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Bendigo Thompson the bare-knuckle boxing champion

Updated on August 29, 2012

 Champion bare-knuckle prize fighter turned preacher - Bendigo Thompson was one of the greatest boxers ever and his super-human brawls are carved into boxing history. But incredibly, very little is known about one of the strongest fighters of all time who is credited with inventing boxing’s dead Southpaw stance.

Born in 1811, William Abednego Thompson was raised among some of the most dangerous slums in Victorian England in Nottingham. So violent was the area that policeman were often afraid to walk the streets between slums between Kings Row and Parliament. It’s perhaps no surprise then that William - nicknamed Bendigo - started fighting from a young age and he was later encouraged to fight for his money by his mother who needed the money.

 Bendigo was 18 when he fought his first boxing match against the champion of the nearby town of Bingham. The brawl lasted a staggering 59 rounds but Bendigo’s debut impressed the thousands of locals who turned out to watch.  A crowd favourite, he was affectionately dubbed Ol’ Bendy for his ability to dodge and weave while tossing insults at his opponent. Bendigo was even known to perform somersaults in the ring.

 Although Bendigo was only 5’10’’ high and 12stone heavy, his reputation as a fearless boxer with a lightning fast punch grew and by the age of 21 he was a regular prize fighter. Thousands of people, from lords to peasant, flocked to see Bendigo’s fights which lasted as many as 100 rounds with little regard for rules. Bendigo would whip baying crowds into a frenzy and the atmosphere would be electric. He even taunted his opponents with crude rhymes about their mothers or daughters.

A painting shows Bendigo in one of his legendary clashes in the woods surrounded by dozens of supporters
A painting shows Bendigo in one of his legendary clashes in the woods surrounded by dozens of supporters

One fight that has been immortalised in local legend between Bendy and Hucknall-born rival Ben Caunt (see right)  lasted a mind-blowing 96 rounds before Caunt collapsed from exhaustion.

A contemporary writer described it as "one of the most scandalous brawls in boxing history. Both men used every foul under the sun and invented a good many others’’. He continued: ‘’Thompson was tossed from the ring... Caunt trying to crash him on the ring stakes to break his back. Thompson's [followers] attempted to bludgeon Caunt whenever within striking distance... on one occasion missing by a hairs breadth, the blow landing on Caunt's brawny shoulder..."

Bendigo's Prayer: A short story

Bendigo wasted no time. He hoisted the youth by his collar against the wall. As he stared into his eyes he delivered an almighty blow with his right hand to the lad's gut. He fell to the floor sputtering and curled up in a ball. He cried like a lamb for his mummy.

Bendigo turned to the other two teenagers. Although the preacher had turned 60 last spring, he had the poise and quick feet that had earned his respect as boxer in his youth.

''Which one of yer’s next?’’

Read more

 Bendigo and Caunt had a deadly rivalry that spilled over into bile and bitterness during their three matches. Caunt once needed to escape bareback on a horse through the streets after Bendy's fans mobbed him at the end of a match. But it was Bendigo who rose to national fame after defeating top fighters from Newcastle, Bradford and Liverpool and earning himself more than £1,000 in prize money - a massive amount in those days.

But rather foolishly, Bendigo shattered his knee when he somersaulted into crowds during a home coming parade after beating Londoner James ''Deaf Un'' Burke to be crowned the all-England prize fighting Champion. The injury put Bendigo out-of-action for two-years and he returned to his favourite childhood past-time of fishing on the banks of the Trent with local pal William Bailey from Broad Marsh.

Poor Bendigo had retired with a handsome two prize belts and four silver cups aged 39 when his dear old mother – who had a notable right hook - goaded him to accept one last fight with young Tom Paddock from Worcestershire in 1850. ‘’You feverish swine’’ neighbours heard he yelling at Bendigo. ‘’Who’s gonna put bread on the table? Get ya’ sorry backside into that ring, ya yellow bellowed wuss’’. Bendigo - still a tower of strength - saw off the upstart and, incredibly, he landed a cushy job at Oxford University teaching posh kids how to punch.

Upon his return from Oxford’s leafy streets, Bendigo was heartbroken to discover that his old mum, as drunken and brash as she was, had died. Tragically, like many sportsmen before and thousands more after him, Bendigo spiralled into heavy boozing and frequent arrests.

The poor fellow missed his mum dearly and stumbled blind-drunk through Nottingham's tavern's only to be taunted by cheeky kids. He became involved with a political gang called The Nottingham Lambs and was arrested 28 times during this period and spent countless hours in the city’s drunk tank.

 It was during one of these marathon drinking sessions that he found God. After several beatings – once by his old mates in The Lambs -and many hours soul-searching, Bendigo grew a beard and embarked on a preaching career with as much zeal as he had cracked his knuckles into fighters' faces in the ring."See them belts? See them cups? I used to fight for those, but now I fight for Christ,'' Bendigo would bellow to thousands of bible-bashers who followed him.

 Bendigo moved to a small cottage in the nearby town of Beeston to escape the city’s violence and drink. But ironically it was a mundane fall down the last three steps of his cottage that punctured his lung and fractured his ribs that killed him aged 69.

Although Bendigo never married or fathered children, he left a remarkable tale of courage and strength that boxers have strived to achieve for ever since. He battered opponents with no regard for his own health while maintaining a cheery air of optimism - he is even credited with inventing boxing's Southpaw stance.

There are dozens of reminders of Bengigo’s legacy throughout Nottingham. These include a plaque on his old house, his gravestone and a life-size bust above a pub that was named after him. A racehorse was named after Bendigo as was a town in Australia. Bendigo's ghost is even said to haunt the grave where he was buried. One thing is for certain: Bendigo was one of the greatest boxers of all time and his spirit will always live on.

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    • profile image

      jonathangaunt 

      18 months ago

      me and my mum are related to bendigo too

    • profile image

      Lisa thomas 

      3 years ago

      He is also in my bloodline my great great grandmother was a Thompson also.

    • profile image

      My 

      6 years ago

      Apologies for my previous comment. It came across as quite snotty. Not at all what I intended.

    • profile image

      My 

      6 years ago

      Bendagoes was born in 1811, not 1881. Get your facts straights or fix your typos.

    • Rickrideshorses profile imageAUTHOR

      Rickrideshorses 

      6 years ago from England

      No, but he had brothers and cousins, didn't he!

    • profile image

      war.god 

      6 years ago

      Nobody is related to him, he had no children??!!!!!

    • profile image

      david goodfellow 

      7 years ago

      i tried it when i was younger but i wasn't any good :)

    • Rickrideshorses profile imageAUTHOR

      Rickrideshorses 

      7 years ago from England

      David, that's pretty impressive to be related to such a Nottingham legend. Does anybody in the family still do boxing?

    • profile image

      david goodfellow 

      7 years ago

      he is in my bllodline too on my dads side of the family my nan was thompson before see was married and 'bendigo' thompson was my dads great grandfather.

    • Rickrideshorses profile imageAUTHOR

      Rickrideshorses 

      7 years ago from England

      Incredible! Are you from Nottingham, Roy?

    • profile image

      Roy 

      7 years ago

      We have him in the blood line.

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