Great Fight in Pass Christian
Today, on U.S. Highway 90, one block west of Courthouse Road, between Texas and Arkansas streets, is a historical marker planted in front of a large empty, overgrown lot which reads, "Sullivan-Ryan Fight -- On February 7, 1882, John L. Sullivan defeated Paddy Ryan in a bare knuckled fight on the lawn of the Barnes Hotel in Mississippi City. The fight established Sullivan as the undisputed World Heavyweight Champion."
In this famous match between John L. Sullivan and Paddy Ryan, is when the first recorded "Knockout" took place.
Five-years later, at 10 a.m., July 8, 1889, Jake Kilrain and John L. Sullivan fought in a small sawmill located outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. After two hours and 16 minutes, in the 74th round, Kilrain’s seconds tossed in the towel. Sullivan retained his title and also scooped up a side bet of $21,000.
There has been a trail of professional boxers who stayed at Pass Christian during the years of the late 1800s when prize fighting was outlawed.
Both Sullivan and Ryan reportedly stayed at several of the boarding houses and hotels while training for the Gulfport bout. One of the early boxing trainers, adept in fisticuffs, lived in the Pass and set up training sessions.
Several decades later, there is still little known of what Coastians once referred to as the greatest prize fight in Pass Christian. This information came to light from former Gulf Coast Tourism Director Himbert Sinopoli, whose dad was born in 1905 near the current County courthouse building on 19th Street in Gulfport.
Some time in the 1920s, local and out of town fight promoters chose a beach site at Pass Christian as well as having recruited Bidwell Adam as referee. Adam, from the Pass, later became a Mississippi Lt. Governor.
While hyping the fight to build up the “pot,” boxing challenger Buster Malini of Henderson Point began early training sessions by knocking out a few live sparring partners that were picked from Market Street’s “Skid Row.” During one of these sessions, Malini sprained a wrist.
Because the match was already set, and the pot was big, and the opposing Champ had arrived from out of town — a wounded contending challenger would not do. Squaring up to the dilemma, the promoters resolved their problem by enlisting Charlie Sinopoli to stand in for Buster. Charlie was no piker, but he had withdrawn from his earlier boxing career by insistence of his new bride. But under pressure and a promise of a good slice of the stake, Charlie finally gave in. By subterfuge and unbeknownst to his wife, Charlie was announced as “Battling Ortega.”
Charlie had been told that the fight was fixed and that he was to lay down in the 5th, but upon entering the ring, his opponent sputtered out, “Dago, you better fight for your life!”
With that remark, Charlie “Battling Ortega” resourcefully battered the Champ round after round, while splattering his opponent’s blood out to the yelling ringside spectators. After a great beating, the Champ’s coach threw in the towel by the 6th round. However, under pressure from the promoters, Referee Adam picked up the towel and tossed it out the ring.
Thinking that he had won the prize, poor Charlie was caught off guard and was blindsided by a rabbit-punch from the Champ. Dazed, Charlie was then clobbered with one blow after another. Although he was never knocked down, the judges called a decision in favor of the Champ.
Back to Gulfport --- when Charlie woke up the next morning, sore and well bruised, his wife made him swear off boxing forever as she pressed his hand atop her bible.