John C. Heenan - Prize Ring Career

Prize Ring Career

The prize ring was in fact outlawed, but Heenan fought a legal exhibition bout against Joe Coburn, and made a living as a “shoulder hitter” – a strong-arm man who might be hired for enforcement or protection in the seamy and often violent worlds of New York business and politics. His efforts earned him a sinecure in the New York Customs House.

But Jim Cusick, determined that his easy-going protégé should not rest on his laurels, pushed him to challenge for the national title. The champion was his old foe John Morrissey, now one of New York’s most notorious thugs. After much wrangling, the two men finally met in 1858 – in Canada, where the US authorities could not intervene. Heenan, whose training had been disrupted by injury, and who was not fully fit, was an unlucky loser.

He found solace in the arms of Adah Isaacs Menken, an actress of little talent but huge impact, with whom he (innocently) contracted a bigamous and short-lived marriage.

When Morrissey, refusing a return bout, effectively retired from the ring, Heenan became champion by default, but had difficulty finding other opponents in America. Jim Cusick accordingly decided that his next fight should be against British champion Tom Sayers, to whom Heenan issued a challenge in 1859.

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