Strange But True: Marathon Match

Back in boxing’s bare-knuckle days, there were comparatively few fans. It was considered a roughneck sport, fit only for rowdies. The first bout to attract widespread attention took lace on April 17, 1860. It was an international match between Tom Sayers, the English Champion, and John C. Heenan, the American titleholder.

At first glance it seemed to be no contest. Heenan was 25 years old, 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. He was powerfully built and could drop an opponent with a single blow. Sayers was 34 years old and much smaller, weighing only 155 pounds. But he was quick and he could punch. Sayers had defeated many rivals who were younger, stronger and heavier.

The fight was held in a meadow at Farnborough, near London. Among the fans were Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and William Mackpeace Thackeray, the novelist. Also present were members of Parliament and many American sportsmen and newspaper reporters.

It was the prizes that made the match so important. The winner would receive $1,000 and a championship belt. The loser would get nothing. And there would be no question as to who was the winner, because the rules of boxing did not allow for a referee’s decision.

A round was ended when a man was knocked down. The referee would then call out “Time!” The floored boxer was dragged to his corner and given first aid. At the end of 30 seconds the referee began to count. Both boxers had 8 seconds to come to a mark in the center of the ring (which is where the saying “Toe the mark” came from ). If a man could not reach the mark he was declared the loser.

Even then there were some rules of fair play. A boxer was not permitted to butt, to gouge, or to hit below the belt. He could not hold and hit his opponent.

Sayers, the Englishman, drew first blood when he sent a sharp left to Heenan’s nose. Heenan came back to score knockdowns in the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds. However, Sayers’s lightning blows were getting through, and a few solid punches had closed Heenan’s right eye.

Unfortunately, Sayers then ruptured a tendon in his right arm and soon it became useless as an effective weapon. So Heenan kept knocking Sayers down, and Sayers kept getting up. Soon both fighters were covered with each other’s blood.

Sayers realized that the only way he could win was to close Heenan’s other eye. But doing such damage with one arm seemed impossible even though Heenan was getting tired and couldn’t go on much longer.

In the 37th round Heenan rushed out and seized Sayers in a headlock, then began to pound at his opponent’s head and body. Sayers’s supporters scrambled into the ring and rescued their man before he was killed. The referee had no alternative but to call the match a draw even though everyone knew Heenan would have won sooner or later.

Both boxers were awarded belts and each was crowned champion of his country. But Sayers never fought again. Heenan fought only once more, and he lost to a fighter named Tom King.

From The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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  1. According to Wikipedia, Heenan’s attempt to strangle Sayers was not the end of the match. It was five rounds later, when the police showed up to arrest everyone–because boxing was illegal in England at the time–and both fighters took off.

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