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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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The outlaw event had its own momentum, not unlike the trains that rolled, unstoppable, across the steaming bayous that July midnight in 1889. Their locomotives were like the force of an idea, presumptuous in their old-time might. Imagine the scene, the trains barreling through the black humidity: Men are mounted on cowcatchers, dangling from car tops, bulging from rear decks. Was it a drunken ride? A wild ride? Why wouldn't it have been, the purpose of passage being wholly unlawful, the point of arrival clandestine, the entire intent to outrace civility and flex some Industrial Age muscle. Did the men, all those ticket holders bound for what would be the last championship bare-knuckle fight ever, laugh when the trains passed the halfhearted militia assembled at the Mississippi state line? Or did the trains just give a mocking toot as they rattled on their way?

It was a wicked affair, all right, done up on the sly. Governors in six states fumed and fussed cluelessly over the location. Their official mantra: Not in my state! The slightest complicity—attendance, even—was made a felony. But it was hopeless, the fight inevitable. What could they do, what could anybody do? Coast to coast a new leisure class was embracing with enthusiasm the ideas of celebrity and spectacle not intertwined with war. A new era was upon them, an era of performance and entertainment, and it challenged all authority. A hundred miles from New Orleans, whence the trains had departed (destination: unknown!), a crude ring and hastily constructed pinewood bleachers stood waiting for the outlaw match. The fight mob had laid siege to the Crescent City, its racket an affront to normalcy, a harbinger of the recklessness to come. Some 50 telegraphers had arrived to give unwholesome imagination its necessary transcription. Or, rather, to record history.

And yet, for all that, the fight was not really a matter of destiny. The whole hullabaloo would not have happened, could not have happened, if John L. Sullivan, eight years before, had just gone over to Richard K. Fox's table for some small talk.

It's odd how such small things can set the trains of history in motion. Here's John L. (notice how, more than a century later, we need only his initial to identify him), and he's just flattened some sap for a $75 payday and, with the New York City police closing in, still had the presence of mind to deliver his signature send-off to the crowd—"Always on the level, yours very truly, John L. Sullivan." Now, dressed and attended by his posse, he's enjoying his rightful stein of bourbon (yes, stein) at Harry Hill's saloon when some dandified publisher in a top hat asks him to come over to his table.

Chug-chug-chug—the wheels of historical obligation gain traction here. "You tell Fox," John L. roars, wielding his glorious impudence with the same force he uses to deliver his right hand, "that if he wants to see me, he can goddam well come over to my table."

That insolence, as much as anything, helped shape the culture of sports celebrity we enjoy today. Or hasten it, anyway. Sullivan would have become our first athletic icon in any case, so devoted was he to his public career. But by involving a nascent sports media, reaching right through it to demonstrate the attraction of independence, Sullivan guaranteed his place in history.

If that's too sweeping, if it's too much to claim John L. Sullivan as this country's first superstar, let's leave it at this: If Sullivan had not slighted Fox, a self-appointed kingmaker, back in 1881, there never would have been 75 rounds of bare-knuckle brutality on that small hill outside Hattiesburg, Miss., Sullivan meeting Jake Kilrain for the championship of the world, the temperature 104�, the whole country catching a fever that remains, to this day, unabated.

Even in this past decade boxing has been in and out of funks, suddenly glorified as some new star hits the scene, then as quickly assailed by legislators who would reform or abolish it. In the years after the Civil War, however, boxing was beyond funk. It was not in danger of further reform because, legally, it had ceased to exist. It was permitted under the Marquess of Queensberry rules—which demanded gloves, three-minute rounds and the elimination of wrestling—and then only as a form of exercise. Boxing was, in the emerging age of recreation, just one more activity, like rope-climbing or Indian clubs.

Bare-knuckle boxing, or London Prize Ring rules boxing, was outside the pale. Certainly it was not for the squeamish, but its illegality was based on more than its brutality. Rather, the sport was simply too corrupt to allow for civic sanction. Plus, it was not then attracting what you would call the upper crust.

Its heritage as a sport of aristocrats, pursued by old Brits bandying about in ruffled ring wear for the gentlemanly exercise of it, had been forgotten by the time Sullivan came of age. Boxing, as conducted under the old London rules, was now a rogue enterprise, practiced by lowlifes entirely for the amusement of lowlifes. It was little wonder that all 38 states continued to outlaw the sport. "Things wasn't as they used to be," lamented the 1873 edition of American Fistiana. After a bout in which one fighter's second was pistol-whipped by his opponent's second, the publication washed its mitts of the sport, noting "another nail in the coffin of pugilism."

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