Legendary Boxer John L. Sullivan Won a Championship in Cincinnati

The world’s most famous athlete of the late 1800s visited the Queen City frequently, occasionally getting into trouble.

Off the top of your head, without consulting your phone, can you name any of today’s heavyweight boxing champions? In 1890, everyone knew the name and fame of John L. Sullivan, a frequent visitor to Cincinnati who was easily the most famous celebrity of that era. “Jawn L.” was so famous that the people who shook his hand became celebrities themselves. “Let me shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan” became a Victorian catchphrase.

Often cited as the first championship fight under modern rules, John L. Sullivan and Dominick McCaffrey slogged through seven rounds at Cincinnati’s Chester Park until Sullivan was declared victor on points.

Cincinnati Post (1885), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Sullivan is remembered as the first and the last. He was the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, and he’s also recognized as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing. Sullivan was enormously successful, the first American athlete to earn more than $1 million in his lifetime. Depending on which boxing historian you consult, he may have earned the first heavyweight crown awarded under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules by winning a fight right here in Cincinnati.

That fight actually occurred just outside Cincinnati. Boxing, although enormously popular throughout the 1800s, was mostly illegal. When word got around that Sullivan was booked to take on Dominick McCaffrey at Chester Park out on Spring Grove Avenue, he was arrested on a warrant sworn by Cincinnati’s Law and Order League under an Ohio law prohibiting prizefighting. McCaffrey went into hiding at a roadhouse near the Zoological Gardens to escape a similar detention.

Sullivan was hauled into the courtroom of Judge Alex B. Huston and testified that he was indeed scheduled to fight McCaffrey, but only in a sparring demonstration. The dubious judge was eventually convinced on learning this “sparring” match would have both pugilists wearing gloves. Since almost all boxing up to then had been conducted under the bare-knuckles London Prize Ring Rules, Judge Huston agreed that the gloved bout did not constitute a real prizefight and could proceed.

Nearly 15,000 spectators packed the grounds and grandstand at Chester Park on August 29, 1885. Although it was later developed as an amusement resort just up from the cemetery, Chester Park at that time was basically a large horse-racing track. (“Chester” was the proprietor’s favorite horse.)

Betting on the Sullivan-McCaffrey bout was not confined to monetary wagers. Two gentlemen were forced to portray an organ-grinder’s monkeys on a tour of downtown Cincinnati to pay off their losing bets on McCaffrey.

Illustrated Police News (1885), digitized by University of Minnesota Libraries

Sullivan and McCaffrey slogged through seven mostly indecisive rounds until the referee called the contest in Sullivan’s favor. Although many, including The Enquirer, objected to that decision, it was eventually agreed that Sullivan had fairly won on points, if not style. After pocketing $1,000 and a commemorative ring, McCaffrey conceded that Sullivan was the legitimate world champion—the first title achieved while wearing gloves.

Just four years later, Sullivan won the last title fight conducted without gloves, against Jake Kilrain in 1889. He finally lost his championship titles to “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in 1892.

Throughout his career, Sullivan augmented his boxing earnings on the vaudeville circuit. His on-stage performances attracted quite a few feminine fans, including the “Jersey Lily,” Mrs. Lillie Langtry. As Al Thayer of The Enquirer related the incident in his 1894 book, Ah There! Pickings from Lobby Chatter, Mrs. Langtry and drama critic Mary H. Fiske, who wrote under the pen name “Giddy Gusher,” wangled their way into a private meeting with the champ through black-face comedian Lew Dockstader:

“Lew Dockstader told me a good story on John L. Sullivan the other day that has never been published. While the champion was in training for one of his matches, Mrs. Fiske, The Giddy Gusher, now deceased, told Lew she would like to go to his training quarters and take Mrs. Langtry with her, the latter being very desirous of seeing Sullivan. Lew and John were old friends and the latter said he would be glad to meet the ladies. On their arrival at the Sullivan quarters they were introduced, and, after shaking hands, the champion said: ‘Ladies, would you like to see me strip?’ Of course he meant to show them his muscle, but the ‘Jersey Lily’ was ‘not on’ and she blushed to the roots of her hair. ‘The Gusher’ winked at Lew and said: ‘We should be proud to.’ And Sully stripped.”

For most of his career, Sullivan was a notorious drinker, and it was another stage performance that brought Sullivan and his appetite for demon rum to Cincinnati in 1891. The Enquirer (April 23, 1891) tells the tale:

“John L. Sullivan made a spectacle of himself during the performance given by his company at the People’s Theater last night that was not edifying. Among other things, he said he was drunk, and glad of it.”

According to the newspaper, Sullivan was registered at the Gibson House but spent most of his time at Belle Curry’s bordello on Broadway. Madam Curry might well have wished the big lug had confined himself to the Gibson, because Sullivan made a mess of her “resort.” He kicked over a tray of glasses, beat up an employee named Fannie Frazier, and demolished chairs and other furnishings.

Word of the champ’s exploits reached Cincinnati Police Chief Philip Dietsch, who decided to take matters into his own hands. The Chief marched down to the People’s Theater and confronted Sullivan.

“Sullivan,” Chief Dietsch said, “you are a fine specimen of manhood. I wish I was as big and I would tackle you myself.”

“You are a good sized little man yourself,” said Sullivan, “but you will have to excuse me; I have been drinking.”

The Chief agreed that Sullivan had been imbibing, a good deal.

“Well, I am not the worst fellow in the world,” Sullivan said, “and I am not as bad as people say I am.”

Chief Dietsch called it a draw, and Sullivan continued to enjoy the freedom of the city. The Enquirer opined that Sullivan should appreciate the courtesy he was shown, but one imagines that Chief Dietsch was relieved not to engage in fisticuffs with the former heavyweight champion of the world.

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