John L. Sullivan, the ‘Boston Strong Boy’, held the world heavyweight boxing crown for a decade. During that time, no man could ever claim to have knocked him out, but a woman could because she did.
Mrs Hessie Donahue, a stunt boxer and a big, good-looking woman, was married to Charles Converse, who ran a school for boxers in Worcester, Massachusetts.
By 1892, Sullivan was touring theatres, boxing with several sparring partners. Charles Converse was subsequently invited to join him.
Converse obliged, and his spouse was asked to spar with Sullivan as an attraction. Because Hessie had watched boxers training at her husband’s school and was a stunt double herself, it is safe to assume that she was well-acquainted with the sport.
Sullivan and Hessie worked out an act, where he would claim that no one could knock him out and anyone who could would be richly rewarded, only to announce that he had been challenged by a woman.
With the crowd obviously buzzing, Hessie would then step into the ring, attractively clad in blouse, bloomers, boxing gloves and long stockings. She would spar with Sullivan until the curtains came down.
On one fateful night in Arkansas, things got seriously out of hand, that put Sullivan’s dominant image and credibility into jeopardy. Sullivan caught Hessie with a hard blow to her face. Seething with anger, Hessie retaliated by lashing out with a full right to the jaw. The blow was so powerful that the world champion hit the canvas, unconscious and would stay in that state for a whole minute!
The incident was a sensation. There was nothing that the crowd could’ve loved more at that moment. Therefore, the knock-out was kept in the act, when Sullivan would hit Hessie all round the ring for three rounds, and at the end of the final round, she would produce her knockout punch, leading to the referee pronouncing her as the new world champion to the amusement of the audience, only for Sullivan to bounce up laughing about the ordeal.
This act continued for months and was well received as it always got a big laugh.
But on September 7, 1892, John L. Sullivan entered the prizefighting ring in earnest, to defend his prized possession against ‘Gentleman Jim’ James J Corbett. After 21 gruelling rounds, an exhausted Sullivan was knocked out-for the first time ever by a man!
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