Northwoods Moment In History:The Great John L. Sullivan

Aug 12, 2020

World heavyweight boxing is not a sport often associated with the Northwoods. In the earliest years, a few lumberjacks participated in boxing. Some went on to become professionals, but to have the World Heavyweight Champion put on an exhibition bout in Rhinelander would be unheard of. Or would it? Historian Gary Entz has the story.

John L. Sullivan was professional boxing’s first World Heavyweight Champion. Not only was he the first heavyweight champ to hold the title under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which is recognized as the start of modern boxing, he was also the last heavyweight champ to hold the title under London Prize Ring Rules. The London Prize Ring Rules governed bare-knuckle boxing. Sullivan won the undisputed heavyweight title under Marquess of Queensberry Rules against Dominick McCaffrey in 1885. He last defended his bare-knuckle title in a famous 1889 75-round bout against Jake Kilrain in Richburg, Mississippi. It was the first sporting event ever to receive national press coverage. Sullivan ultimately lost the World Heavyweight title to Gentleman Jim Corbett in 1892.

Sullivan retired from boxing after the Corbett fight, but for the next twelve years he traveled the country with a company of actors and put on exhibition bouts. John L. Sullivan’s Comedy and Big Vaudeville Company was in demand across the country as many people wanted a chance to tell their children and grandchildren that they had once shook the hand of the Great John L. Sullivan.

In the spring of 1899 excitement spread across the Northwoods when it was announced that John L. Sullivan’s touring company would perform at Rhinelander’s Opera House. A huge crowd gathered at the Chicago & Northwestern Depot on the afternoon of May 31st as Sullivan himself stepped off the train and was whisked off to the Rapids House Hotel. Ticket sales for the evening show at the Opera House were brisk, and it was reportedly a standing-room only crowd that came for the show.

The performance that night consisted of a short play entitled “A Trip Across the Ocean,” which was followed by a series of standard Vaudeville variety acts. But Vaudeville comedy and singing acts were common fare, and the standing-room only crowd did not come for that. What Northwoods residents bought a ticket for was to see the final act, which was entitled “Scenes in a Gymnasium.” What the scenes consisted of was a three-round exhibition boxing match between John L. Sullivan and another fighter.

Northwoods residents got a special treat that night for the man who came out to box with Sullivan was none other than Jake Kilrain, the same boxer who fought 75 bare knuckle rounds against Sullivan in Richburg, Mississippi back in 1889. Both boxers were past their prime and overweight when they fought in Rhinelander. Plus, it was largely a choreographed bout designed to show the audience the different blows used by professional fighters while at the same time explaining how fights were governed under the old London Prize Ring Rules. Nevertheless, the two aging boxers put on a lively show for the audience, and no one went home disappointed.

It was a rare opportunity for Northwoods residents to meet one of the most famous athletes of the day and one of the world’s great professional boxers. It was also an experience not likely ever to be repeated.