The Irish American Subculture. For much of the nineteenth century boxers fought under the London, or Broughton, Rules, with bare fists, battering each other through endless rounds, until only one combatant remained standing. Known as bare-knuckle prizefighting, this type of boxing had special appeal to the working-class Irish American male subculture. Often ostracized from respectable occupations and mainstream American culture, some Irish American males sought opportunities in occupations that required little education and could produce quick rewards in a society that placed a high value on material success. Since many of these activities, including prizefighting, were against the law, Irish Americans developed a certain political savvy, often entering the political arena themselves to establish the rules, and even enforce them, as many police officers were of Irish descent.
The Role of Fighting. The prizefighter, usually an Irish American himself, was the hero of the bachelor subculture, which held fighting ability in the highest esteem. Street fighting prepared young boys for careers as pugilists, criminals, and policemen. Irish political machines employed these young brawlers in their battles with other political factions. If a boy garnered success as a prizefighter, he furnished a role model for other urban, particularly Irish American, youth. In the prizefighter, youngsters, as well as adults, saw the successful display of survival skills, as well as the possibility of material reward. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Irish Americans dominated the ring. Later champions would emerge from other ethnic and racial groups—Jews, Italians, African Americans, and Hispanics—as they joined the Irish in the American metropolis.
New Era of Prizefighting. The 1880s and 1890s represented a new era in prizefighting, characterized by direct promotion of the sport and the fighters and reforms to lessen the sport’s violence. In the 1880s Richard Kyle Fox, publisher of the sensational tabloid National Police Gazette, promoted prizefighting and other sports. Fox, who defined sport broadly, offered championship belts and other prizes for, among other things, the world’s heavyweight boxing championship, teeth lifting, hog butchering, female cycling, and female weightlifting. He pleaded for the legalization of prizefighting, his favorite sport, and brought the sport national attention by leading a campaign to find a challenger to unseat heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan. Fox also promoted the development of weight classifications by awarding belts and naming champions at weights other than heavyweight. Another force of change in prizefighting was Harry Hill, the owner of a notorious New York City saloon, which staged legal boxing exhibitions. In the early 1880s both the wrestler William Muldoon and boxer Sullivan trained and performed at the saloon. Hill was also recognized as the nation’s best boxing referee. Athletic clubs led to the legalization of boxing; in 1896 the Horton Law in New York permitted boxing in athletic clubs. The Twentieth Century Athletic Club once leased Madison Square Garden in New York to hold public prizefights under the Horton Law. The athletic clubs also promoted the adoption of the Marquis of Queensberry rules, which required combatants to wear gloves, limited rounds to three minutes, required ten-second knockouts, and prohibited wrestling holds. In addition to the provisions of the Queensberry rules, the athletic clubs instituted round limitations and joined Fox in the development of weight divisions. In 1890 New Orleans, Louisiana, legalized boxing under the Queensberry rules.
Sullivan: The Last Bare-Knuckle Champion. The new era of prizefighting had a hero in John L. Sullivan. As a teenager he fought in exhibitions in saloons in Boston, developing a reputation as a slugger. In 1882
Sullivan knocked out the reigning champion, Patrick “Paddy” Ryan, in the ninth round at Mississippi City, Mississippi, for a stake of $5,000 and a side bet of $1,000. Sullivan, who added nineteen more knockouts to his record from 1882 to 1886, enjoyed broad celebrity status, as all levels of society were interested in his love for fighting and flamboyant lifestyle. Fox, who wanted to find a fighter to unseat Sullivan, wrote about his binges and uncontrollable temper in the National Police Gazette. Fox’s stories made Sullivan a larger-than-life celebrity. In 1889 Sullivan defended his title against Jake Kilrain in what would be his last championship bout of the bare-knuckle era. Three years later James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett defeated Sullivan in the first world heavyweight championship fight under the Queensberry rules. In 1897 Corbett lost the title to Bob “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons, a lean but powerful Australian, who held the title until 1899, when James J. Jeffries, a former Ohio ironworker, knocked him out in eleven rounds at Coney Island, New York.
Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986);
Michael T. Isenberg, John L. Sullivan and His America (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988);
Donald J. Mrozek, Sport and the American Mentality: 1880-1910 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983);
Jeffery T. Sammons, Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988).