Friday, November 7, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part III, Sullivan

            Born in Ireland on April 12, 1813, James “Yankee” Sullivan grew up in London where he began his long and successful career as a bare-knuckle boxer at an early age. English sports writers said that in the ring, he displayed “all the fierceness and wildness” of a “war-like animal.” According to The New York Times, Sullivan got his nickname “Yankee” because during one of his English fights, he went into the ring with the American flag draped about his loins.[1]
            Outside the ring, Sullivan ran with a rough crowd and he paid a steep price for doing so. While still a teenager, he was arrested and convicted of committing a felony, and was sentenced to serve 20 years in the British penal colony in Australia. After eight years, Sullivan was released from confinement for good behavior on condition that he remain in Australia, get a job and stay out of trouble for the remainder of his prison term.
            Unwilling to do that, Sullivan clandestinely secured passage to America aboard a whaling ship which was leaving Australia for its home port, Sag Harbor, on the eastern tip of Long Island, NY. Arriving in 1840, Sullivan made his way to New York City where he bought a saloon and quickly established himself as an efficient “shoulder hitter” in the city’s political world, and a ferocious bare-knuckle boxer in the city’s sporting world.[2]
            Sullivan fought a number of well-publicized fights that earned him a national boxing reputation. On September 2, 1841, he defeated the highly regarded Vincent Hammond in an eight-round, ten-minute bout fought on League Island, about ten miles south of Philadelphia. Two more fights followed in New York State. On January 24, 1842, he defeated the dangerous Tom Secor in a 67-round fight on Staten Island, NY and on August 29, 1842, Sullivan fought Harry “The Professor” Bell on Hart Island, presently part of New York City at the western end of Long Island Sound, northeast of City Island. At the end of an 86-minute fight that went 23 rounds, the referee declared Sullivan the winner.[3]
            A few weeks after his fight with Bell, Yankee Sullivan got into serious trouble with the law again. He was arrested and charged with being an accessory to murder for his role in promoting a prize fight in Hastings, NY between Christopher Lilly and Thomas McCoy who died at the end of the 119th round. Sullivan was convicted in a Westchester County court and sentenced to serve two years in jail. Sullivan’s friends successfully prevailed on Democratic Governor William C. Bouck to pardon Sullivan on condition that he not engage in any more prize fights.[4]
            Sullivan kept his promise for about five years until a chance to fight Bob Caunt, the brother of the English boxing champion, Ben Caunt, changed Sullivan’s mind. Sullivan battered Caunt unmercifully in a fight fought near Harper’s Ferry, VA on May 11, 1847.[5] It only went seven rounds in 12 minutes but Sullivan’s victory put him next in line to fight Tom Hyer for the American boxing championship in 1849—a bout that has been written about here in an earlier blog. When Hyer did not defend his title for two years after his win over Sullivan, the 38-year old slugger claimed the title on the grounds that the title was vacant and that he was the last man to fight Hyer.[6]
            In no time, a 20-year-old bare-knuckle brawler from Troy, NY, John Morrissey, began to clamor for a shot at Sullivan’s “title.”
            Next, Part IV, Morrissey.

[1] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 12; “Yankee Sullivan No More,” New York Daily Times, June 30, 1856, 1.
[2] “Yankee Sullivan No More,” 1; “Yankee Sullivan,” Wikipedia, October 7, 2014,
[3] William E. Harding, ed., The Champions of the American Prize Ring (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1881), 8–9.
[4] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan, 28.
[5] Harding, The Champions of the American Prize Ring, 9.
[6] “Yankee Sullivan.”

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