Tom Savers, a bricklayer and pub owner from Camden Town in the north of London, was 5'8�" and weighed little more than 150 pounds, but he was one of the few bareknuckle fighters in the 1850s with a string of knockout victories. In those days, when a fighter fell or was knocked down, the stricken man's seconds hauled him to his corner where, perched on the leg of a kneeling attendant, he received sponge-and-towel therapy. Rounds were not of set duration but continued until a fighter was down. His corner then had half a minute to revive him and return him to scratch, a line drawn in the center of the 24' by 24' ring, or concede defeat.
With no system of scoring and no limit to the number of rounds involved, a fight became a battle of attrition, with exhaustion playing an increasing role. Ordinarily, neither man tried for a knockout. Both knew that the half-minute count curtailed the chances of a coup de grace, and heavy punching invited knuckle injury, a disastrous consequence in a barefisted fight. Instead, the pugilists went for soft targets, chiseling at heart and kidneys, rabbit-punching, holding and hitting. They also hugged and threw their opponents to the ground and then "accidentally" fell on them.
Yet Sayers, whose career began in 1849, stopped Jack Martin in 1853 with a blow that left Martin senseless for five minutes. In 1854 George Sims fell to Sayers in the fourth round. In 1855 he wore down and eventually knocked out Harry Poulson, who outweighed him by nearly 20 pounds. He also defeated Aaron Jones, a heavier opponent with exceptional boxing skills, in a bout that took two days to complete. In 1857 he fought William Perry, "The Tipton Slasher," who was more than 6 feet tall and weighed 202 pounds, damaging him badly for more than an hour and a half before Perry's corner tossed in the sponge.
Six months after that, Sayers, now past 30, fought William Bainge and knocked him out in six minutes. In June 1858, in a brutal fight, he routed Tom Paddock, and in September 1859 disabled Bob Brettle in 15 minutes. Sayers' claim to the heavyweight championship belt, symbol of unquestioned superiority, was thus undisputed in Britain, and it remained for Americans to take up the challenge.
The American who stepped forward was a superb young athlete named John Carmel Heenan, who had moved to New York from California and whose strong-arm services in recent elections had pleased local politicians and earned him a sinecure in the New York Customs house.
Heenan stood almost 6'2" and weighed 190 pounds. Broad shoulders, narrow hips and a handsome smoothly groomed head gave him an unmistakably athletic appearance. "His frame was a model for a sculptor," said one of his backers. "Every muscle was developed, every tendon and sinew visible. It is doubtful if such a Herculean specimen had been seen in the prize ring for many years." Heenan, then 22, had perfected his physique by swinging a 32-pound sledge for 12 hours a day in foundries in Benicia, Calif., where he fought local favorites on weekends for extra cash. He was known to his backers as the "Benicia Boy."
If there was a doubt about the "Boy," it was his temperament. Easygoing and amiable, Heenan preferred dressing up and making friends, particularly women friends, to stripping down and fighting. Before challenging Sayers, he had lost to American champion John Morrissey, an outcome blamed upon illness and poor conditioning; experts insisted that Heenan was actually the superior fighter. He became a hero in New York, and when Morrissey announced his retirement, Heenan was accepted as the American champion. That his fighting career consisted of a single contest of note, and a defeat to boot, was overlooked.
Heenan's manager was Jim Cusick, a friend from Benicia. His trainer was Aaron Jones, who, after being beaten by Sayers, had been imported to instruct Heenan in the scientific aspects of boxing. The two men began talking eagerly about the prize ring in England and a match with Sayers. Why not invade Britain to carry off Sayers' championship belt? Heenan, at first awed by the prospect, warmed to it. Letters were sent to England, where the attraction of a fight between the champions of the Old World and the New World was obvious. Arrangements were made, and on the last day of December 1859 Heenan and his backers sailed from New York.
Three months after Heenan reached England, The New York Herald reported: "The match has finally been fixed for Tuesday, the 17th of April. The tickets are not yet issued, nor is it generally known that the day has been settled.... An impression is being circulated, with a view, I think, to put the police off the scent, that the mill will come off at a very great distance from London."
The fight organizers had been "very careful about giving any information which might, by leaking out, aid the police and magisterial authorities in the determined effort they are making to prevent the fight." Confidentially, the American press was told, tickets would go on sale in London on the evening of April 16, and a rail excursion would leave the city before daylight the next morning.