Championship belts of older times – Published 28 Oct 1920
Strange as it may seem there is no emblem in existence today to typify the world’s heavyweight championship in the boxing line. In the olden days a championship belt or emblem of some sort went to the winner of the big bout.
In England for centuries there was a gold belt emblematic of the championship which went to the winner in every great fight, which was handed down for centuries. The last belt which went with the championship in this country was presented to Jake Kilrain in Baltimore thirty years ago by Richard K. Fox.
Before that time Kilrain had fought Jack Burke, ”the Irish Lad”, Jack Ashton, Frank Herald, Joe Godfrey and other of the great fighters of that day. Jem Smith was champion of England at this time, and Fox gave Kilrain the belt with the understanding that he was to fight Smith and that the belt with the prize money of $5000 a side should go to the winner. Besides the belt, Fox put up Kilrain’s $5000 of the stake.
This belt, which was the last competed for in this country, was fifty inches long and about eight inches wide and weighted about 200 ounces in solid silver and gold. The design was entirely different from any prize-ring belt ever offered in America or England, and its intrinsic value has never been equaled.
The work was laid out in solid silver plates and flexible silver chains, so that the belt, notwithstanding its great and ponderous weight and size, could be adjusted to the body and worn with ease. The plates were richly ornamented with solid gold figures, and one of these ornaments was so made that a likeness of the winner could be put in a gold frame encircled by a gold laurel leaf suspended from the bill of a full winged eagle. The center of the belt represented a prize ring with two men facing each other in a fighting attitude. The whole of this part was solid gold. The men were represented in full ring costume.
This belt was presented to Kilrain at Baltimore for various reasons. Although it was not presented to him there, Jake was a native of Long Island, New York, and he had beaten many of the best men of that vicinity. In the early ’80s Jake whipped a lot of the best of the heavies, and after whipping them he repeatedly challenged John L. Sullivan to battle. The Bostonian was slow in coming to terms so the men who controlled the destinies of American puglilism declared Kilrain the champion.
Following the presentation Kilrain was matched to fight Jem Smith, the English champion, for the world’s heavyweight championship. Kilrain and Smith came together in France, and after 106 rounds of awful fighting with their bare hands the battle was declared a draw and Jake returned to this country bringing the belt back with him.
The English belt emblematic of the championship disappeared with Tom Sayers in 1865. He held it even after his fight with John C. Heenan of America in I860. Old-timers will recall that the Heenan- Sayer fight was declared a draw, and after that fight each of the principles were given a belt.
It was at the Alhambra theatre, in London, May 31, 1860, a few weeks after their memorable battle, that the English people presented both Sayers and Heenan with magnificient belts. The presentation came about midway between the evening program, Mr. Caldwell introducing the matter by stating that Sayers and Heenan were the bravest men who had met on the field since Wellington and Napoleon. Mr. Downing, who had acted as referee of the fight then presented Heenan’s belt. Remarking that it was an exact facsimile of the championship belt of England, and of precisely similar value, it having been purchased by public subscription, to which Tom Sayers had contributed about twenty-five pounds.
A month after Sayers’ death his belt was sold with his other effects and then disappeared from view. The belt which was presented to him at the same time, as Heenan’s was sold for thirty-three pounds, twelve shillings, his dog for six guineas more, and the silver cup given to him by an admirer for six guineas more.
Heenan, who died after Sayers, left his belt to his wife, and soon after it, like Sayers’ trophy, disappeared. The next belt was that presented by ‘Richard K. Fox, to be presented to the winner of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight, the last bare-knuckle fight as well as the last battle fought in this country under the Marquis of Queensberry rules.
The next heard of that belt it was in a pawnshop in New York, it having been placed there by one of Sullivan’s friends, in whose hands he had placed it for safekeeping. It, like the other old belts emblematic of the heavyweight championship, has ever since that time been lost to view and forgotten. However an article published on 23 August 1921 reveals that the belt once in pawn is now the property of Kilrain, he having redeemed it in the two years he and John L Sullivan starred together in vaudeville.
The question is where are they today?