The Fighting Irish: Birth of a Fistic Tradition

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Portrait of the boxer John Lawrence Sullivan, heavyweight boxing champion, in the late nineteenth century. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

The Irish appear as comedic characters and loveable rogues in almost every Hollywood portrayal, and if you were not familiar with Ireland's history you could be forgiven for thinking it to be simply a magical isle of Guinness, penny whistles, and steal-your-girlfriend accents. But beneath the beloved stereotype, the Irish were forged through strife at home, and prejudice abroad, a great deal of which took place in worryingly recent history.

The Irish have faced famine, discrimination and bitter civil unrest, but have continued to have an impact on the world stage which is disproportionate to Ireland's population of just six million people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland combined. And through it all has run a legacy of world-class fist-fighters.

In their struggle against prejudice, it was a heavyweight world champion who fought the public battles and won the first victories. Amid The Troubles, with Northern Ireland divided along political and religious lines, the Irish united to watch the Clones Cyclone, Barry McGuigan capture a world title under the United Nations flag of peace. And after Britain had reveled in the excitement of middleweight greats, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, the Irish electrician, Steve Collins stepped in and beat both, twice. Then proceeded to call out Roy Jones, before retiring from boredom as the American refused to face him.

If you have been wondering why Conor McGregor has been getting the special treatment in the UFC, and is stepping into an obvious mismatch with Denis Siver next weekend, the answer is simple. A successful Irish fighter can move the nation like nothing else. Today, we'll talk about the man who took boxing out of the fields and bars, and onto the world stage.

Famine and Migration

If you are unfamiliar with the history of Ireland, all you really need know is that it was managed in a very hands off manner by the English monarchy from the Norman conquest until the reign of Henry VIII, when the lusty king made the Break with Rome over his desire to marry posh crumpet, Anne Boleyn. Up until that point, the ruling of the island was done by proxy through whoever happened to be the Earl of Kildare at the time, but Henry's reformation caused a rebellion in Ireland which led to a more hands on approach by the British monarchy, and Henry proclaiming himself King of Ireland.

How do you enter the court of Henry VIII? You just amble in.

The relationship between England and Ireland was sour for many, many years, and in 1845, the Great Famine struck. Lasting seven years, this famine was largely the result of a failure of the potato crop. This wouldn't have mattered so much if a third of the population hadn't been reliant on potatoes, and the British government hadn't reacted so poorly to the crisis. Over 20% of Ireland's population starved to death, from which the nation has never recovered. The famine and the brutal conditions that followed encouraged an enormous increase in emigration to the United States.

Irish migration to the U.S was so significant that large areas of cities such as New York and Boston became Irish districts. Discrimination against the Irish was just the accepted norm. To underline just how poorly the Irish were treated in the 1800s, think of how poorly America's black population was regarded, and then remember that a commonly repeated notion of the day was that Irishmen were "negroes turned inside-out." The many quacks at work in the 19th century medical profession were working hard to lump the Irish and black populations together as inferior races on a biological level, and the 'NINA' sign was common outside workplaces, denoting that No Irish Need Apply.

Pugilism became a hobby for many of the Irish gangs in New York. You'll remember them, from that terrible Martin Scorsese movie; the Dead Rabbits, the Shirtails and the Chichesters. One of the most famous Irish pugilists of the day was John Morrissey of the Dead Rabbits who fought Yankee Sullivan, the American champion, for that title in 1853.

John Morrissey in 1860, a little removed from his competitive days.

Morrissey's excellence in the ring was never remarked upon, but his ability to take punishment and continue plodding forward was bordering on superhuman. According to some accounts Yankee Sullivan knocked Morrissey out after an hour and a half of trading blows, but was disqualified in the process, leaving both sides bitter and convinced they had earned the victory.

Morrissey was hardly a success story, but the important point was that while boxing was still illegal, it could still get the crowds in. By the 1870s, boxing was the only challenger to the popularity of baseball. This taboo blood sport was raised level with the national pastime by the will of one man, The Boston Strong Boy.

His Fistic Majesty

John L. Sullivan, the son of Irish immigrants, was for quite some time the most famous man in America. They say every saloon had a picture of old John L., and anyone who had shaken his hand would brag about it for life. When Muhammad Ali was at his peak of popularity (and infamy), you could take his photo around the country and people would know who he was before they'd recognize the president of the United States. Sullivan achieved similar renown, long before the aid of television.

John L. was, in his day, peerless. A gigantic man for his time (accounts of his fights always have the fans shocked at the rolls of flab bulging over his trousers), Sullivan fought hundreds of bareknuckle bouts, taking on the best he could find. When gloves came in, he competed successfully with those too. Sullivan is credited as the man responsible for the successful transition to gloved boxing under the Queensbury rules, because once he was recognized as the best fighter around, he began opting to fight in gloves rather than bareknuckle when given the choice.

The job of a fight writer was vital to the narrative when film didn't exist of bouts, and so every old time fighter has an exaggerated mythology that is difficult to discern from their actual accomplishments. What is known is that Sullivan was a legendary brawler and that he cut his teeth as a fighter by walking into bars and declaring 'I can't sing, and I can't dance, but I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.'

Sullivan won the generally accepted heavyweight title from Paddy Ryan, also an Irishman, in 1888. But Ryan was far from Sullivan's greatest rival, in fact Sullivan split his winnings with Ryan, who was on the edge of poverty. No, that honor is reserved not for a boxer, but for an Irish born sportswriter. The father of modern sports journalism, Richard K. Fox.

After emigrating to America, Fox found himself at the Police Gazette. He rapidly turned this failing publication around with the addition of a sports page, and used his own success to finance sporting events in order to always have something to write about. Sports simply weren't covered in the papers back then, and it turned out to be what the masses desperately craved.

The rivalry between the two men had begun when Fox had recognized John L.'s talents while the latter was touring and giving “boxing exhibitions” on the stage. Sullivan maintained an open challenge, offering a thousand dollars to anyone who could last four rounds with him, and is rumored to have knocked out well over four hundred men in such spectacles. Fox thought he could make something of Sullivan, but Sullivan resented Fox's reputation as not an altogether honest man (a proud tradition which modern promoters keep alive).

Proud author of How to Breed Game Birds for the Pit.

Where Sullivan is remembered for elevating boxing into the gentlemanly art and a national pastime, Fox's original direction was more towards that of a freak show. Jeffrey T. Sammon went so far as to call Fox 'the P. T. Barnum of the world of sport'. Sullivan's famous sign off in his post fight speeches ('Yours, always on the level, John L. Sullivan') was a direct jab at Fox.

While most others accepted the Great John L. as the rightful world champion, Richard K. Fox insisted that Sullivan wouldn't be the best until he had defeated the American, Jake Kilrain.  When the fight was agreed upon, Fox made up a championship belt for the winner. Sullivan battered Kilrain to the point that Kilrain's own seconds stopped the bout, and Sullivan was awarded Fox's belt. John L. simply remarked that he wouldn't hang the thing 'around the neck of a god-damned dog'. Quotes like that only deepened the public's affection for Sullivan, both as the so-called Emperor of Masculinity, and as a man who couldn't be bought.

Reportedly, the Boston masses had a whip-around and got together the cash to make a belt of their own. This was so lavish that it had Sullivan's own name (though I'm not sure what they'd have done if Kilrain had won) spelled out on it with almost four hundred diamonds. The people adored Sullivan, and at every turn they sought to dress him as the god they had made out of him.

Accounts of Sullivan's fighting style are as conflicting as they are numerous. Some credit him with popularizing the jawline as a target after discussions with his physician, where before most punches were swings to the temple or eyes. Some—such as the Soviet coach, K. V. Gradopolov—say his greatest punch was the right hook or swing. James Corbett's account of his bout with Sullivan describes Sullivan's 'tell' of an incoming right swing being that he threw his body so severely that his left hand was used to brace on the inside of his thigh!

An illustration from Sullivan's section in K. V. Gradopolov's '"Tactics of the Foreign Masters"

But Sullivan himself bragged about his lead hand being the fastest, most important, and most versatile punch that he had, in his hilarious newspaper column, Jolts from John L. In this column most stories revolved around a misunderstanding with a train conductor or some such other authority figure, John L. giving them what for, and ending almost invariably on a theme of "needless to say, I had the last laugh."

What we do know is that mobility was not a typical feature of the bareknuckle era. Artful footwork was the sole reason James J. Corbett, who took Sullivan's title, was so unique as a fighter. It is suspected that Corbett learned to fight this way because he was the first heavyweight champion who had only ever fought with gloves. In Sullivan's day, wrestling was of great importance (he trained for fights with the wrestler William Muldoon), and much of the disguising of blows was not done through footwork, but with the "milling" of the arms. The rotating action of both arms in the 'put 'em up' style which Bugs Bunny used in the old cartoons.

In the only existing footage of Sullivan, as he visited Jim Jeffries in training for a bout with Jack Johnson, the elderly Sullivan demonstrates this milling action, and some of his swings against a light bag. Boxing has certainly come a long way.

That being said, the principle of this milling of the hands remains an important and powerful one. The point of old fashioned milling was to rotate the arms vertically and be able to throw a punch out of both the rising and descending movements. A similar principle can be seen when you watch a Tommy Hearns or even a Junior dos Santos sway his lead hand back and forth before jabbing or hooking, making it hard to distinguish the real motion from the usual swaying. Or in Roy Jones' famous windmill punch—he would punch from the high point of of the circle, from the bottom of it, or as the fist rose from the bottom. Hiding the strike in plain sight.

The Great John L's fighting style will remain a mystery, and undoubtedly that was vital to the cultivation of his aura. In the modern era we can see what troubles fighters. We can come to our own conclusions about good and bad match ups for them. In the days of antiquity, all were forced to rely on the flowery accounts of the writers in attendance. Themselves unable to review footage of the bouts and essentially recounting their own emotions at the time of the fight more than they were giving a blow-by-blow account.

To understand just how convinced the world was of Sullivan's fistic immortality, one need only look at the expectation of so many newspapermen and average people that he would trounce James J. Corbett. And this wasn't just because the common man was ignorant of the prime and decline of fighters, pugilism had seen hundreds of great fighters get old, slow down, and lose. Such was the power of John L's legend that it suspended reason.

If it annoys you today when people write off prospective opponents challengers based on how they think the fight would occur, and act as though the champion shouldn't even be required to defend his title, Sullivan's record in hypothetical fights would infuriate you. John L. retired from the ring to perform on stage for three years, because he decided there was no one who deserved a shot at him. And the rest of the world just went along with it!

Then Sullivan returned to the ring to fight Gentleman Jim. After three years out of the game where before he had been fighting numerous times a year (and before that, a month), the popular opinion was still that Corbett was in for a terrible drubbing.

Of course, the fight taught the world a few very stern lessons. Firstly, that three years away from the ring can see a completely different man return. Secondly, that the game was changing, and Corbett was the first of a new breed. But most importantly, the Irish community learned that despite being regarded as second-class citizens, they could become beloved. Just as the African American population would find out in a few years time with the success of George Dixon and Joe Gans, fighting is the single most powerful tool for social mobility.

In a nation of white Protestants, who despised anything Irish and Catholic, John L. Sullivan was called The Noblest Roman of Them All.

The sad undercurrent to this story is that Sullivan did fight his way out of the slums at a time when the Irish were considered an underclass, but he closed the door behind him. Sullivan was the most ardent proponent of the color line in front of the heavyweight title. When Sullivan declared that he had no challengers left to fight, and retired to the stage for three years, he meant no challengers except Peter Jackson, the Black Prince. Sullivan believed that the heavyweight title was the property of the white race. In 1909, on the eve of Jim Jeffries attempting to take back the title from the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, Sullivan elaborated on this:

I said that if they got $20,000 I would cover it; and would go into a room with Jackson and have it out, but that I would never agree to meet him in the ring in public

It took another fifteen years before a black man was even allowed to challenge for the world heavyweight title, and poor Peter Jackson was long dead.

Sullivan died a hero, but penniless. He sold his belt to keep his head above water, after pawning off each of the diamonds individually over the years. On the day of his funeral, the turnout was astounding. When the icy ground was broken by dynamite on the day of Sullivan's burial, his old rival and now long time friend, Jake Kilrain remarked "Just as John L. would have wanted."


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