A sculpture plaque in the North Laines of Brighton that is easy to miss is by the sculpture Carl Payne, located outside GAK, the guitar and amp shop.
It is dedicated to the champion boxer Tom Sayer, the legendary champion boxer.
Sayers was born and bred in the North Laine and was known as the ‘Brighton Boy’.
Such was his fame that when he died his burial at Highgate Cemetery was attended by 10,000 people.
Sayers was born in 1826 and brought up in the Pimlico area of North Laine. Pimlico was a notorious slum between what is now Tichborne Street and Gardner Street, where about 1,000 people lived.
He started to earn a reputation for being useful with his fists in informal fights and in 1849 turned professional, taking on Abe Crouch in his first fight.
Sayers was not a big man. He was 5ft 8ins and weighed between 112 and 154 lbs. He had to fight men who were generally much larger. Although based in London, he often used the Plough Inn at Rottingdean as his training HQ in the 1850s when he was establishing himself as a national boxer. Tom fought in an age before Queensberry rules were introduced in 1867. Fights were typically contested with bare knuckles. The rules also allowed for a broad range of fighting, including holds and throws of the opponent. Spiked shoes, within limits, were also allowed.
In contrast with modern boxing rules, a round ended with a man downed by punch or throw, when he was given 30 seconds to rest and eight additional seconds to “come to scratch” or return to the centre of the ring where a “scratch line” was drawn, and square off with his opponent once more.
So there were no round limits to fights. When a man could not come to scratch, he would be declared the loser and the fight would be halted. Fights could also end if broken up beforehand by crowd riot, police interference or chicanery, or if both men were willing to accept that the contest was a draw.
In 1853 Sayers challenged Nat Langham for the English middleweight title, although in those days there were no clear weight divisions. Sayers lost but his reputation was not damaged..
His reputation soared and he was offered a fight against William Perry for the national title. Tom cruised to victory and defeated more challengers to his title before he accepted one from the US champion John Heenan in 1859. Attempts were made to stop the contest but it eventually went ahead in Farnborough on 17th April 1860, with Sayers conceding 40 lbs.
Sayers damaged his right arm early on. The fight lasted more than two hours. By this time Heenan was so hurt he could hardly see, but after 37 rounds the crowd broke into the ring and the fight was declared a draw.
Sayers never fought again. He retired from the ring and received £3,000 from a public subscription which allowed him to live in some comfort, although his final years were affected by heavy drinking and diabetes.
He lived just five more years after his fight with John Heenan, dying in Camden on November 8, 1865. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery at only 39 years old.
In 1954 Sayers was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame. Then on 17th April 2010, with the pavement packed outside the Guitar & Amp shop in North Road, North Laine, Brighton, a plaque to Tom Sayers marking the 150th anniversary of his winning the first-ever heavyweight boxing title was unveiled to remind North Laine residents and visitors of one of its more famous sons.
Text for this article taken from North Laine History
It’s a man’s game, it takes a game man to play it.