The Last Bare-Knuckle Champion

Posted

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 was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as one of the sport’s pioneers. The Bare-Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame stands in Belfast, New York where the fighter used to train.

Sullivan died on February 2nd, 1918 at the age of 59.

Other articles enjoyed: When Ali Took On A Wrestler, Boxing Champ Jack Johnson & White Women, Ali & Frazier- More Than Rivals, Barney Ross- Boxer, Gangster, Hero

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

SPECIAL OLYMPICS  August 11, 2009  Eunice Shriver, sister of former President John F. Kennedy and founder of the Special Olympics, dies the age of 88. Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 for founding a sports organization dedicated to persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics today serves 5 million athletes around the world.

20 years ago

SOCCER  August 3, 1999  French striker Thierry Henry joins Arsenal FC after a brief stint with Juventus. Henry became Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer with 218 goals and two FA Cups. He was a member of France’s 1998 World Cup winning team and the 2006 runner-up squad that lost to Italy in a penalty shoot-out. One of the greatest attackers in the game, Henry also played for Barcelona and NY Red Bulls.

30 years ago

MOTOR RACING  August 3, 1989  Formula One racer, Jules Bianchi, is born in Nice, France. Making his debut in 2013 as a driver for Marussia, he finished 15th in his opening race at the Australian Grand Prix. Only a year later, the young driver would crash at the Japanese Grand Prix and remain comatose until his death in July, 2015. His F1 fatality was the first since Ayrton Senna perished 21 years earlier.

40 years ago

GOLF  August 3, 1979  Sam Snead becomes the oldest player at 67 to make the cut at the PGA Championship. The three-time champion who had won in 1942, 1949 and 1951 finished 42nd with a score of 288 (+8). Australian David Graham claimed the event, firing 272 (-8). Snead continued playing until 1987 when he retired with 82 PGA Tour victories, including seven majors: 3 Masters, 3 PGA’s and 1 Open.