By Cian Manning
In East Belfast there is Albertbridge Road which is the birthplace of Richard Kyle Fox. The son of a carpenter while his maternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, Richard was born on 12th August 1846. His teenage years saw him employed as an office boy at the Banner of Ulster newspaper, which was established by Rev. William Gibson of Rosemary Street church. The Banner was later edited by the tenant leaguer James McKnight. Fox then made the move to the Belfast News Letter (first printed in 1737) which today can count itself as the world’s oldest English-language general daily newspaper still in circulation. After ten years there, perhaps frustrated by the conservative layout of the publication, Fox made his way to the United States in September 1874. It was there in the New World, where his efforts would lead the Evening Herald’s Gerard McDermott to write that Fox ‘was responsible for changing the whole trend of the American newspaper world.’
Fox continued to work in the newspaper trade, with his first position across the Atlantic being a collector of advertising for the Wall Street Journal. He also worked at the Commercial Bulletin in New York. From there in 1876 he became the business manager of the then floundering National Police Gazette which was quickly heading for bankruptcy. Fox took over the enterprise in lieu of salary owed and transformed the ailing paper’s fortunes. T.P. O’Neill in the Irish Press wrote that Fox ‘bought it and soon made it the most lurid publication in the United States’ with its pages filled with crime and scandal. To give a flavour of the paper under Fox, there was a column titled ‘Noose Notes’ detailing public executions. Printed on pink paper the journal became known as ‘the bible of the barbershop’ being found in the lobbies of various hotels and hostelries.
After increasing the Police Gazette’s coffers, Fox changed the paper’s focus to sport, which was increasingly gaining traction in the public consciousness. It became a first-class sporting and theatrical paper which was one of the first to use pictures, while it’s short, brief and to the point copy would influence the style of American journalism for years to come. A year after becoming proprietor of the Gazette, Fox published a book titled Famous Fights in the Prize Ring.
Fox is considered to be the individual who originated the prize contest as a means to advertise the Police Gazette by arranging sporting contests under its name. The paper covered the fight between Tipperary’s Patrick Ryan and England’s Joe Goss in 1880 (such was the attention that both Oscar Wilde and Jesse James numbered the spectators), which played a huge part in increasing its circulation from 150,000 to 400,000 copies per week. Another sales strategy of Fox was that of his feud with the Boston Strong Boy, John L. Sullivan, which is believed to have started due to a drunk Sullivan refusing an invitation to join the Belfast-man’s table at Harry Hill’s saloon in New York. Though historian Liam Barry-Hayes believes that the feud was a result over Fox re-arranging to fight Patrick Ryan without the Boston boxer’s authorisation. Though there was a coldness between the pair, they used it to their advantage when it came to publicity and commercial activities.
Thus, Fox declared Ryan the Police Gazette champion to entice Sullivan to fight. The bout took place in Mississippi on 7th February 1882 with Sullivan knocking his Tipperary opponent out in the 9th Round. Consequently, Sullivan became bareknuckle heavyweight champion, with the contest considered the first great prize fight in the United States. $5,000 was put up by Fox for a rematch, where again Sullivan was successful. Fox spent months looking for a suitable opponent to take on John L. and felt that Jake Kilrain (after arranging the Boston Strong Boy to fight his challengers of England’s Tug Wilson and New Zealand’s Herbert Slade) was just the fighter for the challenge in 1889. The pair fought for 75 rounds over 2 hours and 15 minutes, which Sullivan won by sheer desire not to give up. When the result was finalised, Richard Kyle Fox presented the victorious John L. Sullivan with a diamond studded belt. Sullivan then handed it to his backer and friend Charley Johnston and quipped, “You might want it for your bulldog.’ Sullivan may not have valued the belt, but certainly loved the title of ‘undisputed’ champion. The bout would also signal the end of an era as the last bare-knuckle heavyweight title fight in history.
The highpoint of Fox’s media mogul career was the opening of a new seven-storey premises on the corner of Franklin Square and Dover, which would become known as the Fox Building. Though like all things, time moves on and trends change and the Gazette was left behind by the early years of the 20th Century. Barry-Hayes suggests that the decline in the paper’s circulation was due to the introduction of the 18th Amendment which imposed the federal prohibition of alcohol as the paper was viewed as no longer acceptable in bars and barbershops (the latter precipitated by women frequenting male barbershops for the flapper hairstyle).
Nevertheless, upon his death on 15th November 1922, Fox left behind a fortune of over $3,000,000. Such wealth is displayed by his mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In June 1997, Fox was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the legendary Don King, with the Belfast-native’s citation reading as ‘having done more to popularise boxing in the United States than anyone else in the nineteenth century.’ The IBHOF believe that the National Police Gazette was ‘the authoritative boxing journal before The Ring and the most important sporting newspaper of the time.’ Perhaps it’s best to finish with the words of Conor Heffernan who’s recent article in the Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora carried the lines that Fox ‘has been depicted as a chief evangelist in a certain kind of rugged American masculinity, as a man who shaped print standards in the United States and a man who revolutionised prize fighting.’ The sport of boxing as we know it owes a lot to the pioneering character of Richard Kyle Fox.