Sullivan, John L.

views updated

John L. Sullivan


American boxer

John L. Sullivan was the last of the "bare-knuckle" boxing champions. Heavyweight champion of the world from 1882 to 1892, he lost his title to Jim Corbett in the first heavyweight boxing championship to be fought with gloves. Considered by many to be the first American sports star, Sullivan was undefeated in his twenty-seven-year career until his bout with Corbett. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

The First Boxing Celebrity

John L. Sullivan was born in 1858 in the Roxbury section of Boston, Massachusetts to Irish immigrant parents. If his parents had had their way, their son would have become a Catholic priest. But he showed a propensity for fighting at an early age, and boxing was a natural career choice for him. He became champion of Massachusetts in 1879. In 1882, he challenged the reigning heavyweight champion, Paddy Ryan, and they fought in Mississippi City, Mississippi. Sullivan scored a knockout in nine rounds, becoming the new heavyweight champion of the world.

Reveling in his new role as heavyweight champion of the world, Sullivan toured around the United States fighting in matches and performing in theatres. He was knocked down for the first time in his career when he fought Charley Mitchell in 1883. Sullivan rallied, however, and gave Mitchell a thorough hammering in the third round before the fight was stopped by police. They fought again in 1888 in a bare knuckle contest that lasted more than three hours in a freezing drizzle on an estate in France. The fight was finally declared a draw.

An actor as well as a boxer, Sullivan depended on his standing as reining heavyweight champion of the world to draw crowds to the plays he appeared in. Therefore it was with some reluctance that he accepted Jim Corbett's challenge to the boxing crown in 1892. But accept it he must; to reject a legitimate challenge would spell the end of his career just as surely as to lose.

It had been three years since Sullivan had last defended his title. That was when he defeated Jake Kilrain in a punishing three round bout. The fight, like all other heavyweight fights before it, had been fought with bare knuckles. After this match, Sullivan vowed never to fight with bare fists again; from then on, he would fight under the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, which required the use of gloves. This made the bout with Kilrain the last heavyweight championship to be fought with bare fists.

End of an Era

With public pressure growing for the champion to defend his title, Sullivan finally issued a challenge, which was published in the New York World in March, 1892. But he shrewdly insisted that the challenger put down a $10,000 bet that he would match. This effectively weeded out most challengers. But Jim Corbett and his manager raised the required amount from backers, and met the challenge.

Sullivan was said to intensely dislike Corbett, not just because he was a serious challenge to his jealouslyguarded title, but because Corbett represented a new breed of fightersocially refined, well-dressed and groomed, and a "scientific" fighter who relied more on finesse and speed than on the brute strength that was then the norm in the ring. Sullivan was also given to hard drinking and hard living, in contrast to Corbett who preferred a more discrete lifestyle.

Sullivan and Corbett squared off on September 7, 1892 at New Orleans's Olympic Club. The winner was to take away $25,000 in addition to the stake money of $10,000, with the loser to receive nothing. Betting odds were four to one in Sullivan's favor; the Boston Strong Boy, as Sullivan was then called, had never been defeated.

Boxing at the time was barely tolerated by law enforcement officials. Boxers, and even spectators, were often arrested for attending matches. Boxing with bare fists was particularly frowned upon, and it was partly for this reason that fighting with gloves eventually became the preferred method of fighting. The Marquis of Queensbury Rules brought other improvements to the game, for example, specifying time limits for rounds. The rules also forbade wrestling and head butting.

Thousands of spectators turned out to watch the match between Sullivan and Corbett, and reporters from most of the major newspapers in the country were present, along with many from around the world. Fifty Western Union telegraph operators sat ringside to send blow-by-blow accounts to pool halls and bars around the country.

The championship bout lasted an hour and twenty minutes, twenty-one rounds, and Sullivan was solidly beaten by the younger, faster man. Unable to land a punch in the first round, Sullivan got two strong shots in at Corbett's head in the second. Corbett came back in the third round, however, landing a solid left to Sullivan's nose, breaking it. Now seriously worried, Sullivan tried to rush Corbett, and get in the powerful punch that could end the match. But Corbett, a "scientific" boxing master, successfully avoided Sullivan's best punches, and darted in for quick, hard jabs that gradually wore Sullivan down. Puffing and bleeding, Sullivan was ripe for the final blow in the twenty-first round that sent him to the turf floor of the ring.


1858Born October 15 in Roxbury, Massachusetts
1879Becomes boxing champion of Massachusetts
1882Defeats Paddy Ryan to become heavyweight champion of the world
1883Knocked down for the first time in his career, by Charley Mitchell, before the fight is stopped by police
1888Fights Mitchell again in an outdoor fight that lasts more than three hours and ends in a draw
1889Defeats Jake Kilrain in the last bare-knuckle championship bout
1892Loses title to Jim Corbett in the first championship bout fought under modern boxing rules
1918Dies of a heart attack in Abington, Massachusetts
1990Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame

After Corbett was declared the new world heavyweight champion to an exultant crowd, Sullivan staggered to his feet and held up a hand for silence. "Gentlemen, all I have to say is that I came into the ring once too often, and if I had to get licked I'm glad it was by an American," he told the spectators, according the Patrick Myler in Gentleman Jim Corbett. "I remain your warm and personal friend, John L. Sullivan."

Last of the Bare-Knuckle Champions

Sullivan was reportedly devastated at losing his title, according to one account, sobbing in his dressing room afterwards, and drinking heavily through the night. To add insult to injury, Sullivan took home no money from the fight that cost him his title; he had insisted on "winner take all" rules. He did, however, recoup some of the money he lost betting on himself in the fight by sparring in an exhibition match with Corbett ten days later at New York's Madison Square Garden. The exhibition was organized as a benefit for the hard-up ex-champion, who earned $6,000 for it.

Sullivan stayed in the game for few more years sparring in exhibition matches before hanging up his gloves for good to become an advocate for the prohibition of alcohol. He died in 1818 of a heart attack and was buried in Boston. Jim Corbett served as an honorary pall bearer.

Awards and Accomplishments

In his 27 years as a professional boxer, Sullivan was defeated only once, when he lost his world heavyweight title to Jim Corbett in 1892.
1879Champion, State of Massachusetts
1882World heavyweight champion
1990Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame

John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strong Boy, ended an era when he was defeated in the first heavyweight boxing championship in which the participants wore gloves. A heavy drinker and a barroom brawler, Sullivan also represented the end of boxing's street fighting days; with his defeat he helped to usher in the modern era of professional boxing, in which skill and strategy are as highly valued as strength.



Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 1998.

Myler, Patrick. Gentleman Jim Corbett: The Truth Behind a Boxing Legend. London: Robson Books, 1998.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.


"Bareknuckle Boxing in America." Hickok (October 30, 2002).

"John L. Sullivan (the 'Boston Strong Boy')." Cyber Boxing Zone. (October 15, 2002).

"John L. Sullivan." (October 15, 2002).

"Paddy Ryan." Cyber Boxing Zone. (October 30, 2002).

Sketch by Michael Belfiore

About this article

Sullivan, John L.

Updated About content Print Article