First Man Standing - Part 2 of 3

Fightland Blog

By John Reed

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the bareknuckle fight thrived in England—successive generations refined a boxing and wrestling hybrid that fashioned itself after Pankration, the “king” of the Athenian Olympics. By the middle of the 19th century, however, pressed by magistrates and reformers, the London Prize Ring teetered at the precipice of civilization, socially and geographically. Fights were held in little-known fields in the hinterlands and prey to bookmakers who were not above doping their fighters. The fighters themselves had advanced enough in their art and conditioning to keep getting up, knockdown after knockdown, so they were dropping dead. Bruises on bruises on their brains. The same thing that kills boxers today. When bareknuckle fighters refused to go 120 rounds they were charged with “lacking bottom.”

In 1867, the rules of the London Prize Ring, once heralded as the pride of British manhood, were officially superseded by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. The rules of the Marquess, which remain the foundation of boxing today, set rounds at three minutes with a one-minute break, banned all throws and clinches, established a 10 count, and mandated the encasement of each hand in a fingerless pillow.

By the time of J.W. Kelly’s February 1889 playbill at the Olympic, the United States had all but completed the transition to the Queensbury Rules. Only the title of heavyweight world champion, held by John L. Sullivan, still conformed to the rules of the London Prize Ring, and in two months time, July 1889, the seventy-five round ordeal of John L. Sullivan v. Jake Kilrain would lead the nation to realize it no longer had the stomach for the Prize Ring and Sullivan to realize he no longer had the wind or the patience for it. Sullivan barely made condition for the Mississippi bout, and pursued by the law and plagued with fines and legal fees, he lost money on the outing. In his next title defense, in 1892, “The Boston Strong Boy” met James J. Corbett under the Queensbury rules. Right-left combinations sank Sullivan in the 21st round, and his reign, and any vestige of the bareknuckle fight, went down with him.

After two centuries of the wrestling/boxing of the London Prize Ring, wrestling, which allowed strikes in “mixed” matches, assumed the mantel of fistics. Vaudeville theaters, athletic clubs, and grassy fields—wrestling and boxing were both barnstorm entertainments, and with the end of the bareknuckle Prize Ring, they were both sports that were starting over. But where boxing was contracting, wrestling was expanding. Liberated from the fetters of the Prize Ring, pins and submissions were rediscovered, remade. Wrestling, more legitimately than boxing, cast itself as an ancient tradition—one that pre-dated known history. Archeology of the 19th century, a boom-age of discovery, provided the evidence: wrestlers on ancient temples, wrestlers carved into cave walls, wrestlers doing the things they still did.

Evan Lewis and Jack Carkeek were of a vanguard. They were history in the making, the future of the fight game, not pig farmers. And that night's impresario Parson Davis—the nation’s, if not the world’s, most powerful fight promoter—treated the challenger, Martin Burns, with a cold disdain, as if “The Farmer” had been better off left on the street corner, standing in the bluster of Lake Michigan.

But even in 1889, Burns was more than a local competitor, more than just a hogman—which Davis knew and Lewis knew because Lewis had faced him before.

In the fall of 1886, Lewis had wrestled Burns in Anamosa, Iowa, a buffalo outpost and site of the state prison. Only three men at the Olympic theater in Chicago were certain to have known about the match: Parson Davis, Evan Lewis, and Martin Burns himself, who wouldn’t advertise the loss. If Jack Carkeek knew of the Iowa bout, or was apprised of it, you wouldn’t have known it by his cheerful entrance that day in April; he did not have the appearance of a fellow entertaining the possibility of a challenge. Recognition didn’t come easy in the 19th century—the papers ran illustrations, not photographs, and even for a fervent fightgoer, the intervals between events were wide expanses of forgetfulness. Besides, the Lewis/Burns match had taken place 220 miles away from Chicago, in nowheresville, and was hardly memorable to begin with. Lewis had been campaigning for the world championship, which he captured in 1887, and Burns was one of a myriad of tough but vanquished local brawlers.

Not quite a year older than Burns, Lewis had established himself early, placing in a 64-man tournament in Montana in 1882. Working as a miner (like Carkeek, he’d also gone by the billing “The Miner”), Lewis had continued to show well in mixed matches against known opponents, winning and losing but always putting in a fierce performance. Burns, meanwhile, wagered on his prowess in the workcamps and on the countryside—winning and superbly conditioned, but without elite competition. Two opportunities, in 1886 and 1887, were extended Burns, first against Lewis and then against Tom Connors; without distinguishing himself, Burns lost both matches. And with that, he’d been tossed back into the hinterlands, into obscurity.

Burns’ weakness had been the choke—Lewis’ favorite technique. An opponent inexperienced in submission is likely to leave himself open to a choke—even if he’s a skilled wrestler, he won’t know to protect his neck. A century later, the vulnerability would recur: UFC 1, 1993, Royce Gracie, representing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, choked out Ken Shamrock, who was representing a descendant of catch wrestling that disallowed chokes. By UFC 6, 1995, Shamrock had broadened his submission repertoire and caught Greco-Roman champion Dan Severn in a standing choke today known as the guillotine. In the 19th century, though, the Gracie choke and the Shamrock choke went by the designation “The Chancery Choke,” which was Lewis’ darling. If a match was to be decided by falls, an experienced submission man could catch his opponent in a standing chancery choke then throw him, which is exactly what Lewis had done to Burns, three times in a row, in 1886.

This time around, Burns wouldn’t be quite so volunteering with his neck. Of that Lewis could be sure. And even though he lost their fight in Anamosa, Burns had demonstrated incomprehensible strength—he was no man to grant a handicap match. The challenge issued to the public stipulated that Lewis or Carkeek would have to throw any entrant in 15 minutes; Burns didn't have to mount any offense at all. Three years before—May 1886, Minneapolis, Minnesota—Lewis had overcome William Muldoon in a handicap match orchestrated by Davis. In a prickly letter to The Chicago Tribune, Muldoon had outlined Lewis’ winning tactics: “Mr. Lewis ... proved to the audience that he could run backwards further in one hour than any man they had ever paid admission to see.”

Lewis’ object at the Olympic: Pick up a few dollars, call out “Stompin’ Tom” Connors—he’d get his rematch in 1891—and stir up interest in his forthcoming match against D.A. McMillan. But if Lewis hadn’t stepped into the Olympic theater to be upstaged by Martin Burns, neither did he intend to be shamed by him. Lewis was likely concerned that a sharp-eyed columnist would identify Burns as the “cornhusker” he’d defeated in 1886. Were a newspaper to print that Lewis had backed out of a rematch, honor would dictate an unprofitable contest that could take weeks, months, out of his calendar.

At 26, Burns had been fast, tireless, and as powerful as Lewis, who was not timid with his 30-pound weight advantage. But that level of condition is difficult to maintain, and it had been two years since Burns had a major show. Lewis himself had down periods, and for all he knew, so did Burns. And even if Burns had been wrestling—out there in the backcountry puzzling out a maybe defense against the choke—Lewis had been fighting champions, legends, and No. 1 contenders and adding to his arsenal.

But here's what Lewis didn’t factor into his equation:

—Burns hadn’t just been farming; he’d been grading for the railroads, up to 18 hours a day. And on the rare occasion he wasn’t working, he adhered to a strict regimen of three-hours-a-day outdoor exertion.

—Burns’ backcountry opponents were more informed than Lewis suspected.

—Through a series of self-developed exercises, Burns had muscled his neck to a girth of 20 inches, up four inches since he had last encountered Lewis.

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Martin Burns was the third child and second son to Michael and Mary Burns, who were of a wave of Irish Immigration early to the American promise of hard work and success but late to the promise of homesteader land—and his youth was such that it was remarkable he even had a dream. In 1871, shortly after the birth of his second sister, his sixth sibling, his father was killed in a farming accident. As a boy, Martin had always worked on the farm, but from that day forth he worked as a man.

At 15, his two younger brothers now old enough to shoulder the burdens at home, Martin signed on to a rail crew, grading the state of Iowa. The labor was grueling and perilous but comparatively lucrative, and young Martin eschewed the excesses of payday. He didn’t drink, he didn’t consort with hoods or hookers—he didn’t even curse, believing profanity to be poison to a man’s constitution.

By the age of 19, Burns’ industry had thickened his biceps to the diameter of “fair-size hickory trees,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune’s obituary. He staked his claim—he would wrestle any man for a $25 side.

The Civil War had pocked the landscape with boxers and wrestlers, and while Burns’ opponents were unexceptional, they were plentiful, they were rugged, they had a practical knowledge, and they were game. Burns, not exceeding 150 pounds until he was 20, made them look ill. He was, as if in defiance of earthly calibration, as if by God’s thumb on the scale, a 200-pound wrestler. And he was quick—on his feet and in his head. He anticipated his opponents, and then he outgunned them.

On paper, Martin Burns and Jack Carkeek were the same man. Carkeek had also led a life of endless labor; he was a third-generation coal miner, and, like Burns, his love for wrestling moored in the pre-memory of childhood—Carkeek’s father and grandfather commenced his instruction when he could toddle. But the correspondence ends there. Carkeek’s family had been in American for three generations, and if his father had made the slow cultural exodus of the child of the immigrant (Burns was now undertaking the same journey), Carkeek was born an American. An American, with all the charm and faults of America.

In Carkeek, history finds that peculiar American marriage of trust and corruption. “The King of Wrestlers,” besides mining, had tried his hand as a railroad detective and a carnival performer. His professional progression portrays a man who always was, and always knew he was, working for another class of man, working for the bosses. He knew how to adore the crowds, his underlings, and he knew how to be adored by his betters—by the newsmen, by the promoters, by the aristocracy. In the inky columns of the daily papers, he was styled a “diplomat.” In 1911, he surprised nobody when he was sentenced to a 28-month prison term for taking part in a million-dollar “bunco ring” of fixed horse races, boxing matches, and wrestling matches.

Stepping onto the mat that early-sping day in Chicago, Carkeek offered the farmer a warm handshake. The crowd, some of whom had crossed the street from the well-to-do Sherman Hotel, scorned the gesture, jeering and barking insults at Burns. But Carkeek, who’d played the London Music Halls for three years, knew how to appeal to an audience; he'd give them sportsmanship, and they'd know he was "the honorable man." Waving to the serving girls, then flourishing his hand regally, Carkeek extended the house an opportunity to applaud his challenger.

The ticketholders booed ... until the object of their derision stepped forward, into the gaslight, and pulled off his shirt. He was, they could see, a fit man. He was, every ounce of him, striation, stone and wire. He lifted his foot, untied his boot, remaining perfectly balanced on the single foot; he repeated the act on the other side. Not a flinch. Carkeek nodded at the performance, and the Olympic Theater recognized it had a third wrestler.

Parson Davis took the stage to present the champion, Carkeek, and the challenger, “The Farmer.” The rules of the contest stated that if the challenger was thrown within the first seven minutes, he entirely forfeited his two-dollar entrance fee. Beyond the seventh minute, for every minute he remained standing he would receive one dollar. If he remained standing for the entire 15 minutes against both Carkeek and Lewis, he would receive an additional two dollars (his entrance fee), bringing the winning tally to $25. Ah, the announcer added a final clarification, a point not addressed in the published challenge: The challenger might also relinquish his suit by concession.

This last stipulation was important. It meant that Lewis’ “strangle” was in play. Burns could lose by submission.

Carkeek had a 20-pound weight advantage on Burns. For that reason, one might have expected Burns to come out with a move in mind--maybe shoot right away or pace himself to outdistance the bigger man. Instead, both men came out of their corners like maniacs. They were in an instant scramble, both looking for the better grip, not able to find it, and then spinning low to catch a knee or high to catch the back. The combinations were not what you’d expect from Carkeek—he wasn’t looking for a steady rhythm to impose his weight advantage—and not what you’d expect from Burns, who seemed all too willing to engage Carkeek in a strength-to-strength confrontation.

The crowd, as if exhaling for the first time, let out a cheer when Carkeek, perhaps accidentally, snapped the heel of his palm into the side of Burns’ head. Burns had been changing levels, looking for a penetration step. With the blow, Burns straightened up, and the two men locked hands, fingers in fingers. They were of similar height, and standing face to face, Carkeek’s weight advantage was pronounced—but Lewis was all lean horse, and by comparison Carkeek looked doughy. Burns, literally, had the upper hand—and he was bearing down. Once, twice, Carkeek tried to yank out of the grip. But Burns wasn’t letting go, and by the time Carkeek reset his stance, he’d lost too much to Burns, who was chasing the trip. Carkeek, wild, tore free, and the audience, not sure who they were rooting for, let out confused cries of encouragement, curses, and claims of fouls.

Separated, the men circled. Neither was winded. Carkeek moved with discomposure, but Burns was backing away. Had the farmer decided to stall, to “run backwards” for 15 minutes? Howls carried from the rear galleries: “Fight him!”

The two men were almost exactly the same age—born less than a month apart—and Carkeek, at least from the perspective of a man who worked as hard as Burns, was living a life of celebrity and indulgence. Even so, Burns wasn't going after the easy victory—he was pushing Carkeek away, and Carkeek couldn't find an answer. Burns had found a winning strategy; for the next four minutes he played grips with Carkeek. Burns would stall out the match, pocket eight dollars, a six-dollar profit, and be toe to toe with Lewis, the man he really wanted.

Carkeek, as if in disgust, appealed to the crowd for a cheer, which he got, and took a sporting step to the center of the mat, where he invited Burns to join him. The invitation was that of the slugger, summoning the boxer to come in and duke it out. Madness for the boxer, but it’s a lesson that men can’t seem to learn, and nobody, not the promoters, not the fans, not the trainers, not the fighters themselves, knows who will answer temptation.

Burns slid his feet over the canvas—the theater so quiet you could hear the swish—and he reached his arm under Carkeek’s arm, and Carkeek reached Burns’ arm, and the men were clinched.

In Carkeek's Cornish style, as in Judo, competitors wear a uniform. The uniform, in the discussion of “realistic” technique, always sparks debate. Is it more realistic to train as if you were naked, maybe fighting on a beach, or as if you were clothed, even wearing a jacket? Regardless of that conversation (an endless one), men who train with uniforms, in a contest with uniforms, have an advantage over men who don’t train with a uniform, and vice-versa. As soon as Carkeek and Lewis locked up, Carkeek grabbed Lewis’s overalls, approximating a Cornish wrestling stance. That was a grip that undoubtedly gave the advantage to Carkeek—not just because Burns trained without a uniform but because Carkeek was bare chested and Burns had nothing to grab, no way to offset Carkeek’s leverage.

Parson Davis, gauging the action from the wings, glanced at his pocket watch—over a minute until the seven-minute mark—and tucked the timepiece into his waistcoat. He figured the match was all but over.

Burns thrashed—trying to break Carkeek’s grip. Carkeek’s hands gathered up the fabric of Burns’ overalls—the shoulder strap and the back flap. The grip tightened, and in his desperation to break free, Burns was opening space for the cross-buttocks throw, a staple of Cornish Wrestling, and Carkeek’s go-to technique. Burns drove forward for an inside trip.

Every attack has a counter and every counter has a counter and every counter to the counter has another counter. But moving forward on a man that’s pulling on you is a committed attack. Someone is going down. Carkeek, responding quickly, hopped back, endeavoring to pull his leg over Burns’ leg. Burns, in kind, hopped forward to topple Carkeek. Two men on two feet, the race carried the pair across the canvas and into the props of the rear stage. Wooden bushes and a park bench crashed with the onrushing wrestlers, who disappeared into a maelstrom of objects. A moment later, as if risen from the chalky horizon of the midwestern plains, the wrestlers emerged. Both still standing.

Carkeek lifted his hands to the crowd, as if to say, “Applaud us, gentlemen,” and the crowd let out a roar, to which Carkeek bowed in several directions.

Eyes lit with the glare that he would cling to in his old age, Burns stood firm in the half-dark of fallen foliage. First one arm then the other he dove from the straps of his overalls, which had hardly fallen to the stage before he was kicking out of them.

The crowd bellowed with laughter—Burns no doubt had wrestling gear, but he hadn’t packed for a match in Chicago. The reason he’d kept the overalls on was plain enough. His drawers, calf-length, were not fit for the stage. But he didn’t blush, he didn’t balk—he just glared. And when Carkeek, with the sigh of a man who had just seen his ace trumped, summoned Burns back to the mat. Burns went.

“Seven minutes!” cried a voice from the crowd—and Parson Davis fingered his waistcoat pocket for his watch.

Neither of the two men evidenced injury, and they immediately locked up. Their embrace lumbered. They weighed each other for openings. Burns had a quicker step and held his posture, but Carkeek had the weight, and he wasn’t working as hard as Burns. One man pushed, the other followed, then the second man pushed and the first followed. They weren’t overcommitting. Evenly matched competitors—in wrestling, in boxing, in no-holds-barred—sometimes move into purely strategic territory. A display of tactical excellence, however, is only of interest to the aficionado, and a voice, calling out for the expectant audience, instructed one of the wrestlers, unclear which, to “throw him into the piano!”

The piano player turned around on his bench, frittering notes, as Carkeek—he’d already been dragging Burns in that direction—apparently set out to oblige. The two men moved in unison as in a dance, but Carkeek seemed to be leading. At the edge of the canvas mat, they held, Burns resisting. If Carkeek pushed hard enough, he might indeed propel the farmer into the piano.

Burns, in the instruction manuals he would write in later years, maintained that a technique applied “on time” is a successfully applied technique. And “on time” as Carkeek gave him a shove, Burns slipped in for a “shoulder-throw,” or “flying mare,” by which Carkeek would be launched over Burn’s back and shoulder. The throw, common to all combat styles, may well be the most spectacular throw there is—the dramatic effect tempered only by familiarity. It works. Caught by surprise, Carkeek stepped aside, too behind to entirely evade the momentum. He bounced on his feet—only inches from the piano now—holding himself up by his grip on Burns’ arm, who drove forward. The piano player sprang to his feet with his bench in his hand—he’d done it before—and the wrestlers skittered across the keys in a crashing chord. Carkeek took the worst of it, his hip hitting the instrument flush, but Burns slid farther, the ivory rolling under him in decrescendo.

Neither of the men had fallen, and Davis, pocket watch in hand, pointed them back to the mat. Carkeek wasn’t limping, but he moved like he was trying not to limp. Almost 10 minutes had elapsed, and Burns, now thinking about his match against Lewis, squared off then slid away. Lacking the wherewithal to bring the fight to Burns, Carkeek once again challenged him to “come meet him like a man.” He wasn’t convincing enough, and the final minutes wasted away in taunts. In the last minute, Burns allowed Carkeek to grab hold, and the crowd gasped when a skein of blood appeared on Burns’ neck. Carkeek disengaged to look at his hands—maybe he’d cut them on the piano.

The crowd called time—15 minutes was up. Davis objected, saying he’d stopped the time twice—when the action had been interrupted by obstacles—and a minute remained. Carkeek, settling the argument, conceded that another minute wasn’t going to help him throw Burns.

The crowd now lowed for the second match, and the heavyweight champion:


Check out part 1 here and part 3 here