SI Vault
Richard Hoffer
May 06, 2002
How 75 rounds of bare-fisted boxing in 1889 crowned America's first superstar and transformed the face of sport
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May 06, 2002

Fisticuffs John L. Sullivan & Jake Kilrain In The Outlaw Brawl That Started It All

How 75 rounds of bare-fisted boxing in 1889 crowned America's first superstar and transformed the face of sport

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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 national figure.

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�", 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 sulked.

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� pounds of silver, plated with gold, studded with diamonds and featuring a relief of Fox in his top hat).

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