Sullivan Wins Fight of the 19th Century

John L. Sullivan was the transitional heavyweight prize fighting champion.  He transitioned prize fighting from the bare knuckle era to modern boxing under the Marquis of Queensbury rules by refusing to fight in any more non-gloved bouts.  Before he made this pledge, he took part in the Fight of the 19th Century with the formidable Jake Kilrain.


John L. Sullivan in His Prime from the Public Domain

Jake Kilrain was the toughest challenger the mighty John L. faced since he took the belt from Paddy Ryan in 1882.  Charlie Mitchell, who was backing Jake Kilrain in the fight, fought Sullivan to a draw in 1882 and 1888.  John L. Sullivan dismissed Mitchell as “the world’s greatest sprinter”.  Jake Kilrain would not be running from “The Boston Strong Boy.”

Kilrain was born John Joseph Killion in New York on February 9, 1859.  He came of age working in a mill, where he also developed his pugilistic skill.  Unlike his friend Charlie Mitchell, Kilrain was more of a brawler than a skilled boxer.  He would stand and trade blow for blow with his opponent.

Standing and trading with John L. Sullivan was not a formula for success.  However, Sullivan faced long odds in retaining his championship.  Born on October 15, 1858 in Boston, Massachusetts to Irish immigrants, “The Boston Strong Boy” had been spending most of his time on food and particularly drink.  Woefully out of shape, he sought the help of William Muldoon, World Champion Wrestler and physical culturist.

Despite the serious threat to his title, Sullivan still had to be forced into the gym by Muldoon.  Muldoon had strict training rules, which Sullivan mostly followed.  William Muldoon still ended up dragging Sullivan out of a couple bars during his camp.  Sullivan often said the only man who inspired fear in him was William Muldoon.

On July 8, 1889, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain would ride a train with 3000 spectators to Richburg, Mississippi.  The Fight of the 19th Century would go for 75 rounds and last two hours and eighteen minutes.


Artist Rendering of Jake Kilrain from the Public Domain

The Morrow Transcript of Lansing, Michigan’s July 17, 1889 edition stated that Kilrain drew first blood and threw Sullivan first.  John L. got the first knock down.  For a while, it looked like John L. Sullivan would tire but he got a second wind after the 44th round.

Before the start of the 76th round with both men toeing the scratch, Kilrain’s second, Mike Donovan, threw in the sponge.  Despite his battered body and face, Kilrain wanted to continue.  Donovan refused.  Donovan told his friend that any more punishment would kill him.  The Morrow Transcript declared, “John L. Is King”.

After this fight, John L. Sullivan would only fight gloved battles.  He also resumed his drinking, which would be a significant factor in his later defeat to “Gentleman” Jim Corbett.  Jake Kilrain continued fighting until the turn of the 20th Century.  When John L. Sullivan died in 1918, Kilrain was one of the pall bearers.

William Muldoon went on to become one of the first and most celebrated trainers in America.

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