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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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 various ailments.

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 World.

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 "getting old."

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?"

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