Saturday, June 20, 2020

Flashback Friday: When Mississippi was the Boxing Capitol of the World

Note:  This post was supposed to go up last night.  Apologies. 

John L. Sullivan.  The name personifies toughness, a manliness of an age long gone.  The name is spoken with a respect few achieve.  Lombardi comes to mind.  Although primal in nature, boxing is life distilled into its crudest form.   Life batters, life beats down. Life is always standing in the other corner, waiting for the bell.  The ability to take a punch and give a punch is the essence of the human spirit.

For a brief moment, Mississippi was the center of the boxing world.  John L. Sullivan reigned as the last Bare-Knuckles Champion in boxing.  He was the Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali of his time with nary a peer.  

The last bare-knuckles champeenship fight took place Rich in 1889. The  fight to hold the fight was almost as fierce as the fight itself as the Governor went on a mission to stop the fight.  
The media went into a frenzy when the fight was announced. The Hinds County Gazette reported the prize-fight on January 26, 1889.

Believe it or not, Kilrain was favored.  The Los Angeles Times provides a nice account of the times in a 1989 story:

Sullivan took boxing from an illegal activity staged on river barges and put it into modern arenas. He bridged the gap from bare knuckles to gloves.

Jake Kilrain, from the Boston suburb of Somerville, was sober, quiet, a strong family man and actually regarded by some as the true heavyweight champion of the world. Sullivan had only sneered at Kilrain’s numerous challenges for a showdown.

In early 1889, things came to a head. Richard Fox, publisher of the country’s leading prize-fighting journal, The Police Gazette, awarded Kilrain the magazine’s championship belt, studded with 200 ounces of gold and silver.
Sullivan sneered, calling it a “dog collar.”...

Meanwhile, Kilrain was taking on and defeating the best available heavyweights--Jack Burkey, Jack Ashton, Frank Herald and Joe Godfrey.

When Fox declared Kilrain the champion, and in the same article called Sullivan a “quitter,” Sullivan was seething.
Sullivan had toured England in 1888, and was treated like American royalty. In March, he fought Charlie Mitchell, the British challenger, in Chantilly, France. Sullivan never caught the constantly retreating Mitchell and the result was an embarrassing 39-round draw.

Sullivan returned to Boston in April of 1888. He collapsed one day, and a priest was summoned. The press politely called his ailment “gastric fever.” A death watch began.

In his autobiography, “I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House!” Sullivan described his illness this way: “I had typhoid fever, gastric fever, inflammation of the bowels, heart trouble and liver complaint.”

What he really had was alcohol-induced kidney and liver collapse. He was seriously ill, and his weight dropped to 160 pounds. Slowly, he recovered. When his weight returned to 200 pounds, in early 1889, he accepted Fox’s challenge to fight Kilrain.

Sullivan hired a new trainer, fitness advocate William Muldoon, and he worked wonders with Sullivan.

Nevertheless, many at first viewed Sullivan as a decided underdog against Kilrain.

After all, Sullivan was 30, had fought infrequently and had recently been desperately ill.    Rest of article.

The trainer worked him back into shape, forcing him to work long days on a farm while removing the much-desired alcohol.  Sullivan was literally too tired to drink every night.  

The location was kept secret to to the Governor's fierce determination to stop all boxing.   Reports of Sullivan's journey to the South began to appear in the media. The Natchez Weekly Democrat reported on July 3, 1889:

The news fired up Governor Robert Lowry who issued a $500 reward to the law enforcement officer who arrested both puglilists.  The Clarion-Ledger reported on July 4:

The fight was on between the Governor and the toughest man in the world.  Sullivan and his entourage sneaked into New Orleans and stayed at a hidden location. The Daily Commercial Herald reported on July 5:

The Vicksburg Evening Post reported on July 4:

Interest was keen for the fight.  The Weekly Democrat reported that same day:

The Daily Commercial Herald reported July 5:

The champ had a typical time in New Orleans as some things haven't changed from over 100 years ago.  The Daily Commercial Herald reported on July 11:

FINALLY, it is the day after the fight.  There was no PPV or Howard Cosell.  Those who were not in the Cool Kids Club had to read an account of the fight after it took place.  The Chronicle Star reported July 12:

The Weekly Democrat reported on July 17:

The Governor's crusade fizzled into the proverbial whimper.  The Los Angeles times succinctly tells the tale:

From New Orleans, Sullivan fled by train, but was arrested and handcuffed by officers who boarded his train in Nashville. He was jailed but released the next day after posting bail. A few days later, Kilrain was arrested in Baltimore.

In a Purvis, Miss., trial that lasted all winter, Sullivan was first sentenced to a year in jail. He appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which partially reversed the Purvis verdict. Sullivan paid a $500 fine, but served no additional jail time. He said his legal expenses were $4,000. Kilrain received a two-month jail sentence, but since anyone could hire convict labor then in Mississippi, Rich hired him out of jail. Kilrain spent two months on Rich’s farm, hunting and fishing, and was paid 30 cents a day by Rich.
Mississippi's day in the boxing sun was over as Sullivan's.  He didn't fight for quite some time.  His next bout was against Gentleman Jim Corbett.


Anonymous said...

come on KF , you don't really expect the candy-ass pretty boys and the beautiful people of the SEC to appreciate this piece of history, do you?

Anonymous said...

Of heard a lot about this fight over the years, but the LA Times article about it was very informative and well written.

Another interesting tidbit of history from our state's heritage.

Just can't wait until someone decides we need to erase it for some reason tied to police brutality - I guess because of the name of the belt the winner received.

Anonymous said...

This was featured on an episode of “Mysteries at the Museum” on Travel Channel. It’s a brick monument, blink and you’ll miss it.

Sullivan-Kilrain Rd, Hattiesburg, MS
Southwest of the city. I-59 exit 60. Drive west on US Hwy 11. Make first right onto Sullivan-Kilrain Rd. Drive 1.5 miles. You'll pass a big water tower and come to a stop sign. The monument is there, on the left.

Anonymous said...

BOY HOWDY, does 11:49 get it right or what? 3 comments after 2 days. the eternal sophomores of the SEC are too busy planning another losing season for their storied universities.

Anonymous said...

Bare Knuckle fighting in back. Several high quality events took place at the Coast Coliseum last year. I watched on PPV.

Anonymous said...

The offical time keeper was Bat Masterson. The Referee would later become Mayor of New Orleans. The Sheriff of Marion County with one Deputy attempted to stop fight. But a Crowd of Rail hands and Lumbermen prevailed. John Sullivan was later convicted of prize fighting and paroled to Mr Rich to serve his sentenance.

Kingfish said...

I think the other guy is who was paroled to Rich.

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