Crowds poured in from all over the state to see the sight. Whispers passed through the cities just as money from hand to hand, covering the field with an anticipation that could only be satisfied with blood.
Bare-knuckle fights were outlawed by all 38 states in 1889, but the threat of persecution didn’t stop the throngs of men and women from attending the spectacle in the woods.
“The date and location of fights was kept secret until the last minute, but the word would get round and crowds would swarm on to the buses and trains to get there,” said Jeevan Vasager, reporter for Herald Express.
The boxing venue was a closely guarded secret, according to Jack MaGowan, author of Boxing: Bare-knuckle bloodbaths. “Had the police or state militia got to hear about the contest, all hell would have broken loose.”
Trees were stripped of their branches, cheap bleachers constructed, and rope wound into the 24-foot circle. Spectators bought tickets to No Where and left during the night, according to Gillon. “Trainloads of spectators did not know specifically where they were going, other than to the fight.”
Soon, they discovered they were in Richburg, Mississippi, a one-horse town. Little did they know history was in the making.
Rules of War
Early bare-knuckle fighting was ruthless and had no written set of rules. The idea of weight divisions, round limits and referees were non-existent until they were introduced by Jack Broughton in 1743, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a fight was ended when a man went down and could not continue after a count of 30 seconds, and an additional eight seconds were used to regain the center of the ring. At this time, rules against hitting a downed fighter and grabbing below the waist were also initiated.
By 1853, rules stipulated that fights were to occur in a 24-foot-square ring surrounded by ropes, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
It all began with John L. Sullivan, the universally known Champion of Champions when it came to bare knuckle heavyweight fights.
According to Irish Times Reporter Jason Connery, Sullivan was born in Roxbury, a suburb of Boston, on Oct. 15, 1858. He spent his mid-20’s and 30’s becoming known as the world heavyweight holder by having beaten almost every challenger to step into the ring.
Despite Sullivan’s alcoholism, racism and general riotous behavior, the public loved him, according to Doug Gillon, author of John L. Sullivan: Bare-Knuckle World Champion.
“Buffalo Bill was perhaps a bigger public figure, but the Boston-born son of Irish immigrants was the first American national sporting hero,” Gillon said.
According to Gillon, Sullivan made his reputation in the early 1880’s by offering $50 to anyone who could last four rounds sparing with him.
Sullivan frequently boasted that he ‘could lick any man in the house,’ so when Tom Scannel challenged him to fight in Boston’s Dudley Street Opera House in 1877, Sullivan immediately agreed, according to Connery. Sullivan knocked Scannel off the stage and into the orchestra pit, initiating his rise to fame.
Enthralled with his success, Sullivan challenged others, including Champion of the West “Professor” John Donaldson, according to Connery. Soon after, Sullivan had fought many well-known boxers, but his reputation fell over a draw with Charley Mitchell who was suffering from an arm injury at the time.
“After that relatively unconvincing display, Sullivan, with much to prove, shifted his attention to his main US contender, Jake Kilrain,” Connery said.
According to Jack McSwain, author of Boxing: Bare-knuckle bloodbaths, Sullivan was a savage after he had too much to drink, which was often. He was a physical wreck after months of boozing and womanizing, so he refused the initial offer to fight Kilrain.
Kilrain, another Irish-American, had been recognized as the World Champion by Richard Fox, the owner of boxing’s main magazine, the Police Gazette, according to Connery.
The recognition was another setup for Sullivan. Fox had a well-known dislike for him due to a previous encounter, and used his power in media to promote contender after contender to fight Sullivan, according to Connery.
“To help legitimize boxing, the Gazette offered to sponsor both fighters and fights,” said Jane Alexiadis, Oakland Tribune correspondent. “One of Fox’s greatest and most spectacular prizes was the heavyweight championship belt he commissioned and awarded beginning in 1880.”
According to Alexiadis, the 12 pound belt was made of silver, gold and covered with rubies, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds.
“Its creation and the tabloid weight thrown behind the matches for which the belt would be awarded helped to legitimize the sport of boxing in the eyes of the public,” Alexiadis said.
The fight was set to be held in the summer heat on July 8, 1889. At the time, Sullivan, the ‘Boston Strongboy,’ had won 59 consecutive times by knockout, according to Connery.
Connery said the brutal reality of bare-knuckle fighting was well illustrated. However, the true thrill was only ever experienced by those in attendance.
“When Sullivan met Kilrain for the American boxing title, both fighters were well past their prime,” said Michael Farquhar, Washington Post Staff Writer. “They were fat and out of shape.”
Farquhar said it was a prescription for disaster.
Each man contributed $10,000 for the all-or-nothing bet, according to MaGowan.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Reporter Dan O’Neill said, “With the temperature reaching 100 degrees, the two went at it in a battle of contrasting styles: Sullivan liked to mix it up, Kilrain liked to dance, which only served to infuriate Sullivan.”
According to Connery, around 40 rounds into the fight Sullivan began vomiting.
Farquhar said, “Sullivan, feeling sick after eating a prodigious meal, begged his manager for whiskey but was refused. He got only tea.” However, Kilrain was guzzling bourbon between rounds, according to Farquhar.
Round after round the men pounded away. “Neither man would give in,” Farquhar said. “Blood and flesh were flying.”
“Will you draw the fight?” Kilrain asked, according to Farquhar. “No, you son of a …,” Sullivan said. “Stand up and fight.”
Both men were blistered, bloody and swollen. Farquhar said Sullivan’s hands were swollen so badly that they were the size and texture of raw chickens.
The men fought for two hours and 16 minutes, and by the end neither could hardly stand.
Gillon said, “Sullivan couldn’t lift his arms above waist height.”
According to O’Neill, Kilrain’s team threw in the ceremonial sponge, declaring Sullivan to be the winner.
The New York Times front page headline read: “The Bigger Brute Won,” according to Gillon.
Sullivan was tripped or wrestled down five times, and Kilrain was knocked out three times, knocked down 24 times, thrown down seven times, and shoved down six times, according to a subsequent article in the Roxiana Review. Kilrain also went down 26 times to avoid further hits.
Until the End
The men became close after the fight, and they frequently traveled to Roscommon, Ireland to search for the birthplace of their parents together, according to the Roscommon Herald. Kilrain continued fighting for ten years after the Sullivan fight.
According to Gillon, Sullivan said he would never fight under bare-knuckle rules again. The next time he fought he lost his title while wearing gloves to Gentleman Jim Corbett.
Despite losing his title, Sullivan’s popularity grew. According to Connery, he continued to hold exhibitions, but eventually Sullivan’s excessive drinking took its toll.
Connery said Sullivan even opened a saloon, believing that he could “kill two birds with one stone: sell liquor and keep prosperously drunk on the proceeds.”
After filing for bankruptcy, Sullivan began the Temperance Lecture Circuit to promote himself as “a reformed pugilist, a reformed drunkard and a muscular Christian,” and even joined the Anti-Saloon League, according to Connery.
John Sullivan died at age 59 of a heart attack on Feb. 2, 1918. According to the Roscommon Herald, Kilrain was an usher at Sullivan’s funeral.
“True to form, the last of the bare-knuckle heavyweight champions did not go quietly,” Connery said. “In a fitting end to a barn-storming life, the rock-hard winter ground had to be dynamited to allow for the burial of one of America’s most controversial and most loved sportsmen.”
However, Sullivan’s impact on the growth of the boxing still rings true in the Pine Belt.
“He was undoubtedly the wickedest man of his time,” said Ring Journalist Nat Fleischer. However, Sullivan’s impact on the growth of boxing is beyond calculation today.