Those who complain that the fight game has grown dull and predictable might well consider making the sport illegal once again. For before boxing gained official recognition and eventually degenerated into a fuzzy dream sequence of Friday nights at tubeside, there was always the delicious possibility that the prefight cat-and-mouse game between entrepreneur and police captain would be more entertaining than the fight itself.
Take as an example America's heavyweight championship battle of Feb. 7, 1849. The combatants on that day were Tom Hyer, who was generally recognized as champ after having beaten Country McClusky at Caldwell's Landing on the Hudson eight years before, and Yankee Sullivan, who weighed in at only 155 but was undefeated after a tour that had taken him halfway around the world. But the battle between the fight promoters and the police was much more exciting.
The ballyhoo started months before, when Sullivan, infuriated by the suggestion that he was afraid of Hyer, stormed into a New York saloon one night and challenged the champion then and there. Hyer responded by pounding Sullivan into submission within three minutes, an act of commercial naivete which could have ruined the real fight but somehow did not. It helped, of course, when a boxing cohort of Hyer's was murdered. And the police promptly lost Round One of the three-way contest by being unable to locate the killer.
Having bested the New York authorities on this count, the fight promoters decided to cash in their chips by holding the battle in Maryland where a deserted piece of real estate named Pool's (now Pooles) Island offered a sanctuary in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Maryland officials responded with the warning that the "disgusting exhibition" would be prevented. To back up their words they activated two companies of officers, the Independent Blues and Independent Greys, armed them and chartered the steamer Boston as the state's assault craft.
September 29, 1974
Stimulated rather than deterred by the police activity, fight fans, gamblers and other amateur and professional patrons of the art began pouring into Baltimore during the week before the fight. On Feb. 6 Hyer arrived at Carroll's Island, just south of the city, while the Sullivan group settled into one of the two buildings on Pool's Island. A crew of workmen began clearing an area within which the fight would take place. Simultaneously the steamship Cumberland left Philadelphia with about 100 fans, and two schooners carrying 40 fans each left Baltimore.
Just before midnight—the Boston, loaded with about 110 officers and towing a scow for the transporting of prisoners, pulled out of Baltimore harbor. Two hours later the expedition arrived at Carroll's Island and the men eagerly swarmed ashore to see who could be the first to lay official hands on Hyer.
To their dismay Carroll's Island was deserted. Forewarned, the Hyer party had left for Pool's Island at 6 p.m. Even more annoying was the fact that the scow had swamped and several boats which had been placed on board her were adrift about a mile astern. Another hour was lost recovering the boats.
In the meantime, Hyer and his friends had arrived at Pool's Island and gone to sleep in the second building. A careful watch was maintained to prevent their being surrounded, for the police outnumbered the fighters' parties by 10 to one.
Weather and police incompetence improved the odds considerably. By the time Captain Gifford's men arrived at Pool's Island the scow was barely afloat and the bay was so rough that only 10 men were able to reach land after struggling at the oars of the small boats for half an hour. Tired and discouraged, the landing force trundled up to the buildings with a maximum of noise and assaulted frontally.
Neither fighter's party was even remotely surprised. 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.
The operation against Yankee Sullivan was even more inept. 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 police officers took off in hot pursuit. Sullivan calmly strolled out of the building and waded to a nearby schooner.
It was not until an hour later that the police discovered they had made a couple of significant errors. In the meantime the two schooners and the steamer Cumberland had scattered. The question was on which vessel were the real pugilists? Predictably, the police decided they must be on the Cumberland and headed south after her. Under a heavy press of steam, they overhauled her near Baltimore, brought her to and thoroughly searched the ship for the fighters. Of course they were not aboard. Reboarding the Boston, Captain Gifford sailed back in the direction of the schooners, but just as the Boston reached a point nearly abreast of the Pool's Island lighthouse, it ran aground on a sandbar. And there it remained until evening when another police boat was sent to the rescue.
One Baltimore newspaper tried to salvage a modicum of state pride from the announcement that the fight was to be transferred to Dover, Del. "Maryland," it wrote, had "prevented her soil from being desecrated by so foul and brutal an exhibition." But it hadn't.
Pulling ashore at Maryland's Kent County on the eastern side of the bay, the fighters performed before a meager audience. Hyer won in the 16th round, earning a $10,000 purse; Sullivan suffered a "slightly fractured skull." By all accounts, it was an anticlimax.