Eagle Feathers #6 – The Last Gladiator
By Bob (Monty) Doherty
Even if you’re not a fan of boxing, it’s highly unlikely that you haven’t heard of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield and other modern boxing champions. They have become household names due to their complete mastery of the sport.
One name you may not be familiar with, however, is Jake Kilrain who, as a teenager, worked in the rolling mills of Somerville. He was a skinny kid who for a while fought to hold his own against some of the tougher mill workers. By the age of 20, he had become the fighting champion of the mill.
From there, he went on to defeat the best of the other mills. After achieving victory at the amateur level, he competed at the professional level. He built up his strength by continuing to work at the Somerville mills.
The tremendously hot temperature of the mills, which rolled copper and steel into sheets, ensured that Kilrain’s body fat was virtually non-existent. His upper body strength was extraordinary and by the time he was 24 years old he had won various championships in not only boxing but in rowing as well. He held the title “heavy weight champion of the world” for two years.
When Kilrain was 30, he fought against Boston strongman John L. Sullivan in what would become the last professional bare-knuckle boxing match. The event took place on July 8, 1889 in Richburg, Mississippi in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 spectators.
Bare-knuckle boxing was illegal those days and the event received considerable press coverage. Kilrain’s body guard was none other than Bat Masterson, the infamous gunslinger. Kilrain lost to Sullivan, but not before enduring 75 tortuous rounds. At the end of the match, onlookers approached the ring to cut the rope into tiny pieces so they might keep them as memorabilia.
Kilrain eventually returned to where it all began, and worked for Somerville’s city parks department. Despite being bitter enemies during the fight, the two boxers established an unlikely and lasting friendship. In fact, their friendship grew to be so deep that Kilrain was one of the pallbearers at Sullivan’s funeral.