National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Born West Troy, New York
In the early hours of April 17, 1860, American boxing champion John C. Heenan met British titleholder Tom Sayers in a bare-knuckle bout to decide the international heavyweight championship. Staged in the outskirts of London in defiance of a British boxing ban, the punishing match lasted for forty-two rounds, ending only after unruly spectators surged into the ring, making the continuation of the fight impossible. When the contest was later ruled a draw, each side proclaimed its man the victor.
These portraits of Heenan and Sayers were produced to satisfy popular demand for images of the boxers whose battle generated enormous interest on both sides of the Atlantic. While the English champion's photograph was issued before the contest, the American challenger's picture was made slightly more than two weeks after the fight. Heenan's size and weight advantage is evident in these photographs, in which each man poses bare-chested in boxing attire.