Tom Sayers: The First Man of Boxing
By Simon Graham
When you look through the history of boxing especially the pre 1900 years the history books are filled with stories of heartbreak, poverty and lonely death. Fighters were used, abused and once their worth had been squeezed of every last resource they were tossed aside like rotting meat at the butchers shop, the Tom Sayers story however had a happier ending, of sorts.
The Queensbury Rules were drafted in London by John Graham Chambers in 1865 then published in 1867 the rules were endorsed by the Marquis of Queensbury giving the rules substance thus setting the standard for the time and future decades to come.
The most notable rules were the use of gloves, the 10 second count after a knockdown and the 3 minute round, amongst many.
Before the Queensbury Rules boxing was primarily an underground sport that slowly made the transition into professional bareknuckle fighting during the 1800s, prize fighting was still illegal with bouts often broken up by the police resulting in riots and melees.
Tom Sayers was an illiterate builder living in the slums of London, a short stocky man of 5ft 8 weighing in at 150lbs he was feared and avoided at all costs on the under ground circuit. Many of his fights were against taller heavier men simply because men of his own stature refused to fight him such was his fearsome reputation.
During his decade long professional prize fighting career he only fought 16 times losing once, the tiny Sayers was a national hero adored by both non prize fighting fans and fighting fans alike.
So when a fight was announced against the huge American champion John Camel Heenan, the country went into a frenzy with the news publicised via national papers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The fight itself remember was pre Queensbury so by todays rules it would be considered a total mismatch. Sayers was conceding forty pounds in weight, five inches in height and eight years in age.
The fight lasted 2 hours where almost 42 rounds were fought between the two men.
Sayers fighting with one arm after his right had been hurt during the earlier rounds, Heenan an unrecognisable bloodied mess unable to see through swollen eyes. It was a brutal sometimes savage spectacle that included an attempted strangulation by Heenan.
The battle finally came to end when the police found out the location of the fight and broke it up, sparking off the inevitable riots, the fight itself was declared a draw and is considered by many to be the first world championship fight with both men receiving championship belts and £300.
Sayers never fought again, but his ending was unlike so many sad stories of the many fighters who would come after him. Sayers stopped fighting because his adoring fans asked him too, they had raised an astonishing £3000 retirement fund for him allowing Sayers to live out his remaining years in prosperity.
Tom Sayers died from diabetes 5 years after the Heenan fight, his fans and followers gave him a royal like send off with the mountain of money left over from is collected trust fund. It was one of the most extravagant funerals London had ever seen as thousands of people lined the streets to watch their hero go by.