TODAY we tell the story of Matty Potts – a bare-knuckle fighter from Sunderland, known for being ‘as fearless as he was fair’ in the ring.
THE illegal sport of bare-knuckle fighting gripped the imagination of Wearsiders both rich and poor in the late 19th century – and Matty Potts was a central figure.
Born within the shadow of the workhouse at Cage Hill, Monkwearmouth, in 1863, he was known as a ‘thorough Barbary-Coaster’ throughout his life.
The close-knit riverside community was a breeding ground for tough men and even tougher fighters – as was the East End on the opposite side of the Wear.
But Matty – a blacksmith by trade – was to rise above most with the help of his natural talent, scoring success after success at towns around the North East.
Indeed, sporting ‘nobs’ would gather by the dozen to watch Matty and his fellow boxers fight with their ‘bare ’uns’ at secret sites around Sunderland.
Fulwell Lime Quarries, Marsden Rock and Ryhope beach were all popular battle grounds, each deemed remote enough to make police interference unlikely.
Cleadon was another favourite hide out for bare-knuckle fights, and it was here Matty fell to Paddy McKenna after 20 gruelling rounds in a small enclosure.
McKenna – a fighter through and through – later lost consciousness after stopping a runaway horse. His first words, on waking up, were: “How many rounds did I go?”
But despite the loss, Cleadon held no fear for Matty. He went on to beat Paddy McCann in ‘20 fierce rounds’ during another appearance at the site.
Such was the popularity of bare-knuckle fighting, that members of ‘The Fancy’ would be tipped off about the secret location of a bout well in advance.
But although the fights themselves were illegal, strict rules governed the staging of bare-knuckle battles – including a ban on ‘hugging or wrestling.’
It was also the rule that a fight had to be won or lost – unless the backers of both men agreed to a draw. The longest local fight recorded lasted 75 rounds.
Sunderland fighters Tom Johnson and Dick McKie fought the epic battle at Fulwell Dene in 1885 – with a shot at the Champion of the North title being their main goal.
There was tremendous interest in the Johnson-McKie draw in local sporting circles, with Barbary Coaster McKie – the lighter by a stone – eventually losing.
McKie, a highly rated fighter, also lost out to Matty during a clash between the Monkwearmouth neighbours, but later took on the role of his trainer.
Matty was known for being as ‘fearless as he was fair’ in the ring – a reputation which earned the battling blacksmith a large following.
An article printed in The Echo in 1932 recalled: “As a boxer he appeared in most Northern towns and won scores of medals and other trophies.”
Among Matty’s many trophies was a silver cup, earned after knocking out Southwick fighter Frances “Fan” Hepplestall in four rounds at an old burial ground near High Street West.
He also beat Ted Rogers, whose trainer he later became, in an exhibition match, but lost on points to Billy Gardiner during a fight in the yard of the old Newcastle Chronicle office.
When his career in the ring ended, Matty became landlord of the John Gates Hotel in Charles Street, Monkwearmouth. It was later converted into a fish shop.
It is also believed that he bred terrier dogs with his brothers Joseph, who was born in 1867, and William, who was born in 1870.
The brave boxer died in 1932, at the age of 69, in Sunderland’s Municipal Hospital following a ‘long and painful illness.’ He was buried at Mere Knolls cemetery.
The Echo’s boxing correspondent Fred Charlton, writing in the paper back in 1966, told his readers:
“Never let it be imagined that fighters of the pre-glove era were the roughs of the country. A more gentlemanly or chivalrous band never stepped into a ring.
“Both in and out of the arena these men were fearless to a degree and the love of fair play was always uppermost in their minds.”
** Anyone with Wearside memories can contact Sarah Stoner by writing to Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
SIDEBAR: Cock Fighting
WHILE the illicit pleasures of bare-knuckle fighting enthralled Wearsiders in the 19th century, cock fighting was hugely popular too.
Streets and pubs were named after the ‘sport,’ including Fighting Cock Tavern, Fighting Cock Yard, Black Cock Inn, Black Cock Open and Fighting Cock Lane.
And a game cock which mutilated and then killed its opponents was the pride of a whole town, with vast sums won – and lost – in wagers on the fights.
Specialist trainers were called in to prepare a bird for battle, trimming its feathers and comb. His natural spurs were also filed down, to allow the fitting of steel ones.
Fights usually took place in a prepared cock pit or cock ring – a sunken piece of land surrounded by a raised area, to allow easy viewing for spectators.
There were private, and public, pits built across the district, including one close to Barnes Park, another at Low Row and a third on the Wreath Hills.
Squire Stafford of Monkwearmouth was a celebrated breeder of game cocks, even winning the County Prize for best bird one year.
His prize, a solid gold statue of a bird, is said to have been mounted on one of the ‘Babbies’ statues which stood at the entrance to his home in Broad Street.