And we think today’s fighters, today’s heavyweights are tough (or maybe we don’t, but whatever).
Rewind to 1882, and it was pretty hard for a fight fan to state with utter conviction who the heavyweight champion was. With the era of gloved fists closing in, Irish warrior Paddy Ryan was by most consensus the heavyweight king. Tough guy Ryan, who was born in Tipperary in March of 1851 and was living in New York in 1872, had earned the distinction due to his 87 round win (yes, 87 rounds!) over Joe Goss. The Ryan Goss battle took place in May of 1880, the fight going down in West Virginia.
Here’s a report of the fight’s result, along with an example of how beautifully fight writers of the day used the pen:
“After the battle [Ryan and Goss] plainly showed the brutal treatment they had received. Two more repulsive objects it would be difficult to imagine. Deep gashes marred faces that were never classical, while swollen lips and black eyes evidenced the fierceness of the fight. Here and there over the naked breasts and arms of the men were strains of blood, which gave them the appearance of painted savages.”
(This written by a writer for The Plain Dealer – as per The Fight City and their superb piece).
Ryan, who had paid an unimaginably painful price in winning the title, went AWOL thereafter, not choosing (or able) to defend his title. Until February of 1882, that is.
By this time, or quite some time before, a man from Boston, Massachusetts, named John Lawrence Sullivan had emerged on the fistic scene. Known as John L, and also as “The Boston Strong Boy,” Sullivan was – and make no mistake about his name being more than worthy of being thrown into the discussion/argument – very possibly the toughest fighter/son of a bitch/heavyweight of them all.
Sullivan, who was born in October of 1858, campaigned, or rampaged, through an exhibition tour, with him famously declaring how he would “whip any son of a bitch in the house.” This John L. did – some 450 times (maybe more). Truly unbeatable, Sullivan, at 5’10,” was seemingly cast from iron, with the same mineral present in both of his fists.
It was on this day in 1882, when Sullivan met Ryan for the title – the bareknuckle title, the world heavyweight championship.
Outlawed at the time, bareknuckle matches were promoted by word of mouth and via reputation. With possible arrest hovering, some 5,000 fans nevertheless showed up to watch the day’s Super Fight (legend has it, both Oscar Wilde and Jesse James were in attendance). The bout took place, after some location switching, in Mississippi, in front of the Barnes Hotel. Both men put up the then enormous sum of $2,500, the battle a winner take all affair. There was no limit in terms of number of scheduled rounds, the fight to be decided by who was left standing.
A great, savage, and punishing fight duly ensued.
Ryan, who had boxed exhibitions himself prior to this, the most testing fight of his career, had whipped himself into terrific shape. But Sullivan, the younger man by seven years, was ravenously hungry – and unstoppable. Indeed, if the mythical pound-for-pound charts we all pay so much attention to these days were in existence back then, John L. would have been ranked at the very top of the pile.
The fight was of course brutal. Sullivan decked Ryan early, this with his powerful right hand. But Ryan battled back, sending Sullivan to the floor with a wrestling move. Soon after, John L, an immensely strong individual, began to throw Ryan about the place, and soon Ryan was unable to take a break even in a clinch. It was all Sullivan now, as he was dominating the fight, although both men were tiring.
In the ninth round, Sullivan cracked home with a massive right hand to the head, and down went Ryan, not to get up. Ryan’s jaw was nastily swollen, as was Sullivan’s ego. But who was capable of being Sullivan’s superior?
As it turned out, no man was up for the job. Not until booze, excess weight and age caught up with John L, with him finally losing to James J. Corbett in September of 1892, this in the first gloved heavyweight title fight.
But as the greatest bareknuckle king, the mighty John L. stands alone. But Paddy Ryan was also great.