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Yours Truly, John L. Sullivan
Taking on all comers, he had always dropped his man—but his supreme moment came in bare-knuckle boxing’s last great fight
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
John L. went to England in 1887 and received one of the noisiest and most enthusiastic welcomes ever given an American abroad. In triumph he toured the British Isles and then went to France to meet Charley Mitchell in a bare-knuckle match for the championship of the world. They fought 39 rounds on a soggy turf on Baron Rothschild’s estate at Chantilly. Mitchell, backtracking all the way, went down 39 times while John L.—pursuing, cursing, and blind with rage—was never once off his feet. The bout was halted because of rain and darkness after more than three hours. The referee had to call it a draw. It was the only decision he could make under the rules. Disgusted, Sullivan returned to the United States and went on such a prolonged bender that he wound up with delirium tremens and almost died. He was confined to bed from August to November, 1888.
Fox still hated Sullivan. He had his own champion now—Jake Kilrain (born John J. Killion), who had fought a 106-round draw with Jem Smith, co-claimant with Mitchell of the disputed English title. On the basis of this fight Fox awarded a belt to Kilrain designating him world champion. He had no right to do this, of course, but he wanted to enrage Sullivan and lure him into a match with Kilrain. His Police Gazette went to every barbershop, livery stable, and saloon in the land; sporting men everywhere read that Kilrain was the real champion, that Sullivan refused to meet him. Everyone knew, too, that John L. was a physical wreck, no longer the fighter he had once been. But as soon as he recovered he accepted Kilrain’s long-standing challenge and signed to fight him, London rules, for $10,000 a side and the championship, the ring to be pitched within 200 miles of New Orleans.
The signing took place on New Year’s Day, 1889, and before the ink was dry John L. was drinking again and predicting that he would win easily. Throughout the winter and early spring Sullivan went right on imbibing freely and by May, with the fight less than two months away, had blown up to a flabby 240 pounds. By this time his frantic backers, who were prepared to use a gun on him if need be to get him sober, tracked him down and forced him to go into training. They put him in the hands of William MuIdoon, the wrestling champion and a fanatic on physical training. He got John L. down to 205 pounds when the time came to go south.
Meantime Kilrain, who was the same age and height as Sullivan but some ten pounds lighter, was training faithfully in Baltimore at the hands of John L.’s old foe, Charley Mitchell. Their battle plan was to wear Sullivan down gradually. If Kilrain could avoid Sullivan’s early assaults and refuse to mix with him, sooner or later the Strong Boy would fade. No one could abuse himself as Sullivan had and fight a long fight, they thought. Kilrain was a stayer and a good wrestler; he had never been beaten.
Prize fighting was illegal in every one of the country’s 38 states in 1889. Yet news of the forthcoming battle was carried in all the newspapers and caused much excitement throughout the country. When the train carrying the Sullivan entourage headed south, John L., like a political candidate, made a platform appearance at Cincinnati, where he was wildly cheered. In New Orleans a mob greeted him at the station and pulled his carriage by hand to his boarding house at 29 North Rampart Street. On trees and lamp posts and in saloons gaudy placards announced the fight, naming the principals and the stakes but discreetly saying nothing about the time or the place. Spectators and newspapermen from all over the country began to pour into the sweltering city. Everywhere they gathered, the fight was discussed. Where and when was it to be held?
Only the promoter, a New Orleans sportsman named Bud Reneau, and a few insiders knew. Reneau had made secret arrangements to stage it on the property of Colonel Charles W. Rich, a lumberman who owned a 3o,ooo-acre tract of pine in Richburg, 104 miles north of New Orleans. The Colonel agreed to erect stands and guaranteed that there would be no police interference.
The morning before the fight Reneau let it be known that special trains would leave New Orleans’ Northeast Depot about midnight that night for the site of the fight—never mind where. Tickets were fifteen dollars ringside, ten dollars in the stands, and two dollars general admission. At the depot ringsiders would be given camp chairs for their place on the turf.
After a huge breakfast that morning John L. dozed while Muldoon shaved him and at one o’clock had a lunch consisting of a bowl of chicken broth, three whole chickens covered with rice, and a loaf of bread. “His appetite,” wrote the New York World reporter, “is enormous.” At four that afternoon the fighters and their handlers left the city on a special three-car train and slept that night on Colonel Rich’s estate.