By M.C. (Mike) Southorn: With James Burke out of the picture, at least temporarily (he had travelled to the US to defend The Title in The New World), it fell to the remaining British challengers to establish the pecking order. With the British economy in tatters, there were plenty of desperate young men looking to earn a meal with their fists. One of the foremost was William Abednego “Bendigo” Thompson. Born in 1811, the youngest of 21 children, Bendigo and his mother were forced into a work-house in 1826 when his father died. Upon leaving the workhouse, Bendigo forswore poverty and got a job as an iron-turner.
It was during this tenure that he developed his athletic prowess. Bendigo was first known in Nottingham as a cricketer – he could throw a pitch over 100m, and once, on a bet, he tossed a half-brick across the River Trent, some 70 metres.
By the age of 18, Bendigo was fighting professionally. Aided by his fearsome gang, The Nottingham Lambs, Bendigo fought from a southpaw stance, bobbing and weaving and hurling insults at his opponents.
His nemesis was Ben Caunt of Torkard. Caunt was 6’2” (six inches taller than Bendigo) and was said to have weighed 250 pounds. A blacksmith by trade, he too had developed a powerful physique, and like Bendigo, he too was followed by his own gang of thugs. Both men were described by a contemporary sports writer as being “full of trickery, treachery and having no ethics”. These two fighters met for the first time on 21 July in Nottingham. Annoyed by Bendigo’s taunting and also by his habit of falling without being hit (“slipping”) Caunt tried to break Bendigo’s back against a ring-post early in the fight, but the Nottingham man recovered and was able to avoid Caunt’s heavier blows, all the while issuing a steady stream of insults. Caunt, finally driven to distraction ended the fight by hitting the smaller man while he was still on his second’s knee. Caunt was disqualified and Bendigo took the purse of 50 pounds and became what would today be called ‘the interim champion’ in the absence of James Burke.
Bendigo moved to nearby Sheffield and improved his reputation with wins over notable opponents such as John Leachman and Charles Langham. On 13 June 1837, Bendigo met Bill Looney of Liverpool for a purse of 500 pounds. The two met on a hill at Chapel-en-le-Firth. Bendigo had trained hard for the fight, but again he was the smaller man and he had to rely on agility and his left-handed awkwardness to win. Bendigo controlled the early rounds by jabbing and moving, and it wasn’t until the third that Looney finally landed a big punch over his opponent’s ear. Bendigo responded with a hard cross to the forehead that apparently dropped both men. The taunting was merciless, and Bendigo now mixed his slurs with his habit of going down without being hit, dropping to his behind and flailing his arms and legs in mocking laughter in the 15th. The fight lasted 92 rounds before Bendigo was declared the winner.
April 3rd, 1838 saw the much-anticipated rematch with Ben Caunt. This fight was even less civilized than had been the first, and it featured kicking and choking. It ended when The Nottingham Lambs cut the ring-ropes from around Bendigo’s neck to save their fighter’s life. In the ensuing free-for-all, cudgels were applied generously. Finally, order was restored, Bendigo was given a long draught of Brandy and the match was resumed. In the 75th round, Bendigo ‘slipped’ again. This time he was called on it and disqualified for going down without being punched. Pandemonium broke out, with The Lambs going after Caunt, until he was forced to flee bareback on a stolen horse.
It was at about this time that The Champion returned from America. James Burke had defended The Title twice overseas; including a defence against the Irish Champion Sam O’Rourke. No sooner had he returned than Burke challenged “any man in the World” for a chance at his Title. Ben Caunt was the obvious opponent, but Bendigo was more of a crowd-pleaser with his wit and antics, so he got the title shot. A crowd of 15 000 gathered at No Man’s Heath in Leicestershire. In spite of Burke’s immunity to Bendigo’s verbal taunts (on account of Burke’s deafness), the Nottingham challenger still found a way to
infuriate The Champion such that Burke was disqualified in the 10th round for headbutting. William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson won The Championship and the 220 pounds purse. A few weeks later he was presented with ‘the champion’s belt’ by Jem Ward in the Queen’s Theatre in Liverpool.
Upon his return to Nottingham, Bendigo attended a horserace at which he performed a drunken sommersault and broke his knee. He did not fight for two years, during which time public demand for a third fight with Ben Caunt grew steadily. Finally, on 9 September, 1845 a drunken and riotous crowd of 10 000 turned up at Lillingstone Level, Oxford to see Thompson-Caunt III. This third encounter was the dirtiest of the three: A writer of the time called it “One of the most scandalous brawls in boxing history.” Both men committed every foul in the book, and The Nottingham Lambs did their best to cudgel Caunt whenever he came within reach.
Finally, in the 93rd round Caunt floored Bendigo with a big right. Thinking the fight was over, he returned to his
corner, but Bendigo leaped to his feet and moved towards Caunt. Upon hearing his second’s shouted warning,
Caunt dropped defensively to avoid being struck from behind. The Lambs immediately cried “Foul” and, in an
ironic twist of fate, Caunt was disqualified for going down without being hit.
Following this fight, Bendigo went into an unofficial retirement and spent his days fishing. In 1850 he was challenged by the up and-coming young fighter, Tom Paddock. At 39, Bendigo was not really interested in fighting anymore, but, urged on by his mother, he agreed. Paddock had the better of The Champion throughout the match, but mistakenly hit him when he was down in the 49th round, and he was disqualified. Bendigo had gotten lucky, and he knew it.
Thompson attended Paddock’s next match against Bill Perry of Tipton, and, when after despatching Paddock, Perry challenged Bendigo for his belt The Champion refused and the retirement became official. William Thompson retired, undefeated in 21 bouts. At his retirement party he bragged that he had never been hit in the nose hard enough to make it bleed.
Shortly after his retirement, his mother died, and Bendigo’s life went off the rails. He became the town drunk, and, together with his gang started to get into trouble. The local paper reportedly had the headline “Bendigo in Trouble Again” permanently typeset. Eventually he cleaned up his act and became a Methodist preacher, espousing the virtues of abstinence. He died at age 69 in 1880.