Fight of the Century Part 2 – Humphries vs Mendoza 2
Luke G. Williams
In a new series of articles for Boxing Monthly, Luke G. Williams is 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 continues with an examination of the second contest in an explosive and controversial trilogy between Daniel Mendoza and Richard Humphries – a series of sporting spectacles which ignited bare-knuckle boxing’s golden age.
As the 18th Century hurtled towards its final decade, life in Europe seemed more precarious and insecure than ever. The turbulent events of the French Revolution were spreading a heady mixture of fear and hope across the continent, while in England uncertainty reigned as ‘madness’, most probably in the form of the disease porphyria, ravaged the mind of monarch George III.
Boxing was not immune to such seismic uncertainties. Indeed, throughout the second half of the 18th Century, England’s traditional love of a prize fight had come under threat from a confluence of social and cultural factors, including moral and legal crackdowns on ‘frivolous’ leisure pursuits. The spectre of corruption and fight fixing also lurked while the distinct lack of a charismatic champion further damaged the sport.
Since the glory days of Jack Broughton, few pugilistic practitioners had caught the public imagination and by the 1780s the sport was desperate for a cast of new heroes. The achievements and skills of Tom Johnson, a Yorkshireman of “Herculean strength” who was widely recognised as champion of England by midway through the decade, went some way to raising the sport’s profile. However, the biggest factor in boxing’s dramatic explosion in popularity from 1788 onwards was the compulsive rivalry between Daniel Mendoza and Richard Humphries, which was played out across three contests between 1788 and 1790.
As legendary boxing scribe Pierce Egan later explained: “The abilities of the two pugilists [Mendoza and Humphries] occasioned considerable conversation at that period, both in the big and little world. The newspapers teemed with anecdotes concerning them … Humphries and Mendoza were the rage …they rose up like a new feature of the times. Boxing became fashionable, followed, patronized, and encouraged.”
In terms of pugilistic prowess, Humphries and Mendoza were well matched; both had defeated the imposing ‘Bath butcher’ Sam Martin and, although accounts of Humphries’ early career are sketchy, Mendoza had only ever lost one contest, against Tom Tyne in 1783, a reverse which he had subsequently avenged.
Despite their accomplishments, the two men could hardly have been more different though. East London-born Mendoza was dark-haired, quick-tempered and pugnacious. He was also Jewish within a society where anti-Semitic prejudice was widespread. As a consequence, he had to struggle for every ounce of the recognition and respect that he so badly craved. Mendoza’s defiant refusal to be cowed by the forces of religious prejudice ensured he became a folk hero to the Jewish community, enabling them to point to him as clear evidence that the stereotypical assertion that Jews were cowardly and weak was ridiculous. Hailed as “the light of Israel” by his supporters, many of whom lived in the East End of London, Mendoza seemed to carry the hopes and dreams of every Jewish citizen in England on his slender shoulders.
As for Humphries, little definitive information is known about his background, although he was undoubtedly of more traditional Anglo-Saxon stock, hence his quintessentially English nickname of the ‘gentleman boxer’. It has been said that he was the son of an Army captain, and he was certainly an imposing physical specimen, far bulkier, for example, than the small-framed Mendoza, who was no bigger than an average modern-day middleweight and had to rely on his defensive prowess and tactical brilliance in order to out-wit his invariably larger opponents.
It was said that the two rivals had once been friends, and that Humphries had even mentored or trained the teenaged Mendoza. However, by early 1788, when they first squared off, they had become bitterly estranged. According to Mendoza, he had been “so ill-treated” by Humphries that he was determined to “requite him … for his unhandsome conduct.”
Part of the rivalry the men shared was no doubt due to the fact that they operated competing ‘sparring schools’ within London and were therefore in competition for customers and patrons. In a symbol of the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, the Kentish Gazette sneered that Mendoza’s school “consistently with his character as a Jew,” was located “near the Bank”.
After terms for their first fight were agreed in late 1787, Humphries’ supporters were concerned that their hero’s deeply held ”resentment” towards Mendoza might result in his “passion” impairing his “dexterity”. Ever the English gentleman, Humphries moved to reassure them by declaring that he would conduct himself “with as much composure as if he was sipping a dish of tea”.
The contest was set for 9 January 1788 in Odiham, Hampshire, and took place on a specially erected stage in the presence of hundreds of excited spectators. In the approximation of one writer, “the memorable bout between Achilles and Hector hardly excited more expectation” than Humphries versus Mendoza.
Amid driving rain that forced him at one stage to remove his shoes, Humphries won, barely, amid mutterings from Mendoza’s camp of foul play by none other than the champion Tom Johnson, who was working as a second in Humphries’ corner.
The controversy had occurred early in the contest, when a mighty blow from Mendoza forced Humphries against the ring railings. With Humphries looking vulnerable to a knockout, Mendoza had aimed a second blow at him, only for Johnson to intercede and block his punch. The Mendoza faction immediately shrieked “foul”, believing that Johnson’s interference was illegal. Humphries’ camp demurred, claiming that their man was already down, and therefore it was Mendoza who had contravened the rules by continuing to swing.
It was the turning point in the contest - the umpires sided with Humphries and the fight continued, with Mendoza now in an agitated and impetuous frame of mind. Mighty blows by Humphries to Mendoza’s loins and neck swung the bout in his favour and eventually, after 29 brutal minutes, Mendoza lay motionless on the ground and had to be carried off the stage “apparently lifeless”.
There was a whiff of distasteful prejudice in the aftermath of the fight. A ‘heroic poem’ named ‘The Odiad’ was even hurriedly written and published which gleefully interpreted the fight as a victory for Christian might and right - in the form of Humphries - against the “ruthless Jew” Mendoza, a man the poem’s anonymous writer described dismissively as a “second Shylock” and a “mortal foe to Christian light”.
Meanwhile, the controversial nature of the fight’s outcome reverberated through the pages of the press. Mendoza’s supporters claimed he had been robbed, while the Humphries’ faction maintained that the umpires’ decision was fair and widened the debate by accusing Mendoza of “inhuman and pitiful” conduct during the contest, claiming he had attempted to gouge Humphries’ eye and pull his nose.
A bitter war of words soon erupted between Humphries and Mendoza in the pages of the press, as a series of letters by each man were published which gave their contrasting accounts of proceedings. In addition to his complaints about Johnson’s interference, Mendoza also claimed he had only lost because of injuries sustained after he “fell directly on my head”. In reply, an indignant Humphries ridiculed the idea that his victory was “the mere effect of an accident”.
Before the fight Humphries had hinted that he would retire “to private practice” if he won, but the lure of a lucrative rematch forced him to rethink his plans. Throughout the rest of the year terms for a return contest were debated, often acrimoniously. By the summer, Mendoza was suffering from ill health, and also in mourning after the death of one of his children. He was therefore outraged when Humphries appeared at his boxing academy on Saturday 5 July to taunt him, an incident which inspired a further exchange of bitter epistles.
Finally, on 26 November 1788, after a meeting at the White Hart Tavern in Abchurch Lane, terms for the eagerly-awaited rematch were agreed. The bout would take place in May the following year, at a location of Humphries’ choosing. To try and prevent a repeat of the controversy that had surrounded the first contest, one of the articles for the fight specified that both men’s seconds “immediately on the parties setting to, shall retire to the four corners of the inclosure,[sic.] ‘till one of the combatants is down”.
Humphries-Mendoza 2, in the grounds of Henry Thornton, Esq.’s county estate in Stilton, Huntingdonshire, was a huge affair. To accommodate the insatiable demand among fight fanatics for a ringside view, an octagonal amphitheatre was constructed which held around 2,000 spectators, while the number of carriages that descended upon Stilton for the contest was “beyond all belief”.
Once the contest began, Mendoza took charge. Demonstrating his mastery of defensive boxing, he succeeded in blocking or avoiding every meaningful blow Humphries was able to throw at him while, at the same time, smashing his opponent to the ground four times in the first six minutes.
After ten minutes of Mendoza dominance Humphries began to look somewhat forlorn. Before the fight, Humphries’ admirers had praised his “manliness” and willingness to fight on the front foot, while deriding Mendoza’s penchant for fighting on the retreat. But now it was Humphries who was moving backwards desperately, while Mendoza abandoned his usual defensive style and instead advanced inexorably forward.
Time and time again, flurries of hard, attacking Mendoza blows drove Humphries from the centre of the ring until he wobbled perilously and shakily against the ring railings. The contest maintained this violent pattern of Mendoza dominance for around 30 minutes, with Humphries seemingly powerless in the face of his rival’s controlled and accurate aggression.
Then, suddenly, it seemed that the contest was over. An exhausted Humphries fell to the ground, seemingly without being hit. Such an act was in direct contravention of the pre-agreed fight articles that stated either fighter would forfeit if they fell without a punch being struck. Mendoza duly claimed victory, however the two umpires could not agree whether Humphries had been hit or not.
A chaotic delay of around 20 minutes ensued as the two camps argued the toss in front of an increasingly impatient and rowdy crowd. Eventually, a reluctant Mendoza agreed to continue fighting, even though by this stage Humphries had enjoyed ample opportunity to regroup and regain his breath.
The contest resumed, with Mendoza making his dissatisfaction with Humphries’ conduct clear by several times refusing to adopt a traditional ‘hands up’ fighting stance when the men set to, instead standing with his arms down while viewing his foe with “a look of contempt”.
Thankfully, the controversial break in proceedings had no discernible effect on the outcome of the fight, which continued much as before, with Humphries being both out-thought and out-fought. Mendoza knocked him down with alarming regularity for another half hour, pointing at Humphries and grinning derisively whenever he was knocked off his feet, to the raucous delight of the large and enthusiastic Jewish contingent within the crowd.
The contest was finally terminated after Mendoza once again advanced and shaped to deliver a clubbing blow, only for Humphries to fall, exhausted and deflated, without being hit. This time not even the most one-eyed of his supporters could claim that a blow had been struck and it was “universally agreed” that Mendoza was the victor.
The faces of the two men articulated the story of the contest move vividly than any newspaper report – whereas Mendoza was almost entirely unmarked, save for a bruise on his cheek and a couple of tender spots on his back, Humphries was “much beaten about the face”, one of his eyes was closed, his forehead and lip were cut and he was spitting prodigious amounts of blood.
Those present were awestruck at Mendoza’s performance. One newspaper declared, with palpable disbelief, that: “neither the superior strength of Humphries, nor the reach of his arm, could save him from the lightning of Mendoza’s wrists.” Another admirer declared that the Jewish pugilist had fought with “wonderful science and intrepidity”.
Mendoza, aged just 24, was now at the peak of his considerable powers. His winnings from the fight amounted to £1,000, a huge sum at the time, while his triumph inspired a loud chant of “Mendoza forever” from his loyal fans.
Humphries and Mendoza would face each other once more, the following year, with Mendoza reinforcing his superiority by once again dominating his arch-rival. Thereafter, a chastened Humphries withdrew from the prize ring, instead becoming a highly successful coal merchant.
As for Mendoza, he was now, in the words of Pierce Egan, a “brilliant star” and “phenomenon in the pugilistic hemisphere”. As one of the most famous men in England, Mendoza’s likeness appeared in prints and etchings as well as on commemorative tankards and coins, while his exploits were also referenced in poetry, plays and songs. It was even said that he was invited to meet King George III at Windsor Castle.
In 1794, Mendoza finally won recognition as English Champion, courtesy of victory against Bill Ward. He lost this status in a controversial bout against ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson the following year and thereafter fell into decline, losing his hard-earned fortune amid a succession of failed business ventures.
Nevertheless, the legend of Mendoza’s golden trilogy with Humphries endured as pugilism swaggered confidently into the 19th Century, and the man himself remained a hero for generations of Jewish citizens long past his death in 1836.
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.