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Yours Truly, John L. Sullivan

May 2024
19min read

Taking on all comers, he had always dropped his man—but his supreme moment came in bare-knuckle boxing’s last great fight

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:


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.

Matches were fought on a winner-take-all basis. Sometimes a hat was passed through the crowd and the beaten man got a few dollars, but only if he had made a good showing. The winner got a share of the side bet put up by his backers, but this did not generally amount to much even in championship bouts. Prize fighters made their money outside the ring, as saloon keepers and on exhibition tours with theatrical troupes. Most were heavy drinkers and died broke.

After Morrissey beat Yankee Sullivan, and indeed until well after the Civil War, there was little boxing in this country. It was a long and dreary period that produced few boxers of ability and few honest matches. The ring seems to have shared in the widespread political corruption of the postwar period. If a fight wasn’t fixed—and many were—the chances were that it would be won by whichever fighter had more thugs at the ringside to intimidate the referee or, as often happened, to break up the fight when it was obvious that their man was going to lose.

Ring fans turned away from the sport in disgust, and it might have gone the way of bearbaiting and dogfighting had it not been for the young gladiator from Boston, John L. Sullivan.

The “Boston Strong Boy” arrived on no white charger to save the game. He came on foot with fists swinging and with one purpose in mind—to destroy the man in front of him as quickly as possible. Here at last was a real fighter and an honest one who wanted only to fight—he did not care whom. “I am prepared to fight any man born of woman. Always on the level, yours truly, John L. Sullivan,” growled John L., who liked to write his signature in the air this way at the conclusion of a speech.

John L. was America’s first great sports hero, the first to be followed on the streets by such crowds that he needed guards to keep from being trampled. When he arrived in London in 1887, a waiting throng at Euston Station rushed his cab and shattered it to bits. In Dublin the horses drawing his carriage were set loose, and the mob drew him through the streets to his hotel. It was the same in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, or wherever he went. Everyone wanted to see the champ, get close to him, cheer his words, and shake his hand.

Yet this American god was certainly no model for the youth of the land. He was, in truth, a notorious drunkard, a bully, and a shameless adulterer. For years he lived openly with Ann Livingston, a busty burlesque queen, although he had a wife living in Boston. He was a drinker of amazing capacity (he once drank 56 gin fizzes in one hour, according to Professor William Lyon Phelps), and he would stay drunk for days at a time. In this state he would flatten anyone who happened to displease him. “He was an s.o.b. of the first water—if he ever drank any,” said one non-admirer of the great John L., and there were many, even among the Boston Irish, who felt the same way. The humor magazines Life, Judge , and Puck often depicted him in cartoons as a booze-fighter and a lowbrow. The press usually held its nose when forced to mention his name. On the morning after his fight with Kilrain, for example, the New York Times headline read: “THE BIGGER BRUTE WON.”

Nevertheless he was adored. He had his faults, to be sure, but in spite of them he was completely honest and straightforward. After all, what was a fighter supposed to be, Little Lord Fauntleroy? And what a fighter John L. was—with bare fists, skintight or padded gloves, under any rules, anywhere, against anybody.

He looked like a fighter, too, though his face was unmarked and his teeth were white and even. Deep-chested, well-proportioned, black-haired and scowling, he stood 5 feet 10½ inches and scaled 195 pounds in fighting trim. He was amazingly light on his feet and fast of hand.

John Lawrence Sullivan was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, near Boston, on October 15, 1858, the son of Irish immigrants. His mother was an enormous woman, as tall as her son and almost as heavy. Mike Sullivan, his father, stood but 5 feet 3 inches and was a hod carrier, an occupation that John L. himself followed after a respectable amount of schooling. At nineteen he began boxing in Boston theaters on Saturday nights to pick up a few extra dollars. These were glove bouts conducted under the new Marquis of Queensberry rules—which called for gloves and three-minute rounds—that were even then gradually superseding the bare-knuckle code. The matches were limited to three or four rounds and were billed—to get around the Boston police—as sparring exhibitions.

John L. knew nothing about sparring or the niceties of the manly art. But he did know how to punch. “It was like being hit by a runaway horse,” said Mike Donovan, one of the few who stayed three rounds with the Strong Boy on a Boston stage. “When Sullivan struck me,” a knockout victim said, “I thought a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endwise.”

John L.’s fame as a knockout artist spread. Hc acquired a manager—Billy Madden, one of the several he was to have—and they went on tour. In Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, Sullivan fought a series of glove and bare-fist bouts and bowled over everyone who faced him.

On the evening of March 31, 1881, when John L. was 23, he and his manager were in Harry Hill’s saloon and dance hall in New York, where stage and sporting people gathered nightly. Eyeing them a few tables away was Richard KyIe Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette, a popular weekly devoted to scandal, sports, and the theater. Fox was the most inflluential sports figure in the country and was aware of his power. He was a liberal donor of awards and prizes in various sports and the backer of Paddy Ryan, the reigning American heavyweight champion. Fox looked over at John L.’s table and said to a waiter, “Tell Sullivan to come over here. I’ll talk to him.”

The message was delivered to young Sullivan. “Tell Fox if he wants to see me he can come over to my table,” he answered. No one had ever talked to Fox like that before, and he never forgot it. The affront caused him to put on a campaign against John L. in the Gazette and to search for a man who could whip him—a search that was to cost him thousands of dollars.

But first Sullivan had some business with John Flood, a New York gang leader who had never failed to stop his man. They fought on a barge anchored in the Hudson River on the night of May 16, 1881, bare-knuckle rules, before 500 sports. This was an important fight for John L., for a victory would lead to a match with Ryan for the title.

The Boston Strong Boy, as usual, wasted no time. Every round ended with Flood on his back, and in the eighth his seconds threw in the sponge. As John L. was passing the hat for Flood’s benefit he spotted Ryan in the crowd and said, “Ready for yours, Paddy?”

Paddy got his the following February in a ring pitched in front of the veranda of the Barnes Hotel in the Gulf resort town of Mississippi City. He went out in the ninth round and now, to the chagrin of Fox, John L. was champion of America.

No prize fighter ever enjoyed his trade more. After winning the title, Sullivan went on an unprecedented barnstorming tour across the country, taking on all comers and offering $1,000 to anyone who stayed four rounds, Oueensberry rules. No fighter had ever done anything like this before, and John L.’s popularity rose to new heights. He fought everywhere—in theaters, dance halls, and armories, and he fought the toughest—lumberjacks, blacksmiths, local bully-boys, and professional ringmen. Few stayed more than a round. In his first season he flattened 59 men. Tug Wilson, an experienced British heavyweight backed by Fox, was the only man able to stay four rounds, and he had to resort to shameless holding, clinching, and continuous slipping to the door to avoid being hit. No count was kept of the cities John L. visited on his various tours or of the number of battles he fought, but it has been estimated that he knocked out about 200 men. Night after night, drunk or sober—and often he was so drunk that his handlers had to help him into his tights and push him on stage—the Strong Boy never failed to drop his man. The wonder is that he never killed anyone, for he had such a terrific wallop that the head or shoulders of his victim sometimes hit the canvas before the buttocks.

John L. took time out from his tour now and then to appear on the banquet circuit and to come to New York to dispose of the latest Fox importation. After the Tug Wilson fiasco, Fox brought over the claimant to the British title, Charley Mitchell, a clever boxer but some thirty pounds lighter than Sullivan. The men met in a glove fight in Madison Square Garden. In the first round Mitchell went down twice, then got up and to the amazement of all let go a short right that dumped the Strong Boy on the seat of his pants. Enraged, Sullivan bounded up without waiting for a count and swarmed all over the little Britisher. In the third round the fight was stopped by police to save Mitchell from further punishment. But he had shown that the impossible could happen, that John L. could be knocked down.

Their return engagement at the Garden was a sellout. Box seats sold for $25, and the house was jammed with 13,500 people. At the scheduled time for the bout there was some delay. Mitchell was in his corner waiting, but there was no John L. Several minutes passed and the fans were growing impatient when the champion, dressed in evening clothes with diamonds sparkling on his shirt front, climbed through the ropes and reeled to the center of the ring, so drunk he could hardly stand. Waving for silence amid the catcalls, he explained that he was “very shick” and could not fight. Then he weaved down the aisle and went off to a Turkish bath. Not a cent was refunded by the Garden management, and John L. pocketed several thousand dollars as his share of the gate receipts. Yet so great was his popularity that he was forgiven within a few days; on his next appearance in New York he was greeted as a hero.

Fox continued his search for a man to whip Sullivan. He imported Herbert Slade, a giant Maori, supposedly the best fighter in Australia. Slade didn’t last three rounds. Next was AIf Greenfield, heralded as one of England’s finest. Two rounds for Alf.

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.

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.

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.


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