Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture, July 1902
AT the present day the supply of English heavy-weight boxers seems to have run out altogether. Sullivan, Corbett, Jackson, Jeffries, and in short every champion heavy-weight for the last decade or so, all are Americans, and Fitzsimmons, a Cornishman by birth, has just taken out his papers of naturalization. The last English pugilist with any claim to the world’s championship form was Charles Mitchell, and Corbett, then at his best, made very short work of him when they met. But this monopoly did not exist in the early days of the fancy. Then the American preferred the weapons of art to those of nature, and, instead of hitting his fellow man on the point of the jaw, had an amiable weakness for stabbing him under the fifth rib with a bowie knife, or “laying” for him with a loaded shot-gun.
The first representative of the States to make a footing in the English ring was Bill Richmond, a black man. The first white man to come across the Atlantic to do battle with the English boxers on their own ground was William Fuller, a heavy-weight. His record was not sensational. He fought four fights, two with an Englishman named Jay, and two with Molyneux, the famous opponent of Tom Cribb. In the first of his battles with Jay he was beaten, but on a second meeting managed to win. With Molyneux, at a time when that terrible fighter was no longer at his best, he fought first a draw and then a fierce ninety-minute encounter, which ended in defeat. After this Fuller returned to America, and by starting a gymnasium in New York not only made a large fortune, but also introduced the taste for the ring into the country.
For a long time after Fuller’s visit America turned out no first-class fighter, and English boxers who went over the seas for their fights came back either without having been able to find any one to meet them, or else the easiest of winners. Deaf Burke made a triumphal progress through the States in 1837, returning without a scratch after beating the best men the country could put up against him. Jem Ward and Caunt went out, but could find no one to fight them. Ward’s skill and Caunt’s strength were too formidable for the American talent.
Caunt, however, though he did no fighting himself, brought back with him on his return a man who was almost certainly the biggest of all the giants who have ever thrown their hats into the twenty-four foot ring. This was Charles Freeman, who stood only an inch and a half under seven feet, and when in condition scaled seventeen stone. As, moreover, he was as active as he was huge, he required a good deal of stopping His career in the ring was short, but it was a successful one. The Tipton Slasher met him twice, drew with him on the first occasion, but failed in the second fight in the most ludicrous manner, being evidently afraid of his immense opponent. For years Freeman represented the high-water mark of American boxing. Then Heenan came over. Everybody has heard how Sayers, five inches shorter and three stone lighter, fought him for the whole of an afternoon at Farnborough, and would have won but for a broken right arm; and how at last the ropes were cut and the battle declared a draw. That was the culminating point of English prize-fighting, the last rally before the blackguardism and brutality which unavoidably attended the ring finally engulfed it, so that it died out, to be succeeded by modern glove-fighting.
It was early in the history of the ring that the Irish began to make their mark. Andrew Gamble was thought so much of that his countrymen put him up against Jem Belcher himself, when the latter was at the height of his fame. But the great Jem was too good for him, and very nearly slew him outright.
Some years later Tom Spring was champion, and Ireland produced, in Jack Langan, a man whom every true ‘pathriot’ considered more than a match for the Hereford fighter. On their past records Spring was immeasurably the better boxer. Of all the fights he had ever fought only one, his second with Ned Painter, had ended in defeat. And even Painter had succumbed to him on their first meeting. Langan, on the other hand, had a purely local reputation. He had beaten a number of Irish celebrities, but the only battle he had fought in Midland was against Mat Vipond, a man who was not in the same class with Spring. However, his backers thought well of him, and on January 7th, 1824, the two met outside Worcester. It was a great fight, lasting over two hours, but in the end Spring, as every one who was not an Irishman had expected, wore his man out. Though he weighed over thirteen stone, Spring possessed the agility of a light-weight, and as for his defence no fighter that has ever lived has ever equalled him.
But Langan’s backers still believed in their man. They matched him once more against the champion, for five hundred guineas a side, for those days a very large stake indeed.
This second fight came off near Chichester, and an excellent battle it proved. For an hour and fifty minutes Langan tried every art he knew to break through Spring’s guard, but it was of no use. When he hit the champion parried or ducked, and when he gave up hitting and rushed in for a throw, he found his opponent as fine a wrestler as he was a fighter. At first, indeed, his rushing tactics proved effective, and he had the best of the falls. But in the end Spring showed himself once more the better man, and at last, in the forty-ninth round, Langan stumbled and fell senseless without a blow, and the champion’s belt stayed in England. It is pleasant to read that the two men afterwards became the firmest friends, and every year on the anniversary of their fight Langan used to send Spring a keg of the finest Irish potheen as a memento.
In the old days, when news took long to travel, every fresh boxer who came over from abroad to try his luck in the English ring brought with him the glamour of mystery. If he gave himself out to be the best boxer in the world, there was no means of checking his statement other than the actual test of battle. In this way many quite mediocre boxers caused a momentary flutter in the sporting world. Most people will remember the “Eytalian Gondoleery Cove” in “Rodney Stone”:— . . . . ’E was so broad ’e ’ad to come edgewise through the doors. ’E ’ad so, upon my Davy! ’E was so strong that whenever ’e ’it the bone had got to go; and when he’d cracked a jaw or two it looked as though nothing in the country could stand against ’im. . . . . Vell then, ven Bob was put up opposite this great Eytalian man, I says, ‘Slap ’im in the vind, Bob,’ ’cos I see vid ’alf an eye ’e vas as puffy as a cheesecake; so Bob he goes in, and as he comes the vorriner let ’im ’ave it amazin’ on the conk. . . . . At first ’e vas that dazed ’e didn’t know if ’e was in church or in ’Orsemonger gaol, but ven I’d bit ’is two ears ’e shook ’isself together. ‘Ve’ll try it again, Buck,’ says ’e. ‘The mark,’ says I. And ’e vinked all that vas left of one eye. So the Eytalian ’e lets swing again, but Bob ’e jumps inside, and ’e lets ’im ’ave it plumb square on the meat safe as ’ard as ever the Lord would let ’im put it in. Vell, the Eytalian ’e gets a touch of the gurgles, and ’e shut isself right up like a two-foot rule. Then ’e pulled ’isself straight, and ’e give the most awful Glory Hallelujah screech as ever you ’eard. Off ’e jumps from the stage . . . . and ve chased ’im all the vay to Voppin’, and ve only cotched im in the shippin’ office, vere ’e was askin’ ’ow soon ’e could get a passage to voreign parts.”
Not unlike the “Gondoleery Cove” was John Gorrick, alias Bungaree, who came over from Australia in a blaze of glory to take up Johnny Broome’s challenge to the world at ten stone odd. Some said he was the most marvellous light-weight the world had ever seen. For his own part he thought that that rather understated it if anything. Others, on the other hand, equally competent judges, said he was an impostor. And so he was. He was certainly game, and took the tremendous punishment inflicted by Broome as cheerfully as could be expected, but as far as skill went, he was no good whatever. He fought four more battles after his fight with Broome, only one of which was a victory, and finally went back again to Australia. Except for the fight between Heenan and Sayers—and possibly not even excepting that—the international battles which caused the greatest sensations in the land were the two fought between Tom Cribb and Molyneux. Cribb won both of them, but in the first of them Molyneux, had he received ordinary fair play, must have had his man beaten. It was a thrilling moment. The twenty-second round had come to an end with the betting at four to one on the Black, and Cribb, though as game as ever, terribly battered by the lashing hits of his opponent. The spectators were in a frenzy. It was Molyneux’ colour that made the prospect of Cribb’s defeat shocking. A champion of England to be beaten by a nigger!
Tom, plucky as ever, certainly did his best to remember the honour of old England. And his second, Joe Ward, did a thing which would seem to show that he himself had forgotten it. For when Cribb, too weak now to parry the hurricane hits of the Black, had fallen helpless and quite unable to come up to the scratch, Ward rushed across to Molyneux’s corner, and accused Bill Richmond, his second, of putting leaden bullets into his hands, a thing sometimes done but directly forbidden in the rules. The Black was called upon to open his hands. He did so. There was nothing in them. Ward, however, had done what he had intended to do. He had gained time for his man. In the minute which had passed Cribb had recovered. As the two faced one another for the twenty-fourth time, Molyneux was seized suddenly with a fit of shivering. It was a bitter cold day, and the stripping and exposure in the open had been too much for him. For the next three rounds Cribb did what he liked, and eventually the Black sank into a stupor, and was unable to fight any more.
Thus Cribb was hailed the winner, though but for the trick of his second he must have lost.
But on the second occasion there was no such thing to detract from the glory of Tom’s victory. He fairly wore his man out by his superior training. For the first few rounds there was no stopping the Black. But Tom gradually forged ahead, and after twenty minutes of the warmest fighting that has ever been seen in the ring, got the upper hand. Molyneux, maddened at the coolness of his opponent, rushed furiously in, and as he came, Cribb, like the gentleman who proved too much for the “Gondoleery Cove,” “let him have it plumb square on the meat safe as hard as ever the Lord would let him put it in.” That ended the Black. He hung on gallantly for two more rounds, and even had the best of it. But he could not last. And when Cribb, a round later, put in another soaker in exactly the same spot, the fight was over. The English ring had passed successfully through its severest crisis.