Daniel Mendoza: Is Bigger Always Better?

By Robert Ecksel on December 23, 2011
Daniel Mendoza: Is Bigger Always Better?
Mendoza reigned as the 16th champion of the London Prize Ring from 1792 to 1795

‘No pugilist has ever so completely elucidated, or promulgated, the principles of boxing as Daniel Mendoza…’

“The bigger they are the harder they fall.”—Joe Walcott (The Barbados Demon)

We live in a world where bigger is better. A bigger house, bigger car, bigger ego, and bigger mouth are hallmarks of a man’s worth. And if someone of small abode, small transport, small ego and few words doesn’t like it, too bad for him. What he needs are bigger balls.

The bigger is better paradigm, which is a gross oversimplification, applies not only to dreams of supremacy, but to the fight game as well. The heavyweight division, for example, used to be called boxing’s marquee division, not because the fighters were better, but because they were bigger.

Before boxing civilized itself, assuming boxing has civilized itself, the sport was as rough-and-tumble as could be.

The London Prize Ring Rules of 1743—which introduced the referee and forbid gouging and kicking a man when he was down—while permitting biting, butting, and pulling hair—were in effect when Daniel Mendoza was born in the Aldgate district on London on July 15, 1764.

There were no weight classes in those days. Mendoza, at five-seven and 160 lbs., would be a middleweight by today’s standards. But the “father of scientific boxing,” in lieu of size, used speed, cunning, guile, defense, a smart jab and impeccable footwork to reign as the 16th champion of the London Prize Ring from 1792 to 1795, the modern-day equivalent of being heavyweight champion of the world.

Mendoza’s career lasted almost four decades. He had his first professional fight at the age of 19 and his last fight when he was 56. And while record-keeping, like the newly resurrected sport of boxing, was in its infancy, Mendoza the Jew allegedly fought 35 times with only four losses.

Mendoza learned to use his fists at an early age. He apprenticed to a glazier when he was 13, but got fired for beating up his boss’ son. He subsequently worked in a tea room and got into an argument with an obnoxious customer. They decided to take it outside to settle their differences.

As luck would have it, while the 16-year-old Mendoza was getting ready to fight, Richard Humphries, known as The Gentleman Boxer, strolled by. Humphries was a celebrated fistician who ran a well-known boxing academy, and he offered to second Mendoza. After Mendoza dropped his opponent 12 times in 15 minutes, Humphries declared, “Egad! A likely one you are.”

Humphries had found a protégé, Mendoza had found a mentor, and the old pro began teaching the young gun the “manly art of self defense.”

Mendoza’s first professional fight was on Mile End Road in 1784 against Harry the Coalheaver. After 40 minutes, poor Harry was done. Mendoza won five guineas for his efforts, and earned the moniker “The Light of Israel,” which he proudly carried for all his days.

Mendoza won his next 17 bouts, before losing to Tom Tyne in 1786, in a fight that lasted an hour and a half. They fought a rematch seven months later that put Mendoza back on the winning track. On April 17, 1787, Mendoza defeated Samuel Martin, better known as the Bath Butcher, in 26 minutes. The Prince of Wales was in the crowd that afternoon and awarded Mendoza the lordly sum off 500 pounds—much to the consternation of Richard Humphries.

Call it Oedipal, call it what you will, but it was only a matter of time before there was a falling out between Humphries and his pupil. One day the two men exchanged words at the Cock Tavern in Epping Forest. They wanted to fight then and there, but the police wouldn’t hear of it. So Mendoza and Humphries agreed to meet four months later, to determine who the better man was.

Mendoza fought Humphries on a rainy Jan. 8, 1788, in Odiham, Hampshire. Despite the inclement conditions, it was a good fight while it lasted. But Mendoza slipped on the wet planks in the 29th minute and sprained his ankle so severely that he could not continue. A gloating Humphries wrote to his patron Mr. Bradyl, “Sir, I have done the Jew and am in good health.”

Then as now, one good fight deserves another, so Mendoza and Humphries met a second time, on May 6, 1789, at Stilton, Huntingdonshire. Humphries taunted Mendoza throughout the fight, but it didn’t do him much good. Mendoza was too much for the old bruiser, who collapsed from exhaustion in the 65th round after 50 minutes of action.

Defeating Humphries was no mean feat and Mendoza’s fame spread far and wide. That same year he wrote and published “The Art of Boxing,” giving birth to what became known as the Mendoza School (or Jewish School), a novel form of boxing where brains in effect supplanted brawn.

After traveling to Ireland for a tune-up, where he defeated Squire Fitzgerald in 20 minutes, Mendoza fought Humphries a third time. The rubber match was held on Sept. 29, 1790. Mendoza was the 5-to-4 favorite going in, yet he needed just 15 minutes to finish off his rival. As Pierce Egan wrote in “Boxiana” (1812), ‘Mendoza, in conquering so noble and distinguished a competitor, added considerable fame to his pugilistic achievements.’

Four months after Mendoza’s fight with Humphries, the reigning champion Ben Brain retired. Mendoza was in the mix. He met Bill Warr at Smitham Bottom on May 14, 1792. After 26 minutes of fighting he was declared undisputed champion of the London Prize Ring, ‘and his scientific excellence was generally acknowledged.’

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and the new champion Mendoza began living beyond his means. He figured, wrongly as it turned out, that he’d be on top forever. After touring Scotland and Ireland, he succeeded in racking up enough debt to land himself in debtor’s prison.

When Mendoza was released, he resumed his calling. He fought Bill Warr a second time, on Nov. 12, 1794. Then on April 15, 1795, he met the 5-foot-11 “Gentleman” John Jackson (described by Lord Byron as the “finest formed man in Europe”). Jackson was five years younger than Mendoza. He had advantages in height, weight and reach. But because he had only two professional fights to his credit, Jackson was a 10-to-1 underdog.

Mendoza won the first four rounds, but a misstep in the fifth turned the tide in Jackson’s favor. Mendoza moved toward Jackson to throw a right to the body, when Gentleman John grabbed Mendoza by the hair and began pummeling him with uppercuts. Although Mendoza was hurt and bleeding profusely, he fought for a long as he could, before being KO’d in round nine after 10 and a half minutes of fighting.

Jackson announced his retirement after the win, as did Mendoza. Mendoza toured England and Scotland as an actor and boxing instructor, before he decided to enter the wine trade. While he had a head for boxing, he had no head for numbers, and Mendoza incurred more debt and was thrown in debtor’s prison a second time.

After his release, and in need of money, Mendoza, at the age of 42, resumed his boxing career on March 21, 1806, against Henry Lee. Mendoza might have been an old former champion inclined to live beyond his means, but he had enough to defeat Henry Lee, although not without difficulty, in 53 rounds.

Mendoza retired again and opened a tavern in Whitechapel called Admiral Nelson. But old habits die hard. Still accruing debt—having a wife and 11 children didn’t help—Mendoza was in and out of jail several more times.

In 1816 Mendoza published his autobiography, “The Memoirs of Daniel Mendoza,” to great acclaim.

On July 4, 1820, one day shy of his 57th birthday, Mendoza fought a final time, against 51-year-old Tom Owen in a losing effort.

That same year Mendoza said, “I think I have the right to call myself the father of science, for it is well known that prize fighting lay dormant for several years. It was myself and Humphries who revived it in our three contests for supremacy, and the science of pugilism has been patronized ever since.”

Daniel Mendoza died penniless, but with his legacy intact, on Sept. 3, 1836. According to Pierce Egan, ‘No pugilist whatever, since the time of Broughton, (or even Broughton himself) has ever so completely elucidated, or promulgated, the principles of boxing as Daniel Mendoza.’

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  1. Lionel Mendoza 02:51am, 12/20/2016

    As a descendent of Daniel Mendoza (with a son named after him) I am always interested in purchasing genuine memorabilia directly connected to the famous pugilist. I currently have a number of tokens (illegally minted coins) celebrating Mendoza as well as a first edition of his much heralded book on the science of boxing.
    There is currently talk of a Hollywood-type film of his life and the contribution he made not only to fighting in the ring but the then social order which he managed to transcend with great effect opening the way for a wider acceptance of religious minorities, quite a feat for the times.

  2. Iron Beach 12:52pm, 12/23/2011

    I so enjoy these articles about the pioneers of pugilism and this one is especially entertaining, please make them a regular feature. Thanks!

  3. FrankinDallas 11:34am, 12/23/2011

    described by Lord Byron as the “finest formed man in Europe”...Egad, Byron!

    Nice article…thanks.

  4. boxingjones 09:52am, 12/23/2011

    “The Heavyweight Champion” by Nat Fleischer is a great book on the subject. I picked it up at a book store in Cooperstown, NY for $6.50 a few months ago.

  5. PitBull Petrill 07:14am, 12/23/2011

    Robert: Great article! The bareknuckle era was the beginning of the sport we love today and Daniel Mendoza was a true pioneer. He was the first man to employ a scientific approach to the game and influenced men such as Corbett who in turn influneced Johnson and Tunney. The rest as they say is history.

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