John C. Heenan - The Big Fight

The Big Fight

The prize ring was also illegal in England, and by 1859 it was followed only by a small number of enthusiasts. But the Heenan–Sayers contest caught the public imagination in both countries. As Harper's Weekly put it, “the bulk of the people in England and America are heart and soul engrossed in a fight compared to which a Spanish bull-bait is but a mild and diverting pastime.” And on the other side of the Atlantic, The Manchester Guardian observed that “no pugilistic contest ever decided has excited so great an interest, both in this and other countries, as the forthcoming conflict between Sayers and Heenan.”

Heenan’s training (unlike that of Sayers) was frequently disrupted by the interventions of police and magistrates, but by the day of battle he was in prime condition, and confident of victory over an opponent eight years older, forty pounds lighter and five inches shorter. The fight came off at Farnborough in Hampshire on Tuesday, 17 April 1860.

In a fierce and protracted battle, both men were handicapped from an early stage – Sayers by an injury to his right arm, and Heenan by being unable to see through his swollen right eye. The action went on for forty-two rounds spread over more than two hours, by the end of which Heenan’s face was so cut and bruised as to be virtually unrecognisable. The defining moment came when Heenan almost strangled Sayers by forcing his head down over the top rope. Amidst scenes of chaos, the ropes were cut, the crowd surged into the fighting area, and police finally intervened to stop the action.

The referee had little option but to declare a draw, but Heenan complained bitterly that police had colluded with Sayers supporters in breaking up the fight as soon as it became clear that the Englishman was beaten. Sayers supporters, by contrast, insisted that their man had been the likely winner. The wrangling went on for some weeks.

Significantly, however, while American observers were unanimous in their claim that Heenan had been cheated of victory, not all British witnesses would agree that Sayers had been on top. The Sporting Life, for example, whose editorial line was strongly supportive of Sayers, published a letter by “Fairplay”, who took Heenan’s part, and openly accused the paper of bias.

Heenan loudly demanded a rematch, but Sayers’s damaged arm made this impossible, and the two men were finally reconciled, each being awarded a championship belt. They then went on a joint tour of the country, but only the relative success of the Irish and Scottish legs of this tour redeemed the failure of the English part.

Heenan finally returned to the United States in mid-July, when he was given a hero’s welcome and a gift of $10,000 raised by public subscription.

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