One of the last great bare-knuckle fighters was Tom Sayers (1826-1865). Brighton-born Sayers (the ‘Napoleon of the prize ring’) became widely recognised as the heavyweight champion of England. On 16th April 1860, one of the most extraordinary fights in history - and perhaps the last major prize-fight in England - took place in Farnborough in Hampshire.
Sayers, now 34 years old, fought John Heenan. Taller, heavier and ten years younger than Sayers, Heenan was America’s champion enticed over by the £2000 purse and the unofficial billing of the ‘world champiuonship’. Bare-knuckle prize-fighting may have become clouded in illegality but the fight attracted enormous excitement.
The two fighters fought to a standstill for more than two hours and 35 rounds. By the end, Heenan was virtually blinded. Sayers had a broken arm and was on the ropes, near strangulation. The makeshift ring-rope broke (or was it cut by one of the seconds?) as the crowd surged forward. The police forced their way into the ring as an unruly riot began. The fight was later declared a draw.
In a quiet corner of Highgate’s west cemetery in north London lies a distinctive sandstone memorial tombstone for Tom Sayers. A life-size cast of his faithful dog, Lion, rests at the head of the distinctive grave - watching faithfully over one of England’s great prize-fighters. A plaque in Brighton commemorates Sayers with his saying "It's a man's game - it takes a game man to play it".