Boxing is one of the oldest of competitive sports, dating back to ancient times. In antebellum America, boxing matches were often free-for-alls, accompanied by biting, gouging, and kicking. In the late 1830s, rules divided bouts into rounds and allowed only fist-hitting above the belt. Matches continued to be bare-knuckle affairs which were fought until one competitor collapsed. For most of the nineteenth century, prizefighting was illegal and was condemned from pulpits and press rooms as immoral because of its brutality and association with gambling. Prizefights, therefore, were held on steamboats, in the backwoods, or at other clandestine locations in order to avoid the police.
Its illegality kept it from being a major spectator sport, yet prizefighting in America steadily attracted followers over the antebellum years, generating particular enthusiasm in the 1850s. The Civil War prevented the staging of most sporting events, and public interest in prizefighting dwindled until the late 1860s. While denunciations of prizefighting continued in the late-nineteenth century, defenses of the sport began to appear in the press. In 1870, even The New York Times admitted that there was a positive side to boxing. It improved physical fitness and facilitated manliness.
In the 1880s, prizefighting sparked excitement not seen since the 1850s, much of it due to the exploits of John L. Sullivan, who reigned as heavyweight champion for a decade (1882-1892). In February 1882, Sullivan captured the title by knocking out Paddy Ryan in a bout which moved at the last minute to evade the police. His hometown of Boston greeted Sullivan with honors and acclaim usually reserved for war heroes. He then toured the country, putting on exhibition matches, and offering $1000 to any white man who could last four rounds against him (he explicitly refused to fight blacks).
Sullivan capitalized on his status as the most popular sports figure of the period by endorsing products for the Lipton Beef Company. He was memorialized in popular music ("Let Me Shake the Hand that Shook the Hand of Sullivan"), in circus parody by a boxing elephant named after him, in wax by the Eden Musee in New York, in sculpture by John Donoghue, in verse by John Boyle O'Reilly, and (later) in a poem by Vachel Lindsay and a painting by George Bellows.
Sullivan helped introduce America to the Marquis of Queensberry rules for boxing, which required gloves, timed rounds, a 10-second count for technical knock outs, and abolished wrestling techniques. The rules were crucial in regulating the sport and raising its public esteem over time. In 1885, Sullivan defended his heavyweight title against Dominick McCaffrey under the Marquis of Queensberry rules.
In 1889, Richard Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette, organized and promoted a match in New Orleans between Sullivan and Jake Kilrain. It was the first time that the press reported extensively on pre-fight stories, such as training and speculation on the outcome. The Louisiana governor forbid the illegal fight and called out the national guard, so it relocated to an undisclosed location (Richburg) in Mississippi. In the 75th round, Sullivan won the $20,000 purse and diamond-studded championship belt. The champion, though, was briefly jailed and fined $18,000. It was the last bare-knuckle championship in America, and thereafter Sullivan redoubled his efforts to promote the Marquis of Queensberry rules. In 1892, he finally lost the title to "Gentleman" Jim Corbett.
Since prizefighting was illegal, most professional boxers had to earn their living by other means. Some attached themselves to urban political machines, working at patronage jobs or as "shoulder-hitters" who enforced the will of political bosses through threats or acts of violence. The shoulder-hitter was a common, readily-identifiable, and negative character in political cartoons of the time. Here, however, the cartoonist has partially reversed the stereotype. Sullivan does appear as a "bouncer," which fits the model of a shoulder-hitter, while incorporating boxing's association with taverns (often sites for matches in earlier years); yet, the heavyweight champion is protecting the president against patronage-seekers. (Harper's Weekly was a leading voice for civil service reform.)
The first caller Sullivan orders out is a journalist (see his notes and the paper in his pocket labeled "Jenkins"--a term for a nosy reporter). The second man in line carries a carpetbag on which is inscribed "Old Jacksonian," an allusion to the alleged originator of the modern "spoils" system, President Andrew Jackson; and, "C.O.D. Patriot," a dual reference to cod fishing, a major industry in New England, and "cash on delivery." Other office-seekers include stereotypes of the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic party: the urban political boss (perhaps like John Morrissey, a former boxer himself), who wears a flashy checked suit and top hat; and a long-haired, gun-toting, former Confederate. Sullivan was called the "Boston Strong Boy," but the cartoonist uses what was probably a lesser-known nickname--"the Big Bostonian."
It is interesting that Harper's Weekly would allow a cartoon to publicize the fame of a prizefighter in a positive light. After all, the sport was illegal, brutal, and often corrupt, while the weekly publication was dedicated to moral uplift as a "Journal of Civilization" (as its masthead read). Previously, what little coverage the newspaper gave to prizefighting was largely negative. Its only notice of the Sullivan-Ryan match in 1882 was to associate corrupt politicians with the fight. Sullivan's exhibition bout the next year in Madison Square Garden was rebuked in an editorial entitled "Brutality."
Beginning in 1887, though, less judgmental references began appearing in a column of news briefs about the heavyweight champion's personal life. The paper also called the proposed boxing regulations the "Sullivan-Queensberry plan." Editor George William Curtis was not persuaded. In an 1889 editorial, "The Progress of Civilization," Curtis despaired that the Sullivan-Kilrain bout was more important to most Americans than current political issues, and that Sullivan's conviction would not discredit the pugilist. The next week, the editor applauded the fines imposed by the court on the champion, and reviled prizefighting as "brutal, inhuman, and disgusting ..."
But by this time, though, the editor was fighting a losing battle. In the 1890s and early-twentieth century, a few cities and states made boxing legal. Opposition continued, but World War I proved to be the turning point for boxing when the sport was used to train soldiers. In the 1920s, legalization spread and New York City became the capital of the thriving sport.
Robert C. Kennedy