Benjamin (Big Ben) Brain outweighed most men and even most professional fighters in the England of the 1780s. A coal miner by trade, Brain was a valiant fighter whose career spanned twenty years. Brain was born in the port city of Bristol, in southwestern England. His first recorded fight took place in 1774, when he defeated Jack Clayton, the champion of Kingswood.
In 1786, when Brain battled John Boone (The Fighting Grenadier), toughs broke into the ring and ganged up on Brain. In the resulting melee, Brain suffered a beating that almost closed his eyes. When order was restored and a surgeon had lanced the swelling around Brain’s eyes, Big Ben resumed fighting. Within ten minutes, he forced Boone to quit in defeat.
In 1789, Brain was scheduled to fight the English champion, Hall of Famer Tom Johnson. When Brain fell ill and canceled the bout, he forfeited the large sum of money he had put up for the fight. Two years later, Brain got his chance to fight Johnson for the title at Wrotham-in-Kent. Brain battered Johnson’s nose effectively, and Johnson broke a finger in the course of the eighteen-round battle. Brain, then 37, prevailed, to take the title from the 40-year-old Johnson.
Brain’s toppling of Johnson is sometimes seen to mark the end of the first era of boxing, when men stood toe-to-toe and punched and grappled until one of them could no longer go on. There is no question that the early brawlers were courageous, but the boxers who came after Brain began to rely on more than just strength and stamina.
Soon after winning the championship in 1791, and with no challengers coming forward, Brain retired from boxing. The title was then declared vacant. Three years later, there was still no champion, although a suitable challenger had come forward. Brain agreed to return to the ring as the acknowledged titleholder and was scheduled to fight Will Wood in February of 1794 in a comeback bout. However, Brain was stricken with an illness and was unable to fight. He died in April 1794, still considered the champion.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.