Perhaps the most celebrated boxer to come out of San Francisco was the son of an Irish emigrant. James J. Corbett, better known as, Gentleman Jim, was born in 1866, fought 24 professional bouts and defeated the great John L.Sullivan to become world heavyweight champion. His father was from Mayo, his uncle, who shared his name, was a parish priest in the county. But while Corbett may have been the greatest Irish-American boxing champion to emerge from the city, the greatest, and indeed the longest, fight involved another Irish American Danny Needham.
Needham was born in St.Paul Minnesota a year after Corbett. He was one of four brothers constantly in trouble with the law until he found his natural home in the ring, fighting as a lightweight. The 1880s had seen the establishment of Queensbury rules but professional boxing then was very different to the sport as practised today. Most fighters wore 2 ounce gloves – four ounce gloves were scathingly referred to as ‘pillows’. Today boxers wear gloves weighing 8-10 ounces. In most cases there was no limit to the number of three minute rounds that could be fought. Boxers generally agreed to keep going until one or other was knocked out or threw in the towel. The sport in America was dominated by men with names like Paddy Duffy Dan Murphy, Charlie Gleason, Charlie “Bull” McCarthy & Jack McGinty as well as Sullivan and Corbett. It was a very Irish sport and a very Irish route out of poverty.
Danny Needham was a colourful character, to say the least. He had a reputation for involvement in petty theft when he wasn’t in training and always carried a revolver with him. In 1890 he was persuaded by his manager to move up a weight division to welter and to try his luck in San Francisco. There he encountered the Scotch-Irish boxer Patsy Kerrigan. Needham was conceding 6 pounds to Kerrigan. The fight turned into an epic – the War and Peace of professional boxing, although there wasn’t a lot of peace in evidence.
The bout began shortly after 8.30 in the evening in front of an enthusiastic crowd. It ended six hours and 39 minutes later after 100 rounds, the second longest bout in pugilistic history. The longest, 111 rounds, came three years later between Andy Bowen and Jack Burke in New Orleans. According to one newspaper report ‘Needham was pushed down three times in the fifty-sixth round and four times in the seventieth, but he arose and fought on desperately,”
Neither boxer laid a glove on his opponent in the final 11 rounds, both were so exhausted they simply stalked each other around the ring feinting from time to time. Eventually the referee called it a draw at 3.15 a.m. Some of the spectators had actually left the arena and returned a number of hours later to discover, to their surprise, that both fighters were still on their feet.
Later in life Needham went prospecting in Alaska, attempted to murder a man stalking his wife and was jailed for armed robbery in 1899. He died at the age of 55 after having spent the last two years of his life in a mental institution.
Danny Needham and Patsy Kerrigan eventually fought each other to a standstill in San Francisco in one of only two boxing contests to go over 100 rounds 125 years ago on this day.