Boxing's Longest Day: Sullivan v. Kilrain, July 8, 1889

More than any other sport, boxing depends on the singularity of certain events. As an individual sport, its lifeblood is heroic (or dubious) action, its centerpiece the confrontation between two adversaries—no teams, no leagues, no extended seasons, with their changing momentum and many lesser dramas. It comes down to the big fight, and the big fight has to deliver, because there may never be another. This go-for-broke, all-or-nothing quality has suffused boxing from the beginning and accounted for its extraordinary appeal, which has endured, in one form or another, through every conceivable adversity and reversal of fortune. It is a sport of the highest drama and the deepest passion—the sport, as George Foreman once described it, "to which all other sports aspire."

In its long and checkered history, boxing has had many big fights and big moments, but if you want to know where the template was laid for all of them, you have to go back to the nineteenth century, to July 8, 1889, to the vanished hamlet of Richburg, Mississippi (now part of Hattiesburg), where heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan fought Jake Kilrain in the last bare-knuckle championship fight. (Well, until last month, anyway.) I'm amazed that a major motion picture has never been made about it.

The bout was fought under the old London Prize Ring Rules, which meant a fight to the finish—that is, there was no limit to the number of rounds that could be fought, and there were no judges. Under these rules, fights ended when one man could no longer continue (either by being counted out or because he simply couldn't fight anymore), and not before. Rounds weren't timed; they ended only when one man went down, and as such they could be much longer than the modern-day three minutes, or much shorter. Rest periods between rounds were 30 seconds, not the modern 60 seconds. The bouts were fought on turf, instead of in the modern boxing ring, though the space in which they were conducted was roped off in similar fashion.

In Richburg, Sullivan and Kilrain fought over an unimaginable distance: 75 rounds, lasting two hours and 16 minutes, before the matter was resolved: Sullivan was the winner and still champion. They fought in stifling heat, with the temperature above 100 degrees. They fought before about 2,000 heavily armed spectators, most wearing wool long-sleeve shirts and jackets, and most having traveled all night by train, from New Orleans, to get to Richburg by the early-morning hours. The trains were so crowded that some men climbed aboard the tops of the trains, and they didn't get down even when policemen whacked them with nightsticks and fired six-shooters into the air. Boxing was still illegal pretty much everywhere in the United States in 1889, and the fight's location had to be kept secret until the last possible moment. Thus the choice of Richburg, which was essentially the private fiefdom of Colonel Charles Rich, a wealthy young lumberman and sportsman who owned 30,000 acres of pineland and ran a prosperous sawmill. (He later became mayor of Hattiesburg.) Thus the rush to the trains, when the word leaked out.

Think for a moment about the key numbers that have always surrounded this fight: 75 rounds; and two hours, 16 minutes. I've known those figures since I was a boy growing up in my beloved Midwest, reading boxing histories on my parents' porch, but I hadn't really reflected on them until I got working on my Sullivan chapter for The Boxing Kings. And I thought: why not do the math?

So: two hours and 16 minutes is a total of 136 minutes. From those 136 minutes, subtract the thirty-second rest periods spread over seventy-four rounds (not counting the last one, after which the fight was called). That’s 37 minutes taken from the total, bringing it down to 99 minutes of actual fighting. Averaged over 75 rounds, that comes out to barely a minute and 15 seconds per round, and Round 4, by far the longest, went on for 15 minutes, making the average for the others even shorter. But remember: 99 minutes of fighting. Compare that with today's maximum of 36 minutes (12 rounds of three-minutes each, the limit for modern boxing matches). Sullivan and Kilrain battled for nearly three times as long as boxers do today. And they did all this with their bare hands, on uneven ground, in searing heat. 

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Look at the images of the spectators, most wearing coats over their shirts, even in that shade-less heat. You have to wonder how they could last, let alone how the fighters managed. Some relief was available: a mysterious peddler emerged to sell beer for 25 cents a glass, an outrageous sum for 1889. He promptly disappeared, and then a water vendor saw his prices move up from 50 cents a bucket to 75. Someone else tried hawking cheese sandwiches "of doubtful age" for 15 cents. This was long before the modern era of concessions and spectator comforts.

It was a rough, exhausting battle, but after the early going, in which Kilrain had the upper hand, Sullivan took command. It was clear from about the 10th round on that John L. was the stronger man, but Kilrain, following the strategy of his cornerman and Sullivan nemesis Charley Mitchell, used evasive tactics, circling away and trying to tire out the champion. Jake ended some rounds by taking a knee. Sullivan, infuriated, urged Kilrain to "fight like a man." Kilrain stuck to his plan, though, and the rounds passed—25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, and so on.

Imagine running a marathon in withering heat, and being offered whiskey at, say, Mile 18. You'd decline, I hope—but Kilrain and Sullivan didn't. Before the 44th round, Sullivan, who had just had some whiskey mixed with tea, began vomiting in the center of the ring. Kilrain, who by now was in desperate straits, with little chance of beating Sullivan outright, asked the champion if he wished to quit. "No, you loafer!" John L. roared back, and he recovered quickly. Meantime, Kilrain drank whiskey steadily throughout the latter part of the battle, by some accounts consuming up to a quart in little sips. 

After the 75th round, Kilrain looked delirious, his head lolling on his shoulders, his legs barely supporting him. A physician rushed over and warned Jake's men that their fighter could die if they kept sending him out there. Mike Donovan, Kilrain's chief second, who had sparred with a young Sullivan years ago and recognized his talent, tossed a sponge into the ring, indicating surrender. The crowd ripped up the place, taking pieces of the wooden posts that had framed the ring as mementos, cutting up the ropes, and even digging up pieces of sod—a quasi-religious devotion that would become commonplace in twentieth-century sports, with the tearing down of football goalposts and the cutting of basketball nets. Word of the fight's outcome was carried around the nation through the magic of the telegraph. By 1889, all the continents had been wired, and messages sent from London could reach New York in ten minutes. Even President Benjamin Harrison was interested in the fight; reporters on the White House press beat were surprised to receive official requests for updates. Thanks to John L. Sullivan, the heavyweight title had become a national obsession. 

The Sullivan-Kilrain fight remains one of boxing's mythic episodes, a kind of Iliad or, closer to home, a Battle of Gettysburg. Vachel Lindsay tried to capture its resonance with its era in his poem, "John L. Sullivan, the Strong Boy of Boston." Part of its aura surely has to do with its taking place before the advent of motion pictures, leaving only the somewhat blurry but fascinating black-and-white photographs of the event, which were taken by a New Orleans photographer, Thomas Pye, who snapped his shots from a ladder overlooking the ring; two easterners, George Barker of Niagara Falls, New York, and Ernest Marx of Plainfield, New Jersey, also took pictures. Together, the three men produced a visual record of an epochal event and helped pioneer sports photography.

The fight is also well chronicled through the written word. Sullivan's three key biographers—Donald Barr Chidsey, Michael Isenberg, and Christopher Klein—all tell the story of the Kilrain fight vividly and well. Richard Hoffer delivered a rollicking version of the tale for Sports Illustrated in 2002. And Andrew English's heavily researched monograph, Ringside at Richburg, is an authoritative account, richly detailed from local sources and illustrated with photos I've seen nowhere else. (I'm fortunate that I bought the book when I did, some years back; copies are scarce.)

Postscript: In the course of writing The Boxing Kings, I came across one detail after another that, had my time been unlimited, I would have enjoyed examining further, sometimes just out of interest and sometimes to resolve an issue that seemed unresolved. One of those details concerns the commemorative plaque, or plaques, for the Sullivan-Kilrain fight. There appear to be two, both in or around Hattiesburg. One, put up at least a half-century ago by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and perhaps a good deal earlier, stands on Highway 11, on Hattiesburg's outskirts, and announces that the fight took place "three miles southwest of this spot," suggesting that the precise location was unknown. 

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The second and (I believe) more recent sign, erected by the Lamar County Historical Society, announces definitively that the fight took place on said spot, which, according to WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg, is "at the intersection of Sullivan-Kilrain and Richburg roads." I don't know the first thing about Hattiesburg's history or geography, but I'm skeptical about the definitive nature of this plaque, since exactly where the fight had taken place had apparently been a source of local dispute for many years. Maybe the LCHS has finally resolved the matter. I bet that, if John L. and Jake were around now, they'd be able to walk us over to the very spot where they battled on boxing's longest day.


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