On July 8, 1889, blood, sweat, and whiskey soaked the sandy soil of the Mississippi backwoods. Two battered, bruised, and bloodied outlaws traded blows with their naked fists for more than two hours while the midday summer sun broiled and blistered their exposed skin. In the triple-digit heat, the bloodlust in the crowd bubbled up like the pitch from the freshly cut pine planks used to build the hastily constructed outdoor arena. In spite of the secluded setting, this brawl in Richburg, Mississippi, was not some scrap between two local thugs, but the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, an event simultaneously illegal and the focus of the entire nation.
The thousands of fight fans in the makeshift arena had spent the early morning hours in the dark, literally and figuratively, as they waited to board trains from New Orleans to the secret location of the fight, outlawed because of the brutality of its bare knuckles. Hot, sweaty passengers stuffed the seats and aisles inside the twelve coaches, while freeloaders clung to the roof, sides, and even axles of the train cars as they lurched across the steaming bayous. The Mississippi governor had stationed his militia along all rail lines coming into his state from New Orleans in order to prevent the fight from taking place, but as the train roared to the state line, the conductor ignored the troop of 25 guardsmen waving signal lights and ordering the train to stop. The iron horse galloped into Mississippi, scattering the lawmen in its wake. The momentum for a heavyweight title fight between champion John L. Sullivan and challenger Jake Kilrain had grown steadily for two years and was now simply unstoppable.
When the Mississippi governor received reports of the unsuccessful militia operation, he ordered the Marion County sheriff, W. J. Cowart, to stop the fight. The diminutive lawman barely cracked the five-foot mark, and he looked even smaller underneath his large sheriff ’s hat as he stepped into the ring with two huge revolvers stuck into his belt and a deer gun strapped to his back for good measure. The human arsenal of a sheriff, though, was severely outgunned. The crowd, in the spirit of ensuring “fair play,” packed as much heat as the Mississippi sun. Nearly every hip pocket held a revolver, including that of Wild West legend "Bat" Masterson, who served in Kilrain's corner.
The sheriff lifted his hand for order, sputtered an introduction, and called upon all present to desist in their illicit behavior and disperse in the name of the sovereign state of Mississippi. The fans hissed and booed as Renaud stepped between the ropes, talked briefly with the sheriff, and then slipped him $250. Cowart left the ring and took a seat to enjoy the combat with the rest of the crowd.
With the legal disclaimer concluded, the fighters came toe to toe and dug their spikes into the turf as the referee roared, “Time!” For an instant, the two fighters eyed each other. They circled like tomcats in an alley. Then Kilrain darted at Sullivan, who dodged and fired a wayward shot at his opponent’s jaw. Jake pounced, grabbed John L. by the shoulders, and threw him to the ground with a back-heel maneuver that gave the first fall to Kilrain. The challenger’s backers howled with joy and opened their palms to receive their winnings from the bets taken on the first fall. The first round had lasted no more than fifteen seconds.
Sullivan roared as he went to his corner, “So you want to wrestle, do you? Well, I’ll give you enough of that.” He came to scratch for the second round in a rage and threw Kilrain down hard. The third round featured some of the hardest slugging of the entire fight. Both men threw hard rights that landed on the necks of their counterparts. Then the fighters unleashed volleys of punches and counterpunches. Kilrain hit Sullivan with two shots below the belt, which raised cries of foul that went unheeded by the referee. John L. responded with terrible blows to Jake’s ribs and body that sent him to the ground in agony. Kilrain's seconds dragged their man back to his corner as chants of “Sullivan! Sullivan!” shook the Mississippi pines.
After the bombardment of the third round, Kilrain wanted no more of John L.’s big right. The challenger began to play a game of keep away—sidestepping, jabbing, and retreating from any toe-to-toe slugging. The temperature would have reached one hundred degrees in the shade—had there been any shade. The scorching heat, however, couldn’t break the fans of their formal Victorian-era dress code. Ties remained knotted. Long-sleeve shirts and dress coats stayed buttoned.
With temperatures already halfway to the boiling point, it took little for Sullivan’s blood to bubble over. John L. grew increasingly frustrated at Kilrain’s evasion. “Why don’t you stand and fight like a man?” he growled at his opponent after the fourth round. Kilrain walked in circles in the fifth round, which drew boos and hisses from Sullivan’s fans. In the sixth round, both men came to scratch breathing heavily. After a Kilrain hook to Sullivan’s right ear, blood ran down the champion’s sweaty body. The referee awarded the challenger first blood. Kilrain’s backers cheered again as rolls of greenbacks changed hands. Their man had won the first two betting points, but Sullivan began to gain the upper hand in the larger battle. Wounded, he leveled Kilrain with the first knockdown punch of the bout—a sledgehammer right to end round six.
Sullivan continued to rush Kilrain as his opponent clinched and hugged to prevent the champion from firing off his shots. Still, John L. managed to land big blows that “sounded like a man hitting a bale of cotton with a stick.” By the eighth round, Kilrain’s face was swollen, and red splotches appeared on his chest. He continued to evade Sullivan, who cried out, “Stand up and fight! You’re the champion, you know. Come, prove your title.” Some of the spectators called Jake a cur and voiced their disapproval “over Kilrain’s refusal to stand up and be thumped.”
Suddenly, a commotion came from the crowd where a section of the temporary grandstand buckled and collapsed to the ground. The fighters were so engrossed that they barely noticed. The incident caused no serious injuries, just disappointment among the affected fans who no longer had a roost from which to watch the brawl. At least those spectators who lost seats could still keep tabs on the fight. The inaugural edition of the Wall Street Journal published rumors of the fight’s possible start on its front page amid the dividend reports and market updates, while the White House pestered the press room for any news from Richburg.
Sullivan’s fists began to swell like padded gloves from the punishment they delivered, and Kilrain hoped to just prolong the fight until John L. weakened. In the fifteenth round, the longest of the fight, he spent the better part of seven minutes racing away from Sullivan. With his feet constantly on the move, Kilrain accidentally spiked John L., gashing his left foot. Blood seeped through the top of Sullivan’s boots. The champion’s left eye also started to swell, and Kilrain managed to open up a cut with additional stingers. When Sullivan came back to his corner after the seventeenth round, one of his cornermen sucked the blood out of his man’s eye and sent him back out to scratch.
Kilrain now fell with just the slightest push or without even being touched, and John L. protested to the referee to no avail. The rounds piled up. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. After Kilrain dropped to the ground to end the twenty-third round, a frustrated Sullivan jumped on the challenger's head with both knees.
Twenty-five. Twenty-eight. Thirty. Sullivan’s left eye continued to swell. Blood flowed from Kilrain’s ear. The challenger continued to dive to the turf as fans yelled, “Fight! Fight!” Sullivan's trainer asked how long the champ could endure. “Until tomorrow morning, if it’s necessary,” he replied.
Thirty. Thirty-five. Forty. The fight now approached ninety minutes in length. Kilrain continued to play his waiting game, hoping that Sullivan’s condition would change. And then suddenly it happened.
Just after the call of time to start the forty-fourth round, Sullivan doubled over and vomited. The champion had been given cold tea laced with whiskey between rounds and apparently his system rebelled. John L. later claimed that there was too much whiskey in the concoction. “My stomach being in such a good condition, I threw it right off,” he recounted in his autobiography. His friends knew better, however. They joked that Sullivan actually heaved the tea and kept down the booze.
Kilrain suddenly saw an escape from certain defeat. “Will you draw the fight?” he asked Sullivan. “No, you loafer,” John L. snapped back. The champion punctuated his retort by knocking Kilrain down to end the forty-fourth. He sent Jake to the turf in the next round and then jumped in the air and landed on his opponent’s head with both legs.
Fifty. Fifty-five. Sixty. The fighters turned red from blood, lacerations, and the cauldron of the midday sun, which had broiled and blistered their exposed skin. Kilrain’s seconds gave him whiskey shots between rounds to try to dull the pain. Sullivan continued to stalk his prey. He pounded away at a raw piece of skin over Kilrain’s ribs that was “hanging like a big tumor.” Through it all, the plucky Kilrain would not give up, but none of the gambling men in the crowd would risk even a nickel on him at this point in the fight.
Sixty-five. Seventy. Sullivan found little resistance to his repeated blows from his terribly weakened opponent. In the seventy-third and seventy-fourth rounds, Kilrain retreated all around the ring. In the seventy-fifth, Sullivan knocked the challenger around as he pleased. Kilrain returned to his corner extremely dazed. He could barely lift his arms. His neck could barely support the weight of his head. Fearing his man could die in the ring, Kilrain's cornerman tossed a sponge from his water pail into the middle of the ring.
It was over.
Two hours and sixteen minutes after the men came to scratch, the referee announced Sullivan the victor. Although the marathon bout had ended, Sullivan’s fight in Mississippi had only just begun. The ensuing legal drama that included his extradition back to Mississippi would consume Sullivan for the better part of the next year and convince him to swear off bare knuckles forever. The champion’s preference for gloves had driven the sport’s transition from the London Prize Ring Rules to the Marquis of Queensberry Rules throughout the 1880s, a transformation that would eventually be completed with his decision to never again defend his title with naked fists. The duel in the Mississippi sun turned out to be the final bareknuckle championship fight in history.
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.