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Another form of 'sport', fashionable enough, in the days of the School, but happily fallen into disrepute now, and, in fact, absolutely illegal, had its representative in a Union scholar in the person of the famous prize fighter, Tom Sayers, whose renowned combat with the American, Heenan, is still remembered by the grandfathers of our present Middle Street pupils. Tom Sayers, who was then nine years of age, entered the school with his elder brother Robert in June, 1836. His father was Richard Sayers, then living at 45 Bread Street.

The Middle Street School, Brighton, 1805-1905 by Geo.   
                                                          Haffenden   p. 40

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. It was 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 weight was
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 here

The fight 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 funeral.

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 here

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 here.

Postcard of Sayers c.1860               Sayers' grave in Highgate cemetery                            Portrait - 1860            

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