Yours Truly, John L. Sullivan

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On Highway 11 on the outskirts of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a roadside historical plaque bears this inscription:

On Highway 11 on the outskirts of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a roadside historical plaque bears this inscription:

JOHN L. SULLIVAN DEFEATED JAKE KILRAIN FOR HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP IN A 75-ROUND FIGHT ON JULY 8, 1889, AT RICHBURG, 3 MILES SOUTHWEST OF THIS SPOT. THIS WAS THE LAST OFFICIAL BARE-KNUCKLE BOUT.

It is not easy to find the site of the battle. There are no further directions, and the narrow road off the main highway twists confusingly through farm lands and piny woods. But at last it comes to an open, level field on the crest of a hill, and this is obviously the place, though no marker honors it. Everything here jibes with the description of the old battle site—the level field, the surrounding woods, and the railroad tracks at the foot of the hill a quarter of a mile away. There, on the morning of the fight, special trains from New Orleans disgorged some 2,500 fans who swarmed up the road to the field and watched Sullivan and KiIrain fight it out for more than two hours under a broiling Mississippi sun. And it was on this field—though no one knew it at the time—that boxing’s bare-knuckle era came to an end. When Sullivan walked off it on that scorching day seventy years ago (with the best part of a quart of brandy in him) he closed the final page of a history that had opened in 1719 with the name of James Figg, England’s earliest master of the art of beating a man insensible with naked fists.

The beginnings of bare-knuckle boxing in this country are hazy. In all likelihood it arrived by way of the sons of prominent southern families who customarily visited the mother country in the early eighteenth century as part of their education.

But the first real championship match in the United States clicl not take place until 1849. The principals were an escaped criminal from an Australian penal colony, who fought as Yankee Sullivan—no relation Io John L.—and a fellow pug named Tom Hyer. The match was billed as a “fair stand-up fight” for the championship of America.

Both men were undefeated and recognized in pugilistic circles as the two best in the country. It was the first American ring battle in which rules were strictly observed and which the press covered as a sporting event. It established a line of succession of American heavyweight champions.

On the morning of February 7, 1849, the fighters and a mere 200 spectators set sail from Baltimore, with a boatload of militia in pursuit—for boxing in those days was against the law. After several hours the waterborne posse was outmaneuvcred, and the fight crowd landed on a lonely section of Maryland’s eastern shore near Still Pond Heights. A ring was hastily constructed out of stakes cut in a nearby woods. The ring ropes were taken from the ship’s rigging. A covering of snow was swept from the fighting area, and at four o’clock the two men were “called to scratch.”

A bare-knuckle fight was a combined wrestling and punching match with wrestling holds permitted only above the waist. A round ended only when a man went clown, whether he was knocked off his feet by a blow or was thrown down. The moment he fell, his seconds would spring forward, drag him to his corner, and try to revive him within the allowed thirty-second rest period. If he could not come to a mark, or scratch, drawn in the center of the ring at the referee’s call of “Time!” he was declared the loser. In the phraseology of the ring, he had been “knocked out of time” for failing to “toe the mark,” or “come to scratch.’ These were the so-called London rules under which Yankee Sullivan met Tom Hyer.

The Yankee Sullivan-Tom Hyer bout was a one-sided affair. Sullivan, outweighed by thirty pounds, never had a chance. Hc managed to stay sixteen rounds before his handlers hauled him away unconscious to a Baltimore hospital. Tom Hyer thus became the first recognized American heavyweight champion, though he did not think enough of his title to defend it and never fought again. Yankee Sullivan claimed the vacated crown but did not fight again for five years. When he did, in October, 1853, he was defeated by John Morrissey, who in turn remained inactive for some time.

The fighters of a century ago were idle for long stretches because there were so few who were capable—perhaps no more than a dozen in the entire country—that there was little competition. And boxing as a profession had little appeal to American youth. Resides its lack of social cachet, there was always the danger of getting thrown in jail—some states imposed sentences of two years—to say nothing of the physical dangers of combat. A bare-fist bout went to a finish and was usually a grueling and bloody marathon of punishment for both men. It took weeks, even months sometimes, before they completely recovered, the winner often being in worse shape than the loser because his hands had taken the heavier beating. Broken fingers and knuckles, torn tendons, fractured arms or legs (caused by being thrown to the ground), and disfigured features were among the hazards of the trade.