeness, I found myself face to face with Heenan. One of his seconds had pushed me on one side to let the gladiator get in. So completely blind was he, that the friend had to place his foot upon the step. And yet neither man had won the fight.

Malcolm Henson later analysed the outcome:

So also the blows of the watchful Britisher did not represent in the matter of skill a mere faculty of seeing the openings and getting home with the best effect. They are noticeable, in the eyes of the connoisseur, not for what they did, but for what they did not, that is, for not exposing the striker to a rush,and a close for a fall. As it often happens in a long encounter, the really telling blows were amongst those that made least show and excited least applause. And the escape of Tom Sayers from absolute undeniable defeat was due very largely to this fact, that the hands of his gigantic opponent were so swelled with hitting that they were more like boxing gloves than fists.

The fight was later declared a draw, the purse was split and each man was presented with a commemorative belt. The public was given a fright on Sayers behalf however, and a public subscription raised 3000 pounds which was presented to Sayers on the condition that he retire from boxing. He did not have to be asked twice.

The irony is that retirement did not guarantee Tom Sayers a long and happy life. Sayers soon found that he was suffering from chronic thirst. After living a life of abstinance, he suddenly took to drinking beer in an effort to quench his new appetite. He soon became slow and lethargic whether in his cups or not. He was diagnosed with diabetes shortly thereafter.

One evening in 1865, Sayers set out to a friends pub in haymarket with his bull mastiff ‘Lion’ in tow. There, he overindulged in alcohol and left without his coat, driving his horse and cart home to Camden Town in a bitterly cold and windy night. He contracted pnumonia, which became tuberculosis, which led to a collapsed lung which led to the death of Tom Sayers on November 7th, 1865. He was not yet forty years old.

Article posted on 03.02.2006

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