Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle 111 years ago: Sullivan stops Kilrain in 75 rounds

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Few Americans in the 1880s paid much attention to the goings on in rural Mississippi. But on July 8, 1889, the town of Hattiesburg commanded the nation’s attention. For on that day John L. Sullivan stepped into the ring against the formidable Jake Kilrain. It proved to be one of the most memorable bouts in boxing history.

The fight was held in Mississippi because it was one of the few states that still permitted bare-knuckled boxing. Despite its remote location, the fight drew a huge crowd of spectators, sportswriters, and gamblers. Only those who bet on Kilrain walked away disappointed.

Held outdoors under a punishing July sun, the contest lasted 75 rounds before Kilrain’s corner finally threw in the towel. John L. Sullivan could still boast that he could lick any man alive.

By the time of the bout, Sullivan was the nation’s first superstar athlete celebrity. Born in 1858 to Michael Sullivan and Catherine Kelly, he was raised in the tough Irish neighborhood of Roxbury in Boston. Despite his mother’s effort to steer him to the seminary, Sullivan was drawn to the world of sports. He fought and won his first exhibition match in 1878 and turned pro the following year. Three years later, he got his big break — a chance to fight Paddy Ryan, the reigning American champion. They met on Feb. 7, 1882 and Sullivan prevailed in under 10 minutes. The "Boston Strong Boy," as he was now known, was the national boxing champion.

For the next seven years Sullivan took on and defeated all comers. With few restrictions on gambling (even by the boxers) and fight prizes awarded on winner-take-all basis, Sullivan became a wealthy man. What fans loved most about him, apart from his extraordinary skills, was the audacious way he proclaimed his invincibility. "The bigger they come," he famously quipped, "the harder they fall." Irish Americans were devoted to him because he represented their own aspirations to rise in an often hostile world.

Follow us on social media

Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo

The Kilrain bout marked the high point of his career. Internationally famous, Sullivan entered semi-retirement and toured the country as a celebrity and aspiring actor. But the years of hard drinking and high living eventually left him broke and desperate. On Sept. 7, 1892, though overweight and out of shape, he battled and lost to the next Irish star of the ring, "Gentleman" Jim Corbett.

Though only 34, Sullivan never fought again. Still, he remained a celebrity the rest of his life, giving speeches and performing in vaudeville productions. In 1905, however, he decided to make a major life change. He had come to realize that his wild lifestyle was killing him. He drank too much and weighed 340 pounds. He resolved to never touch alcohol again and dedicated the rest of his life to traveling the country urging others to do the same.

The man who rose to fame confirming one Irish stereotype — the penchant for fighting — spent the final 13 years of his life working to overcome another.

John L. Sullivan died in Massachusetts on Feb. 2, 1918. His funeral was one of the largest in the state’s history.

Hibernian History Week

€ July 5, 1828: Daniel O’Connell is elected to the British Parliament. It was the culmination of O’Connell’s agitation for Catholic Emancipation (repeal of laws discriminating against Catholics). Parliament granted Catholic Emancipation the following year, earning O’Connell the nickname "The Liberator."

€ July 8, 1871: The New York Times reveals the vast corruption of Tammany Hall’s William "Boss" Tweed. Eventually Tweed (not Irish himself) and his collaborators Richard Connolly and Peter Sweeney went to jail. Tweed was succeeded by "Honest" John Kelly, the first Irish Catholic Tammany boss.

€ July 10, 1938: Aviation pioneer and future eccentric recluse Howard Hughes completes his flight around the world. The journey took him 91 hours to complete.

€ July 11, 1985: Baseball legend Nolan Ryan became the first major-league pitcher to earn 4,000 strikeouts in a career as he led the Houston Astros to a 4-3 victory over the New York Mets.

Hibernian Birthdates

€ July 7, 1917: Lawrence O’Brien, special assistant to President Kennedy and National Basketball Association commissioner, born in Springfield, Mass.

€ July 6, 1925: Early rock and roll star Bill Haley (of Bill Haley and the Comets), born in Highland Park, Mich.

€ July 11, 1899: Film star James Cagney born in New York City.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese