Monday, July 7, 2014

Building the Ring for the Rumble at Richburg

It was 125 years ago today that the promoters of the heavyweight championship fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain chose a secret location to stage the illegal bareknuckle fight--the unincorporated lumber town of Richburg, Mississippi, a 900-person hamlet that consisted chiefly of a sawmill, a school, a church, and a general store that carried everything from diaper pins to caskets.

As secret locations go, this one was barely on the map. The village bore the name of its founder and still chief citizen, Col. Charles W. Rich. The lumber baron, sporting man, and future mayor of Hattiesburg had offered the fight promoters the use of his 30,000 acres of pine forest. Under the sweltering sun, a few dozen laborers hastily cleared the soaring pines that surrounded a level spot previously used as a baseball diamond on a small hilltop. They constructed an outdoor arena with tiers of bleachers on three sides of the ring, which consisted of eight towering posts and two manila ropes. The workers stripped nearby pines of their lower limbs and built a picket fence to prevent freeloaders from viewing the fight.

They labored into the night by the flicker of pine torchlights, which bathed Rich’s house in an orange glow. Inside, Kilrain, plagued by mosquitoes and nerves, spent a restless night. Two hundred yards away, the champion slept soundly inside the home of Rich’s foreman, J. W. Smith.

One hundred miles southwest in New Orleans, thousands of fight fans who had poured into the city prepared for a long night of revelry. In the early morning hours of Monday, July 8, they would board trains to the scene of the fight, still a closely-kept mystery to the outside world. In a few hours, they would witness an epic brawl, the last heavyweight championship fight contested with naked fists. More on the Sullivan-Kilrain epic can be found inside Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero.

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