TOM HYER, PART TWO: HYER VS SULLIVAN
by Charlotte Jackson
Seven years after his grueling victory over “Country” McClosky, native son Tom Hyer prepared to defend his title against his personal and political rival, Irishman “Yankee” Sullivan. The date was February 7, 1849; the place was Pool Island, a remote outpost in the Chesapeake Bay, chosen to elude the eyes of the Law. The $10,000 purse was the largest in history, and was to remain so for 40 years, until Corbett fought Kilrain. Unlike the earlier Hyer-McClosky match-up, this bout was a talked-about affair at all levels of society, with two major newspapers dispatching reporters to cover the big day. The New York Illustrated Times even sent an eyewitness artist, who drew the illustration reproduced below.
Despite the isolated location, the prizefighters got a local reception reminiscent of a Keystone Kops caper. Days before the fight, “the fancy” descended in the hundreds upon Baltimore, bookmaking and brawling. These fans had booked two steamers to transport them to Pool Island. However, the Baltimore police impounded the steamers and extracted bail from the captains, forcing the stranded passengers to bribe the captains of two oyster boats for transport. Only a hundred hardy souls from each camp dared to embark upon the rickety craft. Nonetheless the authorities got wind of it, and swiftly commandeered the steamboat Boston with two companies of militia–the Independent Blues and the Independent Greys–along with a contingent of Police. The Boston set out hot on the heels of the fans, towing a scow to bring back prisoners and charged to stop the fight “using any means necessary.”
Still, by three a.m. both lots of would-be spectators had landed and roused Hyer and Sullivan, who were staying in the only two houses on Pool Island. As the Boston approached, the water grew choppy and the prison transport began to sink; the captain dared not approach the shore. So the Chief Constable of Baltimore and posse of policemen landed in a small rowboat under cover of darkness, prompting a mad scramble up trees and into shrubbery. Charged with arresting the two principals, at each house the bungling officers were tricked into arresting the disguised seconds instead, while Sullivan and Hyer escaped to the oyster boats with their entourages. (“Run, Sully! Run like the Devil!” Sullivan is said to have yelled, pushing his own blanketed second into the arms of the cops as he barreled out the door.) Adding to the chaos, another boatload of fans from Philadelphia suddenly appeared on the scene, only to turn tail and steam off post-haste at the sight of the “naval expedition.” Not knowing which of the three boats to pursue, the captain of the Boston decided that the belligerent parties must be on board this larger, more seaworthy craft and chased her down the Bay. Seeing their opportunity, Hyer and Sullivan slipped away up the Bay in the fishing sloops, searching for a secluded spot to put ashore. Meanwhile, to crown the Law’s humiliation, the Boston soon ran aground on a sandbar, where the militias cooled their heels until the authorities dispatched a second naval vessel to tow the first to safety.
That afternoon, the fighters and the remaining fans put in at Rock Point, MD., fifteen miles up the bay. They improvised a ring in a clearing amongst the pine woods, using splintery wooden stakes from a nearby farmstead and the ropes from the rigging of the fishing sloops. A foot of snow had to be shoveled, while bricks were heated in a bonfire and piled at ringside for the boxers to warm their feet between rounds. Despite everything, a large crowd was still present to witness the bout, and reporters stood by to wire their dispatches to New York, San Francisco, and London, as the above illustration from the New York Illustrated Times shows. This public, though clandestine, event was a far cry from the solitary confrontation between Hyer and McClosky several years before. However, it was after 4 pm by the time preparations were finished, and some of Sullivan’s men urged him to postpone due to the impending dusk. Sullivan scoffed at the suggestion, sure he would have dispatched Hyer well before sundown.
The fight itself must have seemed anticlimactic after such a lead-up. Sullivan was right; it was over by sundown. Beginning at 4:20 p.m., it lasted fifteen rounds in eighteen minutes, seventeen seconds. At the outset, Sullivan was a narrow favorite–100 to 80– despite being 5 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter.
Yankee Sullivan was known as a “scientific” fighter. People still remembered his victory over English champion “Hammer” Lane, and he now had a track record of twelve victories in refereed fights under the elaborate silver prize belt he liked to sport. He also was rumored to be an extremely nasty character, even in a milieu populated by nasty characters. It was said, for instance, that he had burned his wife to death by setting her head on fire with an oil lamp, though Tammany Hall had gotten him off. Despite thrashing Sullivan in the bar, Hyers only could boast of one victory under London Prize Rules, and at least his wife was still living. Still, that one victory over McClosky had been convincing enough to explain the dearth of opponents since.
The two entered the ring waving their respective colors–Hyer his signature Stars and Stripes, Sullivan the green trefoil. In a role reversal, McClosky had to step in for Sullivan’s arrested second, no doubt bringing back bitter memories. The first two rounds set the precedent for what would follow; each ended with Hyer heavily flooring Sullivan in a wrestling clinch–a stunning upset of a fighter known for his wrestling prowess. Furthermore, Sullivan sustained an injury to the back of his head in the first round, and a bleeding gash between the eyes in the second. Already the writing appeared to be on the wall–or at least the icy snow. However, in the third round Sullivan rallied, sending Hyer sprawling with a left hook to the neck and laughing as his opponent lay on the ground. That was his last chance to gloat, however; each round thereafter ended with Hyer falling as heavily as he could on Sullivan and in the words of the Herald reporter, “laying his great weight across Sullivan’s breast and body, as if attempting to crush every bone in his frame.” In the sixth round, Hyer apparently fouled Sullivan by holding him overlong, but was declared “fair” by the referee, starting a great hullabaloo amongst the crowd.
By the seventh round, the outcome was clear, as Sullivan was bleeding profusely from two gashes and was now fighting desperately, rushing at Hyer and throwing wild punches. His seconds began imploring the referee to pull Hyer off sooner, to allow them more time to minister to their man. However, they were too busy arguing their point to actually do much ministering, and so their man came to scratch encrusted with gore for the ninth, but “walked up to meet his powerful opponent with as much alacrity and courage as if the battle throughout had been in his favor.” He smiled as he parried Hyer’s now over-hasty attempts to dispatch him for good. Hyer for his part now sported a blind and swollen eye, which might have evened the score somewhat. Still, each round thereafter ended the same way, with Hyer’s seconds allowing him to crush Sullivan for an amount of time his party deemed excessive, and the referee calling it fair. By the eleventh round Sullivan’s left hand was disabled. By the fifteenth round, he suffered spasms in his legs, and was battered against the ropes, still struggling, and nearly suffocated by Hyer’s bulk on top of him. Unable to keep his legs after this fall, he was carried from the ring by his brother and another supporter, to claims of “foul.” Despite these show-stopping accusations, referee Van Ostrand proclaimed Hyer the outright winner.
Upon being named the victor, Hyer walked up to one of Sullivan’s seconds (one wonders, was it McClosky, his old foe?) and punched him unceremoniously in the head. Someone nameless then put a revolver to his own, and Hyer backed down, having brought fists to a gun fight. Meanwhile, the vanquished Sullivan was lugged away to Baltimore’s Mount Sinai Hospital in a cart, where he was admitted for brain swelling and a fractured skull and pronounced unlikely to survive. Hyer was later arrested in Philadelphia, but promptly released when Sullivan showed up like the proverbial bad penny, apparently restored to perfect health.
Both parties remained popular with their respective constituencies, for Hyer had asserted native-born dominance over an immigrant challenger, while Sullivan had comported himself so gamely that he lost no one’s respect, while continuing to claim that he would have won had Hyer’s fouls been properly penalized. Indeed, Hyer’s promoter, Mark “Topsy” Maguire, indirectly took credit for his protege’s victory. In writing up the contract, he had included in the fine print a clause that Sullivan could not use his stock-in-trade of falling at a light blow to stop the clock. Maguire opined that without this prohibition Sullivan would have won, despite the great disparity in size and reach between the foes.
Regardless, for both men their days in the ring were numbered. Hyer, while he lived to fight off a gang-related assassination attempt in hand-to-hand combat (excitingly detailed in the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archive file) never fought another London Prize Rules match, despite repeated attempts to arrange one with up-and-coming blood John Morrissey. Sullivan did fight man-to-beat John Morrissey in 1853, but despite dominating early in the bout he was coming up short when he was disqualified in the 37th round for brawling with the seconds. Sullivan moved to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, where he was promptly identified as a criminal element and picked up by the Vigilantes. He committed suicide–possibly under duress–in his prison cell. Both men died young. Hyer contracted rheumatism while serving in the Union Army, and died at his home of “cardiac dropsy,” and possibly cirrhosis, in 1864. While newspaper accounts at the time indicate that both men blended criminality with bravery and bonhomie, sports history has tended to enshrine Hyer while demonizing Sullivan. Looking over a century and a half of journalism in the Kaplan files, a reader has to wonder if Nativist bias continued into the twentieth century and subtly colored both men’s legacies.
The sport of boxing, unlike these two contenders, enjoyed a new lease on life. This was the first match to receive widespread media coverage and public interest amongst all strata of society, the first to feature reputable journalists in at ringside and an international audience awaiting their dispatches. Furthermore, the discipline and austerity with which both men had trained changed people’s opinion about boxing itself, which had previously been seen purely as a vicious and bloodthirsty pastime. The New York Herald went so far as to gush, “The self-denial, the temperance, the daily exercise, the beautiful regimen, which both the pugilists underwent for months before the encounter before them took place, present the elements of a system of life, which is equal to any system of morality or human conduct that can be picked out of the historical romances from the time of Socrates to the training of Hyer and Sullivan.” Although prize-fighting continued to be outlawed, a shift in perception was underway that would eventually lead to boxing becoming an accepted, and even respectable, sport.
It’s a New Year, and the Greenwood Cemetery has kicked it off by publishing a daily calendar featuring some of its more famous “residents” on its website. Our keen-eyed Kaplan archivist, Jhon Usmanov, noticed that their January 1st post celebrated champion bareknuckle boxer Tom Hyer, born on New Year’s Day 1819 in Greenwich Village, New York City. (For a sample of the Greenwood notables who will grace the calendar, visit http://www.green-wood.com/2013/2013-celebrating-green-woods-175th )
Hyer, who claimed the American heavyweight championship from September 9, 1841 until his death in 1864, also figured as a colorful character who owned a Bowery saloon and involved himself in Nativist politics and the anti-immigrant “No Nothing” Party. His victories over Tammany Hall-affiliated brawlers “Country” McClosky and “Yankee” Sullivan were widely publicized in the press at the time, and helped to popularize the sport with the American public.
The Greenwood Cemetery post inspired us to check out what “remains” of Hyers might lie buried in the Kaplan Archive. We were rewarded by a slew of articles and clippings spanning the 19th and twentieth centuries, along with photocopies or transcriptions of other clippings and fragments nearly crumbled to dust, and for a bonus, Hank Kaplan’s own personal handwritten notes. Two bits of Hyer-iana include a column, “In Corbett’s Corner,” authored by “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, lying alongside a feature from Ring Magazine by founder and writer Nat Fleischer.
Research in the archives requires you be one part detective and one part archaeologist: many of these materials are undated and gleaned from unidentified publications–and of course, any accounts from the bare-knuckle days will be contradictory and confused, down to something as basic as the height and weight of the participants–or even the winner of a fight. Still, that’s all part of the fun, and every scrap helped to flesh out a fascinating fistic hero from the early days of boxing in America.
Tom Hyer, of course, had boxing in his blood. His Dutch-American father Jacob is remembered for his part in the first recorded match on U.S. soil to be fought in public under London Prize Ring rules –at least until he broke his hand and the spectators began a brawl that effectively terminated the contest. While witnesses disputed who, if anyone, won his fight with British sailor Tom Beasley, the New York butcher claimed the title of champion for himself. As Hank himself points out in his notes, America had already produced two notable contenders in the persons of Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond, but these men emigrated and fought primarily in Britain.
So it was that a quarter-century later, Jacob’s son Tom, who had earned his stripes in youthful fisticuffs on the streets of New York, laid claim to the American championship “by hereditary title” and challenged all comers. The 22-year-old Hyers posed a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, he frequented a Bowery saloon and served as “muscle” for the Nativist political faction–soon to spawn the Native American Party and the No-Nothings– in its feuds and turf wars. On the other, he was described by his contemporaries as being not only very handsome, but also elegant, well-mannered and well-read: a thoughtful conversationalist.
Hyer soon found a taker in a certain “Country” McClosky–this being the ring name of a sometime hack driver and Tammany Hall tough also known as John McCleester or George McChester. The two were sworn political enemies (one of our vintage newspaper clippings dubs McClosky “a hot anti-American party man of the Hibernian type”) and their associates had been goading them to fight for some time. The boundary between street brawls and illegal prizefights was fluid in those days, so on September 8th, 1941 McClosky marched into the Fountain saloon on Park Row and challenged Hyer to fight him then and there at nearby City Hall Park. Realizing he was being lured into a “Gangs of New York” style ambush, Hyer shrewdly proposed an alternative rendezvous up the Hudson River, far from the prying eyes of the “coppers.”
The following day, accompanied by only a small retinue, the two steamed up the Hudson and chalked a scratch in the ground on a hillside near Caldwell’s Landing south of Albany. All blows were held legal, with each round to end when one of the combatants fell; time was fixed at half a minute. Thereupon, the 6’2″, 176-180 lb. Hyer defeated the 6’0″ – 5’10″, 160-180 lb McClosky in a knock-down, drag-out fight of 101 rounds that lasted nearly 3 hours. (For perspective, the average match in that time lasted about twenty.) McClosky reportedly stunned Hyer in the second round, dominated until the eleventh, and held his own until the thirtieth, when Hyer’s superior reach and skill asserted itself and the odds swung 20 to 5 in the latter’s favor. However, McClosky was able to draw the match out longer, often by using his signature technique of dropping at a light blow to end a round. Even this tactic backfired on him, as Hyer proved himself the better wrestler and often ended up on top in the wrestling clinches that accompanied these “falls.” Still, as late as the 92 round his challenger was able to mount a brief rally. Showing “groggy but game,” McClosky battled on, even continuing for nine full rounds after his seconds threw in the towel and implored him to spare himself.
One of the fragmentary newspapers in the collection describes each of the 101 rounds– a literal “blow by blow” account!
Some gems of 19th century “sportscasting” from the above account:
In Round 30, Country’s friends cried out ” ‘You’ve got him now…Give him one of those old Chatham Square fellows!’ ‘Yes, he has,” returned Hyer ironically, accompanying the remark with a tremendous visitation on Country’s nose which appeared to have literally split in two.”
In Round 73, “…a mutaul blow brought both to the ground. While they lay thus, Hyer, with a smile and a good-natured remark of ‘Put it there, old fellow; you are a good man, but you can never lick me,’ heartily shook hands with his antagonist.”
And at the 100th round, as McClosky pleaded with his seconds that he be allowed to continue: “Hyer, vexed with Country’s obstinacy, exclaimed: ‘Oh, let him come in, let him come in; I’ll kill him this time.’ Although this sort of talk is not according to the rules, there was no brag in the assertion.”
Finally, a blow to the jaw knocked McClosky to the ground, unconscious. Hyer was to remain the cock of the walk for the rest of the decade. The next time the two men stepped into a ring together, McClosky was relegated to a cornerman.
SETTING THE SCENE FOR HYER vs. SULLIVAN
The McClosky match sowed the seeds of the match to follow. The second who threw in the towel was a certain “Yankee” Sullivan, an Irish immigrant by way of London’s East End–though some suspect that he was really a Cockney named Frank Murray who arrived from an Australian penal colony. Sullivan had a reputation in the ring himself, having recently re-crossed the Atlantic to defeat the English middleweight champion, “Hammer” Lane, at Clapham Common. With a string of ten official victories to his name, he now regarded himself as the international champion, and even wore a silver belt around town. He was the logical person to challenge the uppity Hyer.
Political, ethnic, and personal grudges between the two men would have pre-dated the McClosky affair. Sullivan, like his protégé McClusky, served as lieutenant for the notorious Isaiah Rynders: Tammany Hall boss, vice kingpin, and eventual de facto leader of the Five Points street gangs. When not engaging in skulduggery on behalf on the 6th Ward bosses, Sullivan ran the Sawdust Saloon, which catered to a sporting crowd. Meanwhile, as the champion of the “Native Americans,” Hyer was palling around on the Bowery with characters such as “Butcher Bill” Poole, the inspiration for Daniel Day Lewis’s character Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York. Sullivan swiftly issued a challenge to his rival, but it took over seven years to bring about the match.
Hyer brushed off Sullivan by demanding an astronomical $3,000 a side bet, three times the standard championship stake. Finally in April 1848, a barroom brawl and subsequent exchange of trash-talking notices published in the local papers brought matters to a head. Despite having been placed in a headlock and beaten insensible in less than three minutes by his intended victim, Sullivan remained supremely confident of victory. Claiming that he had merely “been set upon in a most cowardly manner” whilst incapacitated by drink, he ended his tirade: “I can flax him without exertion.” Hyers replied that he’d ”prefer to meet him anywhere but in the papers,” adding “…but anywhere, I am his master.” In August, friends of the two fighters took matters into their own hands and brokered the fight for a record-breaking $5,000 a side stake. The date was set six months hence, allowing the principals to train and to pay their enormous stake son the installment plan.
Billed as a showdown between undefeated champions, the contest created much buzz on both sides of the Atlantic, with the New York papers reporting breathlessly on the Spartan training regimens of the two champions. According to the New York Herald, Sullivan ran laps around a horse track and scooped up boulders whilst sprinting full tilt; Hyers on the other hand favored jogging up the sides of ravines in the Catskills. During downtime, Sullivan perused a copy of Boxiana for inspiration, while Hyer was a dedicated napper. Both subsisted exclusively on bloody steaks and ale, vegetables being forbidden and even water strictly rationed.
Hard as the combatants were training towards the fight, authorities throughout the Eastern Seaboard were working just as hard to prevent it. They worried not only about the moral turpitude of the blood sport, but about actual riots breaking out between the partisans of the two champions and the political and ethnic factions they represented. Thinking to elude the watchful eye of the law, the fighters and promoters settled on Pool Island, a remote isle in the Chesapeake Bay, as the location of the match, which was set for February 7th, 1849. But holding the match would prove as big a struggle as the fight itself.
IN PART TWO: The Showdown Between Sullivan and Hyer; Hyers and John Morrisey: the Match that Never Was; Retirement and Death of a Champion
In honor of Bastille Day, the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archive decided to raid the photo files on one of France’s all-time great boxers, Georges Carpentier. Carpentier (1894-1975) epitomized French, and European, boxing in the 1910s and early 1920s. His professional career lasted from 1908, when he began fighting as a 14-year-old flyweight, to 1927, when he fought a last exhibition match as a light heavyweight. At his peak, he challenged Jack Dempsey for the World Heavyweight Championship in the first million-dollar gate in boxing history. Carpentier also served his country as a decorated aviator in WWI, published a novel, and followed his boxing career with a second act as a Vaudeville performer and movie actor. He finally became a successful businessperson with the opening of a popular cafe, Chez Georges Carpentier. Handsome and well-mannered, Carpentier was not only a great athlete, but a true French gentleman.
The range of portraits below shows off the different sides of this iconic fighter.
“Gorgeous” Georges Carpentier looks more like a movie star than a brawler in the head shot below, taken to show off his Gallic profile!
Carpentier in a more relaxed moment; according to the scrawl on the back of this otherwise unidentified photograph he is posing with the “Old Oak Bucket” on a Connecticut farmstead in 1921.
The photos below, many of them obviously publicity shots, show Carpentier as the crafty, hard-hitting puglist.
Carpentier fighting Irish-American contender Ed “Gunboat” Smith for the “White World Heavyweight Championship” in 1914. (Black American Jack Johnson of course held the title of “World Heavyweight Champion at that time.) This bout ended with Smith getting disqualified for a disputed foul in the sixth round. Behind in points, he was called out for hitting Carpentier after the latter lost his balance and fell to the mat. Many spectators judged the blow to be clearly unintentional, but Carpentier was nonetheless crowned the champion.
Around this time, Carpentier also served as a referee. He oversaw the 1914 Paris match between Jack Johnson and Frank Moran, one of the “Great White Hopes” that faced the black World Heavyweight Champion. Moran’s supporters felt that Carpentier showed favoritism to Johnson throughout the match, ignoring his fouls and defensive clinches while swiftly calling out Moran’s. He proclaimed Johnson the winner of the bloody 20-round decision, which many observers felt Moran had earned. It’s worth remembering, however, that Carpentier was only 20 years old when he was entrusted with this task. The match was the last World Championship Johnson would win before his fateful bout with Jess Willard in Havana the following year.
Below, Carpentier and Johnson pose together in the ring.
The photograph below was labeled “Carpentier-Young Smith.” There is no record of Carpentier fighting anyone called Young Smith, although he fought several men with the sobriquet “Young So-and-So” and several, including “Steamboat,” with the surname Smith. Perhaps some boxing historian can resolve the mystery for us!
Of course, the high point, and the turning point, of Carpentier’s career was his match with Jack Dempsey, the “Manassa Mauler.” The fight, held at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City on July 2, 1921 was a publicity coup and resulted in the sport’s first million-dollar gate. 92,000 spectators crowded in to watch. At that point, Carpentier was a wildly popular war hero and the popular odds ran about 50 to one. Despite a promising start, and despite delivering a powerful punch to Demspey’s face in the second round, Carpentier then broke his thumb in two places–with that very punch. He could not recover his momentum or power, and took a terrible beating in the third round. Although he battled on heroically, he suffered a knockout in the fourth round.
Although Carpentier’s career never fully recovered from this defeat, the fact that he and Dempsey remained friends for the rest of his their lives is a testimonial to the Frenchman’s sporting nature.
His personality and popularity undoubtable helped to give birth to the modern era of boxing promotion and publicity. We’ll be sure to check back and see what else Hank collected on this iconic figure!
As the boxing world mourns the death of Jimmy Bivins, one of the greatest fighters to never get a title shot, we at the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archive thought we’d take a peek in the Bivins file and see what Hank had collected on this neglected pugilist. Among a fat sheaf of articles spanning the arc of Bivens’s career–from his youthful stint as wartime “duration champ” to his belated induction into the Boxing Hall of Fame–we found a page of Hank’s own handwritten observations on the fighter. He was keeping notes for his own reference, not for posterity; his comments were technical in nature and hardly eulogy material. Still, as the sporting world considers Bivins’s legacy, surely we should throw Hank’s two cents into the mix. After all, as a fellow giant of the boxing world, a Kaplan “two cents” trades at a pretty high exchange rate! We reproduce it here:
- Delivered his punches with speed.
- Had a long reach though only 5’9″, but most important, he knew how to use this physical advantage.
- His timing was excellent.
- Good left hook, but expert with the left jab. Actually used it as an offensive weapon.
- Best instinct for what opponent in is position to do.
- Fought 11 world champs–beat 8.
- Was not a Fancy Dan boxer, but had great boxing skills in center ring.
- Was not a great K.O. puncher, but could hurt his opponent when it was his intention to do so.
So who were the eight future world champions that Bivins beat, out of the eleven that he fought?
Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles, Billy Soose, Joey Maxim, Anton Christoforidis, Melio Bettina, Teddy Yarosz, Gus Lesnevich. Six of the eight he defeated in the first two years of his professional career (1940-1955.) However, none ever gave him a title chance.
Other heavyweight contenders that he triumphed over included Charley Burley, Bob Pastor, Tami Mauriello, and Lee Savold.
And of course, Bivins twice fought his buddy Joe Lewis: once in a 1948 exhibition match and again, in 1951, when he dropped a 10-round decision that he himself always believed to be political: “I thought I won that one too, but Louis was looking for a title shot so they gave it to him,” he told Ring magazine.
Besides Hank’s notes, we also found a piquant letter to Hank from Gary Horvath, the lifelong friend of Bivins who was appointed the aging fighter’s legal guardian after he was found suffering from neglect at the hands of his own family members. There are too many colorful epithets to reproduce here, as he recounts his ongoing feud with Bivens’s older sister over his visitation rights and guardianship, but the letter attests to Hank’s evident concern for the fighter and Horvath’s desire to reassure him that “Jimmy” is recovering. Such personal, uncensored documents hiding amongst the clippings, programs, and such are what make forays into Hank’s archive so rewarding.
Of course, even sifting through newspaper clippings from a sixty-odd year span of time is fascinating in its own way, even if the printed materials are not one-of-a-kind. Articles from the 1940s, when Bivins was on a red-hot, 27 match winning streak, sound curiously blase or ambivalent about the reigning wartime “duration champion.” A couple reporters opined that he was not even close to a match for Joe Louis. A lackluster bout with Lee Savold at Madison Square Garden drew particular scorn from the press; one writer described the 3.5 to 1 favorite as fighting “more like a 6 to 5 favorite facing a scared little boy.”
However, as the years went by, Bivins’s stature gained more recognition. Among other accolades, Ring Magazine published a laudatory feature on him in 1974. In the article below, Jersey Joe Walcott even chooses Bevins as his personal pick for “Boxing All Time Great!” Despite winning the encounter in a split 10-round decision, Walcott ranked his opponent among the three toughest he ever faced.
At the other end of the scale, this very local newsletter describes Bivins’s afterlife as a trainer in Cleveland. Bivins was regarded as a “super gent” for his work with youth and his unassuming ways. And that’s not a bad way to be remembered, either.
By Charlotte Jackson
No problem! There have always been a plethora of books promising to teach any eager youth how to box in 10 easy lessons, without a teacher. You could order them out of the back of the Ring Magazine, or the sporting journal of your choice. No doubt some were superior to others. Some were authored by champions or popular fighters of their time, such as Jimmy Wilde, Tommy Burns, and Freddie Mills. Yet others were penned by “A Fistic Expert,” or by Johnson Smith and Company, best known for their catalog of gags and joke store items, which still offers rubber chickens and fake vomit today. Hank had a library of over 3,000 volumes on boxing and boxers, including a number of these manuals. (For some reason, a lot of them are British.) Here’s a sampling of these vintage DIY titles, classic and otherwise, dating from 1867 to 1981.
SCIENCE OF SELF-DEFENCE by Edmund E. Price (1867).
“THE COMPLETE SECOND,” by Bill Natty. (1900)
“BOXING” by A.J. Newton. Lightweight Amateur Champion, 1888 and 1890. C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd., London. (1904).
“SCIENTIFIC BOXING AND SELF-DEFENCE,” by Tommy Burns, World Heavyweight Champion 1906-1908. Health and Strength, Ltd. (1908.)
HITTING AND STOPPING by Jimmy Wilde, Flyweight Champion of the World 1914; 1916-1923. Athletic Publications Ltd. (1914.)
“ERRORS THAT LOSE DECISIONS, OR BLUNDERS OF BOXERS” by Charles Rose. Athletic Publications Ltd. (1920 edition.)
“SCIENTIFIC BLOWS AND GUARDS.” The Marshall Stillman Association, New York. (1922)
THE TECHNIC ON HOW TO BECOME SCIENTIFIC IN THE MANLY ART OF SELF-DEFENSE. By Eddie Toy. Isaac Goldmann Company, N.Y. (1923)
THE ART OF BOXING, by Jimmy Wilde, Flyweight Champion of the World 1914; 1916-1923. W. Foulsham and Co. (1923; reprinted 194_?)
BOXING TAUGHT THROUGH THE “SLOW-MOTION” FILM. Carpentier-Driscoll-Wells, etc. & their Methods.” Analysis by C. Rose. (1924).
“THE ART OF SPARRING AND BOXING: THE NOBLE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE WITHOUT A TEACHER.” Johnson Smith and Company of Detroit, Mich. and Windsor, Ont. (1935)
This is the same Johnson Smith of mail order fame– the company is still in business today, selling gags and novelties such as rubber chickens and fake vomit.
“SCIENTIFIC BOXING” by A Fistic Expert. Padell Book and Magazine Co. (1941)
“TEACH YOURSELF TO BOX.” by Alvin J. Williams. Pittsburgh, PA. (1943.)
“HOW TO BOX, HOW TO TRAIN” by John J. Romano. (1944.)
“IMPROVE YOUR BOXING,” by Nat Seller, with Jack Solomon and moves demonstrated by Freddie Mills. Findon. (1948.)
“A HANDY ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BOXING.” Edited by Sam Nisenson. Permabooks, (1949)
“HOW TO BOX: ALL THE MODERN MOVES” by the Editor of Boxing News and Jack Kenrick, former 8 stone Champion of England (1904-09) and Class “A” Star Referee. Published by War Facts Press, 92 Fleet Street, London (1950)
Boxing for Boys, by Benny Kessler. (1950.)
Learn Boxing With Me: by Freddie Mills (1955.)
Boxing: The Art of Self-Defense Step by Step, by John Cerrone, Trainer (1980)
“THE ART OF BOXING,” by Tom Lotta. (1981)
By Charlotte Jackson
Why is the square enclosure within which boxing matches take place known as the “ring”? We take it for granted that a boxing ring has four “corners”–quite literally. Yet there was a brief period in which the boxing world tinkered with the classic four-sided shape. A few clippings from the forties and fifties that Hank had squirreled away illustrate these experiments.
1944: The wartime focus on efficiency apparently spread to the world of boxing: this circular ring, debuting in 1944, promised to “speed up the game” by eliminating stalling.
This guest columnist (AP Pacific Coast sports editor Russ Newland) avers that his circular ring innovation could prevent boxing deaths, by preventing fighters from getting “wedged” in the corners.
Evidently, the circular ring did not enjoy a long vogue. However, a variant in the form of an octagonal ring made an appearance some years later, during the 1960s, as seen in the New York Times article below.
Apparently a California tree surgeon (and former amateur boxer) was inspired to create it by an epiphany he experienced while drinking his bedtime glass of milk: his gaze falling upon the circular bottle cap, he suddenly realized that boxing rings were meant to be round. (You have to wonder whether milk was truly the drink in his glass that night…) However, the ropes could not be tightened enough in a truly round ring, so he settled upon an octagon. A group of fighters ranging from former champion Emile Griffith and pros “Two-Ton” Charlie Gallento and Charlie Fusari, to assorted teenage amateurs, showed up to test the ring before a curious crowd of 2500 onlookers and a Miss Boxing California called “Bunny.” The consensus amongst observers seemed to be that the reduced depth of corners sped up the action, benefited “shifty” fighters, and supposedly prevented injuries to several boys who “would have been killed” in a conventional “ring.” However, the supposed safety benefits didn’t “square” with the five knockouts scored in the exhibition, admitted to be a higher percentage than normal in a contest of its kind. The fighters themselves pronounced the ring “boss,” though others seemed more indifferent: “I don’t care if I fight in a triangle!” Despite the enthusiasm, it seems the interest proved short-lived–or at least Hank failed to collect any more clippings on the topic.
My name is Steven Calco and fortune has granted me the chance to work in the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archive where I have spent the last year of my life processing boxing articles, programs, handbills, posters, and boxing organization’s records. Throughout my experience working on the collection, I have come across amazing and odd materials and this blog post will be a retrospective look at a few of the interesting things I have worked with over the past year.
One of my favorite projects I worked on within the Hank Kaplan Archives was the Posters subgroup. Within the Kaplan Archive, we have over two thousand posters of famous fights, local fights, newspaper print, Japanese magazine supplements, individual boxer, anti-drug boxing posters, and the list goes on! One of my favorite posters was a promotional poster for the Floyd Patterson/Ingemar Johansson World Heavyweight Championship match in 1961. The poster contains a portrait, height, weight, and year listing of every world heavyweight champion since 1719!
Another one of my favorite posters within the collection is an anti-drug poster released by the World Boxing Council in French, which is a perfect example of how all-encompassing Hank’s collection is.
Another rare item from our collection is an autographed Muhammad Ali poster of his fight with George Foreman in 1974 for the infamous Rumble in the Jungle Fight in Kinshasa, Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo). Notice the date on the poster is September 24th when the match was originally planned, but due to an injury while training Foreman was unable to fight and the match was moved to October 30. A rare find indeed!
One of the oldest boxing programs I worked on was a match between heavyweights Jim Jeffries and Tom Sharkey in 1898. This particular program was found by Jahongir, our resident Special Collections archivist and boxing aficionado, within a clear plastic container in which Hank kept very rare and mostly autographed items.
‘Jim Jeffries vs. Tom Sharkey twenty rounds with a decision’
Sharkey was down in the 11th round.
Marquis of Queensbury Rules. The most important rule is probably number 7: “No shoes or boots with spikes allowed!”
Brief biography of Tom Sharkey:
One of the first projects I worked on was Hank Kaplan’s Fistic Arcana, a consortium of clippings about the unique aspects of boxing and related topics throughout history. This subgroup ran the gamut from boxing in the ancient world to famous gyms to manuscripts of boxing movies to fatalities in boxing (on and off the ring) to Hank’s subject files, which contains newspaper clippings of any topic relating to boxing that one can possibly imagine. If anyone is wondering the effects of sex on a boxer’s performance in the ring or which U.S. presidents boxed in their spare time, we have articles within Subject Files to satisfy your curiosity! Other oddities located within Hank’s Oddities file discuss strange and bizarre happenings in the boxing world, such as the longest bout in history between lightweights Andy Bowen and Jack Burke lasting over seven hours in 1893. Each fighter was exhausted and unwilling to give up fighting and during the middle of the 110th round the referee decided it was a no-contest! Other memorable clippings are located in the Animals files containing human vs. animal boxing bouts or sparring sessions. Here are a few:
Another fascinating discovery I made (by accident) within Fistic Arcana was a manuscript for the boxing movie Out on My Feet by Larry Golin and Vinnie Curto about the life of Vinnie Curto in 1997. The manuscript was nestled between boxing programs from Sugar Ray Leonard’s career as a welterweight and was accompanied with newspaper clippings about the star studded cast featuring Mark Wahlberg as Vinnie Curto, Roberto Dinero as his trainer Angelo Dundee, and Vinnie Curto himself playing his abusive father within the movie. Of course, the movie never came to light due to internal conflicts but one can read the manuscript that eventually made its way to the Hank Kaplan Archives.
As an archivist, the experience of working with the wide array of materials that were located within the Kaplan collection was rewarding enough, but to be working with coworkers who were as knowledgeable about the sport of boxing, as serious about preserving the amazing artifacts and overall cultural value of the collection, and who were genuinely great people was the most rewarding part of my experience. The collection itself is a shrine to the sport of boxing and to the great boxing historian who spent countless hours clipping every newspaper article and collecting every iota of memorabilia he could get his hands on for the archive. I think with the collaborative efforts of everyone who ever processed even a fraction of the collection, we have made the collection something Hank would be proud of.