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.

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