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When America's Greatest (And Last) Bareknuckle Boxer Challenged America To A Fight

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 26, 2023 3:03 am

When America's Greatest (And Last) Bareknuckle Boxer Challenged America To A Fight

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 26, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in 1893 John L. Sullivan's "Knockout Tour" traveled America. The challenge? Could any man in America last 12 minutes in the ring with the champ?

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Klein is the author of four books and is a frequent contributor to the History Channel. John L. Sullivan was a 19th century American who was not only the first world heavyweight champ of gloved boxing, but the last bare-knuckle one too. And yes, he had a handlebar mustache.

Let's take a listen. After imbibing the adulation inside his Boston saloon on the evening of September 26, 1883, America's reigning heavyweight boxing champion waded through the throng of fawning fans outside and stepped into a carriage that sprinted him away to a waiting train. Hard hitting, hard drinking, John L. Sullivan had departed on many journeys before, but no man had ever set out on such an ambitious adventure as the one he was about to undertake. For the next eight months, Sullivan would circle the United States with a troupe of the world's top professional fighters. In nearly 150 locales, John L. would spar with his fellow pugilists, but also present a sensational novelty act worthy of his contemporary, the showman P.T.

Barnum. The champion boxer would offer as much as $1,000, that's about $24,000 today, to any man who could enter the ring with him and simply remain standing after four three-minute rounds. They didn't have to knock out Sullivan or get the better of him in the ring.

They simply needed to stay on their feet for 12 minutes. In essence, the great John L. was challenging all of America to a fight. What Sullivan called his knocking out tour was gloriously American in his audacity and concept.

Its democratic appeal was undeniable. Any amateur could take a shot at glory by taking a punch from the best fighter in the world. Furthermore, the challenge, given its implicit braggadaccio that defeating John L. in four rounds was a universal improbability, was an extraordinary statement of supreme self-confidence from the 24-year-old fighter. No audience member dared step in the ring with Sullivan on his first few stops, but John L. finally encountered his first challenger in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Local slugger James McCoy looked like the consummate tough guy, with tattoos of snakes, flowers, and a wide-mouthed dragon plastered on his broad chest.

The 160-pounder's looks proved deceiving, however. After McCoy opened with a weak blow, the champion needed only a right and a left. The fight was over in mere seconds. I never thought any man could hit as hard as he does, McCoy said afterwards. But I can say what few men can, that I fought with the champion of the world. And that's precisely why the knocking out tour generated unprecedented publicity in newspapers around the country, both for Sullivan and the entire sport of boxing.

Not only was the best fighter in the world bringing the sport to the masses, he was letting the masses get in the ring with him. In St. Paul, Minnesota, Sullivan finally faced an opponent who could match him pound for pound. As soon as time was called, Sullivan stretched out his arm, and six-foot-tall railroad engineer Morris Heffey, who weighed 195 pounds, fell on the stage as if he was struck by an axe. The challenger rose, but as soon as he was within arm's reach of the champion, he was down again. The fight took 30 seconds.

If you want to know what it is to be struck by lightning, Heffey said afterwards, just face Sullivan one second. In Davenport, Iowa, blacksmith Mike Sheehan told his family that he was going to face off with the champion. Sheehan's frantic wife visited Sullivan before the fight and besieged him not to fight her husband, but not for the reason the champion suspected.

She said, we've got five small children, and I don't want them to have a murderer for a father. If you get into a fight with him, he'll surely kill you. John L. took his chances, and started with a smash to the nose of the stunned challenger. Sheehan's surprise turned to rage. He charged at Sullivan. A big clout on the jaw by the champion sent his foe spinning to the back of the stage, and the challenger decided he had taken enough punishment.

Sullivan sent Sheehan away with $100 for being game. Perhaps no American has so embodied his times like John L. Sullivan. The son of Irish immigrants and the upstart United States in the 1880s were both young and virile, proud and cocky, crude and pugnacious. John L. symbolized an ascent in America that was flexing its economic muscles on the world stage.

At a time when the increasingly popular theory of Social Darwinism emphasized the survival of the fittest, there was no place in America where that could be so clearly demonstrated than inside a boxing ring. The legendary spirit of the Fighting Irish that was made flesh in Sullivan transformed him into a hero for the sons and daughters of Ireland who had been forced to flee their island home after the potato crop failed. And on the knocking out tour, Sullivan traveled to the outpost where the Irish labored in 12, 14 and 16 hour shifts, mining towns and lumber camps along railroad lines that were built by callous Celtic hands.

As soon as Sullivan's sluggers arrived in the mining boomtowns of the Rockies, the outlaw element of the Wild West seemingly infected the fighters. On Christmas Day in Denver, Sullivan almost killed a fellow fighter while playing around with a double-barreled shotgun he was told was unloaded. Two days later in Leadville, a drunken Sullivan swaggered and staggered through his performance and backstage hurled a lighted kerosene lamp at another fighter following an argument.

In Victoria, British Columbia, he was in a state of beastly intoxication and refused to stand for a toast to the health of the city's namesake, Queen Victoria, explaining that he hadn't been brought up to seeing Irishmen drinking to the health of English monarchs. After reaching Los Angeles, the fighters turned back toward the east with Sullivan leaving a trail of broken bottles and fighters littered across America. When Sullivan arrived in Galveston, Texas, he faced perhaps his toughest foe, an imposing cotton baler named Al Marx who was considered the champion of Texas. The challenger wanted to send an early statement, and just after shaking hands, he nailed Sullivan in the jaw. The Texas giant gained confidence after landing several hard blows on Sullivan in the first two rounds, and he was convinced John L. had met his match. Sullivan had spent the day drinking again, but when he came out in the third round, the cowboy pugilist noticed a change in the champion's eyes. John L. glared like a wild animal and then launched an uppercut that nearly lifted Marx off the ground and followed it with a left smash to the jaw. Marx sank down like a bag of oats. Sullivan lifted him up and then cracked him over the footlights and into the orchestra pit, which broke two chairs, three violins, and a bass drum.

As the Texan lay unconscious, the tourist financial manager reached into the gate receipts to scrounge for $24 to pay for the destroyed instruments. In Memphis, bricklayer William Fleming took the stage for the champion. At the opening signal, Sullivan charged. He fainted with his left and struck a blow on the lower part of Fleming's left jaw that knocked him unconscious for 15 minutes. Total time was about two seconds.

Fleming was lifted over the ropes and helped out of the building to his home. When he came to, he asked, When did me and Sullivan go on? You've been on, he was told. Did I lick him?

the oblivious bricklayer asked. On May 23, 1884, Sullivan's sluggers pulled into Toledo, Ohio. Nearly eight months after they had started in Baltimore, the combination had reached their final stop on an epic barnstorm. In spite of Sullivan's drunken exploits, the tour had been a success. According to some accounts, 39 men had stepped into the ring seeking to go four rounds with the champion.

39 men failed. Accounts of the financial receipts from the tour vary, but Sullivan likely pocketed tens of thousands of dollars and his earnings probably approached or surpassed the $50,000 annual salary earned by President Chester A. Arthur. While the exact size of his financial windfall may not be known, the knocking out tour made Sullivan the most famous athlete in the United States and one of the most famous Americans in any walk of life. John L. spawned page one headlines wherever he traveled. Sullivan knew how to pull the levers of the burgeoning American publicity machine.

He rarely turned down a request for an interview, and he was a good copy. His boozing, womanizing, and chronic police blotter presence were godsends to big city newspapers engaged in heated circulation wars. Thanks to brand new telegraph lines, blow-by-blow accounts of his fights and news of his out-of-the-ring exploits could be transmitted rapidly around the country, which meant that oceans of ink were spilled on him every day.

The intense press coverage and fan interest surrounding the knocking out tour provided a mere glimpse of the future. The modern sports age had begun, and in John L. Sullivan, it had found its first athletic god. And a terrific job on the storytelling, editing, and production by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Christopher Klein, a regular contributor here on Our American Stories. And this one, my goodness, just amusing and fascinating. The story of the P.T.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-26 17:06:42 / 2023-06-26 17:12:10 / 5

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