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8 July 2012

On this day in history: Last bare-knuckle championship bout, 1889

In 1881, the Massachusetts boxer John L. Sullivan insulted Richard Kyle Fox, proprietor of the weekly sports and theatre journal entitled the National Police Gazette, when he refused to visit Fox's table in a Boston Saloon. Over the following years Fox dedicated himself to finding a fighter who could defeat Sullivan, who defeated the reigning American champion, Paddy Ryan, in 1882 before embarking on a coast-to-coast tour of the United States winning fights in over one-hundred towns. Meanwhile, Fox thought he had found his man in the form of Jake Kilrain from Long Island and set about goading Sullivan into a fight by saying that he was afraid to face Kilrain.

Eventually, in January 1889, both sides agreed on a bare-knuckle contest to take place within 200-miles of New Orleans under the London Prize Ring rules. Both parties also agreed to a $10,000 wager on the outcome. The governors of both Louisiana and Mississippi both opposed the fight taking place in their respective states, but the promoter Bud Reneau managed to secure a venue on the land of Colonel Charles W. Rich in Richburg, Mississippi.

On 8th July 1889 around three-thousand spectators gathered to watch the fight. They jeered the local sheriff who read a proclamation banning the contest, under the orders of Governor Lowry. In spite of the proclamation, both contestants ceremonially threw their hats into the ring and entered the ring a little after 10am.

Over the next two hours and sixteen minutes the two fought only pausing at the end of a round, which only occurred when one of them hit the ground, as per the London Prize Ring rules. Kilrain's tactic was to try and dodge Sullivan's lunges while wearing him out by jabbing and wrestling his opponent. Despite vomiting during the forty-fourth round Sullivan's stamina held out. At the beginning of the seventy-sixth round Kilrain's cornerman followed the advice of a doctor who said that their fighter's life was in jeopardy and threw a sponge into the ring to signify that they had conceded. While Kilrain lay on the floor in floods of tears, some of the crowd carried the jubilant Sullivan aloft while others grabbed splinters of the rings posts, lengths of rope and even clumps of turf as souvenirs of the last bare-knuckle championship bout.

The authorities issued arrest warrants for both fighters and consequently they were both taken into custody - Sullivan in Nashville and Kilrain in Baltimore - before being returned to face trial in Mississippi. Having been found guilty of prizefighting Sullivan paid a fine of $500, while Kilrain was found guilty of assault and battery and not only received a fine for the same amount, but was also sentenced to six month is jail. Colonel Rich paid Kilrain's fine and bought his sentence meaning that Kilrain served his time as a guest in Rich's home.

To learn more about the Sullivan - Kilrain fight see The University of Southern Mississippi's McCain Library and Archives page on the subject.

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