From John L. Sullivan to Jack Johnson

                                   HEAVYWEIGHT HISTORY 


By Don Sibrel

In the mid 19th century, St. Louis, New Orleans, and other cities in the western 
territories became centers of boxing in America due to the enforcing of laws 
against prize fighting in the eastern cities. 1866 in England: The Marquis of 
Queensberry, a prominent figure in British sporting circles, laid down a set of 
rules for glove fighting: fighters will wear gloves no wrestling three minute rounds 
one minute rest period ten seconds to recover from a knockdown Although today these 
rules are followed by a large number of countries, they were not quickly accepted. 
The change from bare-knuckle boxing was gradual.

Boxing in America didn't really get started until after the Civil War. At that time 
there was no great fighters, few honest people in boxing, and most fights were 
controlled by hoodlums. Boxing in America was saved by the Marquis of Queensberry 
rules and John L. Sullivan. John L. Sullivan, the "Boston Strong Boy", was born 
in 1858. He became America's first great sports hero. He was an honest fighter who 
only wanted to fight, anyone, anywhere, with bare fists, skin-tight or padded 
gloves, under any rules. "I will fight any man breathing. Always on the level, 
yours truly, John L. Sullivan". This was not quite true. He would not fight a black. 
He lived high and liked bright lights. He knew nothing of ring science, but had 
a knockout punch. He was 5'10" and 195 lbs when in shape. May 1881 on Hudson River: 
Sullivan fought John Flood "the Bullshead Terror" on a moonlit barge towed a few 
miles up the Hudson, outside the jurisdiction of the New York City police. The 
match was fought with skin tight gloves in front of the usual crowd of working-
class men, urban dandies, and professional gamblers. Sullivan easily won the 15 
minute fight by knocking or throwing down his opponent in each of the eight rounds. 
This lead to a championship fight match with Paddy Ryan.

February 5, 1882 near New Orleans: Sullivan fought the American champion, Ryan. 
The challenger threw his hat in the ring first, then sat waiting for twenty minutes, 
wrapped in a blanket, until the champion arrived. Next the fighters' umpires 
haggled over the selection of a referee, finally compromising with two men. Ryan 
won the toss for choice of ground and made Sullivan face the sun. The champion 
then offered the Boston Boy a side bet of one thousand dollar. Sullivan covered 
the wager. The fighters then stripped, shook hands, and toed the scratch. The fight 
only lasted nine short rounds. Sullivan was much too strong and "hit me like he 
held a telegraph pole", said Paddy. Ryan's seconds threw in the sponge after their
fighter was knocked senseless.

In 1883 in Madison Square Garden, New York: Sullivan fought Charley Mitchell, who 
claimed the British championship. This was a gloved bout. The police stopped the 
fight when Mitchell started taking a bad beating. Later, Sullivan went on tour 
and offered $1,000 to anyone who could stay four rounds with him, Queenberry rules. 
No one had ever done anything like that before. This made him very popular. He 
fought in theaters, dance halls, and armories. Few opponents lasted more than one 
round. In 1887 John L. traveled to England and fought several times. Then to France
where he fought Charley Mitchell for what many called the bare-knuckle world 
championship. The fight was fought in a downpour, which was stopped after 30 rounds, 
all in Sullivan's favor. The ring had become a quagmire. In early 1889 Sullivan 
signed to fight John J. Kilrain, who also claimed the world bareknuckle champion-
ship.  Sullivan at that timed weighed a flabby 240 lbs. He had two months to get 
himself in shape.

July 2, 1889, 200 miles from New Orleans: Sullivan fought Kilrain. At that time 
boxing was illegal in all 38 states. Kilrain, whose second was Bat Masterson, was 
the same height and age(31) as John L., and weighed 195 to Sullivan's 205 lbs. 
Kilrain's plan was to avoid the sweeping punches of John L., jab, close, and they 
wrestle him for a fall. Under the bare-knuckle rules, a fall in this manner could 
do as much damage as a knockdown. In the early rounds Kilrain was fairly successful. 
But as the fight wore on, John L's great strength began to take its toll in the 104
degree heat. Soon all the falls became clean knockdowns by Sullivan. After the 50th 
round, Kilrain was clearly an exhausted and beaten man. He quit after 76 rounds. 
After fighting two hours and sixteen minutes, Sullivan challenged Charley Mitchell, 
who had watched the fight at ringside, to enter the ring and have it out. This
Kilrain fight was the last bare-knuckle championship match. Sullivan did not fight 
again for three years. At this time, England and Australia did not recognize John
L. Sullivan as world champion. They each had several fighters who claimed the title. 
Sullivan wrote in several of the largest newspapers that he would fight anyone in 
the world for a purse of $25,000 and a side bet of $10,000. At this time, America's 
best fighter was probably a man who had never fought bare-knuckled, Jim Corbett. 
Corbett was one of a new breed of gloved fighters who stressed skill, science, 
and speed rather than brute power. He was from San Francisco and was good in many 
sports: a sprinter, gymnast, and baseball player. His brother played in the major 
leagues. He joined the Olympic Club at age 17. He was a great amateur and sparred 
with leading professionals. No one studied the science of boxing like Corbett. 
At an even six feet, 180 lbs, he always kept himself in top shape. He turned pro 
in 1889.

1890 in New Orleans: Corbett fought Kilrain. At age 23, Corbett fought this six 
rounder. By jabbing, hooking, and moving he easily won the match and made Kilrain 
look foolish. 1891 in San Francisco: Corbett fought the Australian champion. He
was the black, Peter Jackson. Both were master fighters. After more than four 
hours of fighting and 61 rounds, both were exhausted. The judges ruled it a draw.
This was probably the height of Jackson's career. He was five years Corbetts 
senior. A month after this fight, Sullivan agreed to a public sparring match with 
Corbett. But he would only consent to do it wearing formal attire. This was held 
at the San Francisco Opera House. They later agreed to fight for the world 
championship under Queensberry rules using five once gloves. This was the first 
heavyweight championship fight under the "new" rules. The stakes were $20,000 with 
a purse of $25,000. 

September 7, 1892 in New Orleans: Sullivan defended "title" against Corbett. John 
L. weighed in at 212 lbs. He still had a paunch from having weighed 230 lbs. two 
months before. Corbett weighed 178 lbs. For the first part of the fight Corbett 
jabbed and easily avoided the lunges and roundhouse swings of Sullivan. As the 
fight went on, Corbett became more aggressive, and started fighting more toe to 
toe. He was beating the much slower man to the punch and doing it easily. In the 
20th round John L. almost went down. He was knocked out the next round. Sullivan 
never tried to fight for the title again. He went on the stage and lectured on the 
virtues of prohibition. Corbett was never well liked by the boxing public. He had 
disposed of an idol. He toured the country in a play written especially for him.
He was a good actor and became somewhat a matinee favorite.

January 25, 1894 in Jacksonville, Fl: Corbett fought the British champ, Charley 
Mitchell, who was 33 years of age and weighed 160 lbs. Corbett knocked him out 
in the third round. The America's now had the first truly world heavyweight champion.
September 7, 1894: Corbett KOed Peter Courtney in an exhibition held at the Edison 
Laboratory in Trenton, New Jersey. This was the first fight to be recorded on film. 
The rounds were limited to two minutes and time between rounds exceeded two minutes 
because of limited film time and reloading. The next fighter to win the heavyweight 
title was one of the most unique fighters of all time. Robert Fitzsimmons was born 
in England and moved to New Zealand at age nine. At age 18 he weighed 140 lbs. 
He worked as a blacksmith, was six feet in height, and had very muscular arms and
shoulders, but very thin legs. He was a heavy weight from the waist up. Sullivan 
called him a fighting machine on stilts. He wasn't fast, but crafty with a solid 
punch in either hand. In 1890 at age 28, Fitz came to California to pursue his 
boxing career. Weighing 150 lbs. he won the welterweight title in 1891.

March 17, 1897 in Carson City, Nevada: Fitzsimmons fought Corbett for the heavyweight 
title. This was the first championship fight recorded on film. Sheriff Bat Masterson 
stood at the entrance and collected 400 guns from the paying customers. Another 
sheriff, Wyatt Earp, stood in Corbett's corner with a six gun as protection. Fitz, 
now age 34 and weighing 156 lbs would fight the 30 year old champion. In the early 
rounds, Corbett easily avoided solid blows from Fitzsimmons by jabbing and moving. 
In the 6th round Fitz was hit by a hard right to the jaw and took a nine count. 
At this point in the fight Fitz was behind, but this was to be the high point of 
the match for Corbett. Fitz now seemed to get stronger and more of his punches 
were finding their mark. By the 12th round it was a very hard match indeed. In
the 13th, Fitz caught Corbett with a hard right to the heart followed by and even 
harder left hook to the stomach. Down went Corbett, the wind knocked out of him. 
He never made it up. Thus was born the "solar plexus" punch. Jim Jeffries, who 
had been a sparing partner to Corbett before he lost the title, was to become the 
next champion. He was six feet two inches and weighed 220 lbs. when in hi top 
condition. He was a good athlete running the 100 yard dash in eleven seconds. Born 
in Ohio in 1875 he moved to California as a boy. He was not a natural fighter, 
but developed a crouching stance with his left arm extended. Opponents had 
difficulty penetrating his defense. Tex Richard, who promoted a number of fights 
of future heavyweight great Jack Dempsey, called Jeffries the heaviest hitter he 
ever saw.

June 9, 1899 in New York: In Coney Island, Jeffries fought Fitzsimmons for the 
title. Although Fitz was 13 years older than Jeffries , the champion was a 3 to 1 
favorite. The much smaller man was never able to get to Jeffries due to his style 
and long arms. Most of his blows landed on the challenger's shoulders and the top 
of his head. In the second round a left downed Fitz. In round five, a left to Fitz's 
right eye cut him bad. Fitz landed a hard left hook to the stomach of Jeffries, 
the kind that had won him the championship, but the much stronger Jeffries just 
blinked. In the 11th round with his cut bleeding badly, Fitz was knocked out with 
two short left jabs followed with a terrific right to the jaw. After this fight, 
Fitz continued his fighting career, later winning the light heavyweight title at 
age 41. This was his third title. He fought until he was 52. Jeffries was a fighting
champion, taking on all commers. That is, all white commers.

November 3, 1899 in New York: Jeffries decisioned Tom Sharkey in 25 rounds at Coney 
Island. Sharkey, a native of Dundelk, Ireland, gave the champion all he could handle. 
The fight was held for the first time under artificial lights for filming. The heat 
was intense. Jeffries lost twenty pounds due to the heat and dislocated an elbow. 
Sharkey suffered two broken ribs, a badly cut face, and could hardly stand at the 
end of the fight. Sharkey had clearly been worn down.

May 11, 1900 in Coney Island, New York: Jeffries fought Corbett in what was probably 
Corbett's best fight. Corbett made the champion look bad for the first 15 rounds. 
But eventually Jeffries strength was too much, and he knocked Corbett out in the 
23rd round. November 15, 1901 in San Francisco: Jeffries stopped Gus Ruhlin in 
five rounds.

July 25, 1902 in San Francisco: Jeffries KOed Fitzsimmons in the 8th round. This 
was a much tougher fight than their first one. For the first seven rounds Fitzsimmons 
had cut both cheeks and broken the nose of the champion. But Jeffries kept pressing 
the attack, and finally downed the challenger with a left to the stomach followed 
by the KOing right to the jaw.

August 14, 1903 in San Francisco: Jeffries KOed Corbett in the 10th round. Corbett 
then retired from boxing and became an actor. 

August 26, 1904 in San Francisco: Jeffries KOed Jack Munroe in 2nd round. Jeffries 
retired in 1905 primarily because there was little money to be made. The attitude 
in America was that amateur boxing exhibitions were fine, but prize fighting brought 
in the criminal element. July 3, 1905 in Reno: Jeffries refereed a bout between 
Jack Root and Marvin Hart. Hart, a stocky Kentuckian weighing 190 lbs. blind in 
one eye, was strong but awkward. Earlier that same year he had won a 20 round 
decision over future champion Jack Johnson. Root was a clever boxer but not a
heavyweight. He had become the first light heavyweight champion in 1902. Boxing 
Historian Nat Fleischer rated Root the fifth best light heavyweight of all time, 
but he rarely weighed more than 165 pounds. For 11 rounds Hart charged Root, 
swinging wildly. Root evaded most of the punches and effectively scored counter
blows. The 96 degree temperature had its effect on Root, and he was knocked out 
in round 12. Only 5,000 people saw this bout. Jeffries proclaimed Hart the new 
world heavyweight champion.

February 23, 1906, Los Angeles: Hart, in his first title defense, fought Tommy 
Burns for the championship in a bout refereed by Jeffries. Burns, a barrel chested 
Canadian, was a professional hockey and lacrosse player. He was 5'7'' 175 lbs, 
strong, fast, clever, and could hit hard with either hand. Burns won easily, being 
content to outbox his opponent for an easy decision. Burns then fought a number 
of less talented fighters. He KOed Bill Squires of Australia in one round, Fireman 
Jim Flynn in fifteen and Joe Grim "the India Rubber Baby" in three. He drew with 
Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, but beat him easily in twenty rounds in a return match. 
He then embarked on a world boxing tour, acting as his own manager. In London 
he KOed both the top two British fighters, Gunner Moir and Jack Palmer. On St. 
Patricks' Day, 1908, he beat the Irish champ Jem Roche in one minute and 28 seconds 
of the first round. This is still the record for the shortest heavyweight title
match. In France and Australia he also knocked out their champions. He was now 
clearly recognized as world champion. His fights are as follows: October 2, 1906: 
Burns KOed Jim Flyn in 15th round in Los Angeles. November 28, 1906: Burns fought 
20 round draw with Jack O'Brien in Los Angeles. May 8, 1907: Burns decisioned 
O'Brien in 20 rounds in Los Angeles. July 4, 1907 in Colma, California: Burns fought 
Australian Bill Squires. Jim Jeffries was the referee. Squires, the taller and 
heavier fighter, fought aggressively from the opening bell. He wanted to trade 
punches and used no defensive tactics what so ever. He crowded Burns and lunged 
at him several times, but Tommy, much the quicker fighter, easily danced away. 
All at once Burns throw a right that caught Bill solidly between his left eye and 
ear and down he went. He rolled over and quickly rose and continued fighting. He
should have taken the full count and tried to clear his head. As it was, he never 
really recovered from this first knockdown. A lump the size of a pigeon's egg 
appeared on the left side of his face. He still chased after Burns swinging wildly. 
He even caught Tommy with a couple of punches, but he was clearly hurt. Squires 
then threw a sweeping left hook to the body that was six inches short. Burns 
countered with another right, this time to the check, and down went Squires for 
the second time. He again arose but his legs were jerky and he evidently could 
not see his opponent. Burns awaited for an opening then landed two more rights 
to the head and down went Squires for the third and last time. He was out and made 
no attempt to get up before the count of ten. Referee Jeffries handed Burns $10,000 
which was the side bet.

December 2, 1907 at the National Sporting Club in London: Burns fought the Britisher 
Gunner Moir. Six hundred Englishmen in evening dress filled the tiny auditorium 
to watch the fight. American newsmen were not provided seats so that more money 
could be made from ticket sales. Moir, a huge tattooed man, was a head taller and 
14 lbs heavier than Burns. Tommy Burns won the fight easily with a knockout in the 
tenth round. Most people who saw the fight thought that Burns could have won any 
time he wished after the third round. As round ten started Gunner was bleeding 
from several cuts about the face and was groggy from the beating he was taking 
about the head and body. Early in the round Burns feinted a few times and then 
landed a left hook to the midriff of Moir who sank slowly to the canvass. He 
wearily made it up before the count of ten. Burns then feinted a few more time 
then landed a hard right to the jaw that knocked the Britisher down and out. At 
fights end, Moir was a badly beaten fighter with many cuts and bruises while Tommy
Burns was hardly marked.

February 10, 1908 at the Wonderland Club in London: Burns fought Britisher Jack 
Palmer. The 2,000 spectators saw their local hero fight a wretched fight from the 
start. Burns was much too fast and clever for his opponent. Tommy knocked his 
opponent down a number of times. The fight ended in the middle of the forth round 
when a Burns hook over the heart forced Palmer to lower his guard and then Jack 
was sent to the floor with a left hook to the head. Palmer to his credit attempted 
to rise but just couldn't do it. Throughout the fight Palmer was kept busy trying 
to cover up and was not able to launch much of an attack of his own. The match was 
for a side bet of $2,500 and 75% of the gate receipts.

March 17, 1908 at the Theater Royal in Dublin: Burns fought the Irish champion 
Jem Roche. After sparring a few seconds, Tommy landed a light punch to the head 
of Roche. Burns then landed a light left followed by a hard right to the chin of 
Roche who fell hard to the stage and lay squirming. He staggered up at the count 
of nine but clung dizzily to the ropes and was counted out at 1:28 seconds of the 
first round. Roche shortly cleared his head and offered to continue the fight. 
Burns agreed, but the referee awarded Burns the victory. The 5,000 spectators were 
amazed at how inept their champion appeared. April 18, 1908: Burns KOed Jewey 
Smith in 5th round in Paris. June 13, 1908: Burns KOed Bill Squires in 13th round 
in Paris. August 24, 1908: Burns KOed Bill Squires in 13th round in Sydney.

September 2, 1908: Burns KOed Bill Lang in 6th round in Melbourne. During this tour, 
the American black fighter, Jack Johnson, closely watched Burns and publicly 
challenged him to fight for the title. Jack Johnson was born in 1878 in Galveston 
Texas. As a young man he hung around fight gyms in Chicago, New York, and Boston 
where he spared with veterans. He was to became, when in his prime and in shape, 
one of the best fighters of all time. He was a genius in the ring. A flawless boxer 
with an almost perfect defense. He was a superb counter-puncher with power in 
both hands. He lived life to the limit with flashy cloths, drove yellow racing 
cars, and was constantly in trouble with the law. In many of his fights he was 
not in the best of shape. Johnson had challenged Jeffries in 1904, but the champion
would not defend his title against a black fighter. He did fight a match against 
Marvin Hart. Johnson was leading the match in the early rounds, but tired in the 
later rounds and lost a decision. In April 1906 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Johnson 
fought the other great black fighter, Sam Langford, of Nova Scotia. Johnson, out 
weighing his opponent by 35 lbs., easily won a 15 round decision. In July 1907, 
in Philadelphia, Johnson fought the 44 year old Fitzsimmons. Johnson was declared 
the winner in the 2nd round after knocking the old ex-champion down three times.
In 1908 Johnson was not considered a great fighter by most people. Marvin Hart
had won a twenty round decision over him, and Joe Choynski had knocked him out 
in three rounds. Burns needed money. He was promised the unprecedented sum of 
$35,000 to fight Johnson. Burns had seen Johnson fight and relised how good a
fighter he was. He didn't think he could beat Johnson, but stated that "I could 
give him the fight of his life". 

December 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia: Johnson fought Burns for the championship. 
At this time, Australia was one of the worlds boxing centers. Unlike the United 
States, Australia's largest cities welcomed prize fighting. At the outset of the 
fight, Burns was the aggressor. He rushed Johnson with the hope of a quick knockout. 
But Jack's long, quick left jab not only kept Tommy at a distance but jarred him 
many times. It was estimated that Burns probably weighed 175 lb and Johnson 200 lb. 
Johnson was just too big, too strong, too quick, and too good a boxer for the 
champion. But the slugging at times was terrific and brought many cheers from the
25,000 spectators. Both fighters drew blood from their opponents. But the fight 
was pretty much all in the black fighter's favor. In the 14th round Burns was 
clearly a beaten man and it looked like he could go down at any time. The Police 
stopped the fight in the middle of the round, an the referee declared Johnson the 
winner. Jack London, then a popular novelist covering the fight for a New York 
newspaper, wrote, "The battle was between a colossus and a pygmy. Burns was a toy 
in his hands. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden 
smile from Johnson's face. JEFF, IT'S UP TO YOU."