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Could marijuana have played a role in fixing one of the most important American boxing matches in history? Probably not, but we’ve uncovered at least one harebrained scheme reported in a Colorado newspaper in1889 that says it could be plausible.
As far as fighters go, John Lawrence Sullivan was one badass dude. During the era of bare-knuckle boxing in the late 1800s, Sullivan was known as the Boston Strong Boy.
Legend has it that he was the first American athlete to become a millionaire. In his career, he won more than 450 fights, even taking on dumbasses off the street who would challenge him for money.
Just look at the size of that completely un-ironic, pre-hipster handlebar ‘tache in the photograph of this dude and you can see what a tough motherfucker he must have been. Bare-knuckle boxing was a brutal and viscious sport, though. And by the 1880s, the international boxing federation banned what was known as London Prize Fighting rules in favor of the slightly less violent gloved boxing we know today. But not without one last, huge fight between Sullivan and John Joseph “Nakey Jake” Kilrain.
Kilrain wasn’t a slouch. He learned to fight out of necessity: He was a hick from Long Island (back when Long Island was considered “the country”) working in lumber mills in Massachusetts with guys who apparently liked to talk a lot of shit to him. At least, they did until he started fighting them all and winning. He took up boxing for money when he was twenty, and by 1887, he was crowned heavyweight champ by the National Police Gazette newspaper.
The night the two met was apparently a crazy. The match was held at a secret location south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and it went an astounding 76 rounds. Sullivan almost lost at one point, vomiting during the match before pulling through for the win.
The bout is considered to be one of the first nationally reported sporting events in American history, generating unheard-of amounts of coverage. And some were stunned that Kilrain lost the fight — which is where our Cannabis Time Capsule comes in.
According to this gem of an article we found in the July 21, 1889 Leadville Democrat, Kilrain had been drugged in Richmond the night before with — gasp! — marijuana jelly! Or at least that’s what the reporter heard from a guy who got a letter from a man who says he talked with Kilrain’s trainer who told him that Kilrain had informed him “after the fight that he had a strange feeling.”
Now, pot does make most of us want to fight less. But that wasn’t the case here. Instead, the “strange feeling” was probably just Kilrain getting his head beat in by a sobering boozer. See, Sullivan was known far and wide as a good, drunk Boston Irishman — the type that gave us the stereotypical (but true) drunk Boston Irishman we know today. He so loved his liquor that he had to be pulled from local bars to train for the fight. One sportswriter wrote of Sullivan: “According to the history of all such drunkards as he, his legs ought to fail him after twenty minutes of fighting.”
Our best guess is that Sullivan was three-sheets at the start of the fight, then pulled the old boot-and-rally move in the fortieth round. After puking up everything and realizing he was in a championship fight, he started knocking the daylights out of the less-experienced Kilrain.
Or maybe — just maybe — it was pot. After all, we know that booze causes people to be way more violent than cannabis does.
This story originally ran over at Denver Westword’s Cannabis Time Capsule blog.