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John L Sullivan – King of the bare-knuckle boxers

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about boxing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

John L Sullivan, picture, image, illustration

John L Sullivan by Ralph Bruce

“I’ll take him on,” William Muldoon said. “I’ll get him fit somehow, and if he wins my charge will be 10,000 dollars. If he loses, nothing.”

Muldoon was a great boxing trainer but now, as he took a good look at his latest client, his heart sank. For a start, the walrus-moustached man who stood stripped to the waist in the cheerless gymnasium was monstrously fat. Only five feet ten inches tall, he weighed well over 17 stone. His face was puffy and pale, and if the medical reports were anything to go by, the man was as sick as he looked.

He was periodically wracked with fever, so shaky on his legs that the doctors spoke gloomily of impending paralysis and his digestion was so bad that it was impossible for him to eat so much as a mouthful of solid food.

Worst of all, the watery eyes that stared back at the trainer were dead and hopeless, the eyes of a man in the grip of almost suicidal depression.

This object, Muldoon told himself grimly, this blubber covered wreck of a man, was not just one more broken down fighter. He was the champion of champions, John L. Sullivan, the greatest boxer in the world.

And for better or worse he was due to defend his title with bare knuckles against the challenger, Jake Kilrain, in a little under three months time.

Even with the evidence before his eyes, it was hard for the trainer to believe that Sullivan could have reached such a state of total collapse, for his record seemed to prove him to be that creature of legend, the genuine iron man.

He had been born in the Irish quarter of Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., in 1858 and had been a physical prodigy from the word go. He had walked at the age of ten months, and four months later he could talk and hand out black eyes to anyone he did not like.

In the Boston of Sullivan’s youth he had been known as “The Strong Boy,” a title that was probably justified since on one occasion he lifted, single handed, a derailed tram car back on to its tracks. The prize ring was the obvious way for him to make a living, and a very handsome one it had turned out to be. He had fought his first bout in 1878, and by 1882 had defeated the title holder, Paddy Ryan.

By the time he was half-carried into Willie Muldoon’s training camp as a physical wreck, he was still champion after seven fight-packed years during which he had never even looked as though he might be beaten.

There can be few people left alive now who saw the great “John L” fight at all, let alone in his prime and so it is difficult to judge what sort of boxer he was. Even if an eye-witness could be found, the old bare-knuckle prize ring was so different from our modern contests that a proper comparison would be almost impossible.

Fighting under what were known as the London Rules was a brutal business, and the boxers were correspondingly tough. Apart from an absence of gloves, spiked boots were used, wrestling throws allowed, and the rounds ended when one of the contestants was knocked, or fell, down.

Fights could go on for several hours, and 50 or 60 rounds were by no means uncommon. To be successful in such a sport, one had to be a special kind of man. Sullivan’s secret of success seems to have been an unbelievably heavy punch.

“I break boards with my fist,” a giant fighter from Oregon once told him. “You break stone walls with yours.”

The old photographs of John L. Sullivan are a disappointment at first. You think he is a rather portly, heavily-moustached bank manager until you notice his hands. They are enormous, literally like hams. When one imagines what weapons they must have been, gloveless and pickled hard in brine, the absolute invincibility of the man begins to make sense.

When “John L” fought he fought hard, and when he relaxed he went about that in the same thoroughgoing way. He loved to make speeches, which always ended, “I remain, your personal friend, John L. Sullivan.” He loved to spend money on a vast scale, to go to as many parties as he could find, eat huge meals and drink champagne.

Sullivan consumed drink by the gallon. He swallowed enough to kill ten ordinary men, but it seemed to have not the slightest effect on his indestructible frame. He never trained. Sometimes he would take a cab from a hectic party and arrived at the ringside in full evening dress. Though obviously the worse for drink, he would change and proceed to pound his opponent into submission, going back to his corner without even breathing hard.

To the fight fans, he seemed immortal, but if treated sufficiently badly even the toughest of bodies will break down in the end. And during 1888, that of John L. Sullivan’s collapsed like an old and little-serviced car. Broke, he had signed up for the fight against Kilrain in the hope of pulling himself together and making some money, but even with Muldoon’s help it looked as though he had left things too late.

But if the Irishman was appalled at the task ahead of him he did not show it. His words to the champion were brief and to the point. Sullivan would do what he was told without question. The camp was out in the wilds of New York State, and there was nowhere else to go. In the weeks that followed, Sullivan would get fit, even if the experience broke his heart.

Muldoon was as good as his word. At first Sullivan could take nothing more solid than a little milk and gruel, but slowly and surely his strength grew and his weight began to come down. Meekly, the champion stuck to his trainer’s regime, frightened out of his life at the realisation that he could become just as weak and ill as an ordinary man.

In the 1880s, the only legal boxing in the U.S.A. consisted of amateur sparring matches or exhibitions. Contests in which the participants fought for a “purse” or for wagers were illegal. Nevertheless, such fights were followed by thousands of people, and professional boxers were greatly admired by “sports” even though they usually finished a fight running from the police.

In consequence a good deal of secrecy always surrounded any big contest and nobody thought it in any way strange when the news got around that Sullivan would defend his title on a private estate, about 100 miles from New Orleans.

The challenger, Jake Kilrain, and his supporters, had wagered a lot of money on the result and were confident of victory. This, considering the condition of the champion the last time anyone had seen him, was hardly surprising. So when John L. Sullivan slipped under the ropes, clear-eyed, iron hard and down to his proper fighting weight it caused a sensation. Certain that he could do as he pleased with Sullivan, Kilrain had unwisely insisted on a bare knuckle fight, although as boxing grew slowly more respectable it was becoming much more usual to use padded gloves. Now, as he eyed the champion’s colossal bare fists, he began to realise his mistake.

The fight was staged outdoors in the blinding sun. As the contest got under way, Kilrain showed that he had no intention of risking punishment, moving swiftly about the ring in a way that infuriated John L., who had no time for the niceties of ring craft.

“Stand up and fight like a man!” he roared, an invitation Kilrain wisely ignored.

By the 20th round, Sullivan had a right to be angry, for Kilrain was dropping to the ground every time the champion’s fists so much as touched him, this being the safest way to avoid being hit. By the 50th, both men were suffering from the blistering sun, but of the two, Kilrain was the more exhausted, simply though the sheer effort of continually falling down.

In round 68, Sullivan feinted to the body with his left and Kilrain began to collapse as usual. But on this occasion Sullivan was waiting for just such a move and not only straightened him up again with a right but lifted his opponent completely off his feet! It was a blow from which Kilrain never recovered, and although he hung on gamely for a few more rounds it became obvious that unless the fight was stopped he would never leave the ring alive. Hastily, a sponge was thrown down as a token of defeat, and John L. Sullivan, his huge fists swollen to three times their usual size, had successfully defended his title yet again.

But it turned out to be an unprofitable fight for both men. Kilrain was arrested for prizefighting and sentenced to two months imprisonment and his own freedom cost the champion more than 18,000 dollars in fines and legal fees. Well out of pocket, Sullivan swore that never again would he fight under the “London Rules.”

What was good enough for Sullivan was good enough for everyone else, and boxing settled down to follow the regulations laid down by the Marquis of Queensberry. The bold, bad, bare knuckle days were over.

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