Bare Knuckle Boxing at Colliers Station

Panhandle Trail

Arts, Entertainment & Sports

Boxing was popular enough in the United States by the late 1850s that Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper sent an artist to Long Point, Canada—80 miles from Buffalo, New York in the province of Ontario—to capture the 1858 prize fight between John Heenan and John Morrissey. The fight was held in Canada, to evade U.S. authorities.

Paddy Ryan woke up before sunrise on the morning of his first prizefight. He rose from the couch on which he had slept, in the small room on the second floor of the Colliers, West Virginia, train depot, and began to dress. [1] Over his feet went nude-colored stockings, over which he pulled a pair of flannel breeches. He tied a green scarf around his waist and a red silk handkerchief around his neck. He laced up his shoes, which had spikes driven through the soles for traction against the packed dirt of the boxing ring. Even though it was the first day of June 1880, he pulled on an overcoat and set his derby hat atop his head. [2] From the cot next to him rose his trainer, Johnny Roach. By 5:20 a.m., they arrived at a flat, grassy expanse a mile east of Colliers, where a group of men were staking out the makeshift ring. [3]

As Ryan stood beneath the rising sun, he felt confident he could beat Joe Goss and become the world champion. After all, he was 28 years old and Goss was 44. [4] The two were fairly evenly matched by weight, but Ryan had a few inches on Goss. A correspondent for National Police Gazette described Ryan as “a giant, with muscles of iron and long, active arms.” [5] However, Goss had over two decades of boxing experience and was the reigning world heavyweight champion, having won the title from Tom Allen in 1876. [6] Ryan was unfazed by Goss’s seniority. “This is my first appearance in any ring,” he told the assembled crowd, “and I rather feel glad to meet Goss, and see what I can do.” [7]

But would he meet Goss? The two boxers had already tried and failed twice to stage the illegal boxing bout, and the Brooke County, West Virginia, sheriff had already arrived at the ring to deliver a threat from the governor to arrest all participants and spectators, should the match proceed. [8] So the fate of the fight remained uncertain. Ryan was in, but where was Joe Goss?

The fighters had arrived at Colliers the night before. The date and location of the fight had been kept a secret—until the day prior to the fight, the only details the fight organizers shared was that it would take place within 50 miles of Pittsburgh, which boxing fans assumed meant Colliers. [9] Clandestine matches had been held there in the past. The railroad town was easily accessible from Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio, but far enough from well-organized urban police forces that could shut down prizefights. [10] The practice was illegal in the United States; New Jersey passed the first law prohibiting it in 1835, and other states soon followed. Middle-class Americans abhorred prizefighting, according to historian Elliot Gorn, because they perceived that “the sporting crowd threw off all sense of personal restraint, substituting hedonism and luxury for virtue.” The betting and boxing that urban, working-class immigrant communities enjoyed in their leisure time were seen as examples of “greed and opulence,” and the opposite of the idealized American “communal spirit of mutuality and simplicity.” “[H]alf-naked men skillfully pounding each other for cash,” Gorn dryly noted, “hardly squared with the spirit of human progress, universal benevolence and social improvement.” [11]

English and Irish boxers immigrated to the United States in the early 19th century, but the sport of boxing took several decades to develop. Prizefighting emerged in England in the late 18th century as a hugely popular leisure-time activity, enjoyed both among the nobility (who patronized fights) and working class (from whose ranks fighters were drawn). Until the 1840s, boxing bouts tended to occur only in the densely packed immigrant neighborhoods of large cities like New York and Philadelphia; Gorn found that boxing matches usually resulted from interpersonal disputes and that staking and betting on fighters became a way for people to express “individual, neighborhood and ethnic loyalties.” Only in the 1850s would the sport of boxing become widespread among “working-class males who rejected bourgeois standards of value, laborers dispossessed by new economic alignments, and men who lived in the netherworld of gambling, bootlegging, and petty crime.” [12] Bare-knuckle boxing enjoyed rising popularity throughout the 1860s, as the U.S. Civil War familiarized soldiers with the sport; boxing became a preferred way to exercise and to settle grievances during long stints in Army camps. Enthusiasm for prizefighting waned in the late 1860s and 1870s, as corruption and fight fixing alienated fans who wanted to see and bet on fair bouts, but experienced a revival in the 1880s as athletics became increasingly popular in postbellum culture. While the Victorian ideals of hard work and communal benefit prevailed, sports—including boxing—were increasingly seen as a valuable way to build character, reinforce prevailing standards of masculinity and keep the steadily increasing population of wage workers busy during their leisure time. [13]

The 1880 prizefight between Ryan and Goss was the tail end of what Barratt O’Hara described in his 1909 history of the heavyweight championship as “a period of mediocrity, marking the transplanting of the championship in America.” Goss—who was born in Wolverhampton, England, in 1838 and began boxing at 21 years old—had won the championship from Allen after a decade of failed attempts at the title. [14] Ryan was the first challenger in four years, and so the match attracted a fair amount of attention from boxing fans. According to coverage in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The fight caused considerable excitement in the surrounding country, but through lack of transportation facilities only about 300 persons were present.” [15] The crowd was small but loud. “During the early morning a train arrived from Pittsburg[h], bearing a crowd of bruisers and sporting men who had learned of the location of the fight,” reported the Wheeling, West Virginia, Daily Intelligencer. “Their shouts awoke many of the sleepers, and their boisterous conduct and high handed refusal to pay for eatables procured at the station hotel indicated the general ‘cussedness’ of the multitude. Each freight train that came in, whether from east or west, added a dozen or more to the crowd, and the noise of their brawls and riotous arguments banished all thought of repose.” [16]

The spectators settled themselves on a hillside abutting the ring, creating natural bleacher seating. Ryan and his crew paced around the site, waiting for Goss—who finally arrived, 20 minutes later. It looked like the fight would go on, despite the sheriff and the governor’s warnings. After a delay to decide who would serve as referee, Goss and Ryan moved to the center of the ring to begin battling for the heavyweight title. [17]

The first round began. Ryan threw the first punch, which Goss blocked. Ryan’s next punch landed. His knuckles connected with Goss’s cheek, but Goss returned a barefisted blow to Ryan’s face. They continued trading punches until Ryan socked Goss in the nose, ending the round. It took Goss until round three to get a good left-handed punch past Ryan’s defenses, hitting him in the mouth. Ryan countered and sent Goss to the ground. He had to be carried back to his corner. Each took big punches in the fourth round, and when Ryan went back to his corner he seemed to be in pain. Nevertheless, he took down Goss in the next few rounds. While Ryan was clearly stronger, Goss remained the more experienced, smarter fighter—by the eighth round, Ryan’s left eye had swollen shut.

Twenty minutes and 10 rounds down. “To and fro they swayed their bodies,” wrote the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer reporter, “while dealing each other blows that would have knocked down an ox.” [18]

Thirty minutes and 25 rounds down. Goss managed to keep up with Ryan, landing heavy punches on Ryan’s torso. In the 42nd round Goss feinted, causing Ryan to fall to the ground—he had to be carried back to his corner.

Sixty minutes and 60 rounds down. Ryan began to pull ahead, though both were so brutally hurt that some spectators declined to continue watching.

Eighty-five minutes and 85 rounds. Ryan felled Goss and landed on top of him, the two fighters rolling together in the grass before limping back to their corners. They returned to the center of the ring for round 86. Goss, peeved about being knocked down, made a move on Ryan, but with a right-handed punch Ryan had Goss collapsing to his knees.

Thirty seconds ticked by. Ryan reentered the ring. Would Goss meet him for an 87th round?

Exhausted, Goss remained in his corner. Ryan had won the heavyweight championship from him after a match that lasted one hour and 27 minutes. [19]

News of the match traveled quickly. Newspapers published round-by-round descriptions of the fight, even international newspapers like Scotland’s Glasgow Herald. [20] But by the time reporters filed their stories, Ryan, Goss and the other participants in the prizefight had hightailed it out of Colliers—it was only a matter of time before the sheriff would arrive with a requisition for their arrest. [21]


  • [1] “Ryan–Goss,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, June 2, 1880, 5.
  • [2] “Muscular Maulers,” National Police Gazette, June 12, 1880, 7.
  • [3] “Ryan–Goss”; “Muscular Maulers”; “Brutal Bruisers,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, June 2, 1880.
  • [4] “Brutal Bruisers.”
  • [5] “Muscular Maulers.”
  • [6] “Joe Goss,” International Boxing Hall of Fame, accessed April 30, 2021,
  • [7] “Muscular Maulers.”
  • [8] “Muscular Maulers”; “Ryan–Goss.”
  • [9] “Joe Goss and Paddy Ryan,” The St. Paul Globe, May 30, 1880, 5.
  • [10] C. Robert Barnett, “Goss–Ryan Heavyweight Fight,” in e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia, July 14, 2011,
  • [11] Elliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 64, 68.
  • [12] Ibid., 22–30, 46, 96.
  • [13] Ibid., 161–64, 179–96.
  • [14] Barratt O’Hara, From Figg to Johnson: A Complete History of the Heavyweight Championship, Containing Dates and Accurate Descriptions of Every Contest for the World's Boxing Title From the Time of the First Champion Down to the Present Day (Chicago: The Blossom Book Bourse, 1909), 161–63.
  • [15] “They Fight: Paddy Ryan and the Ancient Joe Goss,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 2, 1880, 4.
  • [16] “Brutal Bruisers.”
  • [17] “Muscular Maulers”; “Ryan–Goss”; “Brutal Bruisers.”
  • [18] “Ryan–Goss.” The narrative of the fight is based on this article, which includes the most detail—though other reports differ in their descriptions of what occurred in each round. What is consistent between the descriptions is that, from the outset, Ryan had Goss on the defensive.
  • [19] “Muscular Maulers”; “Ryan–Goss”; “Brutal Bruisers.” Quotes from “Ryan–Goss.” Round times calculated from “Muscular Maulers.”
  • [20] “Great Prize Fight in America,” Glasgow Herald, June 3, 1880, 3.
  • [21] “Hunting the Pugs,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, June 5, 1880, 4.

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