LEWISTON — Eighty years before the famous bout between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, Lewiston hosted the first heavyweight champion of the world for an exhibition match held at, of all places, City Hall.

John L. Sullivan, the world’s first heavyweight champion boxer, came to Lewiston in 1885 for an exhibition match.

On May 7, 1885, John L. Sullivan, an Irish-American boxer from Boston, had been the widely acknowledged heavyweight champion of the world for three years.

Taking advantage of his fame, Sullivan put together a touring ensemble to entertain fans. It pulled into Lewiston for an evening that apparently failed to impress locals.

The Lewiston Evening Journal dismissed Sullivan’s exhibit as “a gigantic fizzle,” which may also be an apt description for the Ali-Liston match in 1965 that drew to a quick close after Ali threw what’s been called “the phantom punch” that floored Liston in the first round.

According to the newspaper’s account of Sullivan’s show, the champion arrived on a Thursday evening at the Pine Street door to City Hall to the cheers of many boys who sought to catch a glimpse of him. They did not have the dollar required to buy a ticket to get inside.

Sullivan hustled through them to reach the rear of a stage inside City Hall.

At the 8 p.m. start time, the paper said, the galleries around the room were partly full, but many of the seats on the floor were empty, looking about as lively as a political caucus with only one candidate in the running.

An orchestra kicked off the event with a few selections, the paper reported, before several actors put on a farce called “Beasley’s Dog” that involved a terrier grabbing hold of the seat of a black man’s trousers.

“The audience received it coolly,” the paper said.

Boxer John L. Sullivan, whose 1885 visit to Lewiston did not go well, as depicted in an 1888 trading card.

Behind the scenes on stage, it added, Sullivan said, “Evidently, this crowd ain’t here to see a n—– show.”

After some more orchestral cuts, two fellows went on stage to spar without connecting or cracking a smile. They departed “without a murmur either of applause or disapprobation,” the audience utterly indifferent to them.

The next two boxers were so awful they wound up twisted in a snarl on the floor, swinging wildly at nothing, according to the newspaper account.

The crowd screamed to “take them off” or fire them.

The catcalls were so severe the master of ceremonies came on to explain to the audience the pair were merely baseball players on Sullivan’s traveling team.

After a couple more bouts, the master of ceremonies declared “John L. Sullivan, champion of the world” would take on “the Unknown” next.

The “Unknown,” the paper reported, was actually Lew Brown, a former catcher who had played on two pennant-winning baseball clubs, the 1877 Boston Red Caps and the 1879 Providence Grays.

Sullivan “wore white tights and a light undershirt leaving his arms bare, showing his gigantic muscular frame to the best advantage. He wore a belt of emerald green around his waist,” the story noted.

“He looked as he is: a giant,” it said.

The audience did not even applaud.

Sullivan went on to spar with Brown for about five minutes, with the champion getting “a blow or two in the face” while apparently doing his best not to connect with Brown.

“It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back,” the paper wrote.

“When the champion withdrew at the top of the windup of the imitation set-to, the crowd broke into one long and loud deep groan that might have been heard to Sabattus, and then filed quietly out of the hall.”

The venue for the less-than-impressive appearance went up in flames a few years later.

Sullivan held on to his title for seven more years, until “Gentleman Jim” Corbett knocked him out in New Orleans.

Lewiston may not have noticed.

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