Sullivan, John L. (1858-1918)

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Sullivan, John L. (1858-1918)

Bare-knuckle prizefighter John L. Sullivan became a symbol of ethnic pride and working-class masculinity to the nineteenth-century, Irish-American community from which he emerged. Because of his boisterous claims to "lick any son of a bitch in the house" and his ability to back up his claim, many Irish Americans saw in Sullivan a way to take revenge upon the unwelcoming American society. The working-class Irish took pride as Sullivan knocked out his Anglo-Protestant opponents, yet Sullivan's popularity went beyond mere ethnic and class identity; the rest of American society slowly began to accept Sullivan as well. Because of his mass appeal, Sullivan became one of the first cultural heroes and sporting celebrities of the nineteenth century. Along with his rise in popularity, boxing earned a measure of respectability as a sporting endeavor. When Sullivan began boxing, prizefights were against the law. By the time he quit, boxing matches were a cultural event attended by all segments of society.

John Lawrence Sullivan was born into the Irish working-class community of Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1858. Like many Irish immigrants, Sullivan's father worked as a hod carrier in the lowest-paying of the new industrial jobs. As was the norm for the youth of his community, Sullivan moved into the industrial work force quickly. He worked a variety of odd jobs but was unable to hold down steady work because of a tendency to get into fights with his fellow workers. To support himself, Sullivan began to play baseball and box semiprofessionally. He complemented his boxing with neighborhood fights in theatres and movie halls. Sullivan and his friends soon earned reputations through such street fights. It was in these theatres, the Sullivan legend later suggested, that he first stood up and made his famous boast, "I'm John L. Sullivan and I can lick any son of a bitch in the house." These claims, along with strongman demonstrations of lifting beer kegs above his head, soon earned Sullivan the nickname "Boston Strong Boy" and the reputation of an up-and-coming pugilist. On the strength of his reputation, Sullivan issued a challenge to Paddy Ryan, the reigning champion.

Prizefighting in nineteenth-century America was a working-class amusement, and fights often took place inside the ethnic saloons that dotted the working-class community. Middle-class society frowned upon the practice of boxing, so much so that bare-knuckle prizefighting was outlawed. Champions often held a questionable position within the community. They often split their time between boxing, breaking up barroom scuffles, and brawling at the ballot box for the local political machine. Paddy Ryan was just such a champion. By 1882, however, he could ignore the young challenger from Boston no longer and agreed to a bout. In February, Ryan and Sullivan met for the first time in Mississippi City, Mississippi. Sullivan dominated the champion from the start, winning not only first fall and first blood, but knocking out Ryan after nine rounds.

Now recognized as the heavyweight champion, Sullivan did not become, like Ryan, political muscle. Instead, Sullivan issued his most famous and broad sweeping challenge. He dared anyone in the United States to last four rounds with him in a gloved match and offered a $1,000 prize to those who could. With the offers lining up, Sullivan began a whirlwind tour of the states. His travels took on a carnivalesque atmosphere with juggling acts and vaudeville shows preceding his defeat of whoever challenged him. From 1878 to 1905, Sullivan won 31 of 35 bouts, 16 by knockout. Because of his tour and the fact that he rarely lost his bet, Sullivan's popularity soared. Irish Americans across the country flocked to see the man who fought with both the colors of the United States and Ireland in his corner. Because Sullivan fought gloved matches, his bouts were legal and could be seen by people who had not watched prizefighting before. Sullivan quickly became a cultural icon whose name and image appeared in advertisements and vaudeville shows.

Sullivan was still considered the champion of boxing and, as such, was required to defend his title in a bare-knuckle fight. He had managed to stave off most challengers with gloved matches, but by 1889, Jake Kilrain demanded a bare-knuckle bout. Kilrain had taken a path similar to Sullivan's, rising out of the Irish working class by his fists. His impressive record combined with the accumulated effect of years of Sullivan's legendary drinking made the odds even at the time of the fight. On July 8, 1889, the two men squared off in what would be the last bare-knuckle championship bout. Despite years of hard drinking and weak fights, Sullivan had trained himself back into shape. Fighting under the scorching Mississippi sun, Sullivan and Kilrain faced each other for more than two hours and 75 rounds until Kilrain was unable to start the 76th.

Although Sullivan did enjoy a great deal of popularity outside his working-class community, not every one accepted his display of masculine aggression and violence. Parts of the American middle class, especially the emergent Irish-American middle class, distanced themselves from the bruiser from Roxbury. Many cheered when "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, a man of breeding who had learned to box in a club instead of the street, knocked out Sullivan in 21 rounds in New Orleans in September 1892 to earn the U.S. world heavyweight boxing champion title.

During his career, Sullivan earned more than $1 million, but spent it all. He became an advocate of prohibition and delivered lectures on the topic.

—S. Paul O'Hara

Further Reading:

Gorn, Elliot J. The Manly Art: Bare-knuckle Prizefighting in America. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1986.

Isenberg, Michael T. John L. Sullivan and his America. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1986.

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Sullivan, John L. (1858-1918)

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