THE iconic world heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan was a man to whom the idea of giving up was anathema. Yet one damp, windy day in Chantilly, France, after more than three hours of hard, futile slogging in the rain, “The Boston Strong Boy” was forced to admit that there was no point in carrying on. A draw was the best he could hope for that day. His opponent, a British boxer who did not even belong in Sullivan’s weight class, had given the champ a boxing lesson, albeit in a style utterly at odds with Sullivan’s own masculine code. Charlie Mitchell, whom Sullivan scornfully dubbed “The Sprinter”, had used brain over brawn.
Mitchell was born in Birmingham on November 24, 1861. Well-muscled with dazzlingly fast feet and fists, Charlie showed an early aptitude for boxing. He had his first pro bouts in Birmingham before moving to London to advance his career. Despite at the time scaling barely 147lbs, his exceptional speed and punch saw him trounce far heavier men. In the early 1880s, Mitchell won several competitions, including a heavyweight tournament organised by Billy Madden, former manager of Sullivan. Madden and Sullivan had fallen out and Billy had come to England to find a fighter who could whip his former charge. After Charlie won the competition, Madden took him on a fighting tour of England, after which the pair sailed to America.
As soon as he arrived, Mitchell challenged Sullivan and managed to secure a three-round trial bout with him at Madison Square Garden in May 1883. The Englishman conceded 40lbs, yet he managed to drop Sullivan in the first round – the first time he had been knocked off his feet. Enraged, Sullivan mercilessly pummelled his lean English rival until the bout’s termination in the third. They were booked to meet again a year later, but the fight fell through after Sullivan arrived at the venue drunk. He muttered a rambling apology to the crowd before staggering away.
It was another four years before Charlie got John L. back in the ring. In 1887, Sullivan toured England and was met at every turn by challenges from Mitchell. Eventually the American agreed to a bare-knuckle match held under London Prize Ring Rules in March 1888. To avoid the British police (prizefighting was illegal at the time), they crossed the English Channel on the pretext of visiting the French financier Baron Rothschild’s Chantilly racehorse stable. The fight was in fact secretly held on Rothschild’s estate. Mitchell had requested a large 24ft ring and Sullivan rashly agreed. It would shape the pattern of the contest.
From the start, Mitchell boxed on the retreat, firing shots from long range. As the rain lashed down, the ring became a near-swamp. Sullivan floundered about on the muddy turf, frantically trying to get close to Mitchell and imploring him to “have a fight”. The Englishman, however, continued to back-pedal. It seemed like the bout would go on forever or at least until one of them dropped from exhaustion. Finally, after three hours and 11 minutes, they agreed to call it a draw. Afterwards both fighters were arrested and spent the night in a French police cell.
The fact the undersized Englishman had done so well against the great American felt like a stinging defeat to Sullivan’s fans. For Mitchell the draw was more like a victory, and he was hailed as a conquering hero back in Britain and presented with a magnificent commemorative belt. Sullivan wrote contemptuously in his memoirs of Charlie’s tactics. The pair were stylistic opposites and had little time for each other outside the ring. They would, however, eventually have one thing in common. Thirty years after their fight in France, they died within three months of each other, in 1918.