Click to Subscribe
▶  More from Ancient Combat When White Meant Might
‘The Most Terrible Ever Given’
When White Meant Might: The Punch of Henry “Game Chicken” Pearce


In late 1803, at the onset of winter, Henry Pearce was basking in the afterglow of victory. After coming to London from Bristol he had defeated Jem Belcher. Noted as ‘the Most Heroic Champion of England’ who fought Pearce blind in one eye. Pearce, while targeting the good eye, did decline to take some easy opportunities to maim Belcher, and was judged a man of fine character based on that mercy shown in the ring.

A man named Bourke, a stout fellow with the biggest heart and best chin in the game, whose “bottom” was never in question, was furious that Pearce was the recognized champion. While out shooting with various well-heeled amateurs, Bourke was encouraged to challenge the upstart named “Game Chicken.” Pearce was asleep in bed, at his lodging on Wardour Street in Soho, when he was awakened and told that he had been challenged to a fight.

Pearce the new “Bristol Youth” agreed while getting dressed. Word was sent out that a room in the hotel would be the scene of a trial of skill between the two and amateurs began flocking from around town to see the fight.

Between 11 and midnight the two fighters “set-to” and began to “mill.” Bourke was immediately found to be too slow, and too reliant on “round blows” or hooks, and became the object of the younger man’s skill and power.

Pearce owned a “special punch” which was a rising supine jab delivered to the base of the jaw elbow the ear or to the right eye. This type of jab rides over the solar plexus forearm guard favored in that era and admits the two large knuckles into the orbit of the eye, striking the eye ball directly. This is the most effective way to use the jab in a bare-knuckle setting.

Pearce was said to be exhibiting “science” or skill, while Bourke was famed for his “gluttony” which was to say his appetite for eating punches. The contest went 15 rounds over 20 minutes, with Bourke being knocked down 15 times, and then having 30 seconds to toe the line again after being attended by his seconds. These would have amounted to roughly 1 minute rounds. It is probable that half of Bourke’s trips to the floor where the taking of a knee to get some rest. Bourke’s was noted as weakening from Pearce’s blows, but had such a reputation for savagery that taking a faked fall would have been out of character in the extreme.

The amateur boxers gathered in the room were all agreed that two of Pearce’s punches were the hardest punches that had ever been thrown in the sport, and they were thrown with compact economy of motion. These would be straight right hands to the jaw or body. Bourke tried to guard against the sharp bows of Pearce but was repeatedly hit with combinations. Two of the punches landed by Pearce knocked Bourke flat, were he lay “as if dead.”

After 20 minutes, Bourke lay stretched out unconscious on the floor, which was a rare ending to such a fight, which was usually a matter of attrition sapping a man’s ability to continue through blindness or exhaustion. Although unable to articulate words after the fight, Bourke was able to indicate that he had never tasted such power before.

Bourke and Pearce then agreed to have a real proper fight on Wimbledon Common, on January 23, 1804, on turf, with many in attendance and money on the line.

This blow-by-blow fight will be the subject of the next entry in this series.

Add Comment