TOOTH AND NAIL : Era of Bare-Knuckle Boxing Ended With Bloody Title Bout 100 Years Ago
One hundred years ago today, in pre-dawn darkness, two trains pulled out of New Orleans in secrecy. They rolled north, across the Pontchartrain Bridge, toward Mississippi.
Several thousand men were onboard in such cramped quarters that some clung to the tops of the cars. The passengers’ tickets read only: “Destination and Return.”
The trains rolled through the night. At the Mississippi state line, an armed party of 25 Mississippi state militiamen ordered the first train to stop. But the engineers were under orders not to, and the train rumbled by at 40 m.p.h.
The destination, known only to two promoters and the engineers, who were sworn to secrecy, was a 30,000-acre farm near the railroad tracks at tiny Richburg, Miss. No one that day could have known the trains were headed on a nighttime ride to a final page in the history books. An era was ending . . . It was to be the last heavyweight bare-knuckle championship prize fight in America.
The day was July 8, 1889, and both John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain were outlaws.
John L. Sullivan of Boston was America’s first great sports superstar. In his prime and for decades afterward, thousands of saloon owners across America displayed his portrait above bars.
Old men once said: “Shake the hand that shook the hand of the Great John L.”
He was born in 1858 in Roxbury, Mass., and at 19 was a 5-foot 10 1/2-inch, 195-pound, slab-muscled mason’s assistant. He earned spare change by winning sparring matches in Boston-area theaters.
In the 1880s, industrial America was flexing its muscles, and to millions of American men, the boisterous Sullivan represented strength, power and manliness. He fought hard, drank hard, lived hard, and America loved him.
Sullivan took boxing from an illegal activity staged on river barges and put it into modern arenas. He bridged the gap from bare knuckles to gloves.
Jake Kilrain, from the Boston suburb of Somerville, was sober, quiet, a strong family man and actually regarded by some as the true heavyweight champion of the world. Sullivan had only sneered at Kilrain’s numerous challenges for a showdown.
In early 1889, things came to a head. Richard Fox, publisher of the country’s leading prize-fighting journal, The Police Gazette, awarded Kilrain the magazine’s championship belt, studded with 200 ounces of gold and silver.
Sullivan sneered, calling it a “dog collar.”
Sullivan, at 23, had won the undisputed championship in 1882 when he knocked out Paddy Ryan in the ninth round on a hotel lawn at Mississippi City, Miss.
Over the next seven years, Sullivan defended the championship officially only three times. Bare-knuckle prize fights were staged with great difficulty, since the activity was illegal in all 38 states. In the meantime, Sullivan had become busier in the live theater than he was in boxing rings.
He toured the United States in 1883-84 with a vaudeville troupe, offering $1,000 to any man who could last four rounds with him. Most historians today agree Sullivan finished the tour 50-0, but others say one Joe (Tug) Wilson caught Sullivan on a night he had had too much to drink, went the distance and earned his grand in New York.
(Of Sullivan’s fondness for the bottle, Sullivan biographer Michael T. Isenberg wrote in his 1988 book, “John L. Sullivan and his America:” “Sullivan’s thirst could drain whole distilleries.” Another Sullivan biographer, William L. Phelps, wrote that Sullivan once drank 56 gin fizzes in one hour.)
Meanwhile, Kilrain was taking on and defeating the best available heavyweights--Jack Burkey, Jack Ashton, Frank Herald and Joe Godfrey.
When Fox declared Kilrain the champion, and in the same article called Sullivan a “quitter,” Sullivan was seething.
Sullivan had toured England in 1888, and was treated like American royalty. In March, he fought Charlie Mitchell, the British challenger, in Chantilly, France. Sullivan never caught the constantly retreating Mitchell and the result was an embarrassing 39-round draw.
Sullivan returned to Boston in April of 1888. He collapsed one day, and a priest was summoned. The press politely called his ailment “gastric fever.” A death watch began.
In his autobiography, “I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House!” Sullivan described his illness this way: “I had typhoid fever, gastric fever, inflammation of the bowels, heart trouble and liver complaint.”
What he really had was alcohol-induced kidney and liver collapse. He was seriously ill, and his weight dropped to 160 pounds. Slowly, he recovered. When his weight returned to 200 pounds, in early 1889, he accepted Fox’s challenge to fight Kilrain.
Sullivan hired a new trainer, fitness advocate William Muldoon, and he worked wonders with Sullivan. Nevertheless, many at first viewed Sullivan as a decided underdog against Kilrain.
After all, Sullivan was 30, had fought infrequently and had recently been desperately ill.
Muldoon, after getting a commitment from Sullivan to swear off alcohol, moved him to his upstate New York farm. The fighter was put to work in the fields. Sullivan picked crops, milked cows, chopped down trees, pushed plows and did road work.
At night, too exhausted to drink, Sullivan collapsed in bed.
Meanwhile, arrangements proceeded for Sullivan-Kilrain “at a sight to be within 200 miles of New Orleans.”
The stakes were breathtaking: $20,000, winner take all, double the purse of any previous fight.
Two New Orleans gamblers, Bud Renaud and Pat Duffy, were the promoters. Secretly, they met with a young, wealthy Mississippi farmer, Charles W. Rich, who owned 30,000 wooded acres south of Hattiesburg, Miss., about 100 miles north of New Orleans.
On Rich’s land, a half-mile from some seldom-used railroad tracks, there was a natural, earthen amphitheater. There, Rich agreed to quietly build bleachers and put up some ring ropes.
Secrecy was essential. Every governor in the south was posturing, issuing public proclamations indicating that anyone caught participating in a prize fight would be arrested and jailed. Oddly, New Orleans permitted cock fighting and Louisiana ran a state lottery, but the state barred prize fights.
The governor of Mississippi, John Lowry, was equally adamant, and offered neighboring Louisiana state troops if needed.
Lowry also posted a $1,000 reward if either fighter was even seen in the state. By mid-July, 1889, governors of Arkansas, Texas and Alabama also announced the fighters would be arrested if they attempted to fight there.
The result of all this, of course, was that the fight became a page-one event. All over the United States, interest increased. Wagering began, even in Europe. Reporters were dispatched to training camps and to New Orleans.
Associated Press news items of the fight were carried on page one of The Los Angeles Times for 10 days before the fight. On July 2, the AP reported that “New Orleans is affected with the worst kind of athletic fever.”
When Sullivan broke camp and boarded a train for New Orleans, he created a sensation at every stop. Thousands turned out to wave and cheer him. When he arrived in New Orleans, he checked into “Mrs. Green’s Boarding House” on Rampart Street, where a guard was posted to protect his privacy . . . and to guard against liquor deliveries.
Sullivan had at least one public New Orleans workout, prompting this headline over an AP story: “The Great Slogger Performs Remarkable Athletic Feats.”
From the story: “During Sullivan exercises today, a football filled with flour or meal and weighing 25 pounds was tossed from Sullivan to Muldoon, a distance of 25 feet. Sullivan delivered and received the heavy ball for 40 minutes without betraying any sign of weakness. Neither Muldoon nor Cleary could stand the test of endurance and alternated, while Sullivan finished as fresh as a daisy.”
AP also described Sullivan’s final lunch in New Orleans: Three chickens (with rice), and half a loaf of graham bread.
A chartered train bearing New York fight fans arrived at New Orleans several days before the fight. During the day on July 8, word was quietly passed: Be at the train station at midnight.
Renaud and Duffy had been selling $10 general admission and $15 ringside tickets for weeks.
Meanwhile, at Rich’s farm, on the night of July 7, a construction crew of 20 went to work. By torchlight, they drove six posts into the earth, ran thick ropes through them, and created a 24-foot earthen ring. They also put up three sections of bleachers.
The fight was to be with bare knuckles, or under London Prize Ring Rules. This meant that it was to be essentially a wrestling match in which blows to the head were permitted. Sullivan was actually an advocate throughout his career of gloved fights. He had soft hands, and frequently injured them.
On his 1883-84 U.S. tour, which greatly popularized boxing in America, he used gloves. After winning the championship in 1882, he fought only three times without gloves.
Bare-knuckle prize fighting in America, according to historian Isenberg, was introduced by British sailors in the 1730s. Isenberg points out that although none at the time knew it, Sullivan-Kilrain would conclude a 150-year sports era.
Under London Prize Ring Rules, a round could last for a few seconds or a half-hour. The time between rounds was 30 seconds, instead of today’s one minute. A round ended when a man’s knee touched the ground, which occurred most often when either combatant needed a breather.
In a newspaper article under his byline, Sullivan once wrote: “The London Rules allow too much leeway for the rowdy element . . . such mean tricks as spiking, biting, gouging, concealing stuff in one’s mouth to blind an opponent, strangling, butting with the head, falling down without being struck, scratching with the nails, kicking, falling on an antagonist with the knees, the use of stones and resin . . . (all this) is impossible under the Queensberry Rules. Fighting under the new rules before gentlemen is a pleasure.”
Shortly after 2 a.m. on fight day, ticket holders were ready when it was time to board the train. When the doors opened, AP reported the rush for seats on the train as “something indescribable.”
“Thousands had surrounded the depot for hours and madly jostled each other for favorable positions,” AP reported. “The crush was frightful. Two-hundred-pound men were lifted off their feet and suspended in the air.”
The Louisiana attorney general rode the first train to the state line, to ensure that the fight would not occur in Louisiana. However, cynics later enjoyed pointing out that he didn’t de-train at the state line, but continued north and, presumably, watched the fight from a ringside seat.
The two trains, charters of the Queen and Crescent line, overflowed and wagers were made throughout the journey. The fighters’ train, carrying two coach cars separated by empty mail cars where Sullivan and Kilrain limbered up, had arrived in Richburg the previous night.
Kilrain spent the night in Rich’s house, Sullivan at the farm foreman’s house.
When the fans’ trains stopped at Richburg, there was a wild stampede to the little arena. By 10 a.m., it was 100 degrees in the shade, on its way to 104 at noon. About 2,000 were seated on the bleachers and another 700 were in the standing area. Scalpers, AP reported, were asking $35 and $40.
Kilrain entered the ring first, with his cornerman and body guard, Bat Masterson, onetime sheriff of Dodge City. Sullivan and Muldoon entered next, and those who had bet heavily on Kilrain were suddenly concerned. Sullivan was much bigger. He weighed 205 while Kilrain was announced at 195, although many later said it was closer to 180.
The AP wrote: “When Kilrain’s bare form was displayed to the multitude, there were audible expressions of disappointment. His skin was of a pale, sickly hue, his chest narrow and the muscles of his arms too salient. The shrewd ones felt he was no match for Sullivan.”
As he did for all his fights, Sullivan had shaved his head to a stubble and also removed his famed handlebar mustache, to prevent Kilrain from yanking on it with his teeth.
John Fitzpatrick, years later to become mayor of New Orleans, was appointed referee minutes before the bout. Days later, it was reported he’d bet $700 on Sullivan.
Before the bout began, Fitzpatrick said to the crowd: “I am not very conversant with the rules, but this will be a fair contest and I will do the best I can.”
Next, it became clear the local sheriff had been taken care of. He rose to speak from the center of the ring, where he “commanded peace in the name of the state of Mississippi.” Then he returned to his front-row seat, to watch the fight.
Fitzpatrick summoned both fighters “to scratch,” and when he shouted “Time!” an era was about to pass into history. After 150 years, the last major London Prize Ring rules fight in America was underway.
The first half-dozen rounds provided little action, with Sullivan stalking a retreating Kilrain. In clinches, when both men wrestled each other, Kilrain craftily stepped on Sullivan’s feet, where his spikes began to tear through the tops of Sullivan’s shoes.
By the eighth round, Kilrain was dropping to one knee to end the rounds. Already, he seemed to be slowly wearing down under the stronger, bigger Sullivan. Years later, old-timers would say the issue seemed to be resolved after the eighth round.
Both men were frequently on the ground, the result of wrestling holds and pushing.
Sullivan taunted his opponent, but still was wary. Kilrain landed an occasional effective punch. In fact, when he slugged Sullivan in the ear in round five, blood flowed from Sullivan’s ear and Fitzpatrick shouted: “First blood--Kilrain!”
Betting on the first to bleed was a common wager of the day. Bills changed hands throughout the bleachers.
Sullivan landed many more blows, however, and Kilrain’s face was a pulpy mass by the end of the 12th round. Sullivan seemed in relatively good shape, his only wounds being a lump rising under one eye, a torn ear, blood flowing through his shoe-tops and swollen fists.
In AP’s round-by-round summary, there is only one reference to the sound of bare fists striking flesh. From round 19: “Sullivan was planting roasters on Kilrain’s ribs, which could be heard all over the enclosure.”
Both men were badly sunburned as the bout passed the one-hour mark.
By the 30-round mark, Kilrain had deteriorated badly. At the end of the 30th, his handlers had to lift him from his stool and propel him in Sullivan’s direction.
Suddenly, five seconds into the 44th round, a miracle seemed to arrive for Kilrain’s backers. Sullivan squared off to face Kilrain . . . and vomited. He fell to the turf, wretching, and those who had bet on Kilrain stood and cheered.
Shocked, Kilrain asked him if he wanted to quit. Sullivan growled, recovered quickly, and again tore into Kilrain. Later, it was learned that Sullivan’s cornermen had fed their man a between-rounds pick-me-up, a whiskey-and-tea mixture.
A few rounds later, with Kilrain near collapse, a doctor told Kilrain’s handlers that their man might die if the bout wasn’t stopped. Instead, Kilrain’s men poured whiskey down his throat, hoping to revive him.
Finally, at the end of the 75th round, a blood-sodden sponge was thrown to center-ring from Kilrain’s corner.
At 12:26 p.m., July 8, 1889, it was over. Bare-knuckle prize fighting had run its course.
Sullivan gloated. Kilrain “wept like a child and ranted.” He was also injected with morphine, and carried by his men to the waiting train.
The next day, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the 15th round was the longest, 7 minutes, and that Sullivan had knocked Kilrain down 24 times, thrown him down seven times, knocked him out three times, shoved him down six times, and that Kilrain had gone down 26 times voluntarily to end a round. Sullivan, the paper said, was tripped or wrestled down five times, and fell down twice.
Shortly after Sullivan boarded his waiting train to return to New Orleans, militiamen appeared on the tracks. The champion had to escape through a window and hide in the woods until they had left. And shortly after arriving in New Orleans he was told that Mississippi officers had a warrant for his arrest.
Now came the cops-and-boxers chase.
Warrants were issued for the arrests of the fighters almost before the fight was over.
Headlines from the chase:
“Gov. Lowry After Them . . . Sullivan and Party Arrested at Nashville . . . Kilrain Traveling across Indiana, Pursued by Posse . . . Lying Low . . . Kilrain in Hiding in Hoosier State, Natives Help Him Dodge Posse . . . Gov. Lowry Threatens to Annul Charter of Railroad That Carried Pugs in his State.”
From New Orleans, Sullivan fled by train, but was arrested and handcuffed by officers who boarded his train in Nashville. He was jailed but released the next day after posting bail. A few days later, Kilrain was arrested in Baltimore.
In a Purvis, Miss., trial that lasted all winter, Sullivan was first sentenced to a year in jail. He appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which partially reversed the Purvis verdict. Sullivan paid a $500 fine, but served no additional jail time. He said his legal expenses were $4,000. Kilrain received a two-month jail sentence, but since anyone could hire convict labor then in Mississippi, Rich hired him out of jail. Kilrain spent two months on Rich’s farm, hunting and fishing, and was paid 30 cents a day by Rich.
Illegal bare-knuckle bouts continued into the 1930s, most commonly New Orleans, but this was the last major heavyweight bout without gloves. By 1900, Queensberry Rules boxing, with gloves, was legal in several states.
The day after the bout Muldoon, Sullivan’s trainer, sounded an epitaph for the bare-knuckle era:
“I am through forever with all ring fights (bare knuckle). I never want to see another man knocked about and punished as Kilrain was yesterday. I think boxing a grand exercise and will do all I can to encourage it, but I think the ring fighting too brutal and I want to see no more of it.”
Sullivan didn’t fight again for three years. When he was beaten by Jim Corbett in New Orleans in 1892, it marked the first heavyweight title fight with gloves, using three-minute rounds.
Kilrain had 15 more fights, but never fought for the championship again. He retired in 1896. He drifted from job to job, working in his later years as a shipyard nightwatchman in Quincy, Mass.
Sullivan, who earned and spent about a million dollars in his life, died on Feb. 2, 1918, at his country house in Abingdon, Mass. He was 59. At his funeral, at St. Paul’s Church in Boston, Kilrain was an usher.
Sullivan was buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Boston.
Kilrain died at 78 in Quincy on Dec. 22, 1937 and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Quincy, a few miles from Sullivan’s grave.