Dare to Be Bare in Belfast
What do you know about John L. Sullivan? Not much, you say? Up until recently, I knew only that he was mentioned in passing in one of my favorite novels as a kind of washed-up fighter who liked his liquor and who would reappear semi-regularly at a particular boarding house, each time with one less diamond in his diamond-studded pocket watch.
He did like his liquor, and he did run through most of the substantial amount of prize money he earned during his lifetime from fighting, but there is way more to the John L. Sullivan and the bare-knuckle boxing story. And the most exciting part of that way more is that it happened just up the road in Belfast, New York.
Scott R. Burt, president of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame and owner of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Museum, explains.
A long time ago, over 100 years, a man named William Muldoon (1852-1933) lived in the Belfast area. He was a pretty tough guy—the undefeated Greco-Roman wrestling champion of the day, and also, as Scott describes him, the “original fitness guru.” He was quite a renowned trainer, one who eventually whipped some fairly famous people into shape—Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Harry Houdini among them. In 1920 he was named the first chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission.
But his fame, for purposes of this story, is related to his training of the afore-mentioned John L. Sullivan (1858-1918) for a July 8, 1889, fight with Jake Kilrain. Sullivan, AKA the “Boston Strong Boy,” began fighting professionally in 1878, and, by all accounts, was a fearsome opponent. Boxing matches and boxing titles then were not like boxing matches and titles now. There were things like London Prize Rules and Marquess of Queensbury Rules which governed how fighters could properly pummel one another, and the legality of bare-knuckle boxing was, to put it mildly, a matter of dispute in most locales.
Nevertheless, there was money to be made, egos to be assuaged, and fame to be had. A fight was arranged between Sullivan and Kilrain; there remained the job of making sure the Boston Strong Boy was in the best shape of his life. Muldoon accepted the challenge, turning his farm and his newish horse barn (some say he was fibbing just a little when he told his wife, “Yes, honey, of course I’m building this barn just for the horses...”) into a bare-knuckle boxing training facility.
And, for about six months, train they did. The outcome was victory for Sullivan, after seventy-five rounds—yes, that’s seventy-five—and over two hours of fighting in the heat and humidity of a July day 130 years ago in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Fast forward to 2009, when the fate of a couple of old buildings that William Muldoon had left to a local church in Belfast was more than precarious—the church was considering demolition. Scott Burt, now retired from teaching at the nearby Fillmore School District, and who had graduated from Belfast High School, remembers his mom taking him through those buildings when he was about nine. He knew their history, what had gone on in them, and he also knew he “wanted to do something for Belfast.”
So he bought them, and he moved them a few blocks—he describes having to “slice them sideways,” and having to use a bus axle and the legs of a water tower to make that happen successfully. They were reborn as the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame and the Bare Knuckle Boxing Museum, and, for the past ten years, Scott has been working to restore the sport, and the buildings.
Regarding the legality of bare-knuckle boxing, in March 2018, Wyoming became the first jurisdiction to legalize fighting at the state level, and formal bare-knuckle events have been happening since June 2018.
As for the buildings, parts of them were, structurally, in need of repair, and some of that work is ongoing. As for the contents, restoration there has not been as difficult as you might think. The insides are like time capsules. There are gloves, shoes, and barbells that Sullivan used, along with all kinds of other interesting-looking exercise equipment that had been virtually unused and untouched for well over 100 years. There is a tool chest that belonged to Jake Kilrain, donated by a distant relative. There is a wooden barrel suspended from the rafters, positioned over slats on the floor, which served as Sullivan’s shower area. There is the “Sequestered Room,” complete with a bed and a chamber pot, where Muldoon, at times, confined his charge so he wouldn’t sneak out and get drunk. That room also has, by the way, a secret little compartment under a floorboard where it is rumored Sullivan hid a little brown jug. Upstairs, Scott uncovered an area Muldoon used for his own wrestling practice.
Scott has a story to go with just about every board, photograph, and artifact in the place, and it’s clear the restoration and the subsequent establishment of everything associated with the museum and the Hall of Fame have been a labor of love for the sport and for the town (and not cheap—he estimates he’s spent well over $100,000 of his own money making this all happen).
That includes the eleventh annual Hall of Fame’s Induction Ceremony, scheduled this year for July 12-14. The weekend begins Friday night at the Belfast Hotel with a viewing of the 1970 World Welterweight Title fight between Billy Backus and José Nápoles, followed by a nighttime “ghost tour” of the Muldoon/Sullivan training barns.
Saturday’s events include the official ribbon cutting for the new Police Gazette Boxing Corporation offices. The National Police Gazette magazine, established in 1881, was the original sanctioning organization for bare-knuckle boxing. The induction ceremony, which honors “pioneer inductees” from the 1880s as well as modern proponents of the sport, is set for noon at the town’s Family Center on Merton Street, followed by a Hall of Fame tour with Scott.
For those still in the area on Sunday, Scott says to join the fun, food, and music at nearby Pollywogg Hollër (check it out at pollywoggholler.com).
It all amounts to a major investment in Belfast and the surrounding area, concurs Joe Cursio, a Navy veteran who grew up in Belfast, was the mayor here, and who now oversees a number of nuclear facilities as well as serving as vice president of development for the Police Gazette Boxing Corporation. He says that from a business perspective there is a growing interest in rural places like Belfast, places that are clearly not “cookie cutter” communities.
“I have to give credit to Scott and the Hall of Fame,” he says. “Belfast has such history—it was a railroad town, and a canal town.”
And a boxing town.
For the latest on the Induction Ceremony celebration, visit bareknuckleboxinghalloffame.com, where you can also read intrepid girl reporter Nellie Bly’s account of her meeting with Muldoon and Sullivan.