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

AUTO RACING May 24, 2009  Brazil’s Helio Castroneves wins the 93rd edition of the Indianapolis 500, becoming the first foreign-born driver to claim the famed chase three times (2001, 2002). Starting out from pole position in car #3, Castroneves clocked the 200-lap race in 3:19:35. Placing 2nd at the 500 in 2003, 2014 and 2017, Castrovenes is regarded as the best driver who never won an IndyCar Series championship.

20 years ago

RUNNING May 18, 1999  American running champion Betty Robinson dies at the age of 87. The Riverdale, Illinois native was the first female to win gold at the 100m sprint when the race was introduced to women at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. She went on to claim gold again in the 4 x 100m relay at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin after the heavily favored Germans, who were leading, dropped the baton.

30 years ago

HORSE RACING May 20, 1989  Pat Valenzuela wins the Preakness Stakes aboard Sunday Silence, crossing the finish line in a time of 1:538 and edging out rival Easy Goer by just a nose. Both jockey and horse had won the Kentucky Derby earlier, but would miss out on a Triple Crown three weeks later at the Belmont Stakes after trailing Easy Goer by eight lengths.

40 years ago

BASEBALL May 16, 1979  The NL approves the sale of the Houston Astros by the Ford Motor Company (Credit) to John McMullen. The team would sign up pitcher Nolan Ryan, baseball’s first $1 million contract, and go on to reach the playoffs the following year for the first time in franchise history. Founded as the Houston Colt .45’s, the Astros were renamed in 1965 as a reference to the nation’s space center.