Last Bare-Knuckle Prizefight
John L. Sullivan was devastating puncher who toured the United States offering $1,000 to anyone who could last 4 rounds in the ring with him. He had flattened 59 men in a row, most in the 1st round, none in the fourth. However, he drank a lot, so when he faced a well-conditioned fighter from Baltimore, Jake Kilrain, there was a doubt about his winning. Kilrain was not a slugger but had endurance and he was a good wrestler. Wrestling skills were useful in bare-knuckle fighting, where a fall could be almost as punishing as a knockdown blow. Sullivan was champion by popular acclaim; while Kilrain was champion by the decree of Richard K. Fox, publisher of the Police Gazette, who ignored Sullivan's claim and awarded the Gazette's championship belt to Kilrain.
On July 8, 1889 at 10 A.M. in Richburg, Mississippi, in 100-degree heat, the two faced each other in the ring. A crowd of about 3,000 had gathered. Since bare-knuckle fighting was illegal in all 38 states, most of the crowd had come by train from New Orleans.
Kilrain's fight plan was to avoid toe-to-toe slugging and to sidestep Sullivan's rushes. By the 4th round (which lasted over 15 minutes since a round ended only when a man went down), these tactics drove Sullivan into a fury. In the 7th round, as the fighters clinched, a Kilrain hook to the head and brought blood from Sullivan's ear. Referee John Fitzpatrick called "First blood, Kilrain," and money changed hands in the crowd; betting was always heavy on first blood and first knockdown.
In the 8th round, Sullivan scored the first clean knockdown. The blood soaked fighters fought on, until 30th round when Sullivan seemed to be gaining an edge. Kilrain was tiring and Sullivan was now scoring all the knockdowns and most of the falls. Finally, in the 75th round, after 2 hours and 16 minutes, on a doctor's recommendation, Kilrain's corner tossed in the sponge and the fight was over.
Soon after this fight, bare-knuckle rules were replaced by the modern Queensberry rules and gloves were used in prizefights. Three years later, Sullivan lost his crown to Jim Corbett in a glove fight. Kilrain lived to be a pallbearer at Sullivan's funeral in 1918 and did not die until 1937 when he was 78.
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