John Sullivan, the illegal champion of the boxing world

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John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain fight, Richburg, Miss. 1889. Photo: Library of Congress

Richburg, MS, July 8, 1889: The boxing match of the century—after being banned in states all across the South– finally took place yesterday morning, in a secret, secluded field just north of here, as the greatest heavyweight boxer of our time, John Sullivan, knocked out one of the toughest bar room brawlers ever, Big Jake Kilrain, in the 75th grueling, bloody round. This will likely be the last heavy weight championship bare knuckle fight in these United States fought under London Prize Ring rules.

The events leading up to this controversial fight were almost as exciting as the fight itself. We’ve known, of course, the fight was going to happen for weeks, now.  We just didn’t know exactly where or exactly when.

Prize fighting has been outlawed in Mississippi for a number of years.  But, Charley Rich, the namesake of Richburg, and the owner of the field where the fight took place and 10,000 acres around it, would have none of that. Rich was going to have this fight, lawful or not. He belligerently dared anyone to try and stop him.

Mississippi Governor Robert Lowery tried to do just that. The governor issued a specific proclamation, last week, forbidding the fight. Rich, obviously, paid the proclamation no mind.

As of fight time, at 10:30, yesterday morning, the temperature was 106 degrees.  Since the fight was outside, there were hastily constructed benches from rough hewn pine, oozing hot resin. Three thousand seething souls, who had boarded special trains in New Orleans bound for the undisclosed fight location, early yesterday, sat in that blazing sun for the entire 75 rounds.

Under bare knuckle boxing rules, a round of fighting lasted until a fighter is knocked down  or thrown down; wrestling techniques are permitted in bare knuckle contests.

In the 35th round, Kilrain had a broken nose, split lips, and one eye swollen shut.  Sullivan had a black eye, his left ear was bleeding, and both hands were swollen twice the normal size.  The fight wasn’t even half over.  Kilrain consumed a quart of whiskey during the fight.  Sullivan, uncharacteristically, drank tea.

The time referee in this fight was Bat Masterson, the legendary law man and gunfighter, who cleaned up Dodge City, Kansas. He timed it at 2 hours, 18 minutes.  In the end, the swashbuckling “John L.” remains the bare knuckle heavy weight champion of the world.

John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain

Fighters Jake Kilrain and John L. Sullivan.


This fight was the last bare knuckle boxing championship fight in U.S. history. Kilrain retired from boxing in 1899, working at various jobs the rest of his life. He died in 1937, a night watchman in a Boston suburb. Sullivan retired from boxing in 1905. Always a drinker, he became a temperance advocate until he died in 1918, from alcohol diseases he contracted early in his life. Big Jake Kilrain was an usher at his funeral.

The only remnant that this legendary fight ever took place is a small permanent marker along U.S. Highway 11, just north of Richburg.  So, the Sullivan-Kilrain championship fight fought 121 years ago is now simply a part of our Southern Memories.

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