Fight Of The Century Part 1 - Broughton vs Slack

Luke G. Williams
19/09/2015 10:43am

In a new series of articles for Boxing Monthly, Luke G. Williams will be examining a dozen iconic boxing matches from the past 265 years. Each of these fights could be said to have transcended the sport and proved themselves worthy of the oft over-used moniker of ‘the fight of the century’. The series begins with an examination of the brutal contest between English champion Jack Broughton and challenger Jack Slack in 1750, a fight of great historical significance, albeit with an aftermath which has been widely misinterpreted.

It was amid the tumult, disorder and rowdiness of the 18th Century that professional prize-fighting was born. The sport originated from the common English custom of semi-organised street fighting, by which private and public quarrels were frequently settled, often in the presence of an excited crowd of locals.

Street-fighting spectacles were a routine part of English existence - as commonplace on the effluent-drenched streets of major cities such as London and Bristol as they were on the cobbled stones of picturesque country villages. As one fascinated French visitor to these isles remarked in 1680, “any thing that looks like fighting is delicious to an Englishman”.

One man, above all others, was responsible for codifying and formalising street fighting into a major public spectacle and attraction. That man’s name was Jack Broughton and, in the mid-18th Century, his amphitheatre in central London was the centre of the prize-fighting universe, with excited reports of the bouts that took place there often appearing in newspapers.

Broughton’s arena was not the first public prize-fighting venue – James Figg had opened an indoor boxing arena just north of modern-day Oxford Street around 1720 – but it soon eclipsed all others in public popularity and esteem.

Before he became a ‘public bruiser’ Broughton had been an accomplished waterman, winning Doggett’s Coat and Badge race in 1730. After taking up boxing, he fought many times at Figg’s establishment before opening his own venue near to modern day Oxford Street around 1743, perhaps aided by patronage from Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland.

An impressive physical specimen of around 14 stone, Broughton’s past endeavours on the River Thames accounted for his imposing build and wide, well-developed shoulder muscles. As well as being the fiercest and most successful pugilistic competitor of his day, Broughton was also a sporting innovator - his rules for prize-fighting, published in 1743 and widely adopted thereafter - would form the regulatory basis for the sport until the development of London Prize Ring Rules almost 100 years later.

Courtesy of victories against George Taylor and George Stephenson and a string of other leading pugilists of the day, Broughton was, by the early 1740s, widely regarded as ‘Champion of England’. Captain John Godfrey’s A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence, published in 1747, aptly summarised the high regard in which Broughton was held:

“ADVANCE, brave BROUGHTON! Thee I pronounce Captain of the Boxers … I know none so fit … What can be stronger than to say, that for seventeen or eighteen Years, he has fought every able Boxer that appeared against him, and has never yet been beat? … Has he not all that the others want, and all the best can have? Strength equal to what is human, Skill and Judgement equal to what can be acquired, undebauched Wind, and a bottom Spirit, never to pronounce the Word ENOUGH …”

Godfrey also described Broughton’s all-action boxing style, which relied on his ability to block punches, and reply in kind with “pile-driving force”:

“BROUGHTON steps bold and firmly in, bids a Welcome to the coming Blow; receives it with his guarding Arm; then with a general Summons of his swelling Muscles, and his firm Body, seconding his Arm, and supplying it with all its Weight, pours the Pile-driving Force upon his Man.”

By 1750, Broughton was in his mid-forties and his reputation as the undefeated champion of England seemed assured. Godfrey, for one, confidently assumed that he was now retired and would “scarce trust a Battle to a waning Age”.

Fatefully, though, Broughton - like so many of his pugilistic successors - was lured back into the ring for one final contest. It was a fight that would define boxing for the next 40 years.

His challenger was one Jack Slack, a Norfolk master butcher. Slack’s boxing record was decidedly mixed and many thought him an unworthy opponent for the great Broughton – he had, for example, lost several contests and been beaten by George Taylor as recently as January 1750.

However, Slack possessed a talent for getting under other fighters’ skins. According to the Derby Mercury of 6 April 1750, a dispute between Broughton and Slack originated in March during a controversial election campaign in Brentford, which was dogged by allegations of corruption. For reasons unknown, an altercation about the election had resulted in “personal abuse” being exchanged between the two pugilists.

Subsequently, the Mercury claimed, during a bout at the amphitheatre, Slack “came upon the stage” and “offered to fight Mr Broughton immediately for 20 guineas”. Broughton declined the offer, arguing that he was “not immediately prepared” whereas Slack had been “in keeping some months”. However Broughton did agree to a contest the following month, and a bout was duly arranged for 11 April 1750.

Broughton had not fought a major contest in several years and was enjoying his status as “one of his Majesty’s Yeoman of the Guard”. Despite his rushed preparations for the contest with Slack, Broughton’s iconic status as the king of boxing and proprietor of London’s foremost boxing venue ensured public anticipation to see his comeback bout was widespread and fevered.

“No doubt,” one newspaper salivated sadistically, “[the contest] will be attended with much loss of blood, if not Life,” while another pointed out that the impending fight was the “subject of so much conversation among the modern English heroes of all ranks”.

When the two men finally took to the stage of the amphitheatre on 11 April, Broughton was a firm favourite. The financial stakes were considerable, with Slack having paid Broughton ten guineas for the privilege of fighting for the entirety of the house takings, which comprised ‘door receipts’ of around £130 plus the proceeds from the pre-sale of a further 200 tickets at a guinea and a half apiece. With side bets also having been struck, victory stood to net the winner around £600, a considerable sum at the time and perhaps the equivalent of in excess of £100,000 today.

By 8.30 in the morning, the amphitheatre was full. For an hour and a half, the crowd stewed impatiently until finally, at 10am, his Royal Highness, the Duke of Cumberland, prompted the two combatants to mount the stage.

As the crowd roared their approval, Broughton stalked the stage looking supremely confident. From the beginning of the fight he treated Slack with “the greatest contempt and disdain”, laughing at his nervous opponent’s clumsy blows.

The first significant action of the fight saw Broughton throw Slack “a dreadful fall” which “entirely deprived him of his senses and strength for some time”. It looked like the fight was over before it had even really begun but then, just “when it was least expected”, Slack’s seconds succeeded in reviving him.

Broughton, sensing his opponent was still on unsteady legs, poured forward furiously, attacking his foe with a volley of punches to try and finish the contest.

Then it happened …

Slack countered Broughton’s fury with the finest punch of his career, a “straight blow” which detonated “directly in [Broughton’s] eye”. Blood splattered across the stage and almost immediately Broughton’s badly wounded eye puffed and closed, giving “a check to his fury”. One newspaper reporter described Slack’s blow as an example of “great luck” – fortunate or not, it was a punch that changed the course of boxing history.

Effectively fighting half blind, Broughton was now an easy target for the resurrected Slack’s powerful blows. Such was the challenger’s dominance, that he was now able to “artfully” avoid the larger and heavier Broughton’s increasingly wild lunges, while landing “severe blows” of his own.

After around fourteen minutes of combat, the bloody slaughter finally ceased. Despite Broughton having “exerted the utmost efforts and arts that nature could put forth”, he “was forced to yield to the younger hero,” although “not in words” as he was too bloodied and injured to even speak.

The crowd could barely believe what they had witnessed, Broughton – the apparently unbeatable Broughton! - had been bludgeoned into submission in less than a quarter of an hour.

In the days following the fight, Broughton’s friends and admirers rallied around him, with one journal claiming: “hardly any Person during the late war ever had the compliments of so many of the nobility and gentry paid him [Broughton] after a defeat.”

Soon talk of a rematch circulated, with the Derby Mercury reporting:

“Mr. Broughton … is in a fair way of recovery, and it is said, will soon have another bout with Mr. Slack; his late misfortune being owing, as we are informed, to his having weakened himself too much by reducing his bulk greatly in so short a time.”

However, for reasons unknown, Broughton versus Slack 2 never happened. Many boxing history books - using Pierce Egan’s Boxiana as their source - claim that the reason for this was that immediately after Broughton’s defeat he was forced to close the amphitheatre by the Duke of Cumberland, who withdrew his patronage in a fit of fury, having lost a fortune betting on the contest.

Despite its widespread recitation in boxing history books of the last two centuries, this claim does not seem to be supported by fact. In fact, my research of dozens of newspaper reports after 1750 indicates that “Broughton’s amphitheatre” did not close in the wake of the Slack fight at all, but was actually still in operation for four more years.

Judging by these reports, Broughton did not appear to hold any form of grudge against his conqueror, allowing Slack to continue fighting at the amphitheatre, including in November 1752, when the Ipswich Journal reported that he was defeated by a boxer named Goddard. (Incidentally, this account contradicts the widespread assumption - again originating in the work of Egan - that Slack was ‘champion’ until his 1760 defeat against Bill Stevens).

Broughton’s amphitheatre actually closed in 1754, possibly on the promptings of some form of legal crackdown on boxing in London. This theory is lent credence by an account in the Oxford Journal dated 7 September 1754, which lamented “the cruelty of that law, which has shut up our amphitheatres” and claimed that Broughton’s famous venue was now “a Methodist meeting house”.

By this stage it seems that Broughton had lost his enthusiasm for boxing anyway, and had largely retired into private life, keeping himself busy by establishing an antiques business.

By force of his business instincts and pugilistic genius, Broughton had succeeded in shaping boxing into a major form of public entertainment, complete with rules, regulations and an iconic central venue. However, such was his dominance of the sport, that when he retreated from it, boxing nearly died, with public interest in it declining dramatically.

When Broughton died in 1789 (aged 84, 85 or 86 according to which source you believe), he was a wealthy man, with the estate bequeathed in his will said to be worth a vast £7,000, probably more than £1million in today’s money, as well as including several properties in Vauxhall.

Boxing might have died with him, had it not been for the emergence of one of the sport’s greatest ever rivalries, which would be played out between 1788 and 1790. By the time of the third contest in the glorious trilogy between Richard Humphries and Daniel Mendoza, the golden age of English pugilism had begun.

Luke G. Williams is a writer and boxing historian. His acclaimed book Richmond Unchained: the biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar (2015, Amberley Publishing) is out now.