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 October 12, 2008 The Arizona Cardinals beat the Dallas Cowboys 30-24 in overtime. The Cards started off the game with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and ended it with a blocked punt recovery for 3 yards. They wrapped up the season 9-7 and eventually made the Super Bowl, but were taken down by the Steelers 27-23 for the crown.
BASEBALL October 14, 1998 The San Diego Padres defeat the Atlanta Braves 4-2 to win the National League title. They went on to face the NY Yankees at the World Series but lost the championship after being swept 4-0. Founded in 1969, the Padres never won a World Series but were National League champs twice, in 1984 and 1998.
HORSE RACING October 13, 1988 Jockey Mike Venezia is killed in an accident at Belmont Park after he is thrown off his horse and trampled by a trailing horse. Venezia rode 2,313 winners in his career and was President of the Jockeys’ Guild from 1975-81. In December, 1964, he won 6 races in just a single day at Aqueduct Racetrack.
AUTO RACING October 8, 1978 American race car driver Mario Andretti wins the F1 Driver’s World Championship. Andretti claimed 6 of the 16 Formula One races that season and today remains the last American to lift an F1 trophy. The Italian-born racer is only one of two drivers to have won the F1, Indycar, NASCAR, and World Sportscar Championship.