Place of Birth - Brighton
Date of Birth - 25th May 1826
Passed Away - 8th November 1865
Record - 12 wins, 1 loss, 3 draws
Greatest Accomplishment - Battling to a monumental draw against John C. Heenan of the USA in the first recognized world championship bout
Sayers was born in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood called Pimlico in Brighton, which was home to many fishermen. It was understood that due to the desperation of the populace and the filth, it was rife with crime and disease, one of the worst areas on the south coast of England. Sayers attended the local Middle Street School along with his older brother, Robert. Their father, Richard, was a cobbler and their mother, Maria, was a maid.
A contemporary shot of Orange Row in Brighton; this area was known as Pimlico and was where Sayers was born
When he became a teenager, Sayers ventured to London and found work as a bricklayer, working on the railway stations of King’s Cross and St. Pancras. When he was 16, he met Sarah Powell, who was 5 years his senior and had already been married and divorced. They subsequently had two children; Thomas Jr. and Sarah Jr.
Sayers’ first known fight was against a work colleague and apparently took place on Wandsworth common, lasting for over two hours, with Sayers emerging as the winner. However, his career as a pugilist began in earnest in the late 1840’s and in 1853 he suffered his sole loss, which was to Nat Langham, who was from Hinckley, Leicestershire. The match had lasted an incredible 61 rounds before Sayers finally succumbed. At the time, weight divisions were beginning to be established and Langham had styled himself as the middleweight champion of England.
Sayers in a fighting pose
In 1857, Sayers was acknowledged as the heavyweight champion of England by beating William Perry, known as the “Tipton Slasher”, taking just fifteen minutes to stop him. He solidified his claim with a victory over the highly-regarded Tom Paddock, which took place at Canvey Island, Essex, in 1858 and lasted 21 rounds. Whilst experiencing considerable success in the ring, Sayers’ private life was in turmoil. He had married Sarah but this was after their children had been born, and she later began an affair with a member of his training team called Alfred Aldridge. Although Sayers discovered the affair, there was nothing he could do because Sarah blackmailed him into allowing it to continue. Having children out of wedlock was severely disapproved of at the time and the fact that Sayers and his wife had done this had been kept a secret. If he tried to stop the affair, she threatened to reveal the truth about when their son and daughter had really been born, which left the unfortunate Sayers with having to tolerate his wife’s unfaithfulness. At least his image remained untarnished outwardly and he lived the life of a celebrity. He took up horse-riding and mixed with the upper-classes. It was a far cry from his humble origins.
The champ looking dapper
The biggest bout of his career occurred in 1860, in Farnborough, Hampshire, and was against John C. Heenan, who was billed as the American champion. They had heard of each other’s prowess and the match-up was eagerly anticipated. Heenan, known as the “Benicia Boy”, was from Troy, New York, and had beaten quality opposition such as John Morrissey and Tom King. His showdown with Sayers was viewed as the first true world championship contest.
The epic Sayers-Heenan clash was featured on the cover of this 1934 edition of “The Ring” magazine
It was a gruelling struggle which was largely dominated by Heenan, who was both taller and heavier. But gradually he began to tire, allowing Sayers to battle back and eventually gain an edge. After an amazing 37 rounds (lasting two hours and twenty minutes), the American’s handlers blundered into the ring, probably to save him from a KO defeat, and the police stepped forward to prevent a potential riot breaking out amongst the crowd. The bout was declared a draw, with both sides claiming that they were on their way to victory.
Afterwards, Sayers was presented with a wonderful silver championship belt to commemorate the event and he actually became a close friend of Heenan’s. They went on tour together, re-enacting their famous clash in theatres across the county.
Retirement then beckoned for the English champion and he settled down in Camden, north-west London, indulging in his love of horse-racing. He regularly attended race meetings with the Earl of Derby, his former sponsor. But his married life was still in disarray; his wife had given birth to three children with her lover, Alfred.
Sadly, Sayers’ health deteriorated rapidly. He developed diabetes and then tuberculosis, dying at the young age of 39. He was buried in Highgate cemetery and such was his immense popularity, there were 10,000 mourners at his funeral. His greatness will surely never be forgotten.