You can draw an interesting line through the early history of boxing using the 1888 Goodwin Champions set and the one that Upper Deck just came out with. I’ll try to do that below.
The man acknowledged as the greatest bare knuckle champion, Boston’s John L. Sullivan, was covered in one of my earlier posts as one of the six guys who had a card in both sets.
Charley Mitchell was an Englishmen who probably had the closest argument with Sullivan as the greatest bare knuckle fighter. He fought Sullivan in two famous fights. Both matches went undecided – the first match was at the original Madison Square Garden in 1883. Mitchell actually knocked down the great Sullivan for the first time in his career, catching him by surprise in the first round, but the match was halted by police in the 3rd round. Five years later in France, the two fought a grueling 3 hour match that was declared a draw and cost Mitchell a few days in jail because boxing was illegal (Sullivan escaped to Britain before he could be arrested).
Another bare knuckle fighter who competed against Sullivan was fellow American, Jake Kilrain of New York. Kilrain claimed (with some support) to be the World Champion. The tactic worked, drawing Sullivan to fight him in 1889. In what was likely Sullivan’s most famous match, he bested Kilrain in the 75th round of a scheduled 80 round fight, when Kilrain’s corner threw in the towel. This was the last bout settled under bare knuckle rules.
Two rivals from the other coast of America had gained notoriety as boxers and potential rivals to the great Sullivan; both worked as boxing instructors in San Francisco. Both have cards in the Upper Deck set from this year, but not in the 1888 set. Peter “Black Prince” Jackson had won both the Australian and the “colored” championships by the end of the 1880’s. Sullivan refused to fight Jackson because of his color, so Jackson faced off against another up-and-comer in a match in California in 1891. They fought to a draw after 61 rounds.
The draw garnered attention for both men, and led to Sullivan’s third famous (and final) match against the other fighter, Jim Corbett. Like Jackson, Corbett doesn’t have a card in the 1888 set, but does n the 2011 Upper Deck Goodwin set. “Gentleman Jim” gave Sullivan his only loss in a bout in September, 1892. In the Olympic Club in New Orleans, Corbett knocked Sullivan out. Corbett, whose quickness technique enabled him to out-think the bull rush tactics of Sullivan, was known as the “Father of Modern Boxing” due to his emphasis on defense and technique. Corbett successfully defended his title in 1894 against Mitchell, whom Sullivan had twice fought to a draw, the first time now over a decade earlier.
Corbett’s next championship bout would be against Bob Fitzsimmons of Nevada. Fitzsimmons had two famous fights that led up to his vying for the heavyweight crown – he was initially a middleweight and in New Orleans in 1891, he fought and upset the seemingly unbeatable Jack (Nonpareil) Dempsey – whom the more famous boxing champion Jack Dempsey of the 1920’s was named for. The original Dempsey was considered at the time the greatest fighter outside of the heavyweight ranks. He had a card in the 1888 Goodwin set.
In another bout Fitzsimmons went against Irishmen Tom Sharkey, but lawman Wyatt Earp, who was refereeing the bout, stole the spotlight. Fitzsimmons had pounded Sharkey throughout the fight, and appeared to have knocked him down in the 8th round. However, Earp declared that Fitzsimmons had hit Sharkey while he was down, and declared a disqualification. Sharkey claimed the heavyweight title from the bout, as it had been thought that Corbett had retired. However, this was made moot when Corbett came out of retirement to fight Fitzsimmons. The decision was extremely controversial, and did damage to Earp’s reputation. More can be read about this here. Earp has a card in the 2011 set.
Fitzsimmons rebounded to beat another Irishman, Peter Maher, to claim the Heavyweight championship when Corbett had retired. But Corbett came out of retirement to set up an anticipated match to determine the true champion of the world. Corbett was heavily favored as he had height and almost 15 pounds on Fitzsimmons. He dominated the early part of the fight and knocked him down in the 6th round. But Fitzsimmons kept plugging away at the ribs of Corbett, and stunned the boxing great in the 14th round with a body blow that rendered him unable to rise before the ten-count. Fitzsimmons still is the lightest heavyweight champion on record. Fitzsimmons has an SP card in the 2011 set.