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FISTICUFFS JOHN L. SULLIVAN & JAKE KILRAIN IN THE OUTLAW BRAWL THAT STARTED IT ALL
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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Kilrain, true to his modest persona, ducked fame better than he did Sullivan's rights. He fought on, and with distinction. And he joined Sullivan in various appearances. But he never rightly profited from his day in Mississippi. His Baltimore saloon, the natural reward of any boxer, burned down, and he lived out his life in a series of jobs, each one smaller than the last. He ended up as a night watchman in a Quincy, Mass., shipyard. He died in 1937 at age 78, having lived long enough to be one of Sullivan's pallbearers.

Nobody profited more mightily than Sullivan, though, who parlayed his career not only into tours but onto the stage as well. A brief return to boxing, in which he engaged Gentleman Jim Corbett in a Queensberry rules fight in 1892, signaled the close to that chapter; Corbett thrashed him, knocking him out in the eighth round. "I came into the ring once too often," Sullivan said. But there were more tours (it is estimated that Sullivan earned more than a million dollars from his combined careers) and a surprisingly long life of fame (considering his habits) before he died in 1918 at the age of 59.

Some would find irony in the fact that Sullivan died broke-having once pawned his championship belt for $175, the jewels long since pried out—and that Richard K. Fox didn't. Although the National Police Gazette finally folded in the 20th century, it is said that Fox left an estate of $1.5 million when he died in 1922, which in some quarters might amount to the last laugh. But this overlooks a central principle of history, or popular culture, anyway: The man who put his own name on a championship belt is no longer remembered at all, whereas the man who refused to wear it will likely be remembered forever. Presumably, Fox sulks still.

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