WANNOP IS A WHIRLWIND: A drunk boxing ring fire and a mid-match escape

Following his defeat at the hands and shoulders of Evan Lewis and Duncan McMillan, Wannop caught a break of a sort in July 1888. With his reputation as a wrestler severely dented, Wannop gloved up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

His opponent was Jim Fell, a fellow Englishman. Born just a few months after Wannop in 1856, the men were a match for each other at around 5ft 9.

Fell’s professional boxing career had begun in 1884 with a loss to Jack Dempsey. In May 1888 his fight against Bob Ferguson of Chicago had been broken up by police after nine rounds on account of extreme violence. As The Sporting Life reported, it was “one of the most vigorous thumping matches that has taken place in this vicinity for a long time.”

It is perhaps for this reason that the match with Wannop – noted in the American press as a “champion heavyweight in England” despite having just a handful of professional boxing bouts under his belt, begun shortly after 3 o’clock in the morning.

[Jim Fell, circa 1894]

In front of an audience of three or four hundred spectators and wearing skin gloves, Wannop looked to be “in the pink of condition”. Fell was the crowd favourite but The Sporting Life rather cruelly noted, he was “anything but a beauty, from a pugilistic standpoint.” Indeed, in a mirror of the rumours that had circulated about Wannop’s drunkenness in advance of his match with Lewis, “it was well known that Fell had been indulging in a streak of dissipation since the 4th, and consequently was in no fit condition to fight a man like Wannop.”

The first round opened with careful sparring, before Fell let loose on Wannop’s stomach, following up with a thwack to the face. Wannop responded with a couple of light body blows, before the men clinched, and time was called on the round. Fell was confident. He played again on Wannop’s belly in the second round before taking a “stinging rib-roaster” from Wannop’s left fist. Wannop landed three swift body blows that knocked the wind from Fell’s lips, ending the round. In the fifth, Wannop nearly knocked Fell through the ropes, and in the sixth, Fell did everything he could to avoid the enraged and on-form Brit entirely.

The eighth round saw slugging from both sides but by this point it became apparent that Fell was overmatched. The referee – seeing Fell “badly punished” – called time. Wannop, “fresh, and very eager to continue the battle”, begged for another round, stating that he would surely knock Fell out in it, given the chance. The ref wouldn’t budge and declared the fight a draw. Accusations that the match was a “put up job” came swiftly from the crowd.

On September 5th, Wannop and Jack Sheehy of Ontario signed to fight with two ounce gloves on September 22nd near Muskegon, Michigan, for $500 a side. Two days later, Chas Moth, a “Champion Graeco-Roman Wrestler” based in Muskegon wrote in to the local newspaper to express his disappointment – a beautiful example of an old-school style wrestling promo. This is how the Victorians did smack talk.

As far as I’m aware, Moth and Wannop did not meet.

On September 17th Wannop suffered yet another loss, this time in the boxing ring in front of an estimated audience of 3,000.

His opponent Pat Killen, the heavyweight champion of America’s North West, stood 6’1″ and weighed around 195 pounds. He was big for the heavyweight standard of the day, and the taller, younger, fitter, man to Wannop. Known as a dangerous fighter, Killen was notorious for one-punch knock-outs. The St Paul Daily Globe reported that he had the best of Wannop in every round.

[Patrick Killen, 1861-1891. Killen died aged 29, in Chicago while on the run from Minnesota authorities following two arrests for assault while drunk]

A few weeks later, a short report finally emerged in The Sporting Life of the Wannop-Sheehy match scheduled for 22nd September. I am yet to find an American paper with coverage. The much-talked-of and well-advertised match was both “a swindle” and a “fizzle”, a correspondent from Muskegon wrote.

After some 500 dollars had been taken at the gate, a careless and half-drunken man, who had been attempting to fill the large burners at the side of the ring (presumably installed for light?), accidentally poured oil all over himself and his immediate vicinity. The ring was promptly set ablaze, perhaps from a cigarette hanging from the chap’s lips, sending him up too. Within minutes the squared circle was destroyed.

The “principles” – and I believe The Sporting Life is referring to Wannop and Sheehy here, rather than the event organisers, made off with the money, followed by a mob of 500 howling sports fans described as having “blood in their eyes” (not literally). Wannop hid himself in Grand Rapids while Sheehy showed up a few days later, only to be arrested and fined 50 dollars on a “common nuisance” charge with the option of permanently leaving the city instead. He chose the latter.

“Prize-fighting in this city has received a knock-out from which it will not soon recover,” concluded The Sporting Life‘s correspondent. Pun intended.

The man who set himself on fire died.

More mayhem followed on December 6th, when Wannop took on Con Riley of Middletown at Silver Grove, Kentucky. The fight was to take place on a covered dancing platform, with Marquess of Queensbury rules and in front of just 50 spectators by the shore. At 11.30pm the men entered the ring, Jack seconded by Johnny Moran and Billy Gale and Con by Tommy Hanley and Ike English. An unnamed but well known saloon-keeper acted as referee. Wearing white tights, Wannop weighed in at 185lb, with Riley in blue shorts and 11lb lighter.

It was clear from the go that Riley was no match for Wannop, with the latter forcing the fight, bringing the claret with a hard punch to the nose. The second, third and fourth rounds were all in Wannop’s favour. While barely touching Riley with his right hand he whipped him repeatedly with a strong left. By the end of the third, Riley was winded and had started bleeding profusely.

The fifth round had barely begun when a cry of “Sheriff!” was heard from the audience and Riley took to his heels, legging it out the room. After locating a small boat, he jumped in, and rowed out into the river, refusing to return. The fight was called off, and the St Paul Daily Globe ran with the headline WANNOP IS A WHIRLWIND.

Wannop then issued a challenge to Lem McGregor, better known as the St Joe Kid, to fight with or without gloves for $500 a side. The match was never pulled off, and The Sporting Life later reported that McGregor was only eager until he actually set eyes on Wannop, then swiftly backed out.

As 1888 drew to a close, Tom Robinson, a black pugilist from Springfield, Ohio, was next on Wannop’s hitlist. They were an even match at around 180lb but Robinson the taller of the two. Wannop drew first blood. And despite Wannop having the best of the fight throughout, “punishing” his opponent “severely”, particularly in the last two of ten rounds, according to brief newspaper reports, the fight for $200 at the roadside Webb Inn near Dayton was yet again declared a draw.

The Sporting Life finished off the year with a glorious puff piece, doing an excellent job of covering Wannop’s busy but pretty disappointing American escapades with a note saying he just “has not yet been called upon to show what he is really made of.”

[The Sporting Life, Saturday 29 December 1888

Next up on Grappling With History. Jack Wannop Vs former black heavyweight boxing champion George Godfrey:

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