Although it’s rare, a sporting event can sometimes transcend its role as pure competition and entertainment. Boxing in particular seems especially suited to seeing its participants elevated to more than mere sportsmen. Rather than just two men trying to knock each other unconscious, the combatants become symbolic representatives of larger social, cultural, or political forces. When Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight Champion, faced former champion Jim Jeffries—the first in a long line of “Great White Hopes”—in 1910, they fought as representatives of their respective races. In 1938, it was American democracy vs. Nazi totalitarianism, when the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis squared off against Germany’s Max Schmeling. And in 1849 at the unlikely venue of an isolated bluff overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, James “Yankee” Sullivan and Tom “Young America” Hyer met in what was not only America’s first championship prizefight, but a symbolic bout between the nativist and pro-immigrant forces then waging battle on the U.S. cultural and political landscape.
Nineteenth century boxing matches were far more brutal affairs than the contests we see today. Bouts were fought bare-knuckle, and although eye gouging, hitting below the belt, and hitting a man while he was down had been banned the previous century, there were elements of wrestling involved with one fighter throwing the other on the ground and then falling heavily on top of him a familiar tactic. Rounds ended when a fighter was knocked down. He then had 30 seconds to rest and another eight seconds to “come to scratch”—return to the center of the ring where a mark, a “scratch line,” had been made. There was no limit to the number of rounds a fight could last, and as long the combatants could make it to “scratch,” the bout could go on indefinitely. Fights routinely went on for hours. In 1855, “Australian Jim” James Kelly (he was actually from Ireland) defeated Jonathan Smith near Fiery Creek, Victoria, Australia after six hours and fifteen minutes, the longest recorded match in history.
Professional boxing was also completely illegal in the United States. States only began to legalize the sport when protective gloves—introduced more to protect a fighter’s hands than an opponents head—began to be adopted with the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867. The rules, which form the foundation of today’s version of the sport, also abolished wrestling tactics, established the three minute round, and created the ten count for a fighter that was knocked down.
Despite the popularity of prizefighting in England during the 1700s, boxing did not gain a foothold in the United States until the 1830s. One of the factors that lead to the sudden burst in popularity was the flood of Irish, British, German, and other European immigrants who began arriving in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. With this large influx of foreign-born citizens emerged a strong, passionate and widespread anti-immigrant backlash. Nationally it gave rise to organizations like the Know-Nothing Party, which first appeared in the 1840s in New York City, espousing an anti-immigrant, anti-catholic platform. Local fire brigades and gangs such as the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys in New York City and the Plug-Uglies and Rip Raps in Baltimore acted as thugs and strong arm enforcers for organizations like Tammany Hall, the pro-immigrant Democratic Party political organization in New York City, and local branches of the Know-Nothing Party.
Prize fighting increasingly became an organized expression of ethnic rivalry, anti-immigrant sentiment, and nativist impulses, with foreign transplants, often Irish, facing off against their American-born adversaries. Most of these fights were local affairs, with interest largely confined to the the immediate neighborhood. The fight between Irish immigrant James “Yankee” Sullivan and New York-born Tom “Young America” Hyer on February 7, 1849 was the first to gain widespread exposure and helped to bring boxing to a national audience.
At the time of the fight, Tom Hyer was a 31-year-old butcher, whose father Jacob, had been one of the first prizefighters in the United States. Standing over six-feet tall and weighing around 185 pounds, Hyer was undefeated in the ring but had participated in few fights. He was a dedicated member of a nativist fire brigade and the Know-Nothing Party, and counted Bill “The Butcher” Poole, the notorious leader of the Bowery Boys among his friends. (1) As boxing had no weight class system in 1849, Hyer held a distinct height and weight advantage over his Irish opponent.
Standing just under five foot ten and weighing about 155 pounds, James “Yankee” Sullivan (nee James Ambrose) was a lifelong criminal born in Cork, Ireland in 1813. He was sent to a penal colony in Australia before finding his way to the United States. Sullivan eventually established himself as a saloon keeper in the Bowery where he also joined an Irish volunteer fire brigade and helped swing votes for Tammany Hall during election time. Known as a dirty fighter, he would often resort to less than sporting tactics to win fights. In a contest against Englishman Hammer Lane, Sullivan continually aimed his punches at his opponent’s broken arm. He was also undefeated, and although much smaller in stature than his American opponent, he had more fights under his belt. Many predicted victory for Sullivan.
Calls for the two fighters to meet in the ring began to build around 1847, and a little less than a year prior to their official match, Hyer and Sullivan came to blows in a New York oyster bar. A “half drunk” Sullivan approached Hyer at the bar to which the New York native responded by promptly putting Sullivan into a headlock and “punch[ing] him into insensibility.” After much verbal sparring by the pugilists and their supporters in saloons and restaurants around the city, the two men signed an agreement to fight with each side putting up $5000 in August of 1848. The rivalry and surrounding drama drew extensive coverage in New York newspapers, with the National Police Gazette proclaiming that the fight “would serve as a ‘safety valve’ for neighborhood and ethnic tensions.”(2)
Once the match was announced events took a turn that left Maryland officials looking like the Keystone Cops. Although the bout was highly publicized, it was still completely illegal, and the fight’s organizers decided it was necessary to hold it outside of New York at a secret location. A suitable site was located on Pool’s (today Poole’s) island, a tiny deserted piece of land at the mouth of the Gunpowder River on the Chesapeake. Thousands of people began arriving in Baltimore a week before the scheduled bout, with ships chartered for the occasion waiting for them. However, Maryland officials led by Governor Phillip Thomas, were determined to prevent the fight from occurring on Maryland soil. After stopping the ships from disembarking, soldiers were dispatched to arrest the fighters, who had arrived in the area the day before. A contingent of men was sent to Carroll Island, where Hyer was rumored to be stationed. Hyer got wind of the plan and headed for Pool’s Island, where Sullivan was already waiting. When officials arrived at Carroll Island they found it deserted. Their pursuit was then delayed an hour as their scow became swamped, and the accompanying boats went adrift.
By this time Hyer had joined Sullivan on Pool’s Island, each hiding in one of the island’s two small buildings. When the authorities arrived at the building Hyer was in, they created so much noise that “at the first sound of tramping feet Hyer had crept downstairs and hidden himself on the first floor of the building. When the police charged into the house, they went right by him and upstairs to the bedroom where Hyer’s trainer, George Thompson, was sleeping. Assuming him to be the champion, they placed him under arrest while Hyer slipped out a ground-floor window and into a small boat.”(6)
A similarly farcical situation occurred when officials tried to nab Sullivan:
“Barging into the second building, the police found themselves facing Sullivan and Tom O’Donnell, his sparring partner, without the faintest idea who was who. After a moment of shock, Sullivan suddenly put his hand on O’Donnell’s shoulder, shoved and yelled, “Run, Sullivan! Run like hell!” O’Donnell ran, and incredibly, every last one of the officers took off in hot pursuit. Sullivan calmly strolled out of the building and waded to a nearby schooner.”(7)
The fighters and about 200 of their supporters escaped the island by boat, pursued by another police ship which ran aground just as it was about to overtake them. This after they had already mistakenly chased another ship they believed was carrying the fighters. Meanwhile, the fight contingent discovered a suitable location at Still Ponds Heights in Kent County and the bout was on.
When the fight finally came off it was a bit of a letdown. Like many other highly anticipated boxing matches, the “Great Fight” failed to live up to its pre-fight hype. On a cold, windy day, with a thin layer of snow on the ground, Sullivan and Hyer squared off in a makeshift ring made from “local pine and rope from the ship’s riggings.”(8) Within moments of the opening exchange of blows it was apparent, not only to the spectators but to the fighters themselves, that Sullivan was no match for his taller, heavier, and younger opponent, and the fight turned into a protracted version of their unofficial barroom battle a year before. After a quick shake of hands between the pugilists to begin the fight, Sullivan rushed at Hyer and after a few ineffective exchanges:
“clinched his antagonist with the underhold and struggled for the throw. This was the great point on which was to depend the result of the fight. Sullivan relied mainly for success upon his superior wrestling, and it was calculated by his friends and backers, that a few of his favorite cross-buttocks would break his young antagonist in his lithe and graceful waist, and not only render him limpsey with weakness, but stun him with falls…Two or three times did Sullivan knot his muscles with an almost superhuman effort, but all served only to postpone his overthrow; for when he had spent his power by these terrible impulsions, his iron adversary wrenched him to the ground with the upperhold, and fell heavily, prone upon his body.”(9)
The fight continued in a predictable pattern for another fourteen rounds, with Hyer using his reach advantage to pummel Sullivan from outside, and then falling on top of the smaller man with his nearly 30-pound weight advantage. By the ninth round Sullivan was a bloody mess, “literally clotted with gore.” The Irishman did manage to get in his blows—a punch to Hyer’s eye in the second round created a swelling which Hyer’s seconds were forced to lance in order for him to see. In the third round Sullivan delivered a shot to Hyer’s midsection that “staggered him backwards a couple of steps, and brought him to a sitting position on the ground.”(10)
Although Sullivan fought gamely, the end came quickly. Near the end of the fifteenth round, Hyer caught Sullivan with a flurry of blows along the ropes, then
“caught his arm, and bending it backward in its socket, gave it a wrench that must have caused the most agonizing pain; he then clinched and threw him to the ground, and fell on him as before. When time was called, Sullivan was slow in rising from his second’s knee, and it was evident that his fighting star had set, for the day at least. He walked in a limpsey manner towards the score, but when he put up his left arm the tremor which shook it showed that it was distressed by pain. Hyer did not wait for him, but advancing beyond the score, let fly with both right and left in Sullivan’s face, who, though he could not return it, took it without wincing in the least. Hyer then rushed him to the ropes again, and after a short struggle there, threw him and fell heavily upon him, in which position Sullivan locked his leg over him again, as if he would hold him in his place. When he was taken off, Sullivan was found to be entirely exhausted, and when lifted up reeled half around and staggered backward towards the ropes. The fight was done. He could not come in again, and one of his seconds took him from the ring, without waiting for time to be called.”(11)
In just under eighteen minutes the “Great” fight was over. Those in attendance quickly dispersed as there was still the matter of Maryland law enforcement officials to evade. Sullivan managed to escape back to New York. Hyer was arrested in Philadelphia, jailed, and released in a matter of days after Maryland officials decline to extradite him. News traveled quickly along the east coast, with telegraph lines carrying the results of the fight to newspaper offices packed with anticipating crowds. With Hyer’s well publicized victory, boxing’s future as a major spectator sport in America was assured. When Hyer returned home to New York he was greeted at his favorite saloon with fireworks and his name in lights: “Tom Hyer, the Champion of America.” (12)
(1) According to author Herbert Asbury, Hyer was at Poole’s deathbed after the Know-Nothing leader was shot by a rival in 1855. The character of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in Martin Scorseses’s 2002 film Gangs of New York was partially based on Poole.
(2) Gorn, Elliott J., “The First American Championship Prizefight,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, Summer 1992.; Shugg, Wallace, “’This Great Test of Man’s Brutality’: The Sullivan-Hyer Prizefight at Still Pond Heights, Maryland, in 1849,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 95, No. 1, Spring, 2000. p. 51.
(3) “Fight Between Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan,” The Wilkes Spirit Times, April 7, 1860.
(5) “Fight Between Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan,” The Wilkes Spirit Times, April 7, 1860.
(8) Gorn, Elliot, J.“The First American Championship Prizefight.”
(9) The American Fistiana (New York: H. Johnson, 1949), 25.
(10) Ibid, .
(11) Ibid, 26.
(12) Much of the background on the build up to the fight and the politics surrounding it was drawn from the following two sources: Shugg, Wallace, “’This Great Test of Man’s Brutality’: The Sullivan-Hyer Prizefight at Still Pond Heights, Maryland, in 1849,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 95, No. 1, Spring, 2000; and Gorn, Elliott J., “The First American Championship Prizefight,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, Summer 1992.
Sources and further reading:
Asbury, Herbert, The Gangs of New York (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1928)
“Fight Between Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan,” The Wilkes Spirit Times, April 7, 1860.
Gorn, Elliott J., “The First American Championship Prizefight,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, Summer 1992.
Shugg, Wallace, “’This Great Test of Man’s Brutality’: The Sullivan-Hyer Prizefight at Still Pond Heights, Maryland, in 1849,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 95, No. 1, Spring, 2000.
Schmidt, John C., “The First Heavyweight Title Fight,” The Baltimore Sun, February 4, 1962.