Sports has typically relied on a structured environment
Professional sports leagues are looking at new ways to avoid cancellation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Masters Tournament, originally scheduled for this week (April 9-12), was postponed and has been moved to November, while Major League Baseball (MLB) is exploring the idea of playing entirely in Arizona without crowds.
If any of these ideas come to fruition, they will be unprecedented. Sports is one institution that has relied on structure and only rarely have events been held in unique settings. Here are five times that has happened.
John L. Sullivan vs. Jake Kilrain
Richburg, Miss. — July 8, 1889
Boxing matches were often held on boats or in secret locations in the 1800s because they were outlawed. This was the fate of the last bare-knuckle prizefight in history. When Louisiana governor Francis Nicholls prohibited John L. Sullivan from defending his bare-knuckle heavyweight championship against Jake Kilrain in New Orleans, the two faced off in a secret location in front of 2,000 spectators on farmland in what is now Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The fight was held to the finish under London Prize Ring Rules and Kilrain cornerman Mike Donovan threw in the sponge after the 75th round. After the bout, professional boxing fully adopted Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which required gloves.
Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston II
Lewiston, Maine — May 25, 1965
It was unique for a heavyweight title fight to be held in a youth center, but this fight had a lot of baggage. Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964 and shortly afterward, joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The two were scheduled for a rematch in Boston in November 1964, but Ali suffered a hernia, delaying it until the following May. Liston had run-ins with the law before and after Ali’s injury and Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne pushed to stop the fight from being held in Massachusetts. The promoters quickly began looking for another venue and settled on the Central Maine Youth Center (now Androscoggin Bank Colisee) in Lewiston, a town of 40,000. A crowd of just over 2,400 — the smallest ever for a heavyweight championship fight — watched Ali knock out Liston with "The Phantom Punch" in the first round and Neil Leifer took the most iconic photo in sports history.
Tennessee 34, Florida 32
Gainesville, Fla. — Dec. 1, 2001
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Tennessee/Florida game was played the third week in September and generally determined who won the SEC East. When the 2001 matchup was moved to December because of 9/11, Florida was ranked No. 2 and Tennessee was No. 5 and the SEC East and BCS standings were on the line. With No. 1 Miami having dispatched No. 14 Virginia Tech earlier in the day, the college football world turned to watch this game in which the Vols won an epic battle. Since then, the game has been played in its normal spot on the calendar.
San Juan, Puerto Rico — 2003-04
MLB owned the Montreal Expos and with low attendance at Olympic Stadium, the league had the team play 22 games in Puerto Rico in 2003 and '04. In the first year, San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium drew more fans on average than Olympic Stadium and allowed the Expos to draw more than a million attendees for the first time since 1997. None of it really mattered though. At the end of the 2004 season, MLB announced that the Expos would move to Washington, D.C., the next season.
Baltimore Orioles 8, Chicago White Sox 2
Baltimore — April 29, 2015
The riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray prompted MLB to postpone the Orioles' first two games against the White Sox. However, the Orioles played the final game in the series with no fans in attendance. It is the first time that has ever happened in MLB history, but could provide a glimpse of some games in the future. Take a look.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Screengrab courtesy of MLB's YouTube channel)