Book Summary of The Greatest Fight Ever: John L. Sullivan, Jake Kilrain & The Birth Of American Sports Hype
In the summer of 1889, at the height of the Gilded Age, one of the last bare-knuckle fighting matches gave birth to American sports hype. At that point in history, America was still a decade away from the Industrial Revolution and even the biggest sporting events were local or regional in nature.
One of the nation's first widely recognized sports celebrities was an Irish-American fighter from Boston named John L. Sullivan, the London Prize Ring rules (bare knuckle) champion of the world. But at age 30, he was seemingly at the end of his career. Known as a hard-drinking womanizer, Sullivan was by then near death from chronic alcohol poisoning. He did anything to avoid the ring, even earning money through circus appearances that capitalized on his celebrity.
In 1889, Sullivan temporarily quit drinking and agreed to fight undefeated challenger Jake Kilrain at an undisclosed location for a $20,000 prize. Because bare-knuckle fighting was illegal in all states, the promoters looked south, believing a rural location would get past authorities. Tickets were sold and the fighters, members of their entourages, and fans from around the country began assembling in New Orleans, waiting for a fight that had no location. Meanwhile, the hype surrounding the match grew. In the weeks before the bout, dozens of stories appeared in the pages of Northern newspapers. More than 200 journalists covered the fight. They even reported tidbits of information like where Sullivan spent the night before the fight and what kind of transportation he used.
Mississippi timber baron Charles W. Rich negotiated with promoters to hold the fight on his 30,000 acres of prime pineland in Richburg, Mississippi, which was adjacent to the train line that ran from New Orleans north to New York. During the night of July 7, a team of laborers worked by torchlight, cutting pines and building bleachers for 2,000 spectators. Word spread to fans in New Orleans, and specially marked trains began the trek to Richburg.
The fight started late in the morning of July 8, witnessed by a well-dressed crowd sweltering in the Mississippi heat. The temperature would crawl to 106 degrees during the day. Popular New Orleans politician John Fitzpatrick, who would later become mayor of that city, was the referee. Dodge City gunslinger Bat Masterson stood in Jake Kilrain's corner as his unofficial bodyguard.
The fight lasted a staggering 75 rounds, with Sullivan claiming the prize. After the fight, he stuck to his vow never to fight a bare-knuckle bout again. Both fighters were arrested, charged for prizefighting and assault and battery, convicted and sentenced to twelve months in the Marion County jail. But both found loopholes to escape their sentences. In later years, the two fighters became friends. Kilrain was a pallbearer at Sullivan's funeral.
In The Greatest Fight Ever
, David Magee uses the colorful characters and the background of the time to tell the story of this first nationally publicized heavyweight fight and to show how it changed the way major sporting events are publicized even today.