Roughing up history ringside


On this day in 1863 one of the most remarkable feats in all of sports history occurred. Joseph Henry Coburn defeated Mike “the Deck Hand Champion of America” McCoole, defending his heavyweight boxing crown. The fight lasted 67 rounds.

Many of the safeguards we take for granted in modern pugilism were absent for this bout. Indeed it was common for the fighters to box “bare knuckled.” It was less the sweet science and more pummeling promenade.

Coburn was known to be quick and agile. A newspaper report of the era states, “His superiority in the ring is due mainly to his quickness of movement, rather than great physical strength. He delivers a blow like a pistol shot, and jumps back in an instant and is on his guard before an opponent can return the compliment.”

McCoole’s jib was cut just the opposite. He was slow, clumsy, brutish and strong like a bear. Following police troubles in New York, the Irish immigrant made a career in the Midwest as a boatman, but it was his prowess in the ring that made him, as one reporter said, “the darling of the Mississippi Valley … with sledgehammer abilities.”

McCoole towered over Coburn by five inches. He is believed to have had between 30 and 40 pounds on him as well. Even with these advantages, Coburn’s speed and “scientific” approach ruled the day.

The pair were again scheduled to square off in May 1868, but old troubles crept in to interrupt the proceedings. A New York Times report of the second offering states that over 9,000 people had assembled in anticipation of the match. It had been raining. It was muddy. The throng was anxious.

Unfortunately, McCoole found his way into police custody near Cold Spring, Indiana. After a visit with the Grand Jury in Lawrenceburg, McCoole posted $2,000 bail and made his way to the battleground.

Fate, however, had other plans. Between the time of McCoole’s release and the fight, Coburn had his own date with the police. He, too, was taken to Lawrenceburg.

While Coburn kept company with the coppers, McCoole got to the ring, suited up and took his corner. He waited there until officials called a forfeit on account of Coburn’s absence.

This historic pairing gives us pause to remember so many other storied matchups: Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling; Max Baer versus James J. Braddock; Mike Tyson versus Evander Holyfield; Ali versus anybody else… There is, however, something different —- something more raw and romantic about Coburn vs. McCoole — and it’s not just the preponderance of handlebar mustaches or the fact that poultry was broadly used as currency for wagering on the fight.

Rather, it’s that this rivalry can only be imagined as thin-lined engravings or broadly colored cartoons in the style of a Honus Wagner baseball card. For all the others we have at least a grainy news reel.

For the bare knuckled bouts of the 19th century we’re obliged to see the fight with closed eyes. Perhaps the closest we come today are the caged mixed martial arts pairings. Here too, it is a different animal. We get all the gore and grizzle, but we are inundated with sponsors, flashing lights and theme songs. It has the blood, but it lacks the gravitas.

Of course, many would now argue that watching any of this is nigh on to modernized gladiatorial contests. That an organization dubbed “the Praetorian Fighting Championships LLC” exists suggests this might not be too far afield. All of which causes one to wonder whether such folderol would have offended the sensibilities of a manly brute like Mike McCoole.