Hen Pearce the Game Chicken, champion, hero, drifter

BY Ed Schuyler ON February 11, 2007
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While pondering who among Pretty Boy Floyd, The Executioner, PacMan, the Pride of Wales or Magnifico should be Fighter of the Year for 2006, the nom de guerre of a fighter from the distant past popped into my mind. The Game Chicken would have been a cinch for the honor if there had been any boxing awards in 1805.

Henry Pearce was known as the Game Chicken because he liked to sign his name “Hen,” and he was as scrappy as a fighting cock in the pit. He was a champion of England back when gloves, called mufflers, were used for sparring, but bare fists were used for fighting.

I was introduced to the Game Chicken by Pierce Egan, the greatest boxing writer ever, in Egan’s essay on the fighter printed in the London Folio Society’s 1976 book, “Boxiana,” comprised of selections taken from Egan’s five-volume, “Boxiana,” collections of his boxing journalism published from 1812 to1829.

“It might be said of the Game Chicken, that he was not only a favourite, but a pupil of Nature—who, in giving him a fine athletic form, strength and agility, had finely tempered those rare requisites with the most manly courage and sublime feeling—and, if ever greatness of soul raised the character of man, or humanity shone resplendent in the breast of a human being, a purer claim to those inestimable qualities were never witnessed, than  that of Henry Pearce,” Egan wrote.

Whew!

The Game Chicken apparently stood about 5-foot-9 and weighed 175 pounds, or as the Brits would say, 12 stone, 7 pounds.

“His pretensions as a pugilist stand upon a proud eminence that few, indeed, can ever expect to attain,” Egan wrote.

From 1803 through 1805, Pearce won all eight of his fights, and in his last match he became champion of England by beating Jem Belcher in 18 rounds.

After winning the title, the Game Chicken retired, and two years later he became a hero outside boxing. A servant girl was trapped in the attic of a burning house in Bristol. Suddenly, it was the Game Chicken to the rescue. He climbed to the top of an adjoining building, reached over the parapet and drew the girl to safety. Also in 1807, Pearce came to the aid of a damsel in distress and beat up three men, who were insulting her and had dastardly deeds in mind.

Henry Pearce, champion, hero. . .  and eventually a drifter.

“The Chicken, it appears, during his residence in the Metropolis (London), had made rather too free with his constitution,” Egan wrote, “yet we have authority for observing that it originated more from circumstances and place, than sheer inclination. In company with sporting men frequently, he poured down copious libations at the shrine of Bacchus, added to the fond caresses of the softer sex—among whom he was a most distinguished favourite—that his health became impaired . . .”

Pearce contracted tuberculosis and died in his native Bristol at age 32 in 1809.

As a boy Pearce fought in contests set up by his father in Bristol pubs. Jem Belcher, the champion, who lost an eye in an accident in 1803, heard about Pearce and in that same year had him go to London. On June 3, 1803, in front of some of Belcher’s friends at a pub, Pearce beat Jack Fearby in 10 rounds in his first recorded fight. Belcher and his friends were impressed, and decided to back Pearce.

Pearce’s greatest fight was against John Gulley, an acquaintance from Bristol, against whom he had fought an exhibition in debtor’s prison, where Gulley was confined. It seems that a sportsman named Fletcher Reid was impressed enough with Gulley that he paid Gulley’s debts and had him released.

A year after Gully’s release from prison, he fought Pearce on Oct. 8, 1805, at Hailsham, a village on the Sussex Downs, and Pearce won in the 64th round.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Egan’s round-by-round coverage of the fight (printed in modern English):

Round 20: “One of the Chicken’s eyes so much swelled, that he could scarce see out of it and the blood flowing from him copiously . . . (Gulley) followed the Chicken around the ring, several blows exchanged, when they closed, and fell.”

Round 36: “Gulley now betrayed symptoms of weakness, but endeavoured to put in a blow at the Chicken’s head, which he parried, and returned a slight hit. Gulley, not dismayed, made a severe blow, which the Chicken caught, with his left, and knocked down his adversary with his right hand.”

The 64-round fight lasted 70 minutes, which was an average of 1.09 minutes a round.

Under the Broughton Rules of Boxing, which governed fights up until 1838, a round ended when a fighter was knocked down, went down because he was being punished or when both fighters fell while wrestling in a clinch. A fighter then had 30 seconds to toe the mark, a line scratched in the turf.

Pearce became recognized as champion when in his last fight on Dec. 8, 1805, outside the town of Blyth, he beat his former patron, Jem Belcher, in 18 rounds (25 minutes). Belcher had not fought in two years, but he apparently was jealous of Pearce’s success. So he challenged the Game Chicken despite having had his left eye removed because of the accident.

Egan’s account of fight’s finish: “Belcher stood up; but it was only to display his exhausted state, as his left-arm was entirely useless, and he could not move it from his side; and Jem now, for the first time in his life, declared he could fight no longer! The Chicken, elated with the sound of victory, and particularly from the hitherto invincible Belcher, to shew his activity, leaped in and out of the ring, and by throwing a summerset.”

Egan bemoaned the fact that after his success, Pearce followed the road trod by many of his predecessors. It is a path also trod by many fighters, who have followed over two centuries.

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