Morrissey vs. Sullivan: The Fight That Started the Feud

     On October 12, 1853, 23 year-old John Morrissey would meet 40 year-old “Yankee” Sullivan for the American and possibly World Heavyweight Prizefighting Championship.  Sullivan had been considered the champion since Tom Hyer, who had beaten Sullivan previously, retired instead of fighting Sullivan in a rematch.  Sullivan claimed the title and was backed by Hyer, who had made peace with Sullivan.

     Sullivan and Hyer were affiliated with the Know Nothing or Native American party.  John Morrissey was a strong-arm man for Tammany Hall in addition to his prizefighting career.  These groups were on opposing sides in New York City politics.  The result of the Morrissey-Sullivan bout would stretch the tension to the breaking point.

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John Morrissey Circa 1860

    Morrissey was the much bigger man at 170 pounds.  While rather small by today’s standards, many of the early prize-fighters weighed less than 200 pounds.  John L. Sullivan was considered a monster at 190 pounds.  Morrissey was called “The Troy Giant” and “Old Smoke” alternately.  A rowdy bar patron and Morrissey became involved in a brawl in a Troy, NY tavern.  When they knocked a stove over, Morrissey fell onto the hot coals where the other man held him.  Instead of submitting, Morrissey was able to get off the hot coals and beat the other man senseless.  His back and shirt were badly burned and smoking.

     Sullivan was considered the better boxer but science was neither man’s forte.  Sullivan was smaller at a generous 165 pounds.  Besides Tom Hyer, Sullivan was also backed by William “Bill the Butcher” Poole, who would challenge Morrissey to a street fight after this prize-fight.

     John Morrissey entered first, threw his hat in the ring and took his corner.  Yankee Sullivan considered the champion entered second.  Morrissey’s colors were red, white and blue while Sullivan wore a black scarf.

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Morrissey vs Poole Paperback Cover

     When the referee signalled for the fight to begin, Sullivan immediately clipped Morrissey with a right that struck “Old Smoke” in his left eye.  Sullivan evaded some heavy blows before landing several more sharp rights to Morrissey’s eye.  When an enraged Morrissey charged Sullivan, Sullivan deftly slipped through the ropes to end the first round.

     In the second round, it was more the same with a bloodied Morrissey suffering blows to the nose and left eye.  Every time he got close to Sullivan to do some close in work, Sullivan would take a knee to end the round.  While it seems cowardly, it was a smart, professional way to maintain his edge.  He would not be able to hold Morrissey off forever.

     In the third round, Morrissey caught Sullivan with several body blows and a powerful right finally found its way to Sullivan’s jaw.  Sullivan stayed on his feet but another strong blow to the ribs dropped him for the first actual knockdown.  Sullivan was a far superior boxer but Morrissey was the puncher.  If he could just land enough blows, he could win the fight.  It would not be easy though.

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Yankee Sullivan in Fighting Togs

     Sullivan did most of the work in the fourth round before Morrissey dropped him at the end of the fourth round.  Morrissey looked like something out of a horror movie when he toed the scratch at the beginning of the fifth round.  For the next ten rounds, Sullivan would batter Morrissey and drop after the first blow landed.  Sullivan did most of the damage but Morrissey would not quit.

     In the fifteenth round, the left side of Sullivan’s head was swollen noticeably.  He began to slow and spent much of the next ten rounds evading Morrissey’s blows and taking a knee when the action got hot.  In the twenty-fifth round, Sullivan took back over and had the better of the action for the next ten rounds.

     In the thirty-sixth round, the bout came to a controversial end.  Depending on what account you read, Sullivan either knocked Morrissey out but left the ring which he did not know was against the rules or his backers rushed the ring when Morrissey lifted Sullivan for a throw.  Whatever the true story, the referee disqualified Yankee Sullivan.

     Sullivan’s backers claimed foul and refused to pay off any bets at first.  Eventually, they would pay but it would lead to Morrissey and Poole meeting in a street fight, where Morrissey was badly injured.  Morrissey’s friends swore revenge.  They would eventually end up murdering “Bill the Butcher” Poole.

     John Morrissey would go on to be a New York State Senator after one more prize-fight.  Yankee Sullivan would be killed by vigilantes in San Francisco.  And prizefighting would remain a”dirty” business for years to come.

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