On the 23rd July 1889, Jack Wannop’s backer called at the offices of The Sporting Life to issue a challenge to Jem Smith, the English heavyweight boxing champion.
When rumour had arrived in America earlier in the year that Wannop was keen to take on Smith, Wannop was mocked in the press. They declared him to be mad or possibly holding a death wish. And yet here he was “hitching to have a go” at Smith, over eight or ten rounds, gloved and by “the usual Queensbury conditions”.
Smith had a fearsome reputation. Eight year’s Wannop’s junior, but with more professional boxing bouts under his belt, the stocky Shoreditch-born champion was known as a bare-knuckle brawler.
“Jem Smith is rather surprised at receiving a challenge from Jack Wannop to box a limited number of rounds with gloves, as knuckle fighting is more in his line” reported The Sporting Life three days later. But he was game, if Wannop would agree to a 75 per cent split on gate receipts to the winner.
I’ve put a great deal of time into pondering what on earth Wannop was playing at and I’m still not really sure. He had made his name as a wrestler over the previous decade and was arguably the best known and respected in Britain at this point, certainly in London. As a boxing club trainer he was, again, well known and respected. But as a professional boxer, he’d not had much luck. Having most recently been beaten in America by the former black champion George Godfrey, why was Jack risking his health and reputation against a rival as formidable as Smith? Did he need the money so badly he would take the risk, even for the loser’s cut of the gate? Jack was, by all accounts, modesty itself – he was simply not the type to have delusions of his own ability. But did he genuinely think he stood a chance in this match?
It is worth mentioning here too that Smith and Wannop had fought before, in 1885 at Tom Symond’s boxing saloon at the Blue Anchor in Shoreditch. Wannop – in his “maiden go” in the boxing ring – had lost, but there wasn’t much in it. Too close to call after the set three rounds, the referee ordered an extra trial of two minutes, and Smith gained the verdict.
Interviews with both men, published in the weeks prior to the fight, have helped me piece together a vague theory on why Wannop – or at least his backer – was confident enough for a fight.
It appears that at the time of Wannop’s challenge, Smith was not only still in recovery from a serious foot injury, but he was also rather obese.
At 5ft 8.5, Smith had debuted in a 10 stone competition at the age of 18 and over the next few years packed on about 40lb of muscle. His fighting-fit weight stood just under the 13 stone mark. But Smith had seen little action since his last match with Jake Kilrain in February 1888 and his April 1889 bout with Charley Mitchell was cancelled after Smith cut his foot badly during training.
By the time of Jack’s challenge, Smith was still claiming to be English champion but he had been out of action for a while and was tipping the scales at 16 stone 10lb.
While Wannop, having been overseas for more than a year, might not have seen Smith with his own eyes recently, I suggest that he may have been informed that Smith was past his prime. In need of a match that could finally make his name as a boxer, perhaps Smith seemed like a safe bet.
The date was set for September 30th.
While interviewing Charley Mitchell in August, The Sporting Life’s correspondent asked him for his views on the Wannop-Smith match. Mitchell responded succinctly:
“I think, of course, that Smith will knock him out.”
Meanwhile, news broke in early August of the impending arrival of Peter Jackson in England, accompanied by Parson Davies of Chicago, who had been appointed Jackson’s manager. The Sporting Life led with Jackson’s intent to meet Smith, although he was happy to take “any man in England for any amount”. Yet the black heavyweight champion was also under contract to the Californian Athletic Club and was barred until at least May 1890 from engaging in any “fight to the finish” unless it was brought off in the club’s San Francisco venue.
And in a busy week for the boxing fraternity, the Australian Frank Slavin also arrived in London, and also issued a challenge to any man who’d take him. At over 6ft in height and an intimidating 14 stone of lean muscle, it is likely that only Smith or Mitchell would be up for it at short notice, suggested The Sporting Life, and Smith was now matched with Wannop.
Slavin was welcomed to London with a lads night out, accompanied by several bottles of sparkling wine, at the Cambridge Music Hall on Commercial Street, Shoreditch. Jem Smith was among the party.
Wannop had begun his training in New Cross before moving “to a little farmhouse among the hop gardens of Kent” – the Plough Inn in Bromley, which today still stands, albeit as a Majestic wine warehouse.
The Sporting Life went to visit him in late August, and found our protagonist in “grand fettle”, taking an early morning power-walk of some 14 miles accompanied by J. Callard, an amateur boxer. He arrived back “looking as ruddy as a cherry”. Jack claimed to have entirely thrown off the effects of the attack of rheumatic fever which had dogged his American sojourn and was “without a doubt, the Wannop of yore”.
As August drew to a close, Wannop paid a visit to the photography studio of a Mr Mitchell on Lewisham High Street, accompanied by his pupil Tom ‘Curly’ Thompson and there they were struck off in a dozen wrestling poses in order to provide illustrations for a forthcoming book by The Sporting Life’s wrestling correspondent Walter Armstrong. The news of this photoshoot alone warranted its own article in the newspaper. The photographs, which I have managed to track down, are the only known pictures of Wannop so far found in almost a year of research. And unfortunately, there are none which show his face clearly. It is so frustrating because I know that others were taken as part of the same shoot: after running through wrestling moves for the camera, Jack “faced the implement in boxing attire”.
I am still hopeful that one day a portrait will emerge.
It appears that Jack seriously underestimated Smith’s commitment. Just a few weeks into training at Big Bush Farm (no giggling in the back) in Kingsbury, he’d lost around 30lb and was well on his way to bouncing back into shape. One can speculate that Smith’s mind may have been on Jackson as much as it was on Wannop.
My next post will reproduce in its entirety a lengthy feature and interview with Smith and Wannop, conducted by a “roving commissioner” for The Sporting Life two weeks before the match. As a report on their training regimes, it’s very interesting. It is also without a doubt one of the most hilarious and bizarre pieces of gonzo sports journalism put to paper.