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Lords of the Ring

John L. Sullivan, one of the most celebrated Americans of the nineteenth century, officially stepped into the ring for the final time on September 7, 1892. The flabby champion, a symbol of Gilded Age excesses, faced a fit San Franciscan with a perfect pompadour named James J. Corbett. “Gentleman Jim,” as he would eventually be known, learned to fight not in the streets but at a sparring club. He even had a few years of college behind him.

The great John L. never had much of a chance. From the fifth round on, Corbett toyed with him, finally delivering the decisive blow in the twenty-first round. “[Sullivan] lowered his guard from sheer exhaustion, and catching a fearful smash on the jaw, reached to the ropes, and the blood poured down his face in torrents and made a crimson river across the broad chest,” a newspaper wrote. “His eyes were glassy, and it was a mournful act when the young Californian shot his right across the jaw and Sullivan fell like an ox.” Afterwards Sullivan was his usual convivial self, telling a cub reporter named Theodore Dreiser that “I’m ex-champion of the world, defeated by that little dude from California, but I’m still John L. Sullivan—ain’t that right? Haw! haw! They can’t take that away from me, can they? Haw! haw! Have some more champagne, boy.” Dreiser admitted, “I adored him.”

The Sullivan-Corbett fight, staged eight years before the dawn of the twentieth century, was a glimpse of the modern future. It was held inside a stadium illuminated with electric lights in the heart of an urban center, in this instance New Orleans. The behavior within the ring was regulated by the (allegedly) civilizing rules devised by the Marquis of Queensbury: The fighters wore padded gloves, fought three-minute rounds followed by one-minute rest periods, and were allowed ten seconds to recover from knockdowns. The behavior outside the ring was supervised by police officers upholding the municipal ordinances of New Orleans, which, always ahead of its time in the celebration of the flesh, had sanctioned Queensberry fights two years earlier. The city’s former mayor had no qualms about announcing the fighters’ weights before the match.

The glorious era of illegal bare-knuckle boxing in America was over. Just three years earlier, on July 8, 1889, Sullivan had defended his title against Jake Kilrain under entirely different circumstances. The fight was held on turf, in a ring created for the occasion on the rural Mississippi Coast property of a sawdust proprietor named Charles Rich. Under the London Prize Ring rules, rounds lasted as long as both men stood, which meant they could “steal a few minutes to glare at each other, tacitly agreeing to slow down, return to their corners for a drink, and regain their strength,” Elliott J. Gorn tells us is his classic account, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America, which appeared in 1986 and has just been republished in an updated edition by Cornell University Press with a new afterward by the author. Since the Mississippi governor had placed a $1,000 bounty for Sullivan’s arrest, the champion fled Mr. Rich’s land soon after dispatching Kilrain in seventy-five rounds. He was eventually brought back to the state to face charges for violating statutes forbidding prize fighting and assault and battery. Although the indictments would be quashed, Sullivan spent more money on legal fees that he had earned in the Kilrain fight. It is no wonder he was such a fixture in traveling variety shows, which made him a rich man and kept him out of legal trouble.

Sullivan had used his considerable influence to push for the introduction of Queensberry rules, writing in his autobiography that they provided for contests that were clean and honest, “conducted for the benefit of gentlemen, not rowdies.” But history has proven him wrong. Boxing has rarely been clean, honest or unrowdy. Observe Evander Holyfield’s ear (or lack of). Review Frankie Carbo’s testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee. (He cited the Fifth Amendment thirty times.) Cue up ESPN’s segment on the “top 10 boxing press conference brawls.” “[The] image of men pitted against each other in man-to-man warfare is too stark, too extreme, to be assimilated into ‘civilized’ society,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in a profile of Mike Tyson.

It has always been so. In the first extensive newspaper story about an American prize fight—published in The New York Evening Post in 1823, Gorn tells us—the reporter described stumbling upon the action as if no respectable person would consciously attend such an event. He then gave a precise description of the battle between a butcher and “the champion of Hickory Street” on Gardner’s wharf on the East River in Manhattan. The men fought for $200, close to an average worker’s yearly salary, the money “likely” staked by gamblers, Gorn ventures with scholarly care. They probably wore pinkie rings, too.

Introduced into the country first by the British and then their Irish cousins, prize fighting had become an integral part of American leisure time by the 1840s—long before the emergence of baseball, football, or basketball (which was not invented until 1891). Gorn says the sport was practiced by “river men from the Ohio Valley to New Orleans, miners in California, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and new immigrants in countless towns and cities.” The first true championship fight of our history occurred on February 7, 1849, between “Yankee Sullivan” and Tom Hyer on an isolated patch of land across the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore.

Sullivan was an Irish-born escapee from an Australian penal colony whose real name was (maybe) James Ambrose. He operated a Five Points saloon called the Sawdust House, “filling his till with a plentiful sprinkling of the ‘almighty dollar,’” according to The Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (1854), probably the first American sports biography. In his spare time he was a Tammany Hall “shoulder-hitter,” specializing in the kind of voter intimidation that would make Karl Rove blush. His opponent was a native-born butcher, the son of a renowned boxer, who used his earnings from the fight to open a rival tavern on the Bowery. Since Hyer was affiliated with the then-ascendant Know Nothing Party—an ally of William “Bill the Butcher” Poole—the fight became a grudge match between immigrants and nativists. In this case, the nativists won—Hyer collected a mammoth $10,000 purse for seventeen minutes of work—but, as always in the annals of American bigotry, the victory was fleeting. There followed a string of Irish-American champions.

Gorn’s book succeeds brilliantly in excavating this story of nineteenth-century America. Boxing was “an oppositional way of life,” he observes, indulged in by a growing urban population employed in wage-labor that allowed for leisure pursuits. He shows that we have always had a significant population that was skeptical of the country’s celebrated notions of “piety, productivity and moral earnestness.” Some of our greatest citizens—Thomas Jefferson, Horace Greeley—raised their voices in condemnation of the fight game, yet the popularity of boxing has always depended solely on the quality of the spectacle in the ring. Gorn spins a gripping tale that touches upon the birth of American celebrity, the “commercialization of leisure,” the assimilation of immigrants, and the rise of sensationalized journalism. 

His book is also a treatise on male folk custom. Bare-knuckle championship fights were highly ritualized events. Challenges were published in the newspapers—“I, John C. Heenan, of the City of West Troy, United States of America, hereby…”—and formal articles of agreement were signed in the presence of witnesses. Prize fighting’s fraternity, known as “the fancy”—a select tribe of gamblers, cutthroats, newspapermen, publicans, blacklegs, and “swearers,” one judge complained—were provided with transportation to the distant site, often a piece of property contested by rival municipalities. Bouts of this era were brutal contests that often ended without clear resolution—without one fighter’s representative throwing in the towel or sponge that signaled capitulation, another prize fighting ritual. It was typical for either the authorities or the crowd (brawling over some matter of dispute) to break into the ring and cause the action to conclude prematurely. In the case of the famous John C. Heenan-Tom Sayers fight in 1860, the cops fought with the crowd for several rounds before entering, forcing a draw to be declared.

Still, there was a trace of old world dignity to these affairs that is mostly absent from the modern prize ring. It is hard to imagine a nineteenth-century pugilist painting an advertisement for a betting Web site on his back. The rules demanded that fighters conduct “themselves with order and decorum.” After John Morrissey defeated Heenan in their championship fight of 1858—turning his face into something resembling “one of those jelly-fish sometimes seen left by the tide on Staten Island beach,” according to one observer—he was carried over to his “fallen foe, and, in true French style, kissed his hand in token of his valor.”

Yet no gloss of gentility can change that boxing has always been a vicious business. Gorn’s description of the Lilly-McCoy fight of 1842—McCoy succumbed after 119 rounds—could be used, with a few details altered, to describe the Benny “Kid” Paret-Emile Griffith battle of 1962 (after which Paret died) or the Lupe Pintor-Johnny Owen fight of 1980 (Owen fell into a coma and died seven weeks later). “But McCoy came up for every round,” he wrote. “… Lilly’s corner asked McCoy’s seconds to concede and save their man. They refused. McCoy, choking on his own blood and spitting coagulated clots, insisted on continuing…He fought one more round, collapsed, and died.”

One spectator allegedly shouted, “Come, carry off your dead, and produce your next man.”   

Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.