BACK IN THE DAY

The Olneyville prizefight that never was

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In November of 1891, the Olneyville Town Council passed an ordinance prohibiting private exhibitions of prizefights. Such a fight had already been scheduled to take place at the Rhode Island Athletic Club. John “The Boston Strong Boy” Sullivan versus Mike “The Ithaca Giant” Conley promised to be an amazing event. However, the strict-moraled people of Olneyville, which was then a part of Johnston, were determined to keep such vile entertainment out of the town.

Locals who regarded bare-knuckled boxing as an atrocity called to attention Sullivan’s 1889 fight in Mississippi, better known as “Boxing’s Longest Day.” That year, on July 8, America’s Heavyweight Bare-Knuckle Champion, 31-year-old Massachusetts native John Lawrence Sullivan, challenged Jake Kilrain in the town of Richburg.

Unlike modern-day boxing, the men wore no gloves. The fight didn’t take place in a specially built ring, but in a roped-off area of field. There were no judges. There was no limit on how many rounds a fight could go. The fight was simply begun and ended when one man could no longer physically perform.

The temperature that day was over 100 degrees. Over 2,000 spectators had gathered to watch. The fight went on for 75 rounds, with both men pausing to take gulps of whiskey now and then and Sullivan occasionally vomiting. Two hours and 16 minutes into the prizefight, Kilrain was out and Sullivan held onto his title.

Many didn’t want such a spectacle to replay in Johnston and they had appealed to the town council to put a stop to it before it began. Yet, despite the new ordinance, the managers of the planned Sullivan-Conley fight informed the public that the event would go on at the athletic club just as announced.

The residents who were opponents of violent sport then appealed to Rhode Island Gov. Herbert Warren Ladd to intervene and prevent any overstepping of the ordinance. Ladd declined to involve himself in the matter.

Days later, the managers of the fight found themselves without a venue as the owners of the athletic club as well as the owners of every other hall in Olneyville were unwilling to go against the new ordinance. The fight was thereby postponed indefinitely.

Sullivan, who stood at nearly 6 feet tall and weighed 212 pounds, took his fists to Louisiana where he squared off against James Corbett in September of the following year. After 21 rounds, Sullivan lost his title. Through the course of his career, he had won 47 fights out of 51, with 38 of them by knockout. Two fights were draws, one was a no-contest and one was a loss. He died in Boston in 1918 of heart disease at age 59.

John L. Sullivan went down in history as a boxing legend. The majority of the people in late 19th-century Johnston, however, hadn’t been impressed.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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