Sullivan, John Lawrence

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SULLIVAN, John Lawrence

(b. 15 October 1858 in Roxbury, Massachusetts; d. 2 February 1918 in Abington, Massachusetts), charismatic professional boxer who was the last bare-knuckle champion, the most popular fighter of the nineteenth century, and the United States' first national sports celebrity.

Sullivan was born into a congested working-class neighborhood of Boston to Michael and Catherine Kelly Sullivan, who were both Catholic immigrants from Ireland. His father carried hods for a living, while his mother tended the family, which also included Sullivan's younger sister and brother. Enrolled in local public schools, Sullivan favored baseball over academics, yet he completed grammar school and attended Comer's Commercial College. His claim to have enrolled in Boston College is not borne out by the school's records. Nevertheless, Sullivan got a good education by the standards of his day.

The Boston area was home to throngs of Irish immigrants and their descendants, but not hospitable to them. Domestic work for women was plentiful, as was the meanest, most dangerous labor for men; there was little opportunity to rise above that level. Sullivan tried a number of trades, though sports were his passion. An attractive teenager, he was tall and weighed almost 200 pounds. He worked at building his skill in fighting, gaining a reputation as the local "strong boy." Laws in Massachusetts against prizefighting (bare-knuckle battles for money) were rigorously enforced, so his early boxing contests were staged exhibitions of gloved sparring. Sullivan's first recognition in the press was for a trouncing he gave older fighter John Woods in a match set among the variety acts at the Alhambra Theater in 1879.

Success in the ring fostered in the young Sullivan an ambition to be a prizefighter, a calling so low—and illegal—that no one had actually made a living from it in the United States. There had been famed fighters—James Ambrose "Yankee" Sullivan, John Carmel "Benicia Boy" Heenan, and John Morrissey—all of whom had worked to support their ring careers. Most of them lived and died badly. Nevertheless, Sullivan envisioned boxing as his ticket to fame and fortune. Several factors made his timing excellent: the popular press was greedy for sensation, Americans were beginning to view sports as beneficial, and the Gilded Age spirit was one of masculine aggression and glitz.

Sullivan's courage and skill in the exhibition ring propelled the "Boston Strong Boy" to victories over Boston and New York toughs. His April 1880 defeat of the English heavyweight Joe Goss, who had lost the U.S. championship to Paddy Ryan, brought him greater celebrity. Issuing the following challenge, "My name is John L. Sullivan and I can lick any son-of-a-bitch alive," Sullivan barnstormed the country and took on anyone for fifty dollars, accumulating cash and notoriety. U.S. champion Paddy Ryan finally accepted the challenge. Although most of Sullivan's contests had been fought using gloves under the Queensberry rules, the match with Ryan was fought bare-knuckled under the old London Rules. On 7 February 1882, in Mississippi City, Mississippi, he knocked out Ryan in the ninth round for the heavyweight championship.

Sullivan's star had risen, and he became the idol of the sporting press and urban tabloids. For the next few years he toured the country and abroad, basking in glory, over-indulging, and defending his championship in the ring and in the saloon, including in a bar he bought. The citizens of Boston officially recognized their native son as world champion, presenting Sullivan with a diamond-studded gold belt. Jake Kilrain, backed by Police Gazette owner Richard K. Fox, challenged the champion to what would be the last bare-knuckle championship in the United States. On 8 July 1889, in Richburg, Mississippi, Sullivan knocked out Kilrain after seventy-five rounds, a feat that made the front page of the New York Times. The world champion reigned for three more years, not only in the ring but also on vaudeville and lecture stages. In his only championship defense under the Queensberry rules, an aged, dissipated Sullivan was knocked out by the "scientific" fighter, James J. Corbett, in twenty-one rounds in New Orleans on 7 September 1892. This marked the end of a boxing career that totaled hundreds of exhibitions and nearly fifty prizefights, only one of which he lost.

Sullivan's personal life was scarred by ferocity, excess, and alcoholism. Although he earned fabulous sums—he was the first athlete in the United States to earn more than $1 million in his lifetime—little of it was saved. His marriage to Annie Bates Baily on 1 May 1883 ended in divorce in 1908 after years of infidelity, violence, and over twenty years of separation. Their only child died at age two in 1886. A second, happier marriage to Katherine Harkins on 7 February 1910 lasted until her death in 1916.

In retirement the gifted showman returned to the stage and, after sobering up, gave lectures on the evils of drink. He hobnobbed with President Theodore Roosevelt and lived relatively quietly on his farm. On 2 February 1918 a heart attack killed him. His wake and funeral were massive affairs. He is buried in Boston's Old Calvary Cemetery.

Sullivan had his detractors, who dwelled upon the brutality of his sport, his drunkenness and adultery, and his refusal to fight a black man, yet these were far outnumbered by his admirers. Although he never regained his championship, to many Bostonians, boxing aficionados, Irish Americans, and others, "the Great John L." was still the greatest sports champion who ever lived. Sullivan changed the way the U.S. public perceived sports, injecting drama and personality into the fray, creating it forever as spectacle.

Sullivan wrote a creative autobiography, Life and Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator (1892). An authoritative biography, Michael T. Isenberg, John L Sullivan and His America (1988), places the fighter in his milieu. Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Fighting in America (1986), sets him in the history of his sport. Sullivan's gold championship belt (or possibly a replica) is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Roney Hughes

Sullivan, John Lawrence (1858-1918)

views updated May 23 2018

John Lawrence Sullivan (1858-1918)


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.


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

John Lawrence Sullivan

views updated May 21 2018

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. □

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