Bare-knuckle boxing is the original form of boxing, closely related to ancient combat sports. It involves two individuals fighting without boxing gloves or other padding on their hands. The difference between a street fight and a bare-knuckle boxing match is an accepted set of rules, such as not striking a downed opponent.
The Sullivan-Kilrain fight is considered to be a turning point in boxing history because it is the last world title bout fought under the London Prize Ring Rules, and therefore the last bare-knuckle heavyweight title bout. It is one of the first sporting events in the United States to receive national press coverage.
For the first time, newspapers carry extensive pre-fight coverage, reporting on the fighters’ training and speculating on where the bout will take place. The traditional center of bare-knuckle fighting is New Orleans, but the governor of Louisiana has forbidden the fight in that state. Sullivan has trained for months in Belfast, New York under trainer William Muldoon, whose biggest problem has been keeping Sullivan from liquor. A report on Sullivan’s training regimen in Belfast is written by famed reporter Nellie Bly and published in the New York World.
Rochester reporter Arch Merrill comments that occasionally Sullivan would “escape” from his guard. In Belfast village, the cry is heard, “John L. is loose again. Send for Muldoon!” Muldoon would snatch the champ away from the bar and take him back to their training camp.
On July 8, 1889, an estimated 3,000 spectators board special trains for the secret location, which turns out to be Richburg, a town just south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The fight begins at 10:30, and it looks as if Sullivan is going to lose, especially after he vomits during the 44th round. But the champion gets his second wind after that, and Kilrain’s manager, Mike Donovan, finally throws in the towel after the 75th round. Kilrain does not want to give up thinking he can outlast Sullivan, but Donovan defends his actions insisting that Kilrain would die if the fight continued. In any case, the Kilrain-Sullivan fight can rightly be listed among the greatest fights of the pre-modern era.