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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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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 Brooklyn Bridge.

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 hand.

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 fighter 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 right off."

His trainer, knowing his man better, said that Sullivan "threw up the tea and kept down the whiskey."

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