Transcribed by Jaylyn Thacher

Spectator, Sunday, October 21, 1990


Sullivan’s steps echo in Belfast

Sullivans Steps Echo in Belfast Photo 1 of 1

By Dan Sheridan

BELFAST—The Great John L. Jake Kilrain. Richberg, Miss., 105 degrees, 75 rounds, bare knuckles.

The history of the last bare knuckles championship bout is written for all to read, but the history behind the history lies in the village of Belfast.

It was 101 years ago on July 8 that John L. Sullivan, dubbed “The Boston Strong Boy,” rapped out a thrilling victory over Kilrain, who many of that time considered to be Sullivan’s most formidable foe to date.

Six weeks before that historic bout, however, Sullivan was in no shape to go even five rounds, ballooning out to 40 pounds more than his prime weight.

Enter a fitness expert and world champion professional wrestler, William “Iron Duke of Wrestling” Muldoon, a Belfast native. Muldoon promised to have Sullivan fighting trim, despite the Strong Boy’s propensity for strong drink and cigars. Various locales were discussed for the rigid training that Muldoon was to put Sullivan through, but Belfast was chosen for its rural, out of the way location.

“John L. Sullivan worked out here, and lost 40 pounds in those six weeks,” said Bill Heaney, a member of the Belfast Lions Club and a teacher at Belfast Central School.

“He would do a lot of roadwork, running up Hughes Street, across the Genesee to Caneadea and back up Route 19. That was one of his routes. Another was a run to Cuba, and another to Angelica.”

Belfast, since those times, has become somewhat of a historical footnote to Sullivan’s career, but the residents take it very seriously.

Having had its second successful John L. Sullivan Invitational Boxing Tournament, with approximately 1,200 people turning out for the USBA/ABF sanctioned event, Heaney said the Lions Club, which sponsors the tourney, is looking into even more grand designs for the village and its connection with Sullivan.

“We try to commemorate Sullivan’s time in Belfast with the tournament,” said Heaney. “We use it as a fundraiser for charities. No professional group profits because of it.”

The Lions Club, he said, started the ball rolling in 1989 when it was realized that it was the anniversary of the fight.

“I got a phone call from Brian Sullivan (no relation), a realtor in Buffalo and a fright promoter,” said Heaney, “and he asked if we would be interested in a USA/Amateur Boxing Federation boxing tournament here.”

The Lions Club accepted the proposal, and fighters from throughout upstate New York and Ontario, Canada, turned out for the first of what the Lions Club is hoping will be an annual event.

There were 800 on hand to witness that first tournament, with 12 bouts on the card.

“We’re hoping to expand it to an entire weekend,” said Heaney. “We’re hoping to have a John L. Sullivan Roadwork Marathon in April.”

The boxing tournament is already listed in the Cattaraugus/Allegany Tourism Bureau brochure, said Heaney, and “hopefully, we’re going to do more on it.”

There is also interest in turning an old warehouse in the village into a Lions Club meeting place and boys’ club to help train local boxers.

Sullivan’s training in the village, said Heaney, “left us with a little historical footnote.”

The training camp where The Great John L. is still standing, in fact still housing much of the equipment with which Muldoon whipped Sullivan into shape.

Sullivan, who some claimed trained on whiskey and cigars, needed the respite from the big city, according to Heaney, and found it in Belfast.

He was quoted during those dry times as saying of Belfast, “On the whole, I find it a very grim place.”

“I think that if he were allowed to cut loose,” said Heaney, “he would have thought more of Belfast.”

During one reported spree on the town, however, Sullivan, according to local legend, went into a Belfast bar and asked the bartender for a drink.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that,” said the barkeep, according to Heaney.

Sullivan then, in a burst of anger, lifted the bolted down end of the bar, hoisting the entire bar up and out into the street.

In the book “John The Great” by Donald Barr Chidsey, Muldoon reportedly said after the great bout, “This man Sullivan was a drunken, bloated, helpless mass of flesh and bone and without a single dollar in his pocket when I took him from New York to my place.”

While in training, Sullivan attracted the cream of the sportswriters, including Nellie Blye. Ann Livingston, billed as the “$10,000 Beauty” was Sullivan’s girl at the time, but was not allowed in, Muldoon considering her a distraction that the champ could do without.

Ban Johnson, a reporter and later president of the American League of baseball, was the only reporter allowed to view the training regiment, although the residents of Belfast and around the area flocked to watch the great one work out.

The outdoor fight was played to a huge crowd in Richburg, Miss., even though bare knuckle fighting was illegal, and the temperature soared to 105 degrees. The battle went 75 rounds, with the rule of old being that a round ended when one man went to the canvas.

Sullivan took the $20,000 purse, and later became a temperance lecturer. Belfast went down in history.