The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Happy Holidays: Cincinnati Christmas Boxing Arrest of John L. Sullivan (12-25-1880)

Happy Holidays: Cincinnati Christmas Boxing Arrest of John L. Sullivan (12-25-1880)

John L. Sullivan vs. John Donaldson
Sullivan in a fighting pose.

Professor John Donaldson from Cleveland held reputation as “Champion of the West” who would fight with gloves under mixture of Marquis of Queensbury and London Prize-ring. (aka/ bare-knuckle) rules.  Some of the foes he had defeated include Dan Carr (Cleveland), Bryan Campbell (Pennsylvania), Bluett Boyd (Buffalo, New York – a 1st round knockout), and Jim Taylor (Michigan).  Donaldson knocked down Taylor in all five rounds before Taylor retired within six minutes.

Bostonian John L. Sullivan – if perhaps this is understatement – was the Jack Dempsey, Sonny Liston or Mike Tyson of his time.  In a boxing world of dull, bare-knuckle champions – Paddy Ryan of Ireland claiming the current December 1880 bare-knuckle heavyweight title – there were many who believed this hard-punching GLOVED challenger was an IT GIRL – the heavyweight darling who was going to define its future generation: albeit style, thoughts, tactics, aggression which emphasized slugger over boxer as glutinous conqueror for the “styles make fights” boxing debate.

Sullivan was a former professional 1870’s Boston baseball player — $50 for two games a week which was a great wage – who gained attention during a carnival exhibition knocking the paid attraction, Irish boxer, Jack Scanell off the stage onto a piano with a thunderous right punch.  His famed escalated with a 2nd round ‘accidental’ knockout of English bare-knuckle Champion Joe Goss (before Ryan defeated him in a 78-round bout) during an exhibition.  Sullivan’s latest conquest was George Rourke in Boston during a gloved exhibition knocking him down 7 times in two rounds before the show was closed.

John L. Sullivan: “About this time it was announced everywhere through the papers, that I was willing to fight anyone with gloves.  The sporting men, therefore, sought to bring about a match with the ‘mittens’ between myself and (Professor John Donaldson), whom they considered to be the strongest to be found in that line.  John McCormick, who was then with the Cincinnati Inquirer and who has written under the non de plume of ‘Macon’, came to Boston and offered me $150 and expenses to go to Cincinnati and spar with Donaldson in Robinson’s Opera House.”

Following three rounds which John L. Sullivan dominated – Professor Donaldson wanted to quit.  He was convinced to continue another round with Sullivan battering this Cleveland foe before knocking him down.  Donaldson quit.

The Cincinnati media attention – and general buzz within the community – brought further fame for both pugilists.  People wanted a rematch, and the way to motivate these two pugilists was to procure money.





(12/23/1880)   Professor John Donaldson versus John L. Sullivan

Location:  Cincinnati, Ohio at the Pacific Garden – gloved bout (“hard, small”) – prize: $100 bet (but with gamblers/backers either pugilist would win closer to $500 with victory) – crowd: 30 fans – Sullivan weighs 200 pounds – Donaldson weighs 175 pounds.  Donaldson is 5’10 – Sullivan is a bit taller with reach advantage.  Sullivan’s seconds are Tom Ryan and Johnny Mormon.  Donaldson’s seconds are Dan Crutchley and Abe Smith.

Pre-bout:  John Donaldson is from Ohio and the one with greater reputation.  Sullivan is challenged by the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer – to place his local Boston slugger reputation against someone esteemed as ‘professor’ with a thoughtful approach to pugilism.  Donaldson is heavily favored – expected to expose and deflate the (alleged) overrated knockout specialist….  The small crowd does not indicate a lack of interest in bout, but an attempt to elude law enforcement location detection.

Cincinnati dispatch (12/22): “Young Sullivan, the Boston giant, who knocked Joe Goss out of time with the gloves, and John Donaldson of Cleveland signed articles tonight for a glove contest. The men sparred together a little over a week ago, when Sullivan had the best of it, and now there is considerable bad blood between them.”

There is a mixture of gloved and bare-knuckle rules as boxing in midst of sports transition.  London Prize Rules and Marquis of Queensbury combination have untimed rounds – FIGHT to the FINISH – each round conclusion with knockdown or pugilist touching ground – one-minute rest instead of traditional 30 seconds.

ROUND 1:  Sullivan scores the 1st knockdown with an overhand right which lands to side of head.

ROUND 2:  Sullivan scores his 2nd knockdown with unrecorded punch – which is usually his famed right set-up by left jab.

ROUND 3:  Sullivan dominates by battering Donaldson a bit before scoring his 3rd knockdown from unrecorded specific punch.

ROUND 4:  Sullivan scores his 4th knockdown with a hard (likely right) punch to mouth.  Gamblers bet on ‘first blood’ – which Sullivan has accomplished.

ROUND 5:  Sullivan scores his 5th knockdown with a punch which lands to left side of Donaldson’s jaw – felling the Cleveland pugilist.

ROUND 6:  Sullivan quickly scores his 6th knockdown sending Donaldson down with a “terrible left”.

ROUND 7:  Donaldson falls to ground – it is unclear by knockdown or voluntarily (which is technically illegal).  Sullivan attempts or lands some sort of punch.  Donaldson’s handlers claim foul thus want Sullivan disqualified.  The referee orders the round over with bout to continue.

ROUNDS 8/9:  Donaldson intentionally falls to ground “to avoid punishment”.

ROUND 10:  Sullivan batters Donaldson relentlessly.  Donaldson attempts to grab the Bostonian around the neck, but Sullivan wiggles free wailing to top of head of Cleveland foe.  Donaldson falls to ground for 7th or 8th knockdown of bout.

ROUND 11 (?):  Donaldson cannot make time to continue.  BOUT OVER – Sullivan is victor – “the fight lasted just twenty-two minutes,” which is longer than most Sullivan foes had endured.





Cincinnati dispatch (12/24): “Ten rounds were fought, in every one of which Donaldson was either knocked down or went down to avoid punishment.  At the end of the 10th round, Donaldson said he was satisfied that Sullivan should take the money, and the fight was ended.”

Of course, the much-anticipated prize-fight between the Champion of the West, Professor Donaldson and the newbie star from the East Coast, John L Sullivan disappointed with the latter’s dominance.  Many felt that Professor Donaldson was afraid of the Bostonian with his famed, lethal right punch.

John L. Sullivan: “The next day, Christmas, (Professor Donaldson) was arrested, about an hour before I was.  Bob Linn, a friend of mine, went bonds for both of us.  We were charged the following Wednesday and discharged, as there was no bill found against us.  The evidence of some of the witnesses for the government side was very amusing, particularly in the case of which Johnny Moran, a brother-in-law of Peter Morris, the well-known English featherweight, champion of England at one time, gave his testimony to the prosecuting attorney.”

On the witness stand which charged that Sullivan and Donaldson had engaged in an illegal prizefight – the prosecutor sharply demanded of Englishman, Johnny Moran: “Had you or had you not witnessed a fight?”  Moran responded, “No sir; I witnessed a foot-race,” which received a loud laugh from courtroom spectators.  Judge Fitzgerald appreciated that Professor Donaldson avoided fisticuffs with John L. Sullivan rather than engage.  The prosecutor, perhaps sensing defeat, proceeds with Moran: “Who was ahead?”   Johnny Moran responded, “(Professor) Donaldson,” ….  (pause) following more audible chuckles….  “Mr. Sullivan was running after him but could not catch him.”  The Cincinnati courtroom explodes with raucous laughter.

The VERDICT: not-guilty….  Judge Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, Johnny Moran, Sullivan/Donaldson and other witnesses/spectators adjourn to a local Cincinnati tavern – and well – engaged in lots of laughter as everyone became blotto-drunk.  It was a CELEBRATION of the great Sullivan/Donaldson bouts.

Cincinnati dispatch – (12/29): “In the police court today, the case of John Sullivan of Boston and Professor Donaldson of Cleveland was dismissed, as the State failed to prove the men had fought for a prize.”

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