Brace yourselves for the mind-boggling story of the longest fight in boxing history, as told by Gary Lucken
AS darkness fell on the evening of April 6 1893, thousands of fight fans descended on the famed Olympic Club in New Orleans for a spot of fistic entertainment. They didn’t know it but they were about to see, or in some cases sleep through, an historic event.
The night would prove to be a memorable occasion in the annals of boxing, one which would enter folklore. The sport’s longest ever bout was set to unfold before those in attendance – an epic encounter generally recorded as lasting a bum-numbing 110 rounds spread over seven hours and 19 minutes. And after all that there wouldn’t even be a winner.
The protagonists in this mauling marathon were hometown scrapper Andy Bowen and “Young” Jack Burke, also known as “Texas” Jack because he hailed from the Lone Star State. At stake was the “Light Weight Championship of the South” plus a purse of $2,500, of which $500 would be trousered by the loser. Articles of Agreement signed nearly three months earlier stipulated that it was to be a fight to the finish with three-minute rounds, one-minute breaks and five-ounce gloves under Marquess of Queensberry Rules, each man to weigh in ringside at no more than 133lbs.
The set-to had been eagerly anticipated. By 8.30pm on fight night the roads leading to the club, where admission fees ranged from $1 to $3, were “thronged with carriages and pedestrians for several squares” and somewhere approaching 9,000 people ultimately squeezed inside the 164 square-foot arena behind the opulent three-storey French Renaissance style clubhouse on Royal Street. It may at the time have been the biggest crowd ever seen at a bout in New Orleans, with many observers claiming it eclipsed the heavyweight title showdown between John L Sullivan and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett at the same venue the previous year, when attendance was estimated at anything between 7,000 and 11,500.
Smiling confidently, the 5ft 5in Bowen, a slight betting favourite, entered the 24ft ring shortly after 9pm, closely followed by the marginally taller Burke. The duo, said to be “in the pink of condition”, had trained diligently, weighing in comfortably under the agreed limit. The pair also appear to have possessed a keen eye for detail, seeking out what in modern parlance would be dubbed “marginal gains” with respect to their footwear – unknown to one another they had both reportedly commissioned the same local shoemaker to supply them with bespoke boots consisting of kangaroo tops and oak leather soles.
Club boxing instructor “Professor” John Duffy, referee for the evening, spoke briefly to the fighters under the watchful eye of Police Captain Billy Barrett before the combatants shook hands and went to their corners. At some point between approximately 9.15pm and 9.30pm – newspapers differ as to the exact time – the gong sounded and the men, illuminated by around 60 electric and kerosene lights, advanced towards each other across the river sand which formed a “springy, level sod” beneath their feet.
Contemporary accounts of the ensuing battle indicate that it was initially an entertaining affair. Bowen, 25 [pictured above], clad in a pale lilac clout and the shorter, stockier and more experienced, went on the offensive and targeted much of his efforts on his opponent’s body. The “greener” Burke, a year or so younger and wearing a pale blue clout, nevertheless held his own and showed “much cleverness with both hands and feet”. Utilising a reach advantage, Burke deployed crisp jabs to keep Bowen at bay, clinched when necessary and counter-attacked when opportunities arose. He even drew first blood thanks to a blow above Bowen’s eye in the second period. For several rounds the fight proceeded at a fair clip and “the audience cheered lustily” whenever a good shot landed.
Unsurprisingly, as the rounds came and went the pace slackened. The boxers were tiring. For the first 20 to 30 stanzas, however, the contest remained a competitive spectacle with both occasionally hitting the floor – either from slips, punches, or a combination of the two. Burke, for example, “half fell and was half punched down” in round 22, one of the men – reports differ as to which – was knocked down twice in round 23, and Burke was again said to have been dropped in round 28. Up to this point the crowd enjoyed what they were witnessing.
Then, gradually, the rot started to set in as the tempo of the fight ebbed further. Spectators grew restless. At some stage, possibly as early as round 34, wags in the audience began to amuse themselves by whistling the tune to the song Home, Sweet Home. Other disgruntled punters began calling for the bout to be declared a draw. By round 45 the whistlers had added Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay, a popular music hall number, to their repertoire.
After multiple stanzas had ticked by with apparently little of note happening there was sudden drama near the end of round 48 when Burke [inset] was “knocked down and all but out”. Some reports suggest he was only saved by the gong, but survive he did and in the 50th round he unleashed a barrage of blows in Bowen’s direction in a desperate bid to end proceedings. He failed, and at the end of the round summoned referee Duffy to his corner.
Burke was by now in a pitiful state with both forearms swollen to as much as twice their normal size. He told Duffy that both his hands were broken and he was in such agony that he could no longer throw punches. It would later emerge that his left hand may have fractured as early as round seven or eight and that his fists had effectively disintegrated as the fight progressed, so much so that a piece of bone was even protruding from his flesh. But he refused to quit. Bowen rejected any suggestion that the battle be ruled a draw or that the purse be split 50/50. A doctor was then reportedly summoned from the audience and injected cocaine into both of Burke’s arms to deaden the pain.
The bout began again but what followed bordered on farce. Burke, in survival mode, feinted and dodged his way around the ring, throwing a whole lot of nothing and concentrating purely on not getting hit. Bowen, said to be “clumsy” and “lacking in steam” in his punches, endlessly stalked his wounded prey but was unable to land a decisive blow. Rounds continued to come and go.
The vociferous crowd “frequently manifested disgust by hissing, demanding a draw” and, in an era when police often halted fights, there was an unusual twist at the end of round 57. Club officials, unsure what to do in the face of a scenario they had neither previously encountered nor envisaged, consulted Captain Barrett. He declared that there should be no draw because the fight was “not brutal” – a rare case of law enforcement ensuring a contest continued when many fans would happily have seen it stopped.
On it went. Rounds 60, 70, 80 and 90 slipped by as Burke, apparently aided at intervals by further cocaine injections, continued evasive manoeuvres across a now compacted, rock-hard surface, feet blistering as his boots gradually fell apart from wear and tear. Bookmakers and reporters stretched arms and legs and rubbed their eyes in a desperate effort to stay awake while police officers, “forgetting dignity and discipline”, lolled around picking sawdust off their uniforms. Some spectators dozed off, lapsing into “blissful unconsciousness”, whereas others popped home in the early hours for a late supper before either collapsing into bed or heading back and retaking their seats when they found the battle still underway.
After 93 rounds an exhausted Duffy, aged just 29 himself, needed a rest and club president Charles Dickson stepped in to officiate. After a break of one round the weary Duffy climbed back into the ring. The fight, if it could be called that anymore, dragged on. At times even the boxers themselves were allegedly spotted yawning. In round 105 it briefly looked as if the end had at last arrived and that Burke might secure an unlikely victory. Bowen, a victim of his own momentum, stumbled while throwing a punch and his jaw smashed into Burke’s elbow, stunning him and sending him sprawling across the floor. But he got up. The bout continued.
By the end of round 108 Duffy had finally had enough and announced he would allow two more rounds before stopping the fight. After a further six minutes in which neither boxer showed any sign of winning he walked to the centre of the ring and proclaimed: “Gentlemen, this fight is off, I declare it to be no contest.” The time was approximately 4.41am and a new day was dawning. Quite how many spectators remained is unclear – reports range from relatively few to several thousand.
Duffy later explained that he did not declare the bout a draw because his understanding of the Olympic’s rules was that such a decision might force the club to refund the gate money, believed to be between $9,000 and $16,000. A no contest ruling also allowed the club discretion in allocating the purse – he recommended it be split evenly between the fighters, a suggestion the club contest committee subsequently agreed to.
Bowen, largely unmarked save for the early cut near his eye, protested furiously and felt robbed. He fumed: “I am feeling as well as when I went into the fight and got no punishment worth talking about but I am sore over the result. It is a shame that I should not win after I had done all the fighting and was willing to go on. Duffy had no right to stop the fight unless he gave it to me.”
In contrast, the outcome came as a blessed relief to Burke. In addition to broken hands and swollen arms he had a “puffed and swollen” stomach, puffy eyes and ears, marks around his ribs and red welts on his back and side. He had to be taken to his lodgings and put to bed. It would take him weeks to recover.
There was some dispute over the fight’s precise duration, with marked discrepancies in press reports of both the start and finish times and claims that officials lost track of the number of rounds. The broad consensus was that it lasted 110 rounds and a total of seven hours and 19 minutes – but not everyone agreed. The Chicago Tribune insisted it was 109 rounds spread over seven hours and 25 minutes, whereas The Times-Democrat, of New Orleans, was adamant it was 109 rounds lasting seven hours and 16 minutes. Whatever the exact time, the bout clearly exceeded the longest previous gloved battle – the 100-round draw lasting six hours and 39 minutes between “St. Paul Terror” Danny Needham and Patsy Kerrigan in San Francisco in 1890.
The Bowen v Burke contest also surpassed, in time elapsed, any bareknuckle fight on record, although some bouts held under London Prize Ring Rules and the earlier Broughton’s Rules had more rounds because under those formats each period ended when a man went down. The longest gloveless encounter, measured in time, was the 1855 showdown between James Kelly and Jonathan Smith near Fiery Creek in Victoria, Australia – Kelly emerged victorious after six hours and 15 minutes when his opponent retired after 17 rounds. The greatest number of rounds ever racked up was 276 when Jack Jones defeated Patsy Tunney in Cheshire, England, in 1825 in a “mill” lasting four hours and 30 minutes.
Less than two months after facing Burke, Bowen was embroiled in another long-distance clash at the Olympic Club, securing a win when Jack Everhardt retired after 85 rounds of a bout which went on for more than five and a half hours. Tragically, Bowen would lose his life in December 1894, sustaining fatal injuries when he hit his head on hard flooring after being knocked down in the 18th round of a fight with George “Kid” Lavigne.
As for Burke, he fought on intermittently for several years before becoming a vaudeville performer. Occasionally he would reminisce in interviews about the Bowen battle, confessing that his “terrible” injuries had turned the fight into “one long agony” and revealing that his right arm was so swollen that “at one time the doctor thought that amputation would be necessary”.
In 1903 he told Missouri’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch that after the fight he was carried to a Turkish bath where he stayed continuously for nearly a week, unable to lift his arms above his head, covered in bruises and with a face “torn to pieces”. Burke said his hands were “useless for months” and added: “Pugilists of today do not know the terrors of a finish fight. They are trained for short distances and would not last anything above 50 rounds. Sometimes they go through fights without even getting their hair mussed. It is cleaner, perhaps, but it ought not to be called fighting. The days of prize fights are over, whether happily or not, and the record made by Bowen and myself will probably stand for all time.”
Burke died in New York City in 1913 following a heart attack, but such was the fame of boxing’s longest fight that for years afterwards impostors would claim to be him, regaling listeners with fictitious memories and even duping reporters into believing they were the genuine article.
In today’s more safety conscious world it’s of course impossible to imagine that the benchmark set by Burke and Bowen will ever be surpassed. Burke was right – the record will survive the test of time.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED October 20, 2020 – BE A BOXING NEWS SUBSCRIBER