Invitation to a prize fight

The pay-per-view of the day in the early nineteenth century was by attendance only for both young and old, with the poor arriving by foot and the aristocracy by horse and carriage.

Welcome to the world of Victorian bare-knuckle boxing. For the combatants it was a chance to change their social standing, better their lives and make serious money in a time of few opportunities.

The one certainty win or lose would be extreme pain; the ability to outlast the man standing in front of you was the survival of the fittest, to withstand excruciatingly long contests until you could no longer stand or become rendered unconscious.

Jack Slack squares up to Jack Broughton (Getty)

Pugilists were often given alcohol between rounds to dull the pain of swollen and broken bones. Teeth, jaw and eye sockets were never the same again and there were no compassionate stoppages, certainly no scorecard controversies or manufactured hype.

Fighters could come back from losses, but for them to do that first they must have a reputation to lose. The newspapers of the day could make or break a fighters’ reputation and the debuting prizefighter often only had that first chance of glory to make a name for themselves.

The contests and purses were made up by the fighters patrons, their backers. Win your opening contests and the purses of course get bigger as do the side wagers. You’ll have won your backers some money by winning previous contests. You might live to fight another day even if you lose.

Yes, I guess not much has changed in more than 200 years of boxing. The time- honoured tradition of a fighter making and then losing a fortune held true in those days, just like today.

This was the case for most but of course not every fighter. Jack Broughton, who had made his backer William, The Duke of Cumberland a fortune in bets, was later derided by his patron the day he was blinded in a fight against ‘The Norfolk Butcher’, Jack Slack. The blinded Broughton wanted to continue when beaten in 14 minutes in a fight which cost The Duke thousands in lost bets. There were no friends in this business and loyalty lasted as long as you kept winning.

When Jack Broughton passed away in 1789 he had amassed a fortune of 7,000 pounds and represented a good luck story living well into his 80’s. Life expectancy was low in Broughton’s times and the probability of dying young and penniless extremely high. He had beaten the odds spectacularly.

One such hopeful fighter was Tom Cribb who made his way to London from Bristol looking to make his fortune. Cribbs’ story was almost over before it started, when while working on the docks a 500lb crate of oranges fell, crushing his chest. Vomiting blood for days afterwards, Cribbs’ natural strength and youth pulled him through. “Live to fight another day,” they say and he hadn’t even had a paid contest yet.

Cribb would go on to become the most famous pugilist of his generation, developing the art of ‘milling’ on the retreat and becoming notorious for withstanding insane amounts of punishment. This was not a period where fighters were gently brought along with learning done away from public gaze. Cribb fought all comers, with one such lesson learned on the job a brutal 52 round hiding at the hands of George Nichols in only his 4th fight. It would the only bout Cribb ever lost. Race was not an issue to Cribb and the fact that he accepted challenges from fine black fighters in Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux – the latter of whom Cribb fought twice – says a lot about him as a man.

Just as every career has an ending, of course they begin somewhere and things could have been very different for Tom Cribb, whose  first paid outing was to be the longest of his career.

Tom Cribb (George Glazer gallery)

When he awoke on the morning of 7th January 1805, he was prepared to face a man more than twice his age in 50-year-old George Maddox, acutely aware this was a chance to establish his name. Tom Cribb was 23-years-old and unknown. Stakes had been set at 20 guineas to the winner and 5 guineas to the loser. For this contest Cribb would have known the money was secondary to actually winning.

On a freezing cold January day, both men met in the centre of the roped-off field, stripped to the waist and eager to get the contest under way. The venue was Wood Green, North London for a midday start and with the smart money backing the man with the reputation and form, George Maddox.

As early as the fourth round, gamblers backing Maddox would have been feeling very confident. The older man had struck Cribb a fearful blow over his right eye rendering it shut. For Samuel Elias – Cribb’s second – these were worrying times. However, he knew that Cribb was nothing if not determined and he worked his way back into the contest and gradually began to make it a war of attrition.

The fight was of a slow, grinding pace and the rounds passed by. Thirty, forty and even fifty rounds came and went in this gruelling contest as the youthful Cribb started to get the better of Maddox, visibly fading and with his work becoming desperate.

The 53rd round saw the increasingly fatigued George Maddox strike Tom Cribb with a tremendous punch under his left eye, which started to swell. The worry now for Cribb was if it closed completely he would be blind. One wonders if the fate of Jack Broughton flashed briefly into his mind as Samuel Elias asked Cribb if he wanted to “give best” and concede. Cribb stoically shook his head and made his way back to scratch, the marking which a fighter must be able to make for a fight to continue.

George Maddox had ‘Paddington’ Tom Jones working his corner and Jones could see the older fighter was spent. They hoped Cribb’s left eye would close if Maddox could just hold on for several rounds longer. It turned out to be a forlorn hope.

The end of the 60th round saw Maddox’s backers ask for the fight to be made a draw. Cribb had not come this far for anything other than victory and refused, making it clear he wanted to carry on and that George Maddox must concede defeat.

It was now only a matter of time before Cribb could claim victory and establish that reputation for himself. The contest finally ended in the 76th round when an exhausted, defeated Maddox could not come up to scratch. Two hours and twelve minutes it had taken to earn victory.

Tom Cribb was in pain even in victory; something he would become used to in his years as a prizefighter while also accepting the plaudits, pats on the back and well wishes.

Cribb would have looked in the mirror that night long after the fine food was digested and the calming anesthetic of alcohol coursing through his veins had taken effect and felt a sense of pride. He was no longer travelling, for he knew he had arrived.