On my arrival in England on August 11, 1889, I immediately issued a challenge to Jem Smith, heavyweight champion of Great Britain. I also reiterated my challenge to Sullivan. Smith replied that he was willing to meet me under the London Prize Ring rules, but England forbade such fights, and the French let it be known that, should fighters be caught milling with bare fists, they would be put in gaol, and the keys of their dwelling place thrown away. Smith refused to enter the ring with gloves, and for a time it looked as though I would never have a chance to meet him. In October I was successful in making a match with Bill Goode, middleweight champion of Great Britain. We met in Ashley Theatre, London, and I won by a knockout in the fourth round.
The English boxing fans, who were dubious as to my ability prior to my knockout of Goode, now clamoured for a bout between Smith and myself. A number of prominent sportsmen announced their willingness to back me against any man in the world, and we finally got Smith cornered and signed for a fight. It was agreed that we should meet before Christmas under the London Prize Ring rules, at a place to be determined later. The side bet was fixed at £500 a side. This proved to be the last fight staged in the history of the London prize rules for championship honours. It is sometimes claimed that Sullivan and Jake Kilrain closed the old code, but they met near New Orleans on July 9, five months before Smith and I went into the ring. I had no idea as to where Smith and I would fight, but went ahead with my training, as I was anxious to win and thereby make still more convincing my claim for a bout with the world's champion.
It was out of the question to stage the fight in England. One representative from each side was sent to the Continent to find a suitable place for the fight. The representatives gave France a wide berth but traveled all over Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. They finally located an English man, named Grimshaw, who had an estate near Bruges, Belgium. The idea of the fight appealed to him, and he offered his estate as the scene of the conflict. The ring was to be pitched on the turf, and this meant that I would have to wear spiked shoes. The London prize rides allowed spikes three-eights of an inch long. I went to see Tom Healey, who was the finest bootmaker in England. He made boots for the leading jockeys and fighters, and it was fortunate for me that I gave him my business.
"I've just made a pair of boots for Smith," said Healey, after I had introduced myself and explained my needs.
"He's had inch spikes put in his."
"Inch spikes?" I gasped. "He'll never get away with that."
"Well, we won't take any chances," thoughtfully remarked Healey. "You're a newcomer here, and I'll try and help you along. I'll build you a pair of shoes that will turn off the spikes it he does try to jump on your toes."
A hitch occurred when the referee question came up, so it was left to the stakeholder Charlie Blacklock to name the third man in the ring. He picked Jim Vesie. It was 7 o'clock on December 23 when we entered the ring at the Grimshaw estate. It was just breaking day, and the air was very cold. There were no dressing rooms near the ring, and this made it necessary for us to undress at the house and walk to the ring in our trunks with overcoats slung about us. I hung my coat on a nearby apple tree. I had a gun in each pocket as a precaution. It was hard to tell what might happen at a fight of this kind, especially when I learned that Smith was bringing along a lot of roughnecks. The respective supporters sat behind the corners of the fighter they backed. In Smith's corner were 80 spectators, half of whom were Birmingham toughs, I was later to learn. They were brought along to see that Smith won under any conditions.
I had about half that number in my corner. They were all gentlemen, including the Earl of Lonsdale, Lord Manderville, Duke of Manchester, son of the Marquis of Queensberry, Hon. Michael Sands, Sir John Astley, Marquis of Aylesbury. Smith had representatives of some England's fine old noble families in his corner, but they deserted him not long after the fight had started in a protest against his crude tactics. Under the London rules no chairs were provided in the comers and the fighters sat on the knee of one their seconds.
"I'm going to have a look at the spikes in Smith's shoes," I said to the second on whose knee I was sitting.
I crossed the ring and picked up Smith's foot.
"Look here, this won't do," I protested. "These spikes are an inch long."
"Away with you." stormed Smith, as he lashed out with his foot.
The Birmingham toughs loosened a storm of verbal abuse at me.
"I'll get a file and file them down," I offered.
"Away," was all Smith said.
"I'll make no further protest," I coolly told Smith. "But I'll cut you to ribbons with these." I held up my two fists.
"Pooh," shot back Smith.
There was silence as we went to the centre of the ring for the first round. We had no sooner got moving than Smith made a stab for my foot with his spikes.
"You're wasting time doing that," I laughed as I danced clean.
The next instant he made a rush to catch me and wrestle. I cross-buttocked him and pitched him on his head. That ended the round, which lasted ten seconds. Smith had been led to believe that I was simply a glove fighter. The London Prize Rules, however, were not foreign to me as I had fought many bouts under them in Australia. Under these rules you were allowed to hit or catch a man above the belt. A knock down or a fall constituted a round.
In the second round Smith tried to punch me but I dropped him to the turf with a left uppercut in 15 seconds. Smith made a desperate attempt to spike me in the third round, and one of the keen spikes ripped through the side of my shoe and just missed my toe. I threw him and was so hostile at his unfair tactics that I pushed him off with my foot while on the ground. In doing so my spikes cut his thigh. Immediately there was a wild claim from Smith's supporters of "foul." The referee ignored the claim. I won the fourth and fifth rounds, and we went down together in the sixth for a "dog-fall." In the seventh I planted my right solidly on Smith's jaw and he dropped like a log. His seconds carried him to his corner. He came around inside the minute allowed under the rules. While Smith's seconds were reviving him the toughs in his corner became very offensive and began to crowd on the ropes and they cursed me. It was then that my seconds, experienced in the tactics of the Smith's party, informed me that I would never be allowed to win the fight. They would break down the ring first. It was at this stage of the fight that the best sports in Smith's corner shifted their seats and joined company with my supporters. Smith weathered the eighth and ninth rounds, taking a knock down in each case, but I could not hit him hard enough to put him down for keeps. In the tenth round I carried the fighting to Smith's corner and while hammering there I was clipped on the ear with a knuckle-duster. The blood rushed forth and a great cheer went up from Smith's supporters, who tried to convey the impression that Smith had injured me. That cut nearly proved disastrous to me. Blood poisoning set in, and I was taken to hospital for an operation. It was a month before I had fully recovered.
In the eleventh round I was twice hit on the head by heavy canes carried by Smith's toughs. Great bumps rose on my head. The bumps, however, only increased my determination to hit Smith so hard that he would sleep for an hour. I threw Smith to end the eleventh round. I thought I had nailed Smith with the necessary punch in the thirteenth round. My right lifted him off his feet and he fell a helpless heap on the turf. His seconds carried him to his corner, but could not revive him. They carried him from the ring. I waited for the referee to give me the decision. He gave no indication of doing so, so I asked: "What about it?"
"The police are coming." chorused the Smith toughs.
My supporters were not alarmed over the cry as everything had been satisfactorily fixed in that direction.
"Stay where you are and you win," quietly advised my supporters.
Five minutes elapsed and there was still no sign of Smith, so once again I went to the referee.
"What about it?" I queried again. "I win on two grounds. First, that Smith has been out more than a minute, and second, that Smith left the ring, which is not allowed by the rules."
No answer. Ten minutes after he had been carried from the ring Smith tottered back. I could not see the reason for Smith wishing to resume the fight, as he was still "out" on his feet. We started on the fourteenth round. Things happened quickly. Before I could get at Smith one corner of the ring was broken down by the Smith toughs. They were howling wild invectives at me.
"Kill the foreigner," they screamed.
It was not very nice to have myself termed a "foreigner" when I hailed from a part of the Empire. I made several lunges to finish Smith, but he was covered up completely, and when I got near his corner the canes were brought into play by the toughs again on various parts of my body. By this time I was mad enough to have fought the whole crowd, but discretion showed me how futile this would be.
It soon became impossible for the fight to continue. Referee Vesie put up his hand.
I waited for his announcement.
"A draw," he said.
"What?" I shouted, grabbing him by the shoulders at the same time.
"Listen here, young fellow. I don't want to stay here and see you killed and that's what those toughs will do," replied Vesie.
"Killed nothing,' I spluttered. "I've won this fight beyond question and want the decision. Look at my boots! They've been cut to shreds and if it hadn't been for the extra pieces of leather I had put in them my feet would have been badly lacerated. How about some fair play?"
I was furious.
"Give me my coat," I demanded of one my seconds.
"Here, take mine," he replied. "I'll get yours."
He knew I had the guns in my pocket and was not taking any chances, I was so hostile I might have committed a rash act.
There was much confusion as we left the ring, but, while disappointed at not winning the bout, I was quite gratified over the fact that I had thoroughly convinced my supporters of my ability. I returned to England to be greeted with great ceremony. The papers had carried the story of the fight and they all thought that I had been unfairly treated. The Pelican Club came out with a definite declaration that I had won. The club, the leading one in sporting circles in those days, took up my case and I was paid the stakes, and, as far as they were concerned, awarded the title of English champion. My boots were placed on exhibition and attracted no end of attention. There was not an inch of surface leather that was not ripped. Lord Lonsdale became the possessor of one of the boots, while George Piesse, the famous London perfume manufacturer, secured the other. I shall always feel grateful to Tom Healey for building me that pair of shoes, which were undoubtedly the finest I ever wore. Had I not possessed them I might have been crippled for life. The reception I received reached its height when I went to the London Sportsman's office to collect my stakes. The horses of the carriage in which I was riding were unhitched, and I was pulled to the Stock Exchange. There I was "chaired" by the members and carried through the Exchange, an honour accorded only Tom Sawyer and King Edward VII, as Prince of Wales, up to that time. Many silk hats were broken that day. My fight with Smith wrote finis to the London Prize Ring rules. I am glad it did, for fighting would never have come into popular favour had not the Marquis of Queensbery's rules replaced the barbaric code. The combination of boxing and wrestling, with every questionable tactic allowed, make fighting a cruel sport. Many of the fighters had in their excess baggage a party of toughs whose sole job was to break down the ring and stop the fight in case their man was losing. As a result most fights ended in a disagreement. I was glad it was my last experience with bare fists.
The Register (Adelaide, South Australia), March 19, 1926.