Friday, January 23, 2015

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part VIII, epilogue

            After losing to John Morrissey, Yankee Sullivan moved to California where he became involved in politics and gambling pursuits. In San Francisco, he was implicated in a ballot box stuffing scheme and was arrested by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee. On May 31, 1856, he was found dead in his jail cell—the main artery in his left arm had been severed with a dinner knife. Some reports said his enemies had murdered him. Other reports, including that of The New York Times, said he had committed suicide because he was afraid he would be deported to Australia, the place from whence he had come in 1840.[1]

From The New York Times, June 30, 1856
            John Morrissey’s next major fight after his bout with Yankee Sullivan was with John C. Heenan. It took place at Long Point, Ontario, Canada, on October 20, 1858. In the match described by the press as the “Great Fight for the Championship of America,” Morrissey was victorious. Using his boxing winnings and fame to advantage, Morrissey subsequently organized one of the first thoroughbred racing meets in Saratoga Springs on August 3, 1863. This successful venture spurred Morrissey on to become one of the founders of the Saratoga Racing Association and the Saratoga Club House, later renamed Canfield Casino.

John Morrissey as a politician

            At this time, Morrissey also ran for public office. He was elected as a Democrat to two terms in Congress, serving from 1867 to 1871, and two terms in the State Senate in 1875 and 1877. On May 1, 1878, he died in Saratoga Springs from pneumonia at the age of 47.[2]

First round of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight
            After the Sullivan-Morrissey fight, bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring rules continued to be popular in the U.S. for about 35 years. According to boxing historians, the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship fight took place in 100-degree heat in Mississippi on July 8, 1888 between the reputed champion, John L. Sullivan, and the challenger, Jack Kilrain. Sullivan kept his crown in a fight that went 75 rounds.[3]

[1] “Important from California. Suicide of Yankee Sullivan,” New York Daily Times, June 30, 1856; “Yankee Sullivan No More,” New York Daily Times, June 30, 1856.
[2] Paul Post, “Irish-American Fighting Legend John Morrissey’s Spa City Connection as Successful as His Fists,” The Saratogian, accessed October 3, 2014,; “Morrissey, John,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, accessed October 3, 2014,
[3] Gerald R. Gems, Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 58–59. Sullivan lost the championship to “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in 1892, the first heavyweight title fight under the new Marquis of Queensbury rules that prescribed timed three minute rounds and the use of boxing gloves.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part VII, the fight

            On October 12, 1853, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 fans watched the bare-knuckle fight for the unofficial American Boxing Championship in Boston Corners, NY between the 40-year-old champion, Yankee Sullivan, and his 22-year-old challenger, John Morrissey—over 3,000 of them had arrived by the New York and Harlem Railroad from New York City according to The New York Times.[1]

            Morrissey entered a ring that had been erected in an abandoned brickyard around 2 pm and tied his colors, a handkerchief of stars and stripes, to one of the ring’s center posts. According to the sports reporters covering the fight, he was six feet tall and weighed 175 lbs.—a light heavyweight in today’s boxing weight divisions. Sullivan came into the ring next and tied his colors, a black handkerchief, to the other center post. He was five feet seven inches tall and weighed 156 lbs.—a modern middleweight.[2]
            In the first round, Sullivan drew first blood by feinting deftly and using his right hand to smash Morrissey’s nose several times. Morrissey rushed after Sullivan but missed him with right and left jabs as Sullivan backed away. He clipped Morrissey’s left eye with a blow and then back peddled and fell through the ropes, ending the round before Morrissey could reach him.
            Morrissey’s face was crimson with blood, his nose was bleeding and his eye was swollen when round two started. Sullivan pounded Morrissey’s nose and eye, and again the challenger chased the champion around the ring. Morrissey finally backed Sullivan into a corner and began to hammer his body with rights and lefts but Sullivan slipped away and smashed Morrissey’s sore eye before going down to save himself.
            Round three began with Morrissey taking a swing at Sullivan that reporters said “might have felled an ox” but Sullivan skipped away from it, counter punching with a hard jolt to Morrissey’s ribs. The two fighters traded blows unmercifully. Morrissey landed several hard body shots and then caught Sullivan’s left cheek, covering him with blood and whirling him across the ring before he went down to end the round.
            The fight went on like this, round after round. According to sports writers who were covering the fight, “Sullivan was far more skillful, more wary, quicker and craftier.” But, “Morrissey had the punch.” Sullivan was the boxer, Morrissey was the fighter.
            During the fight, Morrissey’s face appeared “shockingly mangled” and “slashed beyond recognition” but “he was not tired or weak.” Blood streamed from his nose and mouth in profusion and his seconds lanced his eye to try and bring down the swelling because it was beginning to close.

The site of the fight in Boston Corners, NY

            Sullivan’s head and face also began to swell from Morrissey’s powerful punches. He literally chased Sullivan around the ring but as one reporter wrote, Sullivan was “as elusive as a moth at dusk.” He kept peppering Morrissey’s face with blows getting in five punches to Morrissey’s one.
            Morrissey began to get irritated by Sullivan’s “slippery” style as the fight wore on and began complaining about how fast Sullivan kept going down to end a round. Sullivan in turn began to taunt Morrissey into losing his temper and making mistakes. Whenever he hit Morrissey’s face, Sullivan would laugh at him as he peddled away, taunting him saying, “Now, who’s champion?” Morrissey answered, “That’s to be seen.”
            In the 20th round, Sullivan worked on trying to blind Morrissey’s good eye by slashing at it and then getting away and dropping before Morrissey could hit him. During rounds 31 through 36, both fighters began to tire and their blows were not as hard.
            In the 37th round, Sullivan again began to hit Morrissey’s face and then back away. Morrissey charged after him wildly and eventually caught him. He put his hands around Sullivan’s neck in a clinch, got his back against the ropes and lifted Sullivan completely off the ground, preparing to slam him down to end the fight. The seconds of both men rushed into the ring and began fighting with each other. Howling and clawing spectators followed the seconds and swarmed into the ring. Both fighters disappeared under the wave of an invading horde. Sullivan and Morrissey became separated and swept out of the ring in the uproar. After the tumult settled down a bit, the referee decided that Morrissey had won the fight because Sullivan had left the ring before being given permission to do so.

            The fight lasted 55 minutes and had gone 37 rounds. In a postmortem which called for an end to prize fighting, The New York Times described the Sullivan-Morrissey fight as a “brutal exhibition,” “a hideous affair,” “sickening,” “deplorable,” and “humiliating.”[3]
            Next, Part VIII, an epilogue.

[1] “History,” Town of Ancram, NY, accessed October 3, 2014,; “Sporting Intelligence,” New York Daily Times, October 13, 1853, 1.
[2] In the 1880’s, a middleweight was less than 158 lbs. and a heavyweight was any weight. Richard Kyle Fox, Boxing: With Hints on the Art of Attack and Defense (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1889), 34.
[3] “The Prize Fight between Sullivan and Morrissey-Further Particulars,” New York Daily Times, October 14, 1853, 3; “John Morrissey’s Fight With ‘Yankee’ Sullivan,” California Digital Newspaper Collection, accessed October 2, 2014,; “The Prize Fight.,” New York Daily Times, October 14, 1853, 4.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part VI, London Prize Ring rules

            Rules for 19th century bare-knuckle prize fights in America came from England. During the mid-1700’s, Jack Broughton, an English boxing champion, promoted fights in his own amphitheater under uniform rules designed to advance boxing safety and larger purses.[i]

            In 1838, after a boxer was killed in the ring during a bout fought under Broughton’s rules, the English Pugilists Protective Association established new regulations to improve Broughton’s rules and further protect the health of boxers. The new rules were called the London Prize Ring rules.[ii]
            According to the boxing contract Yankee Sullivan and John Morrissey signed on September 1, 1853, their fight at Boston Corners would be fought under those rules.[iii]
            The London Prize Ring rules anticipated that most prizefights would take place outdoors in a large field. The rules called for a 24 square foot ring to be created by having eight large turned posts driven several feet into the ground. Two strands of rope were to be tied and drawn around the posts, one strand four feet from the ground and the other two feet.

Boxing ring in 1860

            The rules provided that a coin toss by the boxer’s seconds would determine which corner of the ring their boxer would fight from. This was important because the ground might not be level, one side of the ring might be hilly, or the sun might be shining intensely. A fighter might gain an advantage by choosing a corner with the highest ground or one which put the sun at his back.
            The rules regulated what boxers could wear in the ring. They were supposed to wear knee pants that fastened below the knee, long hose and light-spiked heavy-laced walking boots. Each fighting boot could only have three spikes, two in the broadest part of the sole and one in the heel.[iv] The spikes were not to exceed three-eighths of an inch from the sole of the boot and were not to be less than one-eighth of an inch broad at the point.[v]

Traditional 19th century "fighting attitude"

            Each boxer was expected to bring his colors, usually a large silk handkerchief ornamented with a special design and his nation’s flag, into the ring and tie it to the upper end of one of the center posts. The winner was entitled to possession of his opponent’s colors as a trophy of victory.
            The rules required the fighters to strip before the fight and have their drawers examined to see if any “improper substance” had been inserted into them.
            Under the rules, a line was to be drawn in the center of the ring. It was called the “scratch.” In every round, when “time” was called, the fighters were supposed to leave their corners and “face the scratch.” A boxer had to continue fighting until a round ended. The round ended when one fighter fell, or was knocked down, or was thrown.
            At the conclusion of a round, the seconds and bottle holders were allowed to step into the ring and carry their fighter to his corner where there usually was water, ice, a bottle of brandy or ginger ale, a paper of resin, a sponge and a scraper (a flat piece of steel wire used for scraping the tongue). The fighters were permitted to sit on his bottle holder’s knee or on a soft seat made by one of his friends stooping on all fours to form a stool.
            If there were wounds, the seconds might apply clean lint to stop the bleeding. If the fighter’s knuckles were injured, the seconds might rub the bruised parts with arnica or dry resin.

            According to the rules, after 30 seconds passed at the end of a round, the timekeeper was supposed to call “time” and each man was required to walk to his side of the scratch unaided. The fighters had eight seconds to walk to the scratch, or lose the fight.

Allowed. Not a foul.

            Under the London Prize Ring rules, there were a number of other ways a boxer might lose a fight. Head butting was a foul punished by the loss of the fight. A blow struck when a man was down or thrown was a foul. A man with one knee down and one hand on the ground, or both knees on the ground was deemed down. The man who was down was not himself allowed to strike or attempt to strike his opponent.

Allowed. Not a foul.
            A blow struck below the waist was a foul. In a clinch, it was a foul to seize the opponent below the waist, by the thigh, or otherwise. All attempts to inflict injury by gouging or tearing the flesh with the fingers or nails or biting was a foul. Kicking or deliberately falling on an opponent with the knees or otherwise was a foul.

Not allowed. A foul.

            The use of hard substances such as stones or sticks or of resin in the hand during the fight was a foul. Hugging on the ropes was a foul. A man held by the neck against the stakes or upon or against the ropes was considered down and all interference with him was considered to be a foul.
            A boxer could not use the ropes or stakes to aid him in squeezing his adversary and if he did so he would lose the fight. If a man fell to the ground on his knees while in a clinch, his opponent was supposed to immediately let him go or lose the fight.[vi]
            Next, Part VII, Sullivan fights Morrissey.

[i] Gerald R. Gems, Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 11–12.
[ii] Ibid., 18.
[iii] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 65.
[iv] Richard Kyle Fox, Boxing: With Hints on the Art of Attack and Defense (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1889), 15–19.
[v] William Edwards, Art of Boxing and Science of Self-Defense (New York: Excelsior Publishing House, 1888), 104.
[vi] Fox, Boxing, 11–13, 15–19.