The famous fight between Sayers and Heenan has been described as 'the first
world championship boxing match' and was certainly one of the last great
prize-fights without gloves. Tom Sayers was the English champion and had
defended his title successfully four times. Heenan was a claimant to the
American Heavyweight title.
the first real "sporting event" to attract attention from England, France
and America There were members of parliament present at the match,
officers from the Navy and Army, and literary figures such as William Thackeray
and Charles Dickens.
According to a contemporary newspaper report:
"Sayers is only about 5ft. 8in.; his chest is not broad, nor are his arms
powerful, and it is only in the strong muscles of the shoulders that one sees
anything to account for his tremendous power of hitting. Sayers' lowest fighting
10st. 10lb. The American towered above him."
The fight was bloody from the beginning, and in the sixth round, Sayers broke
his right arm blocking a punch. In the eighth, Heenan broke his left hand.
Sayers then targeted Heenanís eyes, and although the American dominated the
fight, he was rapidly becoming blinded. In the 37th, Heenan held Sayers helpless
against the ropes, which someone suddenly cut. The crowd surged inside the ring
and the referee deserted, but the two bloody battlers continued for five rounds
until the match ended in a draw.
for a detailed eye-witness account of the fight click
captured the imagination of the nation and both fighters were awarded
commemorative belts and a public subscription raised over £3,000 for Sayers,
awarded on condition that he would never enter the ring again. Sayers retired
after the fight and
despite the match
being officially a draw, Heenan was recognized as "World
Boxing Champion." Sayers died of tuberculosis and diabetes six
years later in 1865, aged 39. His fame attracted over 10,000 people to his
Several accounts of Sayers' life mistakenly state that he never
attended school, although it does seem likely that he never learnt to read or
write and some accounts claim he could not even tell the time!
For a selection of ballads and verses about Tom Sayers click
Alan Lloyd has written a book about the fight and the lives of
Sayers and Heenan - click the books for further details.
SEBA (the Sussex Ex-Boxers Association) have commissioned a bronze plaque to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Sayers-Heenan
fight. The plaque is now (September 2010) installed on the wall of the 'Guitar, Amp & Keyboard'
shop in North Road, close to where Sayers was born. See a BBC South
Today news report on the 150th anniversary of the Sayers-Heenan fight
Postcard of Sayers c.1860 Sayers' grave in Highgate cemetery
Portrait - 1860
Middle Street History page