By Randy Roberts: I don’t want to take anything away from John Isner or Nicolas Mahut—although I hope one of them gets a service return for Christmas. To struggle for 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days and play that final 70-68 Groundhog’s Day set required at least a remarkable attention span. Commentators insist that the two tennis players displayed “heroic” qualities in their marathon first-round “battle.”
Although boxing is going through some hard times, it has a history of struggles that surpasses Isner-Mahut for heroism and battling. Who can forget the classic Burke-Bowen fight?
Evidently everyone can and has. It took place over the course of an evening and a morning in April 1893, during prize fighting’s experimental period with the Marquis of Queensbury rules. The Queensbury rules are essentially the rules we have today—three-minute rounds, one-minute rest periods, and ten-count knockouts.
Only in the early days of the rules some matches were scheduled as fights to the finish—that is until one fighter was knocked out or beaten to such a bloody pulp that he could not continue. In short, the rules resembled the current Wimbledon fifth set. No tiebreakers, no easy getaways, just mano y mano slugfests.
The match at New Orleans’ Olympic Club between lightweights Andy Bowen and “Texas” Jack Burke was one of those fight-to-the-finish contests. Bowen was a local fighter with a curious history. The New Orleans press said that he was of “Irish-Spanish extraction” and the New York Sun described him as “very swarthy,” commenting that “it was often said that he had negro [sic] blood in his veins.” He almost certainly was a “mulatto,” but he claimed he was white and fought as a white man. Otherwise he would have been Jim Crowed out of important fights in New Orleans, which was then the center of boxing in America.
The Burke-Bowen contest began on April 6, 1893. A large audience, perhaps as many as 9,000 people, turned out early to see their man fight. And for the first twenty-five or so rounds the spectators heartily cheered the action. By round thirty-four the pace had begun to slow. Someone began to whistle “Home, Sweet Home.” Perhaps it reminded some of the observers that it was time to go, for, as a reporter noted, “seats became vacant one by one.”
But many of the spectators remained, a curious bunch—like the people in the stands of the Isner-Mahut match—for whom novelty itself was grounds for interest. Some dozed off, hoping that they would awake in time to see the finish. Others sent out for late-night snacks, hunkered down in their seats, and grimly followed the inaction in the ring.
Early reports of the fight told the tale. The headline in the next day’s New Orleans Daily Picayune announced, “ARE STILL FIGHTING.” After some brisk action in the first twenty-five warm-up rounds the round-by-round descriptions of the fight became as dull as, evidently, the contest was. “Rounds 37-44—Nothing Done.” “Rounds 52 to 57—In these rounds the audience was terribly tired and called for a draw…. But Police Captain Barrett said there should be no draw when the fight was not brutal.” “Rounds 72 to 82—Nothing but poor judgment was displayed by either of the pugilists and the audience is growing weary.” At that point the reporter filed his story. The fight, however, continued.
Of course, boxing is a sport less physically painful to watch than to practice. There were a number of knockdowns in the fight and at least one cut eye. In a mood of generosity the New York Times reported that Burke fought quite well and showed his superiority before he began to break the bones in his hands on Bowen’s head. “[I]n the rounds before Burke broke his wrists he had the best of the battle,” the paper observed.
Say what you want about the heroism of a 70-68 set, but neither player had to contend with two broken wrists. Not even one shattered carpal!
The fight ended as it probably had to end. Neither pugilist could win or would quit. Finally after 110 rounds referee Prof. John Duffy—boxing instructors sometimes strutted around with a Prof. before their names in those days—called the fight a draw. The fight lasted 7 hours and 20 minutes and not one mention of it on ESPN today.
The longest, most tedious baseball game, the most overtimes in a basketball game, even a few high school sporting events that have gone beyond the bounds of common decency have been mentioned as apt, but insufficient, comparisons to the Isner-Mahut match. Yet not a word about “Texas” Jack Burke or Andy Bowen, who, to give the story a little tabloid sex appeal, died in the ring a year later.
Sadly, this speaks volumes about a sport that no longer even warrants its own tab on the official ESPN website. Boxing, as Rodney Dangerfield used to say, gets no respect.
Randy Roberts, Distinguished Professor of History at Purdue University, is the author of biographies of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, John Wayne, and most recently Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (Yale University Press, Oct. 2010).
June 28, 2010