In this part of the country, September will be remembered as the month Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, came to Ennis but it also marks the anniversary of one of the great milestones in the history of professional boxing – the fight between The Boston Strongboy, John L Sullivan, and Gentleman Jim Corbett.
This fight is recognised as the first heavyweight boxing title match under the Marquis of Queensbury Rules. In an era when boxing was illegal in many states, they did much to popularise the sport.
With names such as Sullivan and Corbett there are no prizes for guessing their ancestry. Corbett was born in San Francisco in 1866 of Irish descent and Sullivan’s parents were born in Ireland.
Michael Sullivan emigrated from Abbeydorney in Kerry and his wife was Catherine Kelly from Athlone. Their son, John Lawrence, was born in Roxbury, Boston, in 1858.
Just as when Ali first won the world crown from Liston, Sullivan was seen as a strong man brawler who learned his trade in street fights and brawls while Corbett was a fast, clever fighter who had great speed of hand and foot, a large repertoire of punches and who started boxing in clubs.
Corbett worked as a coach, salesman and actor and returned to acting when his boxing career finished.
Sullivan was not without his charisma. He was the first sportsman to become an American national hero and the first to earn over $1 million from his sport.
Ali might be great but he never had an item of gentleman’s underwear named after him. It is said that “long johns” got their name because they resembled the outfit that John L Sullivan wore for his fights.
As the old order changed their meeting was inevitable. Sullivan’s great fight was against Jack Kilrain – the last title fight under London Prize Ring (Bareknuckle) Rules. Scheduled for New Orleans, it was banned by the Governor of Louisiana and on the day of the fight 3,000 spectators were taken by train to Mississippi.
After 75 rounds Kilrain’s manager threw in the towel. However, Sullivan refused to fight the Australian Jackson because he was black.
Corbett, having established his reputation on the west coast, defeated Kilrain and then fought Jackson. The fight lasted 61 rounds over four hours and was declared a draw when both men were too exhausted to continue.
In 1892 Sullivan issued a challenge for any man to fight him under Queensbury rules for a purse of $25,000 and a side bet of $10,000. Corbett and his manager raised money for the side bet and the contract was signed.
Ten thousand people attended the fight, which was covered by reporters from all over the world. Telegraph operators delivered up-to-date accounts all across the country. Sullivan was favourite and Corbett’s manager had a bet on him “ just in case”.
Corbett avoided the worst of Sullivan’s strong start and broke Sullivan’s nose in the third round.
He then wore him down by dancing around him and picking him off with his own punches. Finally, Sullivan was knocked out in the 21st round.
That title fight between Sullivan and Corbett, the first using gloves and under the Queensbury rules, took place in New Orleans on September 7, 1892 – 117 years ago this week.