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.

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