The outlaw event had its own momentum, not unlike the trains
that rolled, unstoppable, across the steaming bayous that July
midnight in 1889. Their locomotives were like the force of an
idea, presumptuous in their old-time might. Imagine the scene,
the trains barreling through the black humidity: Men are mounted
on cowcatchers, dangling from car tops, bulging from rear decks.
Was it a drunken ride? A wild ride? Why wouldn't it have been,
the purpose of passage being wholly unlawful, the point of
arrival clandestine, the entire intent to outrace civility and
flex some Industrial Age muscle. Did the men, all those ticket
holders bound for what would be the last championship
bare-knuckle fight ever, laugh when the trains passed the
halfhearted militia assembled at the Mississippi state line? Or
did the trains just give a mocking toot as they rattled on their
It was a wicked affair, all right, done up on the sly. Governors
in six states fumed and fussed cluelessly over the location.
Their official mantra: Not in my state! The slightest
complicity--attendance, even--was made a felony. But it was
hopeless, the fight inevitable. What could they do, what could
anybody do? Coast to coast a new leisure class was embracing
with enthusiasm the ideas of celebrity and spectacle not
intertwined with war. A new era was upon them, an era of
performance and entertainment, and it challenged all authority.
A hundred miles from New Orleans, whence the trains had departed
(destination: unknown!), a crude ring and hastily constructed
pinewood bleachers stood waiting for the outlaw match. The fight
mob had laid siege to the Crescent City, its racket an affront
to normalcy, a harbinger of the recklessness to come. Some 50
telegraphers had arrived to give unwholesome imagination its
necessary transcription. Or, rather, to record history.
And yet, for all that, the fight was not really a matter of
destiny. The whole hullabaloo would not have happened, could not
have happened, if John L. Sullivan, eight years before, had just
gone over to Richard K. Fox's table for some small talk.
It's odd how such small things can set the trains of history in
motion. Here's John L. (notice how, more than a century later,
we need only his initial to identify him), and he's just
flattened some sap for a $75 payday and, with the New York City
police closing in, still had the presence of mind to deliver his
signature send-off to the crowd--"Always on the level, yours
very truly, John L. Sullivan." Now, dressed and attended by his
posse, he's enjoying his rightful stein of bourbon (yes, stein)
at Harry Hill's saloon when some dandified publisher in a top
hat asks him to come over to his table.
Chug-chug-chug--the wheels of historical obligation gain
traction here. "You tell Fox," John L. roars, wielding his
glorious impudence with the same force he uses to deliver his
right hand, "that if he wants to see me, he can goddam well come
over to my table."
That insolence, as much as anything, helped shape the culture of
sports celebrity we enjoy today. Or hasten it, anyway. Sullivan
would have become our first athletic icon in any case, so
devoted was he to his public career. But by involving a nascent
sports media, reaching right through it to demonstrate the
attraction of independence, Sullivan guaranteed his place in
If that's too sweeping, if it's too much to claim John L.
Sullivan as this country's first superstar, let's leave it at
this: If Sullivan had not slighted Fox, a self-appointed
kingmaker, back in 1881, there never would have been 75 rounds
of bare-knuckle brutality on that small hill outside
Hattiesburg, Miss., Sullivan meeting Jake Kilrain for the
championship of the world, the temperature 104 [degrees], the
whole country catching a fever that remains, to this day,
Even in this past decade boxing has been in and out of funks,
suddenly glorified as some new star hits the scene, then as
quickly assailed by legislators who would reform or abolish it.
In the years after the Civil War, however, boxing was beyond
funk. It was not in danger of further reform because, legally,
it had ceased to exist. It was permitted under the Marquess of
Queensberry rules--which demanded gloves, three-minute rounds
and the elimination of wrestling--and then only as a form of
exercise. Boxing was, in the emerging age of recreation, just
one more activity, like rope-climbing or Indian clubs.
Bare-knuckle boxing, or London Prize Ring rules boxing, was
outside the pale. Certainly it was not for the squeamish, but
its illegality was based on more than its brutality. Rather, the
sport was simply too corrupt to allow for civic sanction. Plus,
it was not then attracting what you would call the upper crust.
Its heritage as a sport of aristocrats, pursued by old Brits
bandying about in ruffled ring wear for the gentlemanly exercise
of it, had been forgotten by the time Sullivan came of age.
Boxing, as conducted under the old London rules, was now a rogue
enterprise, practiced by lowlifes entirely for the amusement of
lowlifes. It was little wonder that all 38 states continued to
outlaw the sport. "Things wasn't as they used to be," lamented
the 1873 edition of American Fistiana. After a bout in which one
fighter's second was pistol-whipped by his opponent's second,
the publication washed its mitts of the sport, noting "another
nail in the coffin of pugilism."
The sport had not only given in to mob rule but, driven to the
netherworld of saloons and barges, was also increasingly subject
to the most dreadful chicanery. In his 1986 book, The Manly Art,
Elliott J. Gorn recalls an 1863 fight in San Francisco in which
a pugilist simply dropped to the ground without suffering so
much as a single blow. Fighters indulged in obvious and
infuriating conspiracies to engineer results. (In an 1871
championship fight in Canada, with $4,000 at stake, the
contenders circled each other for an hour and 17 minutes until
the police, exasperated and confused, broke up the peace; the
rematch, seven months later, was one-sided yet ended in an
altogether amazing draw.)
Nobody was to be trusted. Referees were sufficiently suspect
that after a rare apparently honest fight, ringsiders would
report their satisfaction in the phrase of the day: "The referee
failed to be killed." They were not fooling. In an 1863 bout a
referee reversed a dubious decision while having a pistol held
to his head. This was no longer a sport of gentlemen, or sport
But then as now, the game could be driven only so far
underground. As the Gilded Age approached, with money and
leisure time and publicity newly available, it was inevitable
that boxing make a comeback. Besides, then as now, the sporting
public could be easily galvanized by an exciting enough
performer. Sullivan was just the man to lead boxing forth out of
the saloons, out of the sideshows, ultimately off the barges to
become the semilegitimate theater it is today.
He was not called the Boston Strong Boy for nothing. John
Lawrence Sullivan was born in 1858 in the Roxbury section of
Boston, one of three children of an Irish immigrant laborer. By
the age of 17 he was close to 200 pounds, enough of it muscle
that he could entertain his friends by hoisting kegs of nails
overhead. He was athletic enough to be earning $25 a game
playing first base for local baseball teams. (He said he was
offered a $1,300 contract to play for the Cincinnati Red
Stockings.) But his ambition lay in the outcast sport of boxing,
all the stranger since no boy, no matter how strong, had ever
managed to make a living at it.
Sullivan, who had been an indifferent apprentice at plumbing,
tinsmithing and masonry, had finally discovered good use for his
pile-driving hands, and he took to a sport that was, by turns,
secretive and flamboyant. There was not much chance to practice
it beyond sporadic forays into saloon fights and quasilegal
"benefits" and "exhibitions" (in which the boxers, ostensibly
sparring, would share the bill with clog dancers and other
variety acts). Even so, he developed a local reputation in this
weird underworld and eventually found backers to sponsor a trip
to New York, specifically to Harry Hill's, where, in a wholly
spontaneous gesture one night in 1881, the 22-year-old Sullivan
offered $50 to anyone who could last four three-minute rounds
Steve Taylor, a 30-year-old former cop from Coney Island who had
once been Jersey City's coroner and who dabbled in boxing, even
training the day's "champion," Paddy Ryan, was there and
accepted Sullivan's challenge. The fight was over before police
could interrupt. But if the magistrates weren't in attendance,
society was. Among those whose interest was piqued by the affair
was Richard K. Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette,
who was always on the lookout for sensational fodder for his
Fox was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, a Belfast-born outsider
who was determined to rejuvenate the sagging paper he had bought
in 1876 any way he could. He was a journalistic visionary, the
first to recognize his readers' growing appetite for
entertainment as opposed to news. Eventually he offered in the
pages of his pink weekly what is believed to have been the
world's first sports section, but from the beginning he was
developing a knack for the kind of stunts that could boost
readership in tonsorial parlors across the land.
For Fox, whose ego required him to advertise his name in the
masthead, nearly every borderline activity known to man could be
cast in heroic terms. Thus he sponsored contests for oyster
opening and for haircutting, for one-legged dancers and for
rat-catching dogs. Circulation seemed to increase with each
champion crowned, whether it was the bartender who engineered a
pousse-cafe with the most layers or the poor guy who had the
most pins stuck into his skin. It's estimated that he spent a
quarter of a million dollars on cups, trophies and belts; to his
mind, it must have been money well spent: Each award featured a
likeness of the mustachioed Fox.
Nothing, however, bumped readership like a fight. Fox noted that
his normal circulation of 150,000 reached 400,000 for coverage
of the May 1880 Paddy Ryan-Joe Goss fight, a bout of such
minimal significance that it would be hard to say the winner was
any more distinguished than a rat-catching dog. Goss, a product
of the British fight game, was a 41-year-old 150-pounder, while
the 27-year-old, 220-pound Ryan, who had been dubbed the Trojan
Giant, had one match to his credit. Still, because the bout was
billed as a championship fight, the interest proved astonishing.
Without forsaking steeple climbers, Fox resolved to recognize
boxing in his paper henceforth. Ryan, who beat Goss in 87
rounds, was hailed as the new American champion and awarded a
National Police Gazette belt--PRESENTED BY RICHARD K. FOX,
Fox might well have embraced Sullivan as a new flag bearer save
for the affront at Hill's. You might predict that a self-made
man such as Fox, who had gotten into the habit of crowning
people, would take umbrage at Sullivan's lack of deference. What
nobody could guess was how lasting that umbrage would be. Though
Fox would feature Sullivan in his tabloid when it suited his
circulation, he would remain the fighter's constant enemy,
always on the lookout for an opponent to embarrass the Strong
Sullivan, meanwhile, was doing fine without Fox's sponsorship.
He had his next fight, more properly his New York debut than the
Taylor bout, two months later, taking on a local enforcer named
John Flood. Four hundred patrons paid $10 apiece to watch the
two battle for a stake of $1,000 (from which the winner would
get $750). The fight was staged on a barge that had been towed
from West 43rd Street to the middle of the Hudson River. By the
eighth round, well before the Harbor Police could locate the
floating crime scene, Sullivan had destroyed Flood.
It turned out that an actual fight was a sort of loss leader,
more marketing gimmick than sporting event. The real money,
Sullivan and his backers discovered, was in barnstorming. He
could reenact a bout in a "benefit" or take on all comers in an
"exhibition of the science of boxing," each having the
advantages of legality and cut-rate opposition, although in
either case he was free to knock out his appointed foe. He would
return to this well again and again, encouraged that a man could
earn nearly $7,000, not to mention increased stature, just for
having gotten his name into the papers.
Yet he could not long avoid Paddy Ryan, still trumpeted as the
true champion. Ryan had not fought again but had returned to
running a saloon in Albany and had become more of a Trojan Giant
than ever. When Fox insisted on backing him in a Sullivan fight,
offering $5,000, Ryan refused, noting that he was out of shape.
But Fox was adamant, and the bout was finally scheduled for
February 1882, "within 100 miles of New Orleans."
To Fox's dismay, Sullivan had scant trouble with Ryan, pummeling
him for 11 minutes until Ryan's handlers threw in the sponge.
The coverage that Fox might have devoted to his champion went
Sullivan's way. Further, the "respectable" press, even The New
York Times, was now paying attention to Sullivan, making him a
Sullivan's fame and money-making ability in the next few years
only grew (he made more than $100,000 in an 1882-83 tour), even
as Fox invented one challenger after another. Fox presented him
with Tug Wilson (who, clinching and hugging, survived Sullivan's
$1,000 challenge--up from $50--in the original Madison Square
Garden), then Charley Mitchell (who forced a decision under
Queensberry rules, which Sullivan actually preferred) and even a
fellow billed as a "giant Maori." The 6'2 1/2", 225-pound Herbert
Slade barely lasted three rounds. After that Sullivan embarked
on another tour, this one clearing him at least $80,000. And Fox
All the while Sullivan was becoming this country's greatest
known sportsman, his mug in every barbershop and bar in the
land. More than that, by 1887 he had become an international
figure, his visit to London causing near riots. Inasmuch as he
was our first modern sports hero, able to make news and money in
equally extravagant measure, he was also the first to get a
taste of the accompanying high life. Always partial to strong
drink, he was now prone to benders befitting a world champion.
For a match with Mitchell in 1884, Sullivan, capping a five-day
toot, showed up at the Garden drunk and was unable to fight. "He
has forever disgraced himself in the eyes of the general and
sporting public," Fox wrote. The public was more forgiving and
was perhaps even entertained by Sullivan's excesses. By one
account he polished off 56 gin fizzes in a sitting. By another
he fell off the back of a train trying to relieve himself; it
was several miles before he was noticed missing, and the train
had to back slowly to where he lay unconscious between the
rails, bloodied and pocked with cinders and, to top it off, on
fire. The image of a two-fisted drinker was hardly at odds with
that of a two-fisted brawler. But who could guess at the toll
Sullivan's bingeing might take on his body?
In any case boxing was becoming the least of his concerns. A man
who'd attained a certain level of celebrity could now make his
fortune apart from his primary vocation, and Sullivan exploited
every opportunity available. He barnstormed and even took the
stage, signing with the Lester and Allen Minstrel Show in the
mid-1880s. Aside from showing up sober (the contract stipulated
a $700 fine for each performance he missed), Sullivan had little
to do to earn his $500 a week for the next five months. In fact,
all he had to do was strip to the waist and strike a fighting
pose. He even went on a European tour during which he absorbed
international adulation and made time to fight Mitchell yet
again, crossing the English Channel to meet him on the estate of
Baron Alphonse de Rothschild. The frustrating draw (Sullivan
knocked down the constantly retreating Mitchell 39 times)
bolstered neither his pocketbook nor his fistic reputation, but
it kept his name out there.
But as much money as he made, averaging more than $60,000 a year
in those mid-'80s, Sullivan was forever struggling financially.
A lot of his money was left in bars, where he liked to engage in
impromptu drinking contests, and a lot was simply given away--he
was a notoriously soft touch. He remained, as always, receptive
to offers to do what he used to do best, box.
As usual, it was Richard K. Fox who came up with the most
enticing offers. By now he was a de facto fight promoter, and
there was never a fight he wanted more than a Sullivan fight,
which he always regarded as unfinished business. By 1887
Sullivan was 29 and headed toward dissipation, and Fox seized
the moment. He agreed to back an up-and-coming Baltimore fighter
named John Killion, a.k.a. Jake Kilrain, a man of such constancy
that he was said to have kept bank accounts for his two children
and provided his wife with an insurance policy that covered him
when he was fighting. He was plenty tough, too. So Fox, with a
publisher's logic, conspired to award Kilrain the Police Gazette
championship belt (supposedly made from 12 1/2 pounds of silver,
plated with gold, studded with diamonds and featuring a relief
of Fox in his top hat).
The effect was to goad Sullivan into accepting a bare-knuckle
match to be held on July 8, 1889, "within 200 miles of New
Orleans," for the "sum of $10,000 a side and belt representing
the championship of the world." Sullivan dismissed the baubled
and bejeweled belt entirely, saying he would not hang it on even
"a good bulldog." Instead, at a Boston benefit he accepted a
sort of people's championship belt that was possibly even
gaudier than the Gazette's. Said to be a "$10,000 belt," it
spelled out Sullivan's name in diamonds beside diamond reliefs
depicting the U.S. seal along with eagles and harps. But
Sullivan could hardly dismiss Kilrain at this point in his
career, when his fame and money-making abilities once more
hinged on actual athletic performance.
The problem was, Kilrain was in terrific shape, and Sullivan was
anything but. Following his European tour, he had embarked on
heroic debauchery until he was at death's door. In his
autobiography, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House! Sullivan
listed a series of physical complaints--"typhoid fever, gastric
fever, inflammation of the bowels, heart trouble, and liver
complaint all combined." He was also aware of "incipient
paralysis" and a "mysterious itch." He was subject to delusions
and deliriums as well, pestered by phantom rats and, on one
occasion, burglars, whom he claims to have invited to breakfast
on the assurance that they "would behave themselves." It would
be impossible, of course, to give a diagnosis from the distance
of 113 years, but you would probably not risk libel to suggest a
profound case of alcohol poisoning was somehow involved in his
Sullivan was shrewd enough to stipulate "six months hence" in
the contract for the Kilrain fight, but he would need more than
time and "electric treatments" to restore his shriveled body.
(He was down to 160 pounds at one point.) Bed rest and a gradual
drying out finally got him up and about, but he was hardly in
shape for Kilrain. Nor did he appear inclined to make the
effort. His first four months of "training" were spent in
familiar boozing, although the regimen did get his weight back
up to 240.
Sullivan's backers, desperate, turned to Billy Muldoon, a
physical culturalist who agreed to shepherd Sullivan's comeback
for a fee of $10,000, which he would collect only if Sullivan
won. Muldoon obviously had his work cut out for him. "This man
Sullivan was a drunken, bloated, helpless mass of flesh and bone
and without a single dollar in his pocket when I took him from
New York to my place [upstate]," said Muldoon, in the
time-honored fashion of giving all credit to the trainer. To be
fair, he had more to deal with than just conditioning. After
hustling Sullivan off to his farm near Belfast, N.Y., Muldoon
had to play parole officer as well. The first thing he did was
to leave orders at the two bars in Belfast that Sullivan was not
to be served anything stronger than the concoction Muldoon
called his "first-rate purgative," doses of powdered rhubarb,
calcined magnesia and powdered ginger.
At least once Sullivan bolted camp for a more familiar ambiance.
One Belfast bartender, who had decided that he stood a better
chance with Muldoon than with Sullivan, was pouring the fighter
a third drink when Muldoon appeared and pointed to the door. The
two had long since stopped speaking to each other, although so
far Sullivan had not resisted the work, which included farm
chores as well as the usual medicine-ball routines. But this was
a crisis. They repaired to Muldoon's barn, stripped and wrestled
until Muldoon flung Sullivan to the ground, his arm twisted
behind his back.
In his autobiography Sullivan writes, "During my training with
Muldoon, we had a little misunderstanding, but after a day we
were led to bury the hatchet."
The buildup for a decidedly illegal event proceeded without the
press conferences we enjoy today. Indeed, Sullivan's camp was
largely closed, permitting, or perhaps encouraging speculation.
Still, interest was intense. Inflaming it just a bit was a story
by Nellie Bly, a journalist and a celebrity in her own right,
who was allowed to visit Sullivan on behalf of the New York
In her story, which ran a month before the fight, the intrepid
Ms. Bly (intrepid indeed; she had earlier made her name by
committing herself to an asylum and reporting on the abysmal
conditions there) conducted an exhaustive interview, beginning,
"I came here to learn all about you, Mr. Sullivan, so will you
please begin by telling me what time you get up in the morning."
Still, she seemed to win the great man over, and when she asked
if he liked prizefighting, he said, "I don't." When she
persisted, he said this would be his last fight, as he was
All in all, he liked her more than he did most scribes. Or at
least more than the previous one, who, as Bly reported, had come
to the door and said, "Where's old Sullivan?"
As Sullivan recounted the incident to Bly, "I told him, 'In the
barn.' And he soon got put out of there for his toughness."
Most of the press, kept at distances even greater than the barn,
was more skeptical than Ms. Bly, who concluded her article by
saying, "I shook hands with John L. Sullivan and wished him
success in the coming fight, and I believe he will have it, too,
don't you?" Taking Fox's lead, the prefight coverage portrayed
the bout as a duel between the 30-year-old family-man Kilrain,
who once won the National Amateur Junior Sculling Championship
(all the more legitimate for not having been sponsored by Fox),
and the dissolute Sullivan. The Gazette tended to picture
Kilrain in a high silk hat to accentuate his ostensible social
superiority. The upshot was that the odds were drawing even. The
New York World: "According to the history of all such drunkards
as [Sullivan], his legs ought to fail him after 20 minutes of
This was terrific from a promotional point of view. However, the
matter of logistics--where and how you stage an event that, by
its illegal nature, cannot invite customers--was problematic.
Louisiana governor Francis T. Nichols had more or less put out a
contract on the fight, ordering both the Louisiana Field
Artillery and the Louisiana Rifles to be at the ready.
Nevertheless, the nation's high rollers were highballing their
way into New Orleans. The Daily Picayune reported, "The city is
fighting mad.... Everybody had the fever and is talking Sullivan
and Kilrain. Ladies discussed it in street cars, men talked and
argued about it in places which had never heard pugilism
Reporters swarmed New Orleans, which surely did not contribute
to decorum. Western Union had 50 telegraphers there to transmit
more than 200,000 words of prefight coverage. And even in the
pre-sports-book age, betting was rampant and, by one account at
least, international. According to Michael T. Isenberg's
biography John L. Sullivan and His America, large sums were
being wagered in Tahiti. Sullivan was reportedly the great
Supposedly only New Orleans sportsmen-gamblers-promoters Bud
Renaud and Pat Duffy knew the site and where the trains would be
directed, but Mississippi was soon the destination most often
mentioned in rumors. To be safe, Nichols went into league with
the governors of Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and even
Nebraska to keep the fight from taking place in their
jurisdictions. However, Nichols was derailed in most of his
efforts when he couldn't book trains to move his militia. The
promoters had long ago locked up all rail transport.
On the afternoon of July 7 the fighters' train left New Orleans.
A baggage car separated the rival parties, but not well enough.
Police Gazette editor Bill Harding mistakenly entered the
Sullivan car. A Sullivan-camp member punched him in the nose and
walked him into the Kilrain car.
Beginning at 10 o'clock that night a crowd that would reach
15,000 thronged New Orleans's Queen and Crescent Yards. Only
ticket holders ($15 for a ringside camp-stool seat, as little as
50 cents for the grandstand) were supposed to board the trains,
but, in a chaotic scene, lots more gained passage. Conductors
found it difficult to collect fares, especially from those who
perched on the rooftops, and they threatened and cajoled,
finally, according to one account, "shooting pistols up by the
edge of the cars by the dangling legs, but it didn't work." With
passengers inside and out, the trains slipped out of the city at
2 a.m., heading north.
The high authorities may have been determined to stop the fight,
but their resolve did not filter down to the rank and file.
Aboard the first excursion train were both the Louisiana
attorney general and the New Orleans chief of police, who said
they were on board to make sure the train went safely past the
state line. However, they did not get off there, and The New
York Times, in its account, "presumed that they continued on
their way with the others."
As only the fight's inner circle knew, the destination was a
30,000-acre pine farm near Hattiesburg, north of New Orleans.
The estate was owned by Col. Charles Rich, who had happily
agreed to provide the use of his land. Rich, who put the
fighters up the night before, had 20 men working by torchlight
to erect a ring and wooden stands. Rich even had the limbs of
surrounding trees shorn so that no tree-climbing spectator could
gain a free view.
A little after daybreak, the 2,122 paying customers, dulled by
their all-night ride, began lugging their camp stools up the
hill to this new ring. Somebody who was in tune with the culture
might have spotted his share of celebrities. Certainly there was
Bat Masterson, the former Dodge City sheriff, who'd become a
fight promoter (and would serve as Kilrain's timekeeper), but
there were also such luminaries of the time as Steve Brodie,
famous for (supposedly) taking his eponymous jump off the
Finally, at about 10 a.m., the Marion County sheriff, W.J.
Cowart, entered the ring to command the peace and was met with
indifference. Sheriff Cowart shrugged and, having issued the
official statement of protest, took his seat ringside.
The principals gathered in the ring shortly after. The
temperature was approaching triple figures. Kilrain was seconded
by Sullivan's longtime nemesis, Charley Mitchell ("the bombastic
sprinter," Sullivan called him), and veteran boxer Mike Donovan.
Sullivan entered with Muldoon and former fighter Mike Cleary.
John Fitzpatrick, who would soon be mayor of New Orleans, was
chosen as referee on the spot, so that whatever corruption might
occur could not be premeditated. According to ringsiders Kilrain
then walked forward and placed $1,000 in "rollup money" in
Fitzpatrick's hand. Reminded of this fundamental aspect of
boxing, Sullivan jumped up and could be heard to say, "Have you
got money to cover?" A second did, and the side bets were in
Looking back, you would be tempted to say the actual fight was
anticlimactic. But try to place yourself at the scene, even
tired, disheveled and hot. (The ringsiders pictured seem to have
not so much as loosened a tie, much less doffed a hat.) You have
evaded all manner of authorities to bear witness to an event
that is the talk of the nation. In Los Angeles the fight has
been front-page news for 10 days. The betting in New York is
colossal. That's the great John L. Sullivan before you, the man
who can lick any sonofabitch in the land. And you, standing on
Rich's fresh-cut pine, which in the morning heat is oozing pitch
that sticks to your shoes, are privy to one of sport's great
secrets, one that will surely become part of history.
Still, it was hot, and it wasn't much of a fight. Many months
later, testifying in court proceedings stemming from the outlaw
fight, one J.W. Holleman would sum it up as follows: "They
skylarked and fought until the sponge was thrown up." That
too-strictly summed it up, for, after all, the combatants did
wage 75 rounds of war, covering two hours and 16 minutes under a
hot Mississippi sun. But too many of the rounds were alike.
Kilrain, according to Mitchell's game plan, attempted to outrace
Sullivan, and the early rounds were devoid of any real action.
There was much wrestling, which favored Kilrain, and much
stomping on insteps, which likewise favored Kilrain. Sullivan
was frustrated by Kilrain's jabbing-and-grabbing style and
infuriated when Mitchell taunted him from the corner. ("I wish
it was you I had in here, sucker," Sullivan shouted over
Kilrain's shoulder.) After the fourth round had gone 15 minutes
(a round lasted until an opponent went down, whether voluntarily
or not), Sullivan barked, "Why don't you stand and fight like a
man, you sonofabitch?"
Kilrain, the lighter by at least 10 pounds, was shrewdly
dropping to one knee to end rounds, although he did flash an
occasional zinger. In Round 7 he caught Sullivan on the ear,
producing crimson. "First blood," Fitzpatrick called, and money
changed hands throughout the tiered bleachers.
But mostly, as The New York Times reported, the action went to
the "bigger brute." Although Sullivan had a torn ear, a lump
under one eye, bloody feet from the spikings and a sunburn, he
was clearly in charge. The Associated Press made note that in
Round 19, "Sullivan was planting roasters on Kilrain's ribs,
which could be heard all over the enclosure."
Still, there was the matter of endurance, and Kilrain's backers
were encouraged in the 44th round when Sullivan suddenly
vomited. His handlers had mixed whiskey into his tea after the
43rd round. Sullivan later explained, in the manner of a man who
had come to relish sobriety, "There being too much liquor in the
tea, and my stomach being in such a good condition, I threw it
His trainer, knowing his man better, said that Sullivan "threw
up the tea and kept down the whiskey."
Kilrain hopefully offered his opponent the option of quitting.
"No," shouted Sullivan, "you loafer!" and knocked him down in
each of the next three rounds. By now Kilrain was himself
quaffing liquor between rounds, as much as a quart altogether,
according to one account. But he could not be inspired to do
anything more epic than last 75 rounds in the face of the raging
John L. Sullivan. It was hopeless. The Gazette's Bill Harding
departed ringside quietly.
Finally, at 12:26 p.m., it was over. As our J.W. Holleman again
summed it up in court, "One of these waiters got out in the
middle and threw up the sponge."
The one-sidedness aside--the Daily Picayune counted 24
knockdowns, seven throw-downs and six shove-downs by Sullivan
and another 26 times that Kilrain simply took a knee, sometimes
within seconds of the beginning of a round--there was a sense
that something special had just happened. Good Lord!
Seventy-five rounds of bare-knuckle boxing! The fans pulled the
site apart for mementos. The bedlam was considerable. Sullivan's
felt hat, which he had thrown in the ring ("Me hat's in the
ring"), immediately went for $50. Isenberg reported that a
Louisville fire chief refused an offer of $1,000 for Sullivan's
There was bedlam in the ring, too. Before Sullivan would accept
the $2,000 in bets (or the "dog collar," which he immediately
remanded to his corner), he rushed Kilrain's corner in pursuit
of Mitchell. There was still fight in him, as the four men
restraining him could have testified.
Kilrain departed in tears. Put aboard a train for proper escape,
he was inconsolable, "crying like a child," according to The New
York Times, and this was with a righteous dose of morphine for
his pain. "I was told by the best doctors in England not to go
into a fight," he told the Times cryptically, "but I did it
because I couldn't get out of it. I couldn't do my best, that is
what makes me feel so mean."
He may not have carried Fox's banner high, but he did not betray
the prefight coverage. The family man did indeed instruct a
telegrapher at first opportunity to send the following back home
to Baltimore: "Nature gave out. Not hurt, though licked. Your
Sullivan was much less the worse for wear and returned to New
Orleans, where he enjoyed cocktails at the Young Men's Gymnastic
Club and threw money out the window.
There were legal entanglements, and both Sullivan and Kilrain
were hauled back to Purvis, Miss., to stand trial for their
flagrant disobedience. It is complicated to describe, but
suffice it to say that although Sullivan surrendered the bulk of
the $10,000 he cleared from the fight, he and Kilrain were
eventually sent packing on a technicality. One imagines the
judge winking at the fighters.
The fight seemed to be a springboard to fame, vaulting nearly
everybody involved further into celebrity and announcing a new
star-making era. Nellie Bly grabbed celebrity by the horns and,
in a widely acclaimed newspaper stunt, beat Jules Verne's
fictional 80-day circumnavigation by nearly eight days; her
grateful publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, sent a train to San
Francisco to return her to Broadway, where she was treated to
fireworks and a parade. She married a millionaire industrialist
40 years her senior, but while trying to reform working
conditions in his company after he died, she ran it into the
Bat Masterson, whose Dodge City past may have been exaggerated
in the penny press, found himself an unwitting celebrity when he
traveled to New York and was arrested for running a three-card
monte game. He nonetheless remained a popular figure in New
York, where he became a sports columnist at the Morning
Telegraph, famous for his feuds with other columnists. The man
with 22 notches in his pistol died at his typewriter.
Kilrain, true to his modest persona, ducked fame better than he
did Sullivan's rights. He fought on, and with distinction. And
he joined Sullivan in various appearances. But he never rightly
profited from his day in Mississippi. His Baltimore saloon, the
natural reward of any boxer, burned down, and he lived out his
life in a series of jobs, each one smaller than the last. He
ended up as a night watchman in a Quincy, Mass., shipyard. He
died in 1937 at age 78, having lived long enough to be one of
Nobody profited more mightily than Sullivan, though, who
parlayed his career not only into tours but onto the stage as
well. A brief return to boxing, in which he engaged Gentleman
Jim Corbett in a Queensberry rules fight in 1892, signaled the
close to that chapter; Corbett thrashed him, knocking him out in
the eighth round. "I came into the ring once too often,"
Sullivan said. But there were more tours (it is estimated that
Sullivan earned more than a million dollars from his combined
careers) and a surprisingly long life of fame (considering his
habits) before he died in 1918 at the age of 59.
Some would find irony in the fact that Sullivan died
broke--having once pawned his championship belt for $175, the
jewels long since pried out--and that Richard K. Fox didn't.
Although the National Police Gazette finally folded in the 20th
century, it is said that Fox left an estate of $1.5 million when
he died in 1922, which in some quarters might amount to the last
laugh. But this overlooks a central principle of history, or
popular culture, anyway: The man who put his own name on a
championship belt is no longer remembered at all, whereas the
man who refused to wear it will likely be remembered forever.
Presumably, Fox sulks still.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION OF JOHN L. SULLIVAN BY ROB DAY
B/W PHOTO SQUARED OFF In two hours and 16 minutes under the hot Mississippi sun, Sullivan (left) knocked Kilrain down 24 times.
SIX COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ANTIQUITIES OF THE PRIZE RING PAY-PER-VIEW In these panels, the New York Illustrated News gave its eager readers a taste of the ringside action.
B/W PHOTO: ANTIQUITIES OF THE PRIZE RING THE PUBLISHER Snubbed by Sullivan, Fox made it his mission to find a fighter who could beat the Boston Strong Boy.
B/W PHOTO: ORBIS/BETTMANN THE JOURNALIST A celebrity in her own right, Bly wrote a knockout of a story about her visit with the great John L. in his training camp.
B/W PHOTO: TIMEPIX THE GUNFIGHTER Masterson, with 22 notches in his pistol, brought some Dodge City authority to his role as timekeeper.
The fight vaulted everyone involved further into celebrity and
announced a new star-making era.