Friday, 22 August 2014

Bare-knuckle legends: Henry Pearce

I have some good news to celebrate today, having signed a contract with a publisher for a long-planned boxing book that I've spent more than a decade researching. Exact details of the book need to be kept under wraps for now, but I am able to reveal that it is connected with the Georgian era of bare-knuckle boxing.

I love every era of boxing for different reasons, but, for me, the Georgian period is the most fascinating in the sport's history, mainly because it is richly populated with charismatic and compelling characters. One of my favourite pugilists of this, or any, time is Henry Pearce, otherwise known as the 'Game Chicken'.

Pearce was, by all accounts, a teak-tough man, with a touch of gallantry to him as well. He never lost a single prize fight, and could count among his victims such legendary figures as Joe Bourke, John Gully and Jem Belcher. After dismissing the challenge of Belcher, though, the age-old temptations of wine, women and song turned his head, and, within two years, he was dead, having contracted tuberculosis.

While researching my book this week, I came across a glorious obituary of Pearce in an old newspaper archive. The obituary was published shortly after his untimely death in 1809 and I've reproduced it in full for your delectation - have a read and I promise you that one of the most exciting prize fighters who ever walked the face of the earth comes into sharp and glorious focus again:

"Yesterday afternoon, at half-past four o'clock, died the celebrated pugilistic hero, Henry Pearce, alias the Game Chicken, and once the Champion of England. His fighting career was put to an end to by a complaint of the lungs, brought on by dissipated habits, and at which brought on his dissolution.

The title of Champion of England has, from time to time, been bestowed on various candidates for pugilistic fame; but certainly it was never more justly bestowed than on the person in question; for in the numerous contests in which he has been engaged, he never was obliged to yield the palm of victory. Pearce was a native of Bristol, which has, of late years, been so celebrated for producing heroes. He was about 30 years of age, stout and athletic in appearance, from 5 feet 9 to 10 inches high. Although a professor of boxing, he was never involved in pot-house brawls or casual rencontres.

The first battle of note which he fought, was with a man of colour at Bath, who had been for some years the dread of that neighbourhood. He obtained a hard-earned victory, after a contest of upwards of an hour. He was much inferior in point of strength to his adversary, and was indebted to his success to what may be termed a cautious, cunning system of fighting rather than to a proficiency in the art. Soon after this, the fame and rewards of [Jem] Belcher having been spread far and near, Pearce was tempted to try his fortune in London as a bruiser, and accordingly he came to town at the particular request of Belcher, who having declared his intention of retiring from the ring, promised him the patronage of all this friends. Pearce first entered the lists with Bourke, whom Belcher had twice beaten, and they fought in a room inn St. Martin's Lane by candlelight. The conflict was short and desperate, and in a quarter of an hour the Bristol hero was declared the victor. The bottom he evinced on this occasion procured him the name of the Game Chicken; upon which he crowed defiance to all the game cocks in the kingdom, Belcher excepted (it being his intention not to pit himself against any of the Bristol breed). Gully was at this time in the Fleet for debt, being anxious to fight his way out, he proposed a combat with the Chicken, which took place for a purse of one hundred guineas: on this occasion Guly distinguished himself as a man of bottom and science; but, after an hour's conflict, was compelled to yield to superior strength and experience.

The Chicken's next rencontre was with Elias Spary; the copper-smith, on Moulsey Hurst, and there he gained fresh laurels; for Spray was a man of great strength, and about the middle of the battle, placing a blow on the temple of the Chicken, it required some dexterity on his part to carry on the contest until he recovered from its effects. The battle, however, being won by the Chicken, he was challenged by a countryman of the name of Cart, who held his opponent but a short tug, for the battle was nearly decided in the first round, the Chicken planting his favourite blow in the jugular vein, which completely disabled his antagonist.

The Chicken now became a great favourite with the amateurs; he excited the envy of Belcher, who had, during his retirement, the misfortune to lose an eye; besides, by keeping late hours, he had greatly impaired his constitution. In this state he prepared to fight the Chicken and the battle took place in Yorkshire, much against the wish and advice of Belcher's best friends. The debilitated state of Belcher, and the disadvantage he laboured from want of an eye, gave the Chicken an easy conquest, which, under different circumstance, would have cost him dear. This was the last battle the Chicken ever engaged in. His constitution from this time gradually decayed; and his death, if not entirely originating in dissipation, was undoubtedly accelerated by it. Finding his dissolution at hand, he expressed a desire to see his relations from Bristol; and his father, amongst the rest, took leave of him yesterday morning. Some time before his death Pearce was impressed with sentiments of religion, and requested a clergyman to assist him in his devotions. He hoped forgiveness from all those whom he might have ill treated in the way of his profession, and declared, with his last breath, that he died in charity with all men."

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