On This Day: John L. Sullivan And Jake Kilrain Battle It Out For 75 Rounds In The Last Ever Bareknuckle Title Fight

By James Slater - 07/08/2023 - Comments

When we fight fans discuss and/or think about what might be the greatest fight in boxing history, there is a tendency on our part to ‘go modern,’ as in we discuss/get to thinking about the fights we have seen, the fights we can watch today. You know the great fights you so love – be they from the 1920s to the current decade. Fights that were fought under modern day rules and regulations; with padded gloves and three-minute rounds – The Marquees of Queensbury rules having taken over from the old bareknuckle days.

But when one looks back into the depths of time, there are some incredible prizefights to be found, or to be read about. We cannot slide a DVD into the machine and watch a John L. Sullivan fight, or a Jem Mace fight, or a Tom Molineaux fight, or a Jem Belcher fight. Even later fighters who boxed under modern rules were often not filmed; the great Harry Greb for example.

But we can read the reports of the day when it comes to these quite simply epic fights. We can also read some of the excellent work current writers have worked so very hard on, their pieces paying tribute to the fights from so many years, even centuries ago.

It was, on this day, July 8th in 1889, when the final bareknuckle title fight took place, this before the “more civilized” Marquess rules were implemented.

John L. Sullivan, for most people THE heavyweight champion of the world – the man who said he would “lick any sonofabitch in the house,” and did so – was challenged by Jake Kilrain. Kilrain had a claim to the heavyweight championship himself (given to him by the publisher of the influential paper of the day, ‘The Police Gazette’) and the two met at an undisclosed location to settle the argument.

Bareknuckle fighting was illegal in 38 states at the time, and word of mouth had to be relied upon if one wanted to see the Sullivan-Kilrain showdown. Some 3,000 fans made it to the field in Richburg, Mississippi where the fight would take place. The first round would start at 10AM, the fight to see the winner collect $10,000 a side, winner take all. The temperature at the time was a brutal 100 degrees in the shade.

Sullivan’s reputation proceeded him grandly. A prodigious drinker, Sullivan fought both drunk and sober, mostly the former. Regularly seeing off vast quantities of bourbon that he would drink from a beer stein, Sullivan had boasted, correctly, that no man could go four rounds with him. Touring across the country, taking on all comers, John L. had wiped out 59 challengers on the bounce. Not one lasted past the fourth round, with most being taken care of in round one.

But the thinking in Kilrain’s camp was, Sullivan’s legs were only good for around 20 minutes, that his legs, like the legs of all drunkards, would fail him after that point. And Kilrain was exquisitely conditioned, his game plan to take Sullivan into the later rounds and then take over and win. And Kilrain was a clever boxer who could move.

The early rounds that historic day saw Kilrain take the lead (a round would only end if a man went down, and could therefore last minutes or mere seconds), as he refrained from slugging it out with Sullivan, instead focusing on avoiding the big-hitting John L’s lunges. Furious, Sullivan bellowed at his rival, “Why don’t you fight! You’re supposed to be the champ, ain’t ya?”

In round seven, Kilrain landed a hefty shot to the head that drew blood from Sullivan’s ear. In the next session, Sullivan scored the first knockdown of the fight. Both men must have been suffering already, the heat and the intensity of the battle punishing. But the fight was only getting started. For 30 rounds, the warfare continued, the blood of both men pouring, the savage heat doing damage to the stripped backs of both fighters.

After the 30th round, it was Kilrain was who tiring, slowing down, not Sullivan. It turned out Sullivan could fight for long periods after having downed large amounts of liquor. Sullivan was now in command, scoring more knockdowns and falls. But there was no quit in Kilrain, and he kept coming ‘up to scratch’ again and again. Astonishing, there were still over 40 rounds of battle to come! Finally, by the point of the 75th round, a doctor informed Kilrain’s corner that, if they allowed their man out for more, “he will die.” It was over. The very last title fight in bareknuckle history had lasted a gruelling, indeed an unimaginable, 2 hours and 16 minutes.

John L. Sullivan was the king of kings. There was no doubt at all about it.

Sullivan would lose his next fight, over three years later, this when he boxed Jim Corbett in the first world heavyweight title fight fought under Marquees rules. The great man would die in February of 1918, aged just 59. Jake Kilrain, who lived to be 78, was one of the pallbearers.

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