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Champion of England

Peter Joy reconstructs the strange life and turbulent times of Daniel Mendoza

Peter Joy  |  Winter 2005/06  -  Number 200


The East End Jewish boxing tradition that produced such twentieth-century sporting stars as Jack Bloomfield, Ted Lewis and Jack ‘Kid’ Berg is well known. Less so is the story of how it all started - back in the 1780s, with a young Sephardi named Daniel Mendoza, the ‘Star of Israel’, whose national fame outshone all of them.

Yet today the full details of his remarkable career are little known. I have pieced it together using contemporary sources: notably, contemporary newspaper reports; Mendoza’s own rather patchy Memoirs of the Life of Daniel Mendoza, published in 1806 when he was 42, of which few copies today exist; and the accounts of pugilistic characters and notable fights which Pierce Egan, doyen of Regency prize-ring reporters, brought together in his well-known but long out-of-print Boxiana, first published as a single volume in 1813. This may well, therefore, be the first time in decades that the full, strange life story of this Jewish legend has been told.

‘The boxing match between Martin the Bath Butcher, and Mendoza the Jew, which has been the subject of every blackguard’s conversation for some days, was put a stop to on Tuesday, by the prudent and praise-worthy interference of the civil power. The parties met on Ealing Common, attended by a great concourse of people, (among whom was the Prince – whether accidental or otherwise, we know not – we may, however, reasonably suppose the former – and some other personages of note) when a Justice of the Peace, and a posse comitatus, assisted by a party of the Light Dragoons, made their appearance, and prevented the decision of the combat. In justice to the high personage, whose name we are sorry to mention on this occasion, he was the first to shew respect to the civil authority, by retiring with his party, as soon as the Magistrate made his appearance. The riot act was read, and the mob, in number perhaps ten thousand, dispersed quietly’ – The Times, 29 March 1787

It’s hard to say who was more deflated: 22-year-old Daniel Mendoza, ascending star of English pugilism, who on what should have been the greatest day in his young career was forced to flee the magistrates on horseback; his patron, the gambling, womanizing 25-year-old George, Prince of Wales, who would wait a further 33 years to attain the throne and who departed the scene with his cronies in his sprung carriage, humiliated and furious; or the 10,000 grumbling Londoners who faced an eight-mile trudge back to London as the troops demolished the boxing stage.

But the debacle only briefly interrupted Mendoza’s rise to superstar status and – eventually – the title of Champion. The fight was quietly rescheduled for Barnet Raceground on 17 April, where five thousand watched the 5'7’ Mendoza out-fight the far bigger Martin in half an hour. Mendoza was driven back to town at the head of a cheering, triumphal procession of carriages, riders and pedestrians, with £500 of the Prince’s gold - perhaps £250,000 in today’s money – bulging in his pocket.

One encounter, however, cast a cold shadow on his glory. Richard Humphreys, long one of England’s leading pugilists, had been Mendoza’s early tutor and mentor. But the young Jew’s increasing celebrity had soured their relationship into one of aggressive contempt. When one Colonel Glover asked his opinion of Mendoza, Humphreys – in front of Mendoza – replied that he thought ‘nothing of him’.

‘Take care, Humphreys,’ the Colonel replied. ‘Depend on it, one day or other he will beat you.’

Born in Aldgate on 5 July 1764, Daniel Mendoza was the child of refugees from the Inquisition’s flames. The family was large and poor but Mendoza’s parents, as he later recounted, ‘contrived to bestow a tolerable education on all their children – they justly conceived this to be an object of the highest importance’. But it was Mendoza’s fists that would be his fortune.

London was a safer place to be Jewish than Madrid or Lisbon, but antisemitism was routine. Taunted daily, young Daniel quickly learned to stand up for himself. When he returned home with a black eye, his father would quiz him:

If he found I had acted only from self defence, or from any justifiable motive, he would freely forgive me, and declare that he would never exert his parental authority to prevent me from standing in my own defence when unjustly assailed, being well aware that courage is not only useful, but almost indispensably necessary to carry us through life.

At 13, Daniel was apprenticed to a glasscutter but soon quit after giving his employer’s bossy son a thrashing. He was next apprenticed to a Jewish fruiterer and greengrocer, where local toughs’ insults to his employer drew him into frequent street-fights - though these diminished markedly as his pugnacious reputation spread. By 16, he was working for a tea-dealer, when a porter – ‘a stout athletic man in the prime of life’ – started an angry and abusive quarrel in the shop. Daniel invited him to step outside; after a hard fight lasting three-quarters of an hour, the porter was too battered to continue. By beating a big, grown man through pluck and skill, the teenage Mendoza made himself the talk of the neighbourhood. And among the bystanders roaring the lad on was Richard Humphreys, professional pugilist.

The following Saturday found Mendoza not at shul but at Mile End Road for his first prize-fight, which he won in an hour. Humphreys was his second. When spectators called out to Humphreys to direct him where to strike, he was said to have replied: ‘There is no need of it. The lad knows more than all of us.’ His employer, however, was less impressed. On returning to work on Monday, young Mendoza got the sack.

The world of the prize-ring

Pugilism had a peculiar status in Regency England. Prize-fights were against the law. Clergymen and many of the respectable middle classes abhorred their bare-knuckle brutality; gloves, or ‘mufflers’, were used only in sparring. But public order was the authorities’ concern. Prize-fights drew huge, unruly crowds – and there was no worthwhile police force to control them. The establishment rightly feared the power of the mob – particularly after 1789.

Fights were therefore arranged in semi-secrecy. Until the last moment, only a select few would be entrusted with the details of time and location. Frequently magistrates would still get wind of a match and descend with musket-wielding militia to prevent it. Just as often they turned up their collars and went along to enjoy the action.

For pugilism was the English sport. Following the rise in the 1730s of the first public self-defence practitioners, James Figg and ‘Professor’ Jack Broughton, the English had, uniquely, elevated fist-fighting into a formalized spectator sport. There was one champion, the Champion of England. The title was synonymous with Champion of Britain, Europe or the World and its holder held a heroic place in the nation’s affections.

The ‘Marquis of Queensberry’ rules, however, lay far in the future. In Mendoza’s era it was Broughton’s English Prize Ring Rules that counted. Regency prize-fighting blended modern boxing and wrestling in a mixture of blows and throws. There were no weight divisions, so there could be wide size disparities between the contestants. Two gentleman-umpires – one nominated by each fighter – ensured fair play, with a third to adjudicate when they disagreed. Each round ended only when a man was punched or thrown to the ground. He then had 30 seconds to come ‘up to scratch’ – his chalk mark in the ring – and fight on. The fight ended only when one man was too beaten or exhausted to continue. Occasionally this took only a few minutes. Sometimes it took well over an hour.

Why so long? The lack of gloves put a premium on caution and defence, initially at least. Bare-knuckle blows could cause awful facial injuries; and a misplaced punch could fracture the fist that dealt it, with crippling results. So the expert pugilist generally kept his fists high, weight on the rear leg, alert, feinting, manoeuvring with care – until his adversary was fatigued, shaken and bloody enough to be vulnerable to a decisive beating. Behind it all was the Fancy – an extended, informal network of aristocrats, gentleman-enthusiasts, pugilists and trainers, centred on London but scattered all over the country, who financed and ran the sport and bet outrageous sums on the outcomes.

Assailed with bludgeons

Ejection from the tea trade did nothing to dampen Mendoza’s spirit. Re-employed by a tobacco merchant and sent to Chatham on an errand, he demolished in an hour-long, stand-up fight a Sergeant who had prodded him off the road with his halberd. The Sergeant’s officer gave Mendoza five guineas for what he termed ‘an uncommon instance of spirit and resolution in a youth’ and a passing party of sailors, who must have enjoyed the show immensely, shouldered him the eight miles to Gravesend. Victory in his second formal prize-fight soon followed.

The young Mendoza was developing a thirst for fighting. One day he got into three separate battles on his way home from watching a prize-fight in Barnet. A young man driving a cart offered to race the pedestrian Mendoza and, on losing, let forth a foul-mouthed tirade. At that moment a ‘gentleman’ rode up and ‘declared it would afford him the highest gratification to see such a fellow well thrashed, and promised to reward anyone who would set about it’.

A short while later, Mendoza was pocketing the gentleman’s guinea. A whip-round among spectators raised a further £5. Later that afternoon, a similar incident with a party of rowdy butchers netted a further £11. As he headed back to town on horseback, his inept riding drew catcalls from a group of youths, who startled his horse. Mendoza dismounted and singled out the ringleader:

He found that though I could not ride very well, I could fight quite well enough to give him as severe a thrashing as perhaps he ever received, and from the condition in which I left him, I have no doubt that he was too much in need of ease . . . to molest any one else that evening.

Having pocketed some £17, beaten up three opponents and, by his own account, not absorbed one blow of consequence all day, the teenage Mendoza celebrated by riding his horse into a busy dance-hall.

Yet another job, as a baker of biscuits and Passover cakes, took Mendoza and a colleague to Northampton, where a local man observed that ‘it was a pity we were not sent to Jerusalem’ and threatened to kick them out of town. Mendoza pummelled him in the street for an hour and a half, until he ‘so severely beaten he could no longer stand without assistance and was afterwards confined to his room for upwards of three weeks’.

It was perhaps a good thing Mendoza was soon back in the prize-ring. In 1783, aged 19, he was matched with Tom Tyne, a seasoned and athletic fighter at Leytonstone in Essex. Tyne proved a match too far. After a desperate contest of an hour and a quarter, Mendoza’s friends withdrew him. But soon he was back, defeating one Matthews at Kilburn Wells. The fight was for only six guineas. But several aristocrats were present, the Prince included.

Eighteenth-century London was a violent place. Seeing a catfight in the street, Mendoza bet on one slattern, a passing sailor on the other. On losing his bet, the sailor challenged Mendoza to fight – with predictable consequences. Unfortunately the sailor was a bad loser. A gang of 20 club-wielding ship-mates soon tracked down Mendoza and a small group of friends in Stepney:

We were assailed with bludgeons in all directions . . . and after having retreated for some distance, during which I was compelled to parry as well as I could with my arms the blows that were continually made at me, I was at length completely overpowered.

The sailors left him for dead. Within a few months, however, Mendoza had recovered enough to defeat a fighter named Bryant, though he was bilked of the prize money.

After beating a Bermondsey fighter named Nelson, who was seconded by then Champion of England Tom Johnson, a more mature Mendoza was ready for a re-match with Tyne. They met at Croydon, having put up 20 guineas stake money a side, and this time Mendoza beat Tyne – who two years later killed a man in a prize-fight – with dextrous ease.

But as Mendoza’s status with the Fancy rose, his relations with Humphreys darkened. They had quarrelled about stake-money and Mendoza’s training for the Nelson fight. In the Roe Buck tavern in Aldgate, where Humphreys was a favourite, their resentment caught fire. Humphreys tore Mendoza’s shirt from collar to tail. For once Mendoza suppressed his indignation, but told him ‘he might be assured I should not readily forget it, and that . . . the time would come, when it would be in my power to requite him’.

The showdown

Mendoza’s defeat of Tyne set up his 1787 match with the Bath Butcher, a leading contender. After that, patrons poured in, providing unimagined cash. London Jews basked in his prestige. Mendoza married, opened a boxing academy in Capel Court, published a manual on The Art of Boxing and promised his wife that there would be no more prize-fights. Subject to one exception: Humphreys.

Humphreys, though, was no ordinary bruiser. He too had defeated the Butcher, in a tremendous three-quarter of an hour mill at Newmarket in May 1786 in front of the Prince, the Duke of York and the Duc d’Orléans, with £40,000 in bets hanging on the result. Though only of medium size, Humphreys was strong, athletic and a murderous hitter, targeting particularly the stomach and neck below the ear. He was a popular figure among the Fancy, intelligent, sober, urbane and courteous (at least when gentlefolk were around) and his personality had done much to popularize pugilism. His impressive, graceful boxing skills were backed by a cool confidence.

The first punches in what was to be a three-year campaign weren’t even thrown in a ring. On the way to Harlow for the annual fair, Mendoza encountered Humphreys in an Epping inn-yard, Humphreys apparently getting a black eye before peace officers arrived to break it up. That settled nothing. They would fight, it was agreed, for a 400-guinea stake on 9 January 1788 at Odiham in Hampshire.

Mendoza was lucky to be in any state to fight. Walking in Vauxhall Gardens late in 1787 with his pregnant wife, brother-in-law and a friend, he was mysteriously attacked by 20 cudgel-armed thugs, who included Tyne. A desperate battle ensued and Mendoza had been badly battered before the arrival of peace officers put the attackers to flight.

Dawn on the day of the prize-fight saw rivers of motley spectators converging on the roads towards Odiham: ‘Description falls short of portraying the anxiety which prevailed upon the decision of this grand set-to, both in town and country,’ wrote Pierce Egan. ‘No sporting kid that could muster the blunt was absent, distance was out of the question and money was no object.’

A 24-foot roped stage had been erected inside a paddock to which entry was half a guinea, the gate guarded by shillalee-armed pugilists. ‘But as the time drew near,’ Egan recounted,

John Bull’s anxiety increased beyond every other thought, and with one desperate effort, like a mighty flood, swept all before it that the door keepers were soon lost by the violence of the torrent, and thousands never gave themselves any trouble as to the expense of admission.

When Humphreys and Mendoza mounted the rain-wet stage shortly after 1pm, an awful silence descended. Humphreys was fancily attired, Mendoza, a 3-2 underdog, plain and neat. Each saluted the crowd and stripped to the waist. Mendoza handed his shirt to Jacobs, his second. The 29 minutes that followed featured – according to Egan – ‘more skill and science were displayed than had been shown in any match hitherto in England . . . nor more money depending on its termination’. East End Jews were reckoned to have had more than £50,000 (about £20 million in modern terms) riding on Mendoza, who arrived with two homing pigeons – one white, one black – to carry news of his victory or defeat back to London.

Elegant, scientific sparring and parrying commenced the action, both men firm and composed, until Mendoza slipped and fell on his back. Mendoza then knocked Humphreys down to end the second and ended the third by throwing him. The next four rounds all terminated in Mendoza’s favour and, after 20 minutes, he was 5-2 favourite. ‘The Jews sported their cash freely as the Christian, it was supposed, must soon be vanquished,’ Egan reported. ‘But Humphreys’ friends took the odds greedily . . .’

Then Mendoza knocked Humphreys sprawling and, as he sagged against the rail, aimed a blow that, Egan noted, ‘would have stove Humphreys’ ribs in’ – only for Humphreys’s second, Johnson, to grab his arm. It should have been a disqualification, but Moravia, Mendoza’s umpire, raised no complaint. Mendoza later learned that he had bet on Humphreys.

Humphreys, having gone down from another blow, then stretched out his 30-second break by unbuckling his shoes, complaining of their tightness and lack of grip. In sock soles, his balance improved. And then – Mendoza, mistiming a throw, fell heavily on his head, cutting his forehead and smashing his nose. He was in desperate trouble. ‘But the Jew’s pluck was good,’ Egan reported, ‘and in the next round gave Humphreys a prime facer.’

Humphreys, though, was not to be denied. He slammed a fist hard into Mendoza’s groin, followed by another on the neck, and the reeling Mendoza fell with his leg under him, spraining his ankle. He staggered up. Barely able to stand or breathe, he was flung crashing to the boards, where he passed out.

As Mendoza’s black pigeon was released from its wicker cage, Humphreys penned a laconic note to an absent patron: ‘Sir, I have done the Jew, and am in good health. Richard Humphreys.’

Although defeated, Mendoza’s fame and reputation soared. Scarcely a market town print shop was without coloured prints of the two fighters. Stage plays and popular songs alluded to their exploits. As Egan put it: ‘They rose up like a new feature of the times.’ And the arm-grab incident was soon immortalized in a print entitled: ‘Foul Play, or Humphreys and Johnson a Match for Mendoza’.

Although Humphreys’s patience, cunning and ring-craft had prevailed, experts reckoned Mendoza the master in speed, close fighting and throwing. Scores of wealthy clients flocked to him for lessons. He enjoyed lucrative runs on the stage at Covent Garden and at the Strand’s Lyceum.

Egan later reckoned that this fight, above all others, spawned the era of Regency boximania:

Boxing became fashionable, followed, patronised, and encouraged. Shows and schools were established and the science of self-defence considered as a necessary requisite of all Englishmen.

The re-match

The public wanted a re-match. But Mendoza had been badly injured. Illness and grief at the death of his first child added to his misery. Humphreys baited him at every turn. In July 1788, he gate-crashed Mendoza’s Capel Court academy and insulted him in front of his clients. Mendoza had to bear it with all the dignity he could muster: any hint of affray and the magistrates would close him down. In August, Humphreys wrote to the papers calling him a coward.

In November, however, Mendoza and Humphreys finally agreed terms. The re-match took place on 6 May 1789 in a 3,000-seat amphitheatre in a private park in Huntingdonshire. Mendoza – who normally had little appetite for training – worked hard at refining and perfecting his innovative techniques. And this time, he brought the reliable Sir Thomas Ap Rhys as his umpire.

Mendoza’s confidence showed from the start. He countered Humphreys’s violent body-blows with neat, scientific stops and rapier-swift jabs and rights. Such phenomenal, systematic skill had never been seen before. For 40 minutes Mendoza held the advantage, fielding Humphreys’s thudding blows on his arms and then knocking him down, or throwing him.

In the 22nd round, Humphreys went down from a blow he blocked with his arm. The match articles had specified that falling without a scoring blow – a tactic sometimes used to avoid punishment and steal extra recovery time – would be grounds for disqualification. Cries of ‘Foul!’ echoed round the stage. The seconds and umpires argued violently and for 20 minutes confusion reigned, while Humphreys threw up his hat in defiance and goaded Mendoza to continue.

Rather than see the fight end in a farcical ‘no contest’, Mendoza agreed to go on. Humphreys, soon absorbing some tremendous punches, may have regretted encouraging him. Several times, Mendoza dropped his guard and viewed the black- and blue-faced Humphreys with a look of derision, or mocked him as he struggled up from the floor. In the 52nd round, retreating, spitting blood, his forehead and lip horribly lacerated, one eye completely closed, Humphreys finally collapsed.

Mendoza had achieved something no one expected. Brute strength and endurance had always been considered the key factors in prize-fighting. But in developing the principles of balance, footwork, defence, jabbing, countering and power-punching into an organic system, Mendoza had made speed and craft decisive, and opened up a new era in boxing. ‘No pugilist whatever,’ wrote Egan, ‘ever so completely elucidated . . . the principles of boxing’.

Some diehards criticized the ‘Mendoza School’ or ‘Jewish School’ of intelligent boxing as ‘unmanly’. They might as well have denounced gunpowder.

Mendoza, barely marked, left the stage to cheers of ‘Mendoza forever’, a chest of money in his arms. He was still carrying it late that night, when he fell neck-deep into a slurry-pit on the way home from his celebration party and had to be extricated by rope.

The decider

Humphreys – whose defeat had cost his backers dear – was soon writing to the papers to blame his defeat on temporary rheumatism. Again he challenged Mendoza – who by then was appearing at a theatre in Manchester at 25 guineas a night. After another unedifying public correspondence, the deciding battle was fought at Doncaster on 29 September 1790, in a large inn-yard, enclosed by houses, the River Don and a strong fence. Five hundred tickets were sold at half a guinea each. Hundreds more gate-crashed or watched from the rigging of ships.

Mendoza had gained bulk and, at 160 lbs, looked hugely muscular. Humphreys had trimmed down for speed. At first, Humphreys attacked pell-mell – though to little effect:

The combatants, aware of each other’s excellence, began to think a little of what they were about [recounts Egan]. It was stop for stop, blow for hit, for some time, when an opportunity offering, Mendoza concluded the third round by knocking down Humphreys.

In the 5th round, Humphreys ventured a tremendous stomacher. Mendoza stopped it, returning a crushing facer – and Humphreys began to fall apart. Mendoza hit him almost at will. To underline his superiority, Mendoza dragged out the affair. Three times, he had Humphreys completely helpless, only to lower him gently to the deck. Humphreys gamely struggled on, despite a ripped nose, closed eye, cut forehead and split upper lip. After 72 rounds and an hour and 13 minutes, his friends finally carried the spent Humphreys away for medical assistance.

Before Humphreys left, though, Mendoza – himself far from unscathed – shook his hand. Blood and sweat had washed away their resentments. By the end of the decade, Mendoza’s great rival was dead of consumption. In 1806, Mendoza wrote of him:

His general conduct and demeanour . . . reflected great credit on him, and deservedly gained him the esteem of the public . . . I feel a satisfaction in rendering this justice to the memory of a powerful though unsuccessful opponent.

The wandering star

Late in 1790 Mendoza set off on a triumphant, nine-month tour through the North of England and Scotland. He had refined pugilism to a previously unimagined degree of science. Northerners had read the reports; now they wanted to see. In Edinburgh, the Gymnastic Society presented him with a gold medal. Then on to Glasgow, where he was awakened one night in tenement lodgings by the sound of his sparring partner, Fewterell, being assailed by a gang of robbers in the alleyway below. Mendoza, ever resourceful, dealt with matters by heaving a table over the windowsill and letting gravity do the rest . . .

In Dublin, he performed at Astley’s amphitheatre at Peters Street. He was a sensation, though his notoriety brought continual danger. One young blowhard challenged him to a duel. Mendoza, handed the pistols to make his choice, disabled them and, when subjected to further abuse, ‘in the public room of the hotel, and in the presence of the whole company, gave him a severe caning’. Threatening letters and ambushes by gangs were so frequent in Dublin that Mendoza took to returning from the theatre in disguise: ‘The ferocious conduct if the lower orders of the Irish, I had frequent opportunities of observing . . .’

Via Belfast, Edinburgh (again) and Liverpool, Mendoza finally returned to London early in 1791 and opened a self-defence academy at the Lyceum. Thousands were ready to take lessons. By 1791, boxing had become a national craze. Knowledge of how to spar and fight was an essential skill for any gentleman who wanted to be part of the fashionable world. Pugilism fitted the spirit of the times. Effeminacy was ridiculed. Stoic courage – or ‘bottom’ – was what counted. England was at war with France and in real fear of invasion. Pugilism was still illegal. But by supporting it, many believed, they were supporting the manly virtues that would save their country.

Champion of England

In 1791, big Ben Brain beat Tom Johnson to become Champion of England. Much injured in the process, Brain promptly retired. Mendoza publicly laid claim to the title.

Disputing this claim was Bill Ward of Bristol. Again there was bad blood. Mendoza had hired Ward to assist him at the Lyceum but, finding him uncouth and untidy, had sacked him. Ward, a big man of immense strength, had served three months in Newgate for manslaughter: he’d killed a blacksmith named Swaine with a single body blow in a pub fight. When the 14-stone Johnson was Champion, Ward had fought him to a draw.

After two dates thwarted by magistrates, Mendoza and Ward finally met at Smitham-Bottom near Croydon on 14 May 1792, the summer that saw the storming of the Tuileries and the arrest of Louis XVI. ‘The road from London . . . beggared all description,’ wrote Egan. ‘Pedestrians out of number and vehicles of every quality were seen in rapid motion, eager to arrive at the destined spot.’

At half past one the combatants mounted the stage. ‘I well recollect being asked, at the commencement of the contest, whether I had brought my coffin with me,’ wrote Mendoza 14 years later. Ward was certainly dangerous – and 7 to 4 favourite. But Mendoza knew his style and saw weaknesses.

For the first eight rounds Ward tore into Mendoza like a bull. In the 14th, Mendoza took a shuddering punch on the jaw that knocked him off his legs like a shuttlecock. But then Mendoza launched his attack, resolutely forcing Ward back and landing a knock-down blow. His superior boxing quickly turned the tide and, though Ward continued swinging hard, Mendoza levelled him in every round. Mendoza’s excellence, Egan wrote,

was so superior it was like a diamond in contact with paste . . . the scientific Bill, who knew how to win better than any other man in the kingdom . . . with Mendoza was put to a stand-still.

By the 23rd, the battered Ward had to be carried away – and, along with him, the national stereotype of Jews as old-clothes dealers and usurers. Mendoza the Jew, all 5’ 7” of him, was Champion of England.

‘The name of Mendoza . . . resounded from one part of the Kingdom to the other,’ wrote Egan, ‘and [his] fame . . . was the theme of universal panegyric.’ Mendoza ‘so far interested the Christian that, in spite of his prejudices, he was compelled to exclaim – “Mendoza was a pugilist of no ordinary merit!”’

An introduction to King George III followed. The King, apparently, had never met a Jew before.

I had a long conversation with His Majesty, who made many ingenious remarks on the pugilistic art . . . the Princess Royal brought one of the younger branches of the royal family to me, and asked my permission . . . for this young gentleman to strike me a blow.

Ward, hoping to regain his laurels, beat a fighter called Stanyard and secured a re-match with Mendoza on Bexley Common in November 1794. Again, Ward was the aggressor in the early rounds, though Mendoza calmly sidestepped or neatly parried all his blows – and presently, Egan reported, began returning

such tremendous blows so instantaneously that Ward was disposed of in the short space of 15 minutes! Ward, who had hitherto been looked on as a hero, was rendered . . . insignificant, by comparison.

Mendoza hardly broke sweat.

It should have been Mendoza’s final, crowning triumph before a prosperous retirement from the ring. But, as we shall see, that was not to be his fate.

The wheel of fortune

Fame and dissolute company had lured Mendoza into a spendthrift lifestyle. ‘Having, from the nature of my profession, formed connections with persons of larger incomes,’ he wrote, ‘I had frequently been led into costly and extravagant pursuits.’ The winnings from the Ward fights were insufficient to satisfy a lengthening list of creditors. He was renting a large house and had a fast-growing family, but an illness left him unable to attend to his subscribers. Soon his finances were completely deranged. In 1793 he was forced to remain in the King’s Bench prison until he could settle with his creditors.

By the following year he had procured his release and opened a candle and lighting oil shop, but lack of capital soon sank that venture. So he became a recruiting Sergeant for the Fifeshire Fencibles and then, in early 1795, for the Aberdeen Fencibles. His fists were seldom idle for long, though. While hunting down deserters, he took time out to beat up an obstreperous turnpike-keeper.

The real money, however, was in the ring. Prize-fighting was a lethal business: Ben Brain, Mendoza’s immediate predecessor as Champion, was dead by 1794; Johnson, having blown his fortune within a year of losing to Brain, would be dead by 1797. But, then as now, quitting while ahead was easier said than done.

On 15 April 1795 Mendoza, by then 30, met the 26 year-old John Jackson on a stage at Hornchurch in Essex for 200 guineas a side. To modern eyes, it was a middleweight against a heavyweight. Jackson was 6’ and weighed 195 lbs. So magnificent was Jackson’s physique, he later sat as the model for Thomas Lawrence’s 14’ high painting ‘Satan Summoning His Legions’. His favourite party trick was to write his name on a wall with an 84lb weight suspended from his little finger.

Mendoza was the betting favourite. He had beaten big men before. But Jackson had skill and athleticism as well as raw strength. In June 1788, in front of the Prince, he had beaten the 230 lb Fewterell. After breaking his ankle in a subsequent match, Jackson had been out of the prize-ring for six years. But he had an eye for the main chance and saw the possibilities opened by Mendoza’s rise to fame.

In the 1st round, wrote Egan, ‘a fine display of the art was witnessed . . . the amateurs experiencing a rich treat in the development of the science in all its characteristic minutiae’.

But, one minute in, Jackson put in a tremendous hit that laid Mendoza flat. Coming up to scratch, ‘Mendoza showed the advantage of the science to perfection, by stopping the blows . . . with great neatness, and in returning several good hits.’ By the 3rd, they were ‘both on the alert and pelting away without ceremony’. Jackson put in several hits, Mendoza returning the compliment, but finally went down again. Still, people knew Mendoza’s resources: the odds rose to 2 to 1 in his favour.

In the 4th came the heat of the battle. ‘Fear was out of the question, and the combatants lost to everything but victory.’ Jackson marched in confidently, ‘treating the science of Mendoza with indifference and punishing him most terribly’. Mendoza fell from a severe blow upon the right eye, which bled profusely. Then, in the 5th round, came the turning point: Jackson grabbed Mendoza by his long hair, ‘serving him out in that defenceless state’ till he fell semi-conscious to the ground.

Mendoza’s friends appealed to the umpires, but the tactic was deemed legitimate – and the battle continued, the odds now 2 to 1 on Jackson. The reeling Mendoza tried to fight on the defensive to recover his strength. But he could make no headway way against Jackson, who

appeared in full vigour, and hit away his man with great ease. Dan suffered considerably, and after falling completely exhausted acknowledged he had done. The above contest for the time it continued (ten and a half minutes) was never exceeded in point of severity.

In his Memoirs, Mendoza has just four words on the fight: it ‘terminated in Jackson’s favour’. But he long resented the manner of his defeat. In 1802 his feelings burst forth. Challenged by Jem Belcher, he said the only person he was interested in fighting was Jackson, for 100 guineas a side, provided he would not take the ‘unmanly and cowardly’ advantage of holding his hair. A hot-tempered exchange of letters in the papers ensued, Mendoza revealing that he’d visited Jackson soon after their first fight to demand a rematch. Jackson, he said, had agreed to fight again for 200 guineas: ‘and upon that sum being procured, declined fighting under five hundred guineas!! Here was courage! Here was consistency! Here was bottom!’

Jackson, however, was a canny man. He used his title-winning defeat of Mendoza combined with his striking natural dignity as a springboard into society, enjoying a long and lucrative career as ‘Gentleman Jackson’, boxing instructor, national celebrity and respected arbiter on all sporting matters. Before long, more than a third of the peerage, the young Lord Byron included, were training at Jackson’s Rooms at 13 Bond Street. Along with the Fives Court off Jermyn Street, where public sparring shows took place, Jackson’s Rooms became the epicentre of fashionable London.

Even Mendoza eventually made his peace with Jackson. They became great friends and Mendoza wrote in his Memoirs: ‘I hope and trust we shall ever continue so.’

Hunted across the kingdom

While Jackson’s fortunes waxed, Mendoza’s were waning. He gained employment as a contracted Sheriff’s Officer, using his cunning to catch dangerous villains and elusive debtors. Disguising himself as the milkman to capture one desperate character, he had to wrench a loaded blunderbuss from his quarry’s hands – then turn it on him as the man went for his pistols. He captured a well-known and hugely indebted society courtesan by disguising himself as a Colonel. She remarked that

as her servant had made the unfortunate blunder of mistaking me for a gentleman, it was too late to repair the mischief, and therefore she supposed she must accompany me.

Further commissions poured in from every quarter. But although Mendoza had a talent for the work, he detested it. No money, he wrote, was enough to compensate for having to tear husband from wife, father from children, or seize a family’s only bed, for hearing ‘at every turn the curses of the unfortunate’ – particularly when some were old friends and patrons.

So, late in 1796, he set off on tour again, through the West Country, Wales and the North-West. 1798 brought him to York, Hedon, Peterborough and Leicester. Between the recitations, jugglers and comic songs he would ‘exhibit the attitudes and manner of setting-to of Big Ben Johnson, Broughton, Perrins and Humphreys and . . . conclude with my own original attitude’.

In 1799, still assailed by debts, he toured Lincolnshire and the North of England. Travelling was expensive and wherever his posters went up bailiffs came looking for him with writs and arrest warrants, so performances took place at short notice and cancellations were frequent. They finally caught up with him in Carlisle where, for a debt contracted with a Hull wine merchant, he was held in jail for six months, subsisting on support from two local Masonic lodges, until his creditor finally agreed to accept two guineas a month.

Released, he rapidly walked 30 miles to Hexham, where he took up with travelling players. The spring of 1800 found him back in Edinburgh, where Fletcher Reid, his one-time patron and an influential figure in the Fancy, encouraged him to take a match with Jem Belcher, the latest rising star. Mendoza was 37 and had been out of the prize ring for five years. But with Jackson retired, the throne was vacant and Reid, like many, wanted Mendoza to reclaim the crown. The winner would take nine-tenths of a 600-guinea stake. By August, Reid had talked Mendoza round. Even 60 guineas was a professional man’s annual wage. The fight was arranged for 1 October.

On arriving home on 24 September, Mendoza found his family in dire straights, his house stripped of furniture. But to make matters worse, talk had preceded Mendoza’s arrival. With Napoleon threatening and insurrection brewing in Ireland, the King had a week earlier issued a proclamation specifically forbidding all ‘riots and tumults’. On his second night home, the Bow Street Runners descended. Frog-marched to Bow Street Police Court, Mendoza was bound over to keep the peace. The Belcher fight was sunk.

With a wife and six children to support, Mendoza set to work rebuilding his private clientele. Belcher later issued a fresh challenge, but this time Mendoza was not to be had, insisting that he had done with fighting. Instead he gained the license of the Lord Nelson pub in Whitechapel, which was a success – until yet more past creditors descended and he was consigned to the King’s Bench once again.

Most of my readers [he wrote] have probably been present at the representation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; have execrated the hard-hearted Shylock, and commiserated the unfortunate Antonio: but here the scene was reversed; the Christian was the unfeeling persecutor - the Jew the unfortunate debtor.

He remained imprisoned until discharged by an Act of Parliament for the relief of insolvent debtors in October 1805.

On 21 March 1806, though, following another published correspondence, he set to with his former associate Harry Lee, who had seconded him for the Jackson bout. Although a public prize-fight, the motivation seems to have been more personal than commercial. Mendoza claimed to have bailed Lee out of jail, only for Lee to repudiate the debt. They met at Grimstead Green in Kent for 50 guineas. Mendoza, though nearly 42, gave Lee a vindictive, one-sided beating lasting 53 rounds and an hour and ten minutes.

But his prime was past. Writing his Memoirs the following winter, Mendoza said that his time was chiefly devoted to teaching gentlemen: ‘My determination to engage in no more fixed battles, is now unalterably fixed. No consideration shall ever induce me to change this resolution.’

An elder statesman

Daniel Mendoza finally settled down as landlord of the Royal Oak in Whitechapel Road and became one of the elder statesmen of the Fancy, coaching, seconding and inspiring a new generation of Jewish prize-fighters aiming to fight their way out of East End drudgery: Youssop, Marten, Abraham da Costa, Isaac Mousha, Abraham Belasco, Isaac Bitton, Elisha Crabbe, Isaac Pick – and above all the brilliant, hard-hitting ‘Dutch Sam’ Elias, who though little above nine stone achieved prize-ring triumphs to rival even Mendoza’s.

Yet Mendoza’s own fighting days were not quite over. In July 1820, to settle an argument, he met Tom Owens – a Hampshire innkeeper of prodigious strength – at Banstead Downs. Owens, who had invented the dumb-bell, had claimed the title of Champion in 1796 after defeating a fighter named Hooper, but had not been recognized. Mendoza would have hoped for a return to the glory days. His reflexes gone, however, the 56-year-old ‘Star of Israel’ lost in twelve rounds.

By the time Daniel Mendoza died, on 3 September 1836 in Petticoat Lane, times and values were changing. Princess Victoria was nine months from the throne, the Regency Fancy were mostly skeletons in early graves and the old prize ring they loved – having reached its zenith in the decade between Trafalgar and Waterloo – was by then in almost equal decay. Mendoza left no money and 11 children registered at Bevis Marks synagogue. Their own children were born into a more civilized country than their grandfather had known – an industrialized Britain of railways and steamships, full of opportunity for the sober, literate and hardworking. One of Daniel Mendoza’s descendants – Rufus Daniel Isaacs, born 1860 – went on to become Lord Chief Justice and 1st Marquess of Reading.

Another was the actor Peter Sellers, to whom he provided a perverse source of inspiration. Sellers, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mendoza, used his great-great-grandfather’s engraved image as a logo. It seems likely that the painful physical comedy of Cato’s surprise attacks on Inspector Clouseau – which Sellers so relished – owed a good deal to Mendoza’s tales of violent misadventure in the England of three lifetimes before.

Peter Joy is a freelance journalist. He learned to box while studying History degree at Cambridge and had 33 amateur bouts before retiring from the ring in 2003. He is now organizing the landmark 100th Cambridge versus Oxford Varsity Boxing Match, scheduled for the York Hall, Bethnal Green, on 8 March 2007 – and seeking commercial sponsorship (

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