In the nineteenth century, newspapers and public opinion crowned American boxing champions because there were no national organizations or state athletic commissions to sponsor title fights or recognize champions. A New York-born butcher, Tom Hyer, was one of the first American boxers to win acclamation as a “champion” after he defeated George McChester, aka Country McCloskey, in a two hour and fifty-five minute fight that went 101 rounds on September 9, 1841 at Caldwell’s Landing, NY, about 40 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. Following the fight, one boxing writer described Hyer who stood about 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds, “the greatest pugilist that ever stood in the ring.”
James “Yankee” Sullivan of New York City, a 36-year old Irish saloonkeeper with an impressive list of boxing victories over English and American opponents under his belt, took exception to Hyer’s claim to boxing greatness and challenged him to defend his title. Hyer accepted and they fought on February 7, 1849 at Still Ponds Heights, MD, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, about 40 miles from Baltimore, for a purse of $10,000, over $275,000 in today’s money.
|“The Great Fight Between Tom Hyer & Yankee Sullivan, for $10,000.”|
For 18 minutes and 16 rounds, Hyer thrashed the previously undefeated Sullivan and pocketed the prize money. Sports writers used the telegraph to send the results of the fight to New York newspapers—reportedly, the first time this new technology was used to carry a sports story.
After the fight, no one successfully challenged Hyer for his title and he, in effect, retired from the ring. In 1851, Sullivan claimed he had inherited the title from the inactive Hyer on the grounds that Sullivan had been the last man to fight Hyer.
Next: Part III, the fighters.