The Last Bare-Knuckle Champion
John L. Sullivan, the celebrated 19th century fist fighter who embodied the spirit of a fighting Irishman, died one hundred years ago in Abington, Massachusetts.
Sullivan left behind more than just a legacy of 40 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss. The Boston pugilist was a transformative figure who helped usher in a new period in ring fighting. He was the last bare-knuckle champion and also, arguably, the first heavy-weight titleholder of the gloved era.
As a teenager, the 5’10” and 190 lb. ruffian was notorious for issuing challenges in his hometown saloons, stating that he “could lick any man in the house”.
Later on, the “Boston Strong Boy” toured the country and offered $1,000 to anyone who could last four rounds in the ring with him.
A hard-hitting and hard-drinking fight master, Sullivan got his start inside the ropes before the adoption of the Queensberry Rules, which formally set the code for modern-day boxing in 1889.
The new rules of engagement replaced the old London Prize Ring Rules, the bare-knuckle guidelines that disallowed butting, gouging, scratching, kicking, etc.
Still, the punch-throwing, blood-spattering sport was illegal and bouts were usually held in secret locations. Sullivan’s 8-round knockout of John Flood in 1881 took place on a barge in the Hudson river to evade authorities.
A year later, in the backwoods of Mississippi, Sullivan took out fellow Irish-American Paddy Ryan to claim the informal title of the bare-knuckle champion of America. The two men had put up $2,500 to vie for the honor in front of 5,000 spectators.
The New England brawler’s fight against Dominick McCaffrey in 1885 was a gloved faceoff described by the press as the “…Queensberry glove contest for the championship of the world”.
It was boxing’s first heavy-weight title fight using 3-ounze gloves and 3-minute rounds. Sullivan outclassed his opponent with a 6th round decision to become the first modern heavy-weight champion.
But the legend’s most memorable fight also turned out to be the last bare-knuckle championship contest under the historic London rules. Once again in Mississippi, Sullivan beat, battered and knocked out Jake Kilrain in round 75 of a scheduled 80-round bout.
Despite its outlawed status, the encounter with Kilrain in 1889 was one of the first sporting events in the U.S. to receive national press coverage (photo above with Sullivan on right).
Soon after his win, the victorious fist hurler was arrested for engaging in the illegal prizefight.
Just a year earlier, Sullivan had managed to escape French officials after taking on Britain’s Charlie Mitchell in a blood-soaked exchange under the rain in Chantilly, France. That fight was one of his two career draws.
Sullivan’s reign ended in 1892 at a gloved meet-up with “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Younger, faster and fitter, Corbett knocked out the defending champ in the 21st round and delivered the only loss of his career.
The old champ subsequently retired from boxing and settled into calmer pursuits such as exhibitions, acting, sports reporting and bar keeping. His reputation renowned worldwide, he enjoyed audiences with the likes of President Teddy Roosevelt and the future King of England, Edward VII.
Sullivan died on February 2nd, 1918 at the age of 59.
FOOTBALL February 7, 2010 The New Orleans Saints defeat the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 at Super Bowl XLIV. Saints QB Drew Brees won the game MVP award after completing 32/39 throws and 2 touchdowns. The showdown was the Saints’ first franchise trip to the Super Bowl after finishing the regular season with a 13-3 record. Singing the National Anthem before the kickoff was Carrie Underwood and performing the half-time entertainment was the rock band, “The Who”.
TENNIS January 29, 2000 American Lindsay Davenport claims the Australian Open women’s final by defeating Martina Hingis 6-1, 7-5. It was Davenport’s 3rd and last singles grand slam after winning the U.S. Open in 1998 and Wimbledon in 1999. The California-born tennis prodigy turned pro in 1993 and was ranked No. 1 in the world multiple times, including in doubles. In addition to her illustrious professional career, she took gold at the 1986 Olympics in Atlanta.
HOCKEY January 30, 1990 Wayne Gretsky sets an NHL record by scoring his 100th point of the season for the 11th straight season. Playing for the Los Angeles Kings at the time, the milestone came with an assist in a game against the New Jersey Devils. Regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time by many in the business, the Ontario native played for 4 NHL teams from 1979-1999. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame upon retirement with no waiving period.
BOXING February 3, 1980 Larry Holmes knocks out Lorenzo Zanon in the 6th round to retain his WBC heavyweight title. It was the 33rd fight of his professional career, which started in 1973 and would go undefeated until his first loss to Michael Spinks in 1985. Wielding one of the best left jabs in boxing history, Holmes grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania and was knick-named the “Easton Assassin”. He retired in 2002 with a record of 75-69-6.