- Historic Sites
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
Jake’s last chance came in the forty-fifth round, when John L. became sick to his stomach. It was the fried chicken in revolt, as well as the mixture of tea and brandy he’d been sipping between rounds. Kilrain might have moved in then, but instead he stepped aside and proposed that they call the fight a draw. “No!” roared Sullivan, “No draw!” and rushed at Kilrain. A moment later he flattened him with a terrific smash to the ribs. As they were hauling Jake to his corner a ringside wag observed, “John L. got rid of the tea but I bet he kept the brandy down.”
The real turning point came in the sixty-eighth round, when John L. lifted Kilrain off the ground with a right uppercut to the jaw. After that round Kilrain was through. His punches were feeble; he was too weak to throw Sullivan, and to avoid punishment he went down in the first few seconds of almost every round. He knew he was licked, that not even a lucky punch could save him. His head rolled loosely on his shoulders as if his neck were broken.
In the seventy-fifth round a physician took Donovan aside and said to him, “Kilrain will die if you keep sending him out there.” As the beaten fighter toed the mark to begin the seventy-sixth round Donovan tossed in the sponge and the fight was over. Mitchell was furious. Poor Jake wept like a schoolgirl. But John L., who had been battling for two hours and sixteen minutes, was still full of fight. Before Muldoon could shake his hand he was across the ring daring his old enemy, Mitchell, to get inside the ropes right then and there and have it out to a finish. He meant it, too. It took three men to restrain him as he tried to reach Mitchell’s throat.
An estimated 200 sports writers had covered the fight, and it made the front page of almost every big-city newspaper in the country.
The aftermath was messy. Kilrain criticized Mitchell’s training methods and claimed he had been drugged. Both fighters and most of their handlers were arrested a few days after the battle and were fined and jailed. Kilrain got two months and served it comfortably under Mississippi’s convict-labor law working for Colonel Rich. John L. got a year but never served time. It cost him $18,670 to keep out of jail, according to his reckoning, and he said he’d never fight London rules again.
This was the last championship bare-knuckle fight, then, and Sullivan was the last of a long line of stout champions, a line that began in 1719 on a wooden stage in James Figg’s London amphitheater and ended in an obscure field in Mississippi 170 years later.
John L. remained the biggest drawing card of his day. He toured the country again, this time with a melodrama, Honest Hearts and Willing Hands, especially written for him by the playwright Duncan B. Harrison. John L. played the part of a blacksmith and, as Harrison’s partner, got $1,000 a week. The money rolled in, but as always he spent it as fast as he could get his hands on it. Most of it went in bars. In 1892, although his total earnings had amounted to over a million dollars—only a tenth of it made in the ring—he was broke and agreed to fight James J. Corbett of San Francisco for the championship.
This was his last fight and the only one he ever lost. It was pitiful. Overweight and slow, he was unable to land a solid punch on the younger, elusive Corbett and was knocked out in the twenty-first round. When he came to, he staggered to the ropes and called for silence. “I fought once too often,” he said. “But I am glad that it was an American who licked me and that the championship stays in this country. I remain yours truly, John L. Sullivan.”
In the years that followed, the old champion ballooned up to 335 pounds. Always an attraction, he made several theatrical tours and managed to make a living. One morning in March, 1905, while suffering from a massive hangover, John L. suddenly vowed that he would never take another drink—and he never did. He got a divorce, became a temperance lecturer, and a few years later married a 45-year-old spinster, Kate Harkins. He retired to a farm in West Abingdon, Massachusetts, where the carpet slippers and rocking chair finally got him on February 2, 1918. He was 59. Jake Kilrain, the man who had been so close to death in the last bare-knuckle fight, was one of the pallbearers.