Skip to main content
Select Source:

John Lawrence Sullivan

John Lawrence Sullivan

John Lawrence Sullivan (1858-1918), American boxer, who claimed he could "lick any man on earth, " was the last bare-knuckles heavyweight champion.

John L. Sullivan was born in Roxbury, Mass., on Oct. 15, 1858. His father was a pugnacious hod carrier, 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds. His mother stood 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 180 pounds. John inherited his father's temperament and his mother's physique. Though his mother wanted John to become a priest, he left school in his middle teens and spent over a year as an apprentice tinsmith. He then joined his father "in the masonry trade, " while earning extra money as a talented baseball player. He always insisted he could have been a professional in that sport.

In 1877 Sullivan had his first important boxing encounter at Boston's Dudley Street Opera House. Accepting Tom Scannel's challenge to fight anyone present, Sullivan knocked Scannel off the stage in the first round. Two years later Sullivan was champion of Massachusetts and seeking to develop a national reputation that would provide him a chance at the American title. Because boxing matches were illegal in most cities, various ruses were employed to circumvent the law. When Sullivan was arrested in Cincinnati after having knocked out a challenger, he was found innocent on the grounds that he had participated in a foot race which his opponent lost.

Called the Boston Strong Boy, Sullivan met Patty Ryan, the titleholder, in Mississippi City, Miss., in 1882; Ryan lasted through nine knockdowns before giving up. Now known as the Great John L., he became the most popular and flamboyant champion in boxing history. He fought under the London Prize Ring rules with bare knuckles, defending his title innumerable times, notably against Charlie Mitchell in Europe; Herbert Slade, the Maori Giant; and, in 1889, Jake Kilrain in the last fight under the London rules. Henceforth, under the Marquis of Queensberry rules, all fighters wore gloves and fought 3-minute rounds instead of "coming to scratch" after each knockdown.

Sullivan was not a giant: just 5 feet 10 inches tall and about 190 pounds. His skill consisted in "hitting as straight and almost as rapidly as light" and in overwhelming his opponent. This technique made him vulnerable to the scientific fighter, who could manage to stay away and rest every 3 minutes under the new rules. In 1892, after 21 rounds, Sullivan, soft and wasted from drinking and an undisciplined life that left no time for training, was defeated by James J. Corbett.

Wisely, Sullivan never staged a comeback but sustained his popularity on the vaudeville stage and, after reforming in 1905, as a temperance lecturer. He died in Abingdon, Mass., on Feb. 2, 1918.

Further Reading

Sullivan's own Life and Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator (1892) is rare and almost certainly ghost written. Donald Barr Chidsey, John the Great (1942), is an excellent portrait placing Sullivan in the panorama of his time, as does Nat Fleischer, John L. Sullivan: Champion of Champions (1952). For a good short history see Fleischer's The Heavyweight Championship (1949; rev. ed. 1961).

Additional Sources

Isenberg, Michael T., John L. Sullivan and his America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"John Lawrence Sullivan." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"John Lawrence Sullivan." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-lawrence-sullivan

"John Lawrence Sullivan." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-lawrence-sullivan

Sullivan, John Lawrence (1858-1918)

John Lawrence Sullivan (1858-1918)

Sources

Bare-knuckle prizefighting champion

The Strong Boy. John L. Sullivan, the last bare-knuckle prizefighting champion, was one of the first American sports heroes and contributed to the development of boxing. His father, Michael Sullivan, an Irish immigrant, encouraged his son to become a prizefighter because of his extraordinary strength. In his first recorded fight, Sullivan defeated John Cockey Woods in five rounds in Boston in 1879. By 1881 he was known in prizefighting circles as the strong boy of Boston because of his many victories by knockouts. Sullivan captured the world bare-knuckle heavyweight championship on 7 February 1882 by defeating Patrick Paddy Ryan in nine rounds on a barge in the Mississippi River near Mississippi City, Mississippi. From 1882 to 1887 he fought in thirty-two matches, winning each time. During this period he also participated in exhibitions, offering $500 cash to anyone who could last three rounds with him. No one won the prize.

A Careless Champion. During his exhibition tours Sullivan neglected his training and slipped into poor physical condition. Many exhibitions were canceled because Sullivan was too drunk to perform. Always popular in Boston, however, his hometown lavished him with attention, including a diamond-studded championship belt. In his title defense bout on 10 March 1888 Sullivan fought to a thirty-nine-round draw with British champion Charlie Mitchell in Chantilly, France. Sullivan won the last bare-knuckle contest, defeating Jake Kilrain in seventy-five rounds at Richburg, Mississippi, on 8 July 1889. Lack of physical training as well as a change in fighting rules cost Sullivan his title. On 7 September 1892 he lost the world heavyweight title in a bout with James J. Corbett, who knocked out Sullivan in the twenty-first round. This fight, conducted under the Marquis of Queensberry rules, required the combatants to wear gloves and barred the wrestling holds so often employed by Sullivan.

Sullivans Record. After his encounter with Corbett, Sullivan fought one more time; in 1905 he knocked out Jim McCormick in the second round in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Afterward Sullivan officially retired from the ring, but continued to appear in stage exhibitions. He also wrote an autobiography, Life and Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator (1892), and toured the nation giving speeches on the evil of liquor. In a career that spanned twenty-five years, Sullivan participated in 47 prize bouts, which included 43 wins (of which 29 were knockouts), 1 loss, and 3 draws. Among his admirers were President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII of Britain.

Sources

Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986);

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sullivan, John Lawrence (1858-1918)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sullivan, John Lawrence (1858-1918)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sullivan-john-lawrence-1858-1918

"Sullivan, John Lawrence (1858-1918)." American Eras. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sullivan-john-lawrence-1858-1918

Sullivan, John Lawrence

John Lawrence Sullivan, 1858–1918, American boxer, b. Roxbury, Mass. After gaining a local reputation in amateur boxing, the Boston Strong Boy, as Sullivan came to be called, toured New England cities and after 1878 boxed professionally. Sullivan, with a devastating right-handed punch, was successful from the start and in 1882 won the bare-knuckles heavyweight championship by knocking out Paddy Ryan in nine rounds in Mississippi City, Miss. The "Great John L." met all comers. Sullivan's prowess in the ring and his swashbuckling personality won him many friends and made him the idol of American sports fans. He fought and won the last bare-knuckles championship bout (1889) by subduing Jake Kilrain in 75 rounds at Richburg, Miss. Fighting with gloves under the Queensberry rules for boxing, Sullivan was defeated (1892) by James J. Corbett in New Orleans. He retired from the ring in 1896, still in possession of the bare-knuckles crown. In 1905, Sullivan, dramatically renouncing his old way of life, became a temperance advocate.

See E. J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (1986).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sullivan, John Lawrence." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sullivan, John Lawrence." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sullivan-john-lawrence

"Sullivan, John Lawrence." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sullivan-john-lawrence