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125 Years Ago Today, John L. Sullivan Stopped Jake Kilrain In Round 75

BY Michael Woods ON July 08, 2014
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John-L.-Sullivan

The older we get, many of us, the more we look backward. It's a natural tendency, of course, because as we approach middle age, there is less anxiety in play when we look to the future, where the finish line lays, than when we look back, cradled by the warm glow of nostalgia.

The temptation to look back, with fondness, and sometimes excessive reverence, can bedevil the sports fan, especially. "They don't make them like they used to," you might find yourself thinking, if, say, you came of age during the time when Muhammad Ali ruled the world…and I'm not saying that isn't true. But, I think, we often blind ourselves to the positive developments which occur as time marches forward, while looking in that rose-colored rear-view mirror.

Windy preamble aside, I do think we can sometimes look back, after acquainting ourselves with some particularly curious, or interesting or jarring history. Like, for instance…today is the 125th anniversary of a mind-blowing, in retrospect, chapter in fighting history. On July 8, 1889, bare-knuckle bad-boy John L. Sullivan battled Jake Kilrain FOR MORE THAN TWO HOURS under a broiling sun in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That one was scheduled for 80 ROUNDS. Let that sink into your head, and let it stay there the next time you see fighters losing steam in round ten of a scheduled twelve…

Author Christopher Klein wrote about that humdinger of a spectacle in "Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero." Klein was kind enough to let TSS pick his brain about Sully, that fight, and the meaning of it all.

QUESTION FROM WOODS: How and why did you choose the subject matter for this book?

ANSWER FROM KLEIN: I had done a little research about Sullivan for my previous book, which was about Boston sports, and I was struck by what a seminal figure he was in American culture. Although most people would think that Babe Ruth was America's first sports superstar, it really was the "Boston Strong Boy" who was the country's first sports icon. Everything you know about Babe Ruth--the fame, the fortune, the appetites for eating, drinking, and women--Sullivan was doing 40 years beforehand. He was the first athlete to earn $1 million, and during his days, he was probably along with Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum the biggest celebrity in America. Sullivan's story is the story of the birth of American sports, mass media, and our modern-day celebrity culture. It's also a tale of the Irish coming of age in America during the Gilded Age, which appealed to me as an Irish-American.

Q)Chris, what do you want readers to take away from your book after reading it?

A) I want readers to realize that John L. Sullivan wasn't some sepia-toned relic, he was very much a modern-day figure. If sports are America's secular religion, he wasn't just among our pantheon of athletic gods, he was our Zeus. He blazed the trail for all sporting icons who followed him. Everything you see with today's athletes, Sullivan was doing back in the 1880s. He acted, endorsed products, wrote his own memoirs, opened his own sports bar, flirted with running for public office, and suffered from the pitfalls of fame. I'd also want readers to learn that, although our minds flash to Sullivan fighting with bare knuckles, he only did so a handful of times and always preferred legal gloved fighting. It was Sullivan's eventual insistence on fighting with gloves that ushered in the Marquis of Queensberry Rules in boxing.

Q)John L. Sullivan--could he hang with a Tyson...or a Klitschko?

A) While we have a tendency to look back at the “good old days” with nostalgia and believe that the sporting heroes of our youth were superior to today’s superstars, I lean the opposite way because the modern-day advances in training, medicine, and physiology give modern-day athletes an incredible advantage over those from generations ago. So I believe even a dominant boxer like Sullivan from the late 1800s would have quite a challenge ahead of him if he stepped into the ring with a Tyson or Klitschko. What would be an interesting matchup, however, would be if we put Tyson into a bare-knuckle fight with Sullivan using the old London Prize Rules, in which rounds lasted as long as a fighter stayed on his feet, wrestling was legal, and the fight lasted until one fighter could not go on. Sullivan dominated his fights under those rules during some of his championship bouts.

Q)Some of the stuff they did then, they don't do know, it makes me SMH. You mentioned a cornerman sucking the blood out of a fighters' eye…How and why was blood sucked out of a fighter's eye?

A) Cornermen did a number of things that would be hard to believe today. For instance, with fighters getting bruised, bloodied, and oftentimes blistered by the sun in the ring, trainers would give their men some whiskey between rounds to dull the pain. And when a bloodied fighter came back to his corner, it was common for dutiful cornermen to place their mouths over their fighters' noses, suck the blood clear, and spit it out to clear their breathing passages. They would use a similar method to get the blood out of their eyes to clear their vision.

Q)Boxing…better then or now...and why?

A) That's a really tough question. Before Sullivan came along, there wasn't enough money to be made as a professional boxer so boxers of that era couldn't devote all their time to training and learning their craft and they fought less frequently, so the fight quality is better now. The sport is much more accessible to the fans now then back in Sullivan's day. But I would love to have had the chance to have been ringside at one of these illegal bare-knuckle title fights, such as Sullivan-Kilrain, in the backwoods to take in the spectacle. The details of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight--between the bets flying ringside, the gladiators in the ring pitched in the great outdoors, a figure such as Bat Masterson working the corner for Kilrain, and the cat-and-mouse game to elude the authorities--are of course much more colorful than anything seen in the sport today.

Christopher Klein is the author of Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero.

Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.

Here is ordering info for the book:

http://www.amazon.com/Strong-Boy-Sullivan-Americas-Sports/dp/0762781521.

Here is a link to the book's web site, which has an excerpt and more information: www.strongboybook.com.

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Comment on this article

The Commish says:

Sold. Gonna' have to get a copy. I have always hasd a fascination with the guys we call our pioneers and old-timers: Jem Mace, Jake Kilrain, John L. Sullivan, Bob Fitzsimmons, James J. Corbett, Tommy Burns, Jack Johnson and others.

Mr. Klein has apparently has more than done his homework on this book.

It will be an honor to read it.

-Randy G.

deepwater2 says:

They should bring back 15 rounds, only 8 weight classes and allow whiskey in the corner between rounds

Radam G says:

They should bring back 15 rounds, only 8 weight classes and allow whiskey in the corner between rounds


I read that one of the standing rules was a 30-$econd count for a kayo, instead of 10. Holla!

brownsugar says:

sounds like an excellent revelation about a fighter who's been taken for granted sometimes over the years. I like it when an author attacks his subject with some fresh, crisp, and new information that forever changes our perspective about those turn-of-the-century exploits that become eventually become modern day legends.

It's almost unfathomable to even imagine any athlete who could earn a million dollars in the 1880's.
That million Sullivan earned could have been proportionately larger than the $32 Million payday Floyd Mayweather Jr made in one fight against Canelo (are there any economists out there who can calculate the inflation?)

I read a book on health that determined that most people during those times were healthier because they ate food that wasn't genetically modified thus more natural and free of the type of poisonous additives used today. Plus more fruits and veggies grew wild in those days. In addition to the fact that people generally got more exercise. A man or a woman could easily walk an average of 2 to 5 miles a day, you can also take into account that manual labor was more intensive due to the lack of modern appliances built exclusively for our convenience (like the vacuum cleaner).

But on the downside, The average lift expectancy of an adult white male during the 1850's was 38yrs, but this was due to a high rate of infant mortality, and accidental deaths, (and other perilous circumstances that existed at that time) ... the world had just learned "germ Theory" but had not yet mastered "preventive medicine".
Still if a man could survive until he was 42 years old, the chances were excellent he would live until the ripe old age of 60.

I'm truly fascinated by those times and the topic of John L's exploits would have been the stuff that dreams were made of to those who lived in that era.

I read some accounts of those marathon fights and some of the stories were so entertaining they couldn't have possibly been made up.
Like how the corner men would use a variety of methods of cheating during the close fights,..... to the audience getting a lick or two in themselves if the fighters ventured to close the hostile side of the room (barn, arena, desert or warehouse where they were having the fight in)

but most of the those stories dwell on many stories that recall instances were the boxers were leaning on each other, and I mean literally holding each other up by the 20th round while throwing less than half a dozen punches per round. Sometimes those fights ended with both sides huddling up and agreeing to call the fight a draw or a no-contest until things could be settled in a rematch.
reports of sleeping (and drunken) fans were common during those marathon wars. But I doubt if very many of them would have been fit to entertain today's blood thirsty fans on television.

Still it's a fascinating era and it's a fascinating subject of times we will never truly witness except through the works of authors like Christopher Klein.

Radam G says:

sounds like an excellent revelation about a fighter who's been taken for granted sometimes over the years. I like it when an author attacks his subject with some fresh, crisp, and new information that forever changes our perspective about those turn-of-the-century exploits that eventually become modern day legends.

It's almost unfathomable to even imagine any athlete who could earn a million dollars in the 1880's.
That million Sullivan earned could have been proportionately larger than the $32 Million payday Floyd Mayweather Jr made in one fight against Canelo (are there any economists out there who can calculate the inflation?)

I read a book on health that determined that most people during those times were healthier because they ate food that wasn't genetically modified thus more natural and free of the type of poisonous additives used today. Plus more fruits and veggies grew wild in those days. In addition to the fact that people generally got more exercise. A man or a woman could easily walk an average of 2 to 5 miles a day, you can also take into account that manual labor was more intensive due to the lack of modern appliances built exclusively for our convenience (like the vacuum cleaner).

But on the downside, The average life expectancy of an adult white male during the 1850's was 38yrs, but this was due to a high rate of infant mortality, and accidental deaths, (and other perilous circumstances that existed at that time) ... the world had just learned "germ Theory" but had not yet mastered "preventive medicine".
Still if a man could survive until he was 42 years old, the chances were excellent he would live until the ripe old age of 60. .l

I'm truly fascinated by those times and the topic of John L's exploits would have been the stuff that dreams were made of to those who lived in that era.

I read some accounts of those marathon fights and some of the stories were so entertaining they couldn't have possibly been made up.
Like how the corner men would use a variety of methods of cheating during the close fights,..... to the audience getting a lick or two in themselves if the fighters ventured to close the hostile side of the room (barn, arena, desert or warehouse where they were having the fight in)

but most of the those stories dwell on many accounts that recall instances were the boxers were leaning on each other, and I mean literally holding each other up by the 20th round while throwing less than half a dozen punches per round. Sometimes those fights ended with both sides huddling up and agreeing to call the fight a draw or a no-contest until things could be settled in a rematch.
reports of sleeping (and drunken) fans were common during those marathon wars. But I doubt if very many of them would have been fit to entertain today's blood thirsty fans on television.

Still it's a fascinating era and it's a fascinating subject of times we will never truly witness except through the works of authors like Christopher Klein.

Nice posting. You threw down what I was getting ready to gun sling. My guns were going to be blazing with the reality of the actuality. Pugs and the able population in general were healthier in yesteryears because of real organic, not-meddling-with-Mother Nature's whole real foods and chemical-free real waters.

Nowadays people look back in pure inattentional blindness. The old timers/old skoolers got it right. Thanks for bringing light to a real hap from a different point of view. Holla!

ArneK. says:

I like the way Editor Mike used the Sullivan-Kilrain fight as the segue for this interview. I can't recommend this book without reading it (and that's a job best left to our regular reviewer) -- but I have no doubt that I will enjoy the book and learn from it. I'm partial to "Life and Times" books of antiquarian fighters and usually find the "times" more interesting than the boxer. Sullivan was the bridge between two eras and his times were especially fascinating.

Two points: No, Radam G, they didn't have a 30-second count for the KO in those days, the days when fights were contested under the rules of the London Prize Ring. They had a 30-second respite between rounds, half of what exists today.

Many of those "fights to a finish" were snoozers. That was because a fighter could fall down at the slightest provocation to start the 30-second rest period without being disqualified. The report of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight in the Cincinnati Enquirer (newspaper reports vary) says that the last legitimate knockdown came in Round 69. In the ensuing rounds, Kilrain dropped to the mat each time that Sullivan attempted to administer punishment. Having said that, the ringside reporter said that the fight lasted 125 minutes, excluding rest periods, the rough equivalent of three-and-a-half 12-round fights today.

Let's assume that Sullivan was worth $1 million dollars in 1892, the year of his last big fight. How much money is that in 2014 dollars? Google "inflation calculator" and it will tell you that Sullivan would be worth $25,540,847 today. That should be considered a loose estimate because each individual has unique spending habits. Some things haven't inflated much at all; work clothes, for example. And while $25 million doesn't seem like a lot of money when compared with what Floyd Mayweather rakes in, keep in mind that in Sullivan's day there was no federal income tax.

If Sullivan were around today, I'm guessing he would be an MMA fighter and not a boxer. He came along at a time when stand-up wrestling holds were legal and the cross-buttocks throw was a common way of scoring a knockdown. I don't believe Sullivan would stand a snowball's chance against one of the Klitschko brothers. However, if he were matched against an MMA fighter of roughly the same height and weight -- think Tito Ortiz in his prime -- I'd have no hesitation in chunking in a big bet on the Boston Strong Boy.

That's just my opinion. I'd better not say more about Sullivan until I've read the book. I wouldn't want to steal any of Christopher Klein's thunder.

Radam G says:

I like the way Editor Mike used the Sullivan-Kilrain fight as the segue for this interview. I can't recommend this book without reading it (and that's a job best left to our regular reviewer) -- but I have no doubt that I will enjoy the book and learn from it. I'm partial to "Life and Times" books of antiquarian fighters and usually find the "times" more interesting than the boxer. Sullivan was the bridge between two eras and his times were especially fascinating.

Two points: No, Radam G, they didn't have a 30-second count for the KO in those days, the days when fights were contested under the rules of the London Prize Ring. They had a 30-second respite between rounds, half of what exists today.

Many of those "fights to a finish" were snoozers. That was because a fighter could fall down at the slightest provocation to start the 30-second rest period without being disqualified. The report of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight in the Cincinnati Enquirer (newspaper reports vary) says that the last legitimate knockdown came in Round 69. In the ensuing rounds, Kilrain dropped to the mat each time that Sullivan attempted to administer punishment. Having said that, the ringside reporter said that the fight lasted 125 minutes, excluding rest periods, the rough equivalent of three-and-a-half 12-round fights today.

Let's assume that Sullivan was worth $1 million dollars in 1892, the year of his last big fight. How much money is that in 2014 dollars? Google "inflation calculator" and it will tell you that Sullivan would be worth $25,540,847 today. That should be considered a loose estimate because each individual has unique spending habits. Some things haven't inflated much at all; work clothes, for example. And while $25 million doesn't seem like a lot of money when compared with what Floyd Mayweather rakes in, keep in mind that in Sullivan's day there was no federal income tax.

If Sullivan were around today, I'm guessing he would be an MMA fighter and not a boxer. He came along at a time when stand-up wrestling holds were legal and the cross-buttocks throw was a common way of scoring a knockdown. I don't believe Sullivan would stand a snowball's chance against one of the Klitschko brothers. However, if he were matched against an MMA fighter of roughly the same height and weight -- think Tito Ortiz in his prime -- I'd have no hesitation in chunking in a big bet on the Boston Strong Boy.

That's just my opinion. I'd better not say more about Sullivan until I've read the book. I wouldn't want to steal any of Christopher Klein's thunder.


Thanks for clearing up that 30-$econd rule. Holla!

deepwater2 says:

I love the old time stories also.Mickey Walker and Harry Greb stand out to me. I love the fact that these guys would move up from welter and middle and take on Lt heavy and heavyweights. Today that would be welterweight champ Mayweather taking on Wlad K. instead of Marcos M. Imagine that.

Mickey fought Jack Sharkey to a draw. Walker was stopped in the 8th round when he took on the great Max Schmeling .

Greb handed future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney the only defeat of his career.

After Greb and Walker fought each other they both celebrated with their dates at the same nightclub in NYC. After many whiskeys the guys took off their sports-coats and had the 16TH round in the parking lot.

amayseng says:

sounds like an excellent revelation about a fighter who's been taken for granted sometimes over the years. I like it when an author attacks his subject with some fresh, crisp, and new information that forever changes our perspective about those turn-of-the-century exploits that eventually become modern day legends.

It's almost unfathomable to even imagine any athlete who could earn a million dollars in the 1880's.
That million Sullivan earned could have been proportionately larger than the $32 Million payday Floyd Mayweather Jr made in one fight against Canelo (are there any economists out there who can calculate the inflation?)

I read a book on health that determined that most people during those times were healthier because they ate food that wasn't genetically modified thus more natural and free of the type of poisonous additives used today. Plus more fruits and veggies grew wild in those days. In addition to the fact that people generally got more exercise. A man or a woman could easily walk an average of 2 to 5 miles a day, you can also take into account that manual labor was more intensive due to the lack of modern appliances built exclusively for our convenience (like the vacuum cleaner).

But on the downside, The average life expectancy of an adult white male during the 1850's was 38yrs, but this was due to a high rate of infant mortality, and accidental deaths, (and other perilous circumstances that existed at that time) ... the world had just learned "germ Theory" but had not yet mastered "preventive medicine".
Still if a man could survive until he was 42 years old, the chances were excellent he would live until the ripe old age of 60.

I'm truly fascinated by those times and the topic of John L's exploits would have been the stuff that dreams were made of to those who lived in that era.

I read some accounts of those marathon fights and some of the stories were so entertaining they couldn't have possibly been made up.
Like how the corner men would use a variety of methods of cheating during the close fights,..... to the audience getting a lick or two in themselves if the fighters ventured to close the hostile side of the room (barn, arena, desert or warehouse where they were having the fight in)

but most of the those stories dwell on many accounts that recall instances were the boxers were leaning on each other, and I mean literally holding each other up by the 20th round while throwing less than half a dozen punches per round. Sometimes those fights ended with both sides huddling up and agreeing to call the fight a draw or a no-contest until things could be settled in a rematch.
reports of sleeping (and drunken) fans were common during those marathon wars. But I doubt if very many of them would have been fit to entertain today's blood thirsty fans on television.

Still it's a fascinating era and it's a fascinating subject of times we will never truly witness except through the works of authors like Christopher Klein.


You are an absolute professor.

amayseng says:

I love the old time stories also.Mickey Walker and Harry Greb stand out to me. I love the fact that these guys would move up from welter and middle and take on Lt heavy and heavyweights. Today that would be welterweight champ Mayweather taking on Wlad K. instead of Marcos M. Imagine that.

Mickey fought Jack Sharkey to a draw. Walker was stopped in the 8th round when he took on the great Max Schmeling .

Greb handed future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney the only defeat of his career.

After Greb and Walker fought each other they both celebrated with their dates at the same nightclub in NYC. After many whiskeys the guys took off their sports-coats and had the 16TH round in the parking lot.


Men are no longer made like that these days. Sadly

miguel1 says:

This is an amazing read. I too love this era, and am fascinated by it´s spot in American culture. There was the ´man´s man´aspect of it, people grew up following who was the toughest and it evolved into a sport. There was no TV, no radio and for a growing white middle class with disposable income, pugilism was the sport to go out and see for entertainment. None of this mamby pamby ¨Í was taught not to hit others¨ stuff.

miguel1 says:

Hanging over my desk is a picture of dated February 7th, 1882 of a fight between John L Sullivan versus ´Ryan´ (Paddy Ryan). The fight isnt in the boxrec record, but the picture, taken by Mssrs Moses and Souby, of Canal Street in New Orleans, depicts Sullivan throwing a punch in a makeshift ring built in the town square. It lists the Barnes Hotel in Mississippi City, Mississippi as the location for the fight.

I would love to get a copy of the book down here, I would love to see if this fight is mentioned in there. Let me see if I can get the picture scanned and I will put it up here.

miguel1 says:

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