- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

The men had boxed and wrestled and pushed and shoved for two hours, 16 minutes, 23 seconds, and now the challenger was in bad shape. Jake Kilrain’s head was beginning to roll loosely on his shoulders, and a ring physician told cornerman Mike Donovan, “If you keep sending your man out there, he’ll die.” So Donovan, fighting back tears, tossed a sponge into the ring, and finally it was over.

On July 7, 1889, America’s last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship fight ended anticlimactically. In the steamy hamlet of Richburg, Miss., John L. Sullivan, the famous “Boston Strong Boy,” successfully defended his title in a bloody bout that even 114 years later makes us wince at the telling.

Of course, it was illegal. Bare-knuckle bouts fought under the ancient London Prize Ring rules had come to be regarded as dangerous and inhumane as cockfighting, and the governors of six states had sworn no such event would take place. Lesser officials winked, however, and so grandstands were hastily constructed in Richburg, near Hattiesburg and north of New Orleans, and the fight would go on. In this case, the new Marquess of Queensberry rules, requiring gloves and other niceties for prizefights, would have to wait for another day.

The historic fight had its genesis eight years earlier in a New York City saloon after Sullivan had flattened one more patsy. A messenger for Richard Fox, the dandified publisher of the National Police Gazette, extended Fox’s invitation to the champion to visit his table. Roared Sullivan, his mind perhaps clouded by beer and cluttered by insolence: “You tell him that if he wants to see me, he can [deleted] well come over to my table.”

Fox obviously took umbrage and then some. From that day forward, he devoted himself to locating fighters who might lick John L. Now he had found his strongest candidate in Baltimore: a promising veteran named John Killion, aka Jake Kilrain.

Even without benefit of radio or television, the fight had the media and sporting public in an uproar. It was billed, understandably, as a duel between the forces of good and evil. Sullivan was widely known as a heavy drinker, a womanizer and a bully whose boast that “I can lick any man in the house” had become a mantra for the Gilded Age. Despite these factors, or maybe because of them, he had become America’s first genuine sporting superstar.

Kilrain, by contrast, was a devoted family man who set up trust funds for each of his children and an insurance policy that guaranteed solvency for his wife should he be maimed or killed in the ring. Does this remind us of a modern fight between, say, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield? Maybe it should.

Now it was the day of the fight, and some 15,000 fans rode trains from near and far to pay ticket prices ranging from 50 cents to $15 to sit on newly constructed boards, from which green pine tar oozed onto their clothes as the temperature climbed into the 90s.

Sullivan entered the ring as a rich man, by standards of the day. After dispatching Paddy Ryan, his biggest rival, in just 11 minutes seven years earlier, Sullivan made more than $100,000 in a nationwide tour, appearing in vaudeville and minstrel shows. A few years later, another such tour brought him $80,000. Meanwhile, the champion was toying with one hapless challenger after another promoted by Fox.

Fighting was all too easy for Sullivan, whose weight often ballooned from 210 to 240 pounds between bouts. Before a match against one Charley Mitchell in 1884, he went on a five-day bender and showed up at the original Madison Square Garden drunk and unable to fight. Another time, he guzzled 56 gin fizzes at one setting. Once he fell off the back of a train while attempting to relieve himself. Despite these excesses, he was admired and beloved by most fans — a role model perhaps for Babe Ruth later.

By the time he signed to meet Kilrain, the 31-year-old Sullivan was suffering from a variety of alcohol-aided ailments, including what he called “incipient paralysis” and “a mysterious itch,” and his weight was down to 160. But he had six months to prepare for the fight, and he made it with the considerable help of a monkish regimen forced upon him by a “physical culturist.”

Kilrain, a year younger, was in such terrific shape that Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World suggested Sullivan would last no more than 20 minutes.

Shortly before the scheduled starting time of 10 a.m., Marion County sheriff W.J. Cowart entered the ring and proclaimed the fight illegal. His statement was greeted by indifference and, we may assume, more than a few hoots. The sheriff shrugged and took his seat at ringside, joining many celebrities of the day. The timekeeper for the fight (why did they need one when a round lasted until a man went down?) was none other than the famous Bat Masterson, fresh from cleaning up Dodge City.

Oddly, it wasn’t much of a fight. Both boxers later were arrested for participating, Sullivan in New Orleans and Kilrain in Baltimore. During one of the court proceedings before both men were acquitted, a spectator named J.W. Holleman testified, “They skylarked and fought until the sponge was thrown up.” We don’t know what shape Mr. Holleman himself was in — many onlookers were drunk or suffering from hangovers in the merciless sun — but his response seems much too simple.

In the dull early rounds, Kilrain tried to evade Sullivan’s rushes and often dropped to one knee to end a round when the champion landed solidly. After the fourth round had lasted 15 minutes, the frustrated John L. barked, “Why don’t you stand and fight like a man!”

Gradually, however, Sullivan’s 10-pound weight advantage began to tell, and he took solid command. Yet, Kilrain’s supporters were heartened in the 44th round when Sullivan suddenly vomited — the result, he later insisted, of his handlers mixing whisky into his tea between rounds.

Kilrain, still a gentleman if somewhat the worse for wear, invited Sullivan to quit. “No, you loafer!” the champion bellowed, emphasizing his point by knocking the challenger down to end each of the next three rounds.

By now, Kilrain was drinking whisky himself between rounds to keep going, but clearly he was a beaten man. Sadly, one of Fox’s Police Gazette reporters left his ringside seat, and money began changing hands among bettors. Then, suddenly, the sponge came flying into the ring.

A reporter for the New Orleans Daily Picayune — surely the most strangely named newspaper in journalistic history — counted 24 knockdowns, seven throw-downs and six shove-downs by Sullivan, plus 26 times when Kilrain took a knee.

Kilrain was crying as he left the ring and sobbing as he boarded a train for Baltimore’s Camden Station. Later he claimed he had not been well before the fight, explaining to the New York Times, “I was told by the best doctors not to go into a fight, but I did it because I couldn’t get out of it. I could not do my best, that is why I feel so mean [bad].”

The Times reporter did not specify the nature of his illness or injury. Was Kilrain an early alibi artist? Chances are we’ll never know.

Sullivan, in much better postfight shape, enjoyed cocktails that night at a New Orleans club while flinging money out the window to his adoring public.

John L. reigned as champion until 1892, when Gentleman Jim Corbett won the title by knocking him out in the eighth round with his renowned “solar plexus” punch. But Sullivan continued to tour and earned an estimated $1million from his combined careers before dying at 59 in 1918. (His purse from the Kilrain fight was about $10,000.)

Kilrain, who sought largely to escape fame, endured tougher times. His saloon in Baltimore burned down, and he was forced to labor at a succession of menial jobs. But he lived long enough to be a pallbearer at Sullivan’s funeral before his own death at 78 in 1937.

As it turned out, the Great John L. was the fighter who would be remembered, while Kilrain largely has been consigned to the junk pile of boxing history. But what they did together — going 75 rounds without gloves under Mississippi’s midday sun — seems greater than what either accomplished alone.

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