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Fists of fury in a bare-knuckle world

Kansas City Star – by DARRYL LEVINGS

A world record … whap! … whap! ugh! … whap! whap! … it was not. But as pugilist bouts go … whap! whap! ugh!! … 91 rounds … wump! … bap! . .. it’s right up there.

And no gloves … whap! whap! … slap! …thank you … whap! This slug-out, in a ring south of Kansas City … whap! whap! … was back 130 years ago just about now … wump! whap! … bap! uhh!! … bare-knuckle …whap! crunch! thud! … whap! whap! … and “to the finish” … thud!

Marquess of Queensberry? Hah! This fisticuff meeting took place under London Prize Ring rules. A round only ended when a fellow was on his back from a blow or a body throw. That granted 30 seconds rest, and then he had just eight more to get back up “scratch,” the line drawn in the middle of the ring.  

Almost forgotten today, their faces likely unrecognizable then after the July 1883 fight, Jim Fell and Hugh McManus … whap! whap! … thud! … whap! … wump! thud! unh!! … went at it for an hour and 40 minutes.

The two men from Rich Hill, Mo., pummeled each other in the face and body with calloused hands in a temporary ring, for which the combatants themselves had furnished ropes and stakes. Each put up $200 for the purse — it was probably hung in a bag on a ring pole, where the combatants could keep an eye on it — but may have gotten some gate money, too.

And they had to keep an eye on the crowds — “People would reach into the ring and take a punch at them,” said Tracy Callis, a hobbyist boxing historian. “It was more like a regular fight than a boxing match.”

The bouts had some things in common with today’s cage fighting, but not the spiked boots.

“The spikes were up there at the point of the shoe where the toes are,” Callas said.

They were supposedly for traction on the grass, but a fighter going down from a punch might kick them up and catch the legs of his opponent.

“ ‘NonPareil’ (not to be confused with the second Jack) Dempsey got his shin split from knee to ankle just about by Johnny Reagan in a fight that I think went 45 rounds,” Callis said.

Two fights, really. It originated on a Long Island sand bar, but the contest went on so long that the incoming tide around their feet forced them to move and resume on higher ground.

“A round could be very quick, or it could take a long time. Some of those fights lasted five or six hours,” Callis said. A man would go down, and his second, or assistant, would drag him back to the corner, where he might or might not decide to emerge for more. “They’d actually sit on the knee of their second,” Callis said.

The U.S. record was 110 rounds, set in 1893 in New Orleans between Andy Bowen and Jack Burke. They slugged it out with gloves for 7 hours and 19 minutes for the lightweight title and it only ended when neither man could, or would, emerge from his corner. His hands shattered, Burke never fought again; Bowen died the next year, fatally KO’ed.

These might seem like iron men, but the time and number of rounds could be misleading. Often, they would go down from a minor punch just to grab the 30-second breather it allowed. Unlike today, a fighter did not lose points for being knocked off his feet.

Still, the time-to-round ratio of the McManus/Fell bout indicates one or both were on their back quite a bit.

A historian with the International Boxing Research Organization, which produces the Cyberboxingzone.com site, Callis and others gather old boxing newspaper clippings and piece together the lost history.

“There’s about 150 of us right now,” he said. “We go though microfilms of old newspapers and try to clarify old boxing matches.”

Callis, who has written “A Brief History of Heavyweights: 1881-2010,” said: “I favor the old-timers; they were fighters rather than boxers.

“John L. Sullivan kind of brought boxing to a more acceptable form,” Callis said. “He was transitional from the old bare knuckles to Marquess of Queensberry rules. He made it a popular thing by doing it for a living. He was a likable guy, a little bit of a braggart.”

Sullivan also was America’s first sports celebrity and the first athlete to make a million dollars. The most rounds the champ ever went, however, was 21, when “Gentleman Jim” Corbett knocked him out in New Orleans in 1892, finishing his career. That match, like almost all that Sullivan fought, contrary to reputation and promotional photographs, was gloved.

Bringing gloves hardly signified a more civilized bout. Sometimes the handgear was skin tight; other times it might hide something sharp or be dressed with a chemical that would burn an opponent’s eyes. It could be ugly.

Fisticuffs had been established as a “sport” centuries earlier in England. The first recorded fight was arranged by a duke between his butler and butcher. (The butcher won.) “The first rules came about in the 1700s to prohibit things like eye gouging,” Callis said.

Sherlock Holmes, you would not be surprised to know, was accomplished, even winning a quick bout against a pro in Alison’s rooms. Conan Doyle, his creator, approved of boxing, saying “better that our sports should be a little too rough than that we should run a risk of effeminacy.”

It caught on first in America’s urban areas. More and more sporting men of the times tried their hands at it, despite the tendency of the coppers to barge in and arrest the pugilists for breaking the peace. Mostly, the fights were banned to discourage gambling and the occasional riot.

“What those rascals would do if their man was losing, and they were about to lose their bets, was cause a riot to break up the fight,” Callis said, “so the police were always keeping an eye on them.”

The mantle of “Muscular Christianity” was settling on the sport, as more fights were waged under the less-brutal Queensberry rules: a dozen gloved rounds of three minutes each, a minute between, no throws or boots with spikes. These matches, often billed as “exhibitions” of skill and crowd entertainment, gained new acceptance. The police, perhaps enjoying the spectacle or a little graft, would not interfere as long as the crowd did not get too rowdy.

One friend of Sullivan’s, a bespectacled dude named Theodore Roosevelt, thought it fine exercise. He boxed at Harvard, the New York governor’s mansion and in the White House, where a right cross by an unidentified artillery captain detached the retina in his left eye. (Because his right, his shooting eye, was undamaged, he was still able to go to Africa later and slaughter big game.)

The McManus-Fell contest 130 years ago was moved from Rich Hill to just inside Kansas, where the law was less likely to appear. Still, the bout couldn’t have been much of a secret.

“Fully 500 people witnessed the fight,” the Kansas City Daily Journal reported the next day, July 17. “The Gulf road ran an extra train, which was heavily loaded.”

Both Rich Hill lads were illustrated with their dukes up and stripped to the waist in the late 1883 editions of the National Police Gazette, the barber-shop bible of national sporting news, juicy crime tales and engravings of scantily clad women. If the 91-round fight was any kind of American record for the time, the weekly Gazette didn’t note it.

“They are both millers and live four miles from town,” the Daily Journal reported low on its front page. All the Kansas City newspapers routinely put fight news there, whether from outside Lawrence, Kan., or Buffalo, N.Y. “Millers” seems to be lost boxing slang, for the article also mentions scheduling another “mill,” or fight.

Were they miners? That was the life’s blood of Rich Hill then. Shoveling melon-sized chunks of coal was one way to stay in shape, although sucking in the swirling black dust would seem bad for the wind.

One colorful and wildly inaccurate 1955 Rich Hill recollection of the fight — 133 rounds, fought until dawn, world record, wrong year, etc. — claimed the men worked as friends in the same “room” down in the No. 13 mine, and that they rode home in one buggy, dressing each other’s wounds. Possible, but doubtful.

Still, let’s enjoy the color of this supposed eyewitness: “The fight got under way about 10 o’clock with torches and lanterns affording the only lighting.” Spectators sat on the grass with their “midnight eye openers.” The referee was Harry McCoy, “a professional boxing master, who had trained both men at his specially constructed quarters at the Arcade saloon.” (McCoy did exist; the Gazette notes two years later that he was trying to set up a St. Louis match with a fighter called “Rough Diamond.”)

“It was fast and furious during the first twenty-five rounds,” goes the account. At the end, both Rich Hill men were weary, their arms leaden, “the proper guards were difficult to maintain, the wollops of the early stages of the fight were lacking but neither man would admit defeat.”

Born in England to an Irish family in 1860, McManus arrived in this county about 1879 and had his first fight the next year in Illinois. His clan may have made its way in the New World by digging coal and so ended up in the Rich Hill camps. Labor unrest there was crushed by scabs, according to one account, and some may have shifted to the southeast Kansas coal fields.

According to the Gazette, McManus was popular in Rich Hill and had “the reputation of being an honest, generous and straight-forward man.” Hugh’s brother had gone into the ring with Fell the previous August for a $200 stake and had been badly battered in a 20-minute match. In the eight (some sources say 14) rounds, “Fell punished his opponent so severely that he could not come to time,” as the national tabloid reminded its many readers.

Perhaps the 1883 event was a revenge match.

Thanks to records kept by Callis at the International Boxing Research Organization, we know McManus fought Jack Cash to a 34-round draw in Kansas City in 1886 and won two bouts, one in Rosedale, in ’88 by knockouts. It pretty much went south after that.

That year, the Gazette announced that “the well known pugilist, and Dan Daly, of St. Louis, have been matched to fight near St. Louis in December. Daly has always been considered the champion of St. Louis.” Dan was one of three brothers who owned a Market and Chestnut saloon with a ring out back. “McManus is under the advice of a competent handler, and is already showing signs of condition,” noted the Gazette. “There are ten or twelve pounds of avoirdupois (heaviness) yet to come off. Both men are equally matched, and a desperate fight will surely be the result.”

The weight may have come off but the $2,000 match didn’t. A former heavyweight named Tom Allen, who had put up McManus’s stake, “crayfished,” as the Gazette put it. Daly went on in late 1890 to fight his own 91-round match with Tommy White (5 hours and 56 minutes) in South Omaha. It was a draw.

Tom McManus was still fighting in 1893 when he went up against the “Napoleon of the Ring,” the undefeated lightweight Jack McAuliffe. That year, Hugh did face Johnny Daly (Dan’s brother) on an island (was it Bloody Island, where all the duels had been fought?) near St. Louis, but was punched out in the 15th round. His lights also got turned off in the 23rd by “Rube” Fern in Weir, Kan. That seems to have been his last shot at being a contender.

Having pounded away in at least 65 prize fights, Fell leaves us a richer vein in boxing lore. He is described in one account as “game and tough but not too classy as a boxer.” Did that mean he hit below the belt? He must have aimed for the head generally, scoring 20 knockouts in 35 wins.

At least eight times, police intervened in his matches, according to Callis’ records. After a 1884 fight in Denver, the constables added insult to injury by arresting his opponent, Jack Hanley, resulting in two years prison time, which seems a little stiff unless he punched out the coppers. Fell escaped.

This “plucky, scrappy fighter,” born in 1855, was a practicioner in English pugilism by 1873. He was in America four years later; Fell’s fights with the McManus brothers were only his third and fourth in this country. Much of his mid-career ring work was around New York, where he twice climbed in the ring with Nonpareil Dempsey, never staying there for more than four rounds. Fell showed up in Toronto, then stayed on a circuit in the Upper Midwest for a while.

His last fight on record was in Virginia City, where he was knocked senseless in the 27th round, but it appears he was drawing matches in California. A Fell family tree indicates he and brother William, his manager, died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Many of the longest fights ended in a draw. The combatants were so battered and exhausted they shrugged and staggered away with their own stake and maybe a little extra. That did not happen in the fight south of Kansas City, despite what the shaky Rich Hill history says.

“McManus proved the most scientific knocker, getting off with few scratches,” the Kansas City newspaper noted, “while Feel (sic) was badly punished.”

The Gazette had a somewhat different version: “Fell’s friends claim he fairly won the fight, as McManus would not stand up to fight.”

In any case, it was the younger McManus who took home the purse to his Irish family in one of the coal camps.

The more experienced Fell fouled him. Too many shots below the belt? Maybe he kicked his opponent when down? We’ll probably never know. He lost his $200, perhaps earned the hard way down in a mine. “Feel (sic) is anxious to arrange another mill, claiming that the foul was all that defeated him,” the Journal reported.

There’s no evidence a rematch ever happened.

But really, 91 rounds in the ring probably was plenty.
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2013/07/13/4343243/fists-of-fury-in-a-bare-knuckle.html#storylink=cpy

 

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