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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
Meanwhile in New Orleans the fight crowd began boarding the special trains, but not until 2 A.M. did the first section pull out, destination still unannounced. On board were fans from every walk of life—sporting men, plantation owners, gamblers, politicians, and hoodlums. Bat Masterson, former sheriff of Dodge City, was there. The attorney general of Louisiana rode along to make sure the train did not stop in his state, then continued on to the fight. Every seat was filled, the aisles were jammed, and on the roofs of the cars scores of men rode free. At the Mississippi line a company of militiamen was posted to block the trains, but the soldiers scattered and waved good-naturedly as the cars rattled by. It was 8 A.M. before the first train of twelve coaches got to Richburg. At that moment John L. was in a small cottage near Colonel Rich’s main house enjoying a breakfast of fried chicken.
By nine the stands were filled with impatient fans. The sun was climbing, and already it was suffocating. Presently Sheriff Cowart of Marion County stepped into the ring and read a proclamation in the name of the state demanding that the law be upheld and the fight called off. Amid a chorus of catcalls the Sheriff withdrew, saying that he had more important business in another part of the state.
At a few minutes before ten Kilrain and his seconds, Charley Mitchell and Mike Donovan, pushed through the crowd to the ring. Jake tossed his hat over the ropes and followed it in, saying, in the ring’s traditional gesture of defiance, “My hat’s in the ring.” He looked drawn and worried.
In a few minutes John L. appeared and tossed his hat into the ring. Discarding the robe that enveloped him, he stood resplendent in emerald green knee breeches, flesh-colored stockings, and black fighting boots laced high over the ankles. His waist was encircled by a belt made of an American flag, together with his own colors, green and white. Except for a slightly protruding belly, he looked fit; the question was, how long could he go? Could he stand up against the well-conditioned Kilrain, a good wrestler? “Sullivan is no wrestler,” said the New York World , adding, with a candor unknown in journalism today: “According to all such drunkards as he, his legs ought to fail him after 20 minutes of fighting.” Yet in the betting at ringside John L. was a slight favorite.
At 10:10 Referee John Fitzpatrick called “Time!” and the men advanced to the mark. For a second they circled, then Jake clipped John L. on the jaw with a long left and, closing, grasped him by the shoulders, back-heeled him, and threw him heavily. An astonished Sullivan picked himself up and walked to his corner. The round had taken just five seconds.
As the fight took shape Kilrain’s plan became clear. He refused to swap punches with Sullivan toe to toe, hoping to wear him down by jabbing him and then closing and wrestling him to the ground. A solid fall could be almost as punishing as a knockdown blow. Jake’s defensive tactics drove Sullivan wild. In the fourth round, which lasted 15 minutes and 21 seconds, John L. stopped chasing Kilrain for a moment and snarled, “Why don’t you fight? You’re the champion, eh? Champion of what?” Jake laughed and continued to back away. Mitchell kept up a stream of Cockney abuse from the corner. Once, when Sullivan landed a hard smash to Jake’s ribs, he turned to Mitchell and said, “I wish I had you in here.”
In the seventh round Kilrain tore John L.’s ear with a swinging right. “First blood, Kilrain,” announced the referee, and there was an exchange of bills in the crowd. Sports often bet heavily on first blood and first knockdown.
The fight wore on, Sullivan always pressing forward, Kilrain moving away. Muldoon was afraid that his man’s legs and wind might give out if he continued to pursue Kilrain. “How do you feel? How long can you stay?” he asked John L. after the twelfth. “Till tomorrow morning if it’s necessary,” was the answer.
The steep wooden stands shut off all air and made the fighting pit an inferno. At ringside it was 104 degrees in the shade. Both men were scorched crimson by the sun. Spectators began to keel over like ninepins. Still the fighters kept at it.
It was becoming more evident as the fight went on that Sullivan was getting to his man. John L. was supposed to be the first to tire in a long battle, but it was Kilrain who was weakening. Sullivan was scoring all the falls and clean knockdowns now. His right-hand smashes to Kilrain’s ribs raised a huge welt all along the left side of Jake’s body. “The blows could be heard for 75 yards,” reported one sports writer. Jake’s few returns had no effect on John L. “That didn’t hurt,” laughed Sullivan in the thirty-fourth round, when KiIrain landed a right to the belly. Jake’s lips were split, his nose broken, and one eye was completely closed. Sullivan had a black eye and a puffed-up ear. Both men dripped blood and sweat from head to foot.
It was hopeless now for Kilrain. Often he’d slip down from the slightest tap, in the desperate hope that he could recuperate by frequent rests and come on to win. The fans jeered him. “Rats! Rats!” they chanted, and John L. kept taunting him, daring him to stand up and fight like a man.