John Lawrence Sullivan (October 15, 1858 – February 2, 1918), also known as the "Boston Strong Boy", was an Irish-American boxer recognized as the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, holding the title from February 7, 1882, to 1892. He is also generally recognized as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring Rules.


Early life

John Lawrence Sullivan was born in 1858 in the South End[2] neighborhood of Boston to Irish immigrant parents, Michael Sullivan from Abbeydorney, County Kerry and the former Catherine Kelly from Athlone, County Westmeath.

He attended public schools in his native Boston, attending the Dwight Grammar School, performing well academically.[20]

Sullivan's parents aspired for their son to enter the priesthood as a Roman Catholic priest.[20] To this end Sullivan enrolled at Boston College circa 1875 but after only a few months he turned to playing baseball professionally, earning the substantial sum of $30 to $40 a week for his efforts.[20] As Sullivan recalled in 1883:

"...I threw my books aside and gave myself up to it. This is how I got into the base-ball profession and I left school for good and all. From the base-ball business I drifted into boxing and pugilism."[20]

Early boxing career

As a professional fighter Sullivan was nicknamed The Boston Strongboy. As a youth he was arrested several times for participating in bouts where the sport was outlawed. He went on exhibition tours offering people money to fight him. Sullivan won more than 450 fights in his career.

There is some controversy among boxing historians, over whether Sullivan had sparred with black boxer James Young at Schieffelin Hall in Tombstone, Arizona in 1882. It is significant because Sullivan insisted that he never fought a black boxer. If it did occur, Sullivan possibly had a brief sparring session with the resident from Tombstone, and didn't regard it seriously as a bout.[21]

In 1883–84 Sullivan went on a coast-to-coast tour by train with five other boxers. They were scheduled to hold 195 fights in 136 different cities and towns over 238 days. To help promote the tour, Sullivan announced that he would box anyone at any time during the tour under the Queensberry Rules for $250. He knocked out eleven men during the tour.

In Sullivan's era, no formal boxing titles existed. He became a champion after defeating Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City, near Gulfport, Mississippi on February 7, 1882. Modern authorities have retroactively labelled Ryan the "Heavyweight Champion of America", but any claim to Ryan's being a "world champion" would have been dubious; he had never contended internationally as Sullivan had.

Depending on the modern authority, Sullivan was first considered world heavyweight champion either in 1888 when he fought Charley Mitchell in France, or in 1889 when he knocked out Jake Kilrain in round 75 of a scheduled 80-round bout. Arguably the real first World Heavyweight champion was Jem Mace, who defeated Tom Allen in 1870 at Kenner, Louisiana, but strong anti-British sentiment within the mostly Irish-American boxing community of the time chose to disregard him.

When the modern authorities write of the "heavyweight championship of the world," they are likely referring to the championship belt presented to Sullivan in Boston on August 8, 1887. The belt was inscribed Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L. Sullivan, by the Citizens of the United States. Its centerpiece featured the flags of the US, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

Mitchell came from Birmingham, England and fought Sullivan in 1883, knocking him down in the first round. Their third meeting took place in 1888 on the grounds of a chateau at Chantilly, France, with the fight held in driving rain. It went on for more than two hours, at the end of which both men were unrecognisable and had suffered much loss of blood; neither could lift his arms to punch and the contest was considered a draw.

At this point, the local gendarmerie arrived and arrested Mitchell. He was confined to jail for a few days and later fined by the local magistrate, as bare-knuckle boxing was illegal in France at that time. Swathed in bandages, Sullivan was helped to evade the law and taken across the English Channel to spend the next few weeks convalescing in Liverpool.

The Kilrain fight

The Kilrain fight is considered to be a turning point in boxing history because it was the last world title bout fought under the London Prize Ring Rules, and therefore the last bare-knuckle heavyweight title bout. It was one of the first sporting events in the United States to receive national press coverage.

For the first time, newspapers carried extensive pre-fight coverage, reporting on the fighters' training and speculating on where the bout would take place. The traditional center of bare-knuckle fighting was New Orleans, but the governor of Louisiana had forbidden the fight in that state. Sullivan had trained for months in Belfast, New York under trainer William Muldoon, whose biggest problem had been keeping Sullivan from liquor. A report on Sullivan's training regimen in Belfast was written by famed reporter Nellie Bly and published in the New York World.[3]

Rochester reporter Arch Merrill commented that occasionally Sullivan would "escape" from his guard. In Belfast village, the cry was heard, "John L. is loose again. Send for Muldoon!" Muldoon would snatch the champ away from the bar and take him back to their training camp.

On July 8, 1889, an estimated 3000 spectators boarded special trains for the secret location, which turned out to be Richburg, a town just south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The fight began at 10:30, and it looked as if Sullivan was going to lose, especially after he vomited during the 44th round. But the champion got his second wind after that, and Kilrain's manager finally threw in the towel after the 75th round.

Later career

Undefeated at that point, Sullivan did not defend his title for the next four years. During this period, he was a friend and supporter of Irish boxer Ike Weir, who became America's first Featherweight boxing champion in 1889. Both Weir and Sullivan were Boston natives, and Sullivan occasionally appeared at Weir's bouts.

Sullivan agreed to defend his title in 1892, against challenger "Gentleman Jim" Corbett. The match was on 7 September in New Orleans. It began at 9PM in the electrically illuminated Olympic Club in the upper Ninth Ward neighborhood now known as Bywater section. The venue filled to its 10,000 person capacity despite hefty ticket prices ranging from $5 to $15 (approximately $117 to $353 in 2009 dollars). The heavyweight contest occurred under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, but it was neither the first title fight under those rules nor was it the first title fight using boxing gloves. Corbett was younger and faster, and his boxing technique enabled him to dodge Sullivan's crouch and rush style. In the 21st round Corbett landed a smashing left "audible throughout the house" that put Sullivan down for good. Sullivan was counted out and Corbett declared the new champion. When Sullivan was able to get back to his feet, he announced to the crowd, "if I had to get licked I'm glad I was licked by an American".[5]

John L. Sullivan as he appeared in 1898, late in his career.

Sullivan is considered the last bare-knuckle champion because no champion after him fought bare-knuckled. However, Sullivan had fought with gloves under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules as early as 1880 and he only fought bare knuckle three times in his entire career (Ryan 1882, Mitchell 1888, and Kilrain 1889). His bare-knuckle image was created because both his infrequent fights from 1888 up to the Corbett fight in 1892 had been bare-knuckle.

Sullivan retired to Abington, Massachusetts but appeared in several exhibitions over the next 12 years, including a three-rounder against Tom Sharkey and a final two-rounder against Jim McCormick in 1905 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He continued his various careers outside boxing such as stage actor, speaker, celebrity baseball umpire, sports reporter, and bar owner. In his later years, Sullivan also gave up his lifelong addiction to alcohol and became a prohibition lecturer.[22]

Death and legacy

Overweight and unhealthy from a long life of overindulging in food and drinks as well as from the effects from prizefighting, Sullivan died at age 59 and is buried in the Old Calvary Cemetery in Roslindale, a neighborhood of Boston. He died with barely 10 dollars in his pocket.

Sullivan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, as a member of the hall's original class.[6] He had a record of 40 wins, 1 loss and 2 draws, with 34 wins by knockout, though many sources disagree on his exact record.

The barn where Sullivan trained still stands in the small town of Belfast, New York and is now the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame.[7]

Professional boxing record

Professional record summary
44 fights40 wins1 loss
By knockout341
By decision60
No contests1
No.ResultRecordOpponentTypeRound, timeDateLocationNotes
1 NC
James J. CorbettKO21 (?)07/09/1892
Corbett licks Sullivan.
Olympic Club, New Orleans, United States
For World Heavyweight title. The first 4 rounds were all repeats; Corbett flitting and dancing elusively around the ring, with Sullivan trundling cumbersomely in pursuit. After that, Corbett moved in closer, jabbing, his lefts moving straight as a sharpshooter’s bullet to Sullivan’s face. The rest of the fight was routine. In the 21st round Corbett landed a decisive left "audible throughout the house" that put Sullivan down for good.
1 NC
Jake KilrainKO75 (80)08/07/1889 Richburg, Mississippi, United StatesLast world title bout under the London Prize Ring Rules.
Charlie MitchellPTS39 (?)10/03/1888Chantilly, FranceDefended the Bareknuckle Heavyweight Championship, London Prize Rules
1 NC
William SamuellsTKO3 (3)05/01/1888 Philharmonic Hall, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
1 NC
Patsy CardiffPTS618/01/1887 Washington Roller Rink, Minneapolis, United StatesSullivan broke his left arm in the 1st round after missing a punch at the elusive Cardiff. Forced to use only his right for the remainder of the fight, he could not catch up with the smaller man and the fight was declared a draw after the end of the scheduled 4 rounds. Attendance: 8,000.
1 NC
Paddy RyanKO3 (?)13/11/1886 San Francisco, United StatesIn the 2nd round, Sullivan landed a perfectly timed counter punch to drop his fading opponent and, when Ryan got up, put him down twice more before the close of the round. Ryan fought a brave fight and came out for the 3rd, but had nothing left. He was devastated by a right hand and floored twice more before the police interrupted.
1 NC
Frank HeraldTD2 (?)18/09/1886 Coliseum Rink, Pittsburgh, United StatesSullivan used his size advantage to drive his opponent to the ropes through much of the 1st round. The 2nd became a wrestling, holding, and fouling match. Police stopped this fight in the 2nd round after Herald was dropped. Referee awarded decision to Sullivan as per agreement that allowed for a decision if there was a police stoppage.
1 NC
Dominick McCaffreyPTS6 (6)29/08/1885 Chester Drving Park, near Cincinnati, United StatesIn the 6th round, after the champion tackled the challenger to the floor, referee Billy Tate stopped the fight to save McAffrey from further punishment and declared Sullivan the winner. Both fighters subsequently agreed to fight a 7th, unofficial round without a referee present. Sullivan is named the 1st Heavyweight Champion under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules after this victory.
1 NC
Jack BurkePTS513/06/1885 Driving Park, Chicago, United States[10]
1 NC
Paddy RyanNC1 (?)19/01/1885 New York CityBoth fighters appeared badly out of shape and showed little action however. Sullivan had only just started to take control in the 1st round when police stopped the affair on orders from Mayor William Grace. Sullivan was declared winner of the abortive bout and he split his winnings with the near destitute Ryan.
34Win34–0 Alf GreenfieldPTS412/01/1885 Institute Hall, Boston, United StatesIn this fight, Greenfield did his best to avoid all contact with the champion. He nearly ran around the ring in an effort to keep away and, when Sullivan drew dangerously near, Greenfield simply clinched. He lasted the scheduled four round distance, but the small crowd in attendance booed both champion and challenger. Owing to the order of the police captain, Sullivan carried Greenfield.
33Win33–0 Alf GreenfieldTD2 (?)18/11/1884 New York City, United StatesThe 1st round of the match showed little action, with Greenfield landing the few telling blows. Sullivan came on in the 2nd, attacking ferociously, while Greenfield resorted to holding. Pinned in a corner, Greenfield suffered a cut above his left eye, prompting Clubber Williams, Chief of Police to step in and end the affair. Announcer Billy Williams declared Sullivan the winner.
32Win32–0John LaflinKO4 (?)10/11/1884 New York City, United StatesHybrid rules. After being dropped in the 1st round, Laflin was given 30 seconds to recover, in LPR fashion, before continuing. Sullivan had completed his exhibition tour of the U.S. 6 months earlier and had fallen badly out of shape in the interim, but did do some minor training for this appearance.
31Win31–0Enos PhillipsKO4 (?)02/05/1884 Nashville, United StatesPart of world champion Sullivan's grand tour of the U.S.. Sullivan carried the challenger for 3 rounds, moving and lightly sparring. In the 4th, he finally attacked, flooring Phillips 3 times before the local police interfered.
30Win30–0William FlemingKO1 (4)01/05/1884 Memphis, Tennessee, United StatesPart of world champion Sullivan's grand tour of the U.S.. Fleming was allegedly drunk on fight night. Sullivan knocked him out with his first right hand punch, landed to the jaw. Fleming went completely unconscious and Sullivan later claimed this bout, lasting just two seconds, to be his quickest knockout.
29Win29–0Dan HenryKO1 (4)29/04/1884 Hot Springs, Arkansas, United StatesPart of world champion Sullivan's grand tour of the U.S..
28Win28–0Al MarxKO1 (4)10/04/1884 Grand Opera House, Galveston, Texas, United StatesHe suffered 3 knockdowns before the end of the first minute of action, and "threw up the sponge." Part of world champion Sullivan's grand tour of the U.S..
27Win27–0George M RobinsonDQ4 (4)06/03/1884 Mechanic's Pavilion, San Francisco, California, United StatesRobinson went down 51-66 times in 4 rounds until finally disqualified for going down without being hit.
26Win26–0James LangKO1 (4)06/02/1884 Seattle, United States
25Win25–0Sylvester Le GouriffKO1 (4)01/02/1884 Astoria, Oregon, United States
24Win24–0Fred RobinsonKO2 (?)12/01/1884 Butte, Montana, United StatesRobinson was Sullivan's 5th challenger on his latest exhibition tour across the U.S.. 2000 people watch Robinson take a horrid beating, going down a total of 15 times in just two rounds before the fight was called off.
23Win23–0Mike SheehanTKO1 (?)04/12/1883 Davenport, Iowa, United StatesThis bout was part of Sullivan's grand exhibition tour of the U.S. after winning the title. Sheehan was a Davenport blacksmith who somehow became known as "the strongest man in Iowa."
22Win22–0Morris HefeyKO1 (?)26/11/1883 Saint Paul, Minnesota, United StatesPart of Sullivan's grand exhibition tour of the U.S.. Hefey was floored 3 times in 30 seconds.
21Win21–0Jim MilesTKO1 (?)03/11/1883 East St. Louis, Illinois, United StatesPart of Sullivan's grand exhibition tour of the U.S.. Police found it necessary to stop the bout after only 20 seconds of action to save Miles from further punishment, yet the challenger insisted he be allowed to continue. When he rushed past the police and at Sullivan, the champion slapped him off of the stage.
20Win20–0 James McCoyKO1 (?)17/10/1883 McKeesport, Pennsylvania, United StatesMcCoy was Sullivan's first challenger of his 1883-1884 "Grand Tour," another of his exhibition tours criss-crossing through the country offering to pay the locals to step into the ring with him. McCoy landed few punches before a one-two combination from Sullivan put him flat. After 20 seconds, it was all over.
19Win19–0 Herbert "Maori" SladeTKO306/08/1883 Madison Square Garden, New York City, United States[2]
18Win18–0 Charley MitchellTKO3 (?)14/05/1883 New York City, United StatesMitchell knocked Sullivan down in the 1st round.
17Win17–0P J RentzlerTKO1 (4)17/11/1882 Theatre Comique, Washington, United States
16Win16–0Charley O'DonnellKO1 (?)30/10/1882 Chicago, United StatesThis was part of champion Sullivan's nationwide tour offering 500 dollars to any man who could last 4 rounds against him. O'Donnell was knocked down 5 times during the fight.
15Win15–0 S P StocktonKO2 (?)16/10/1882 Fort Wayne, Indiana, United States
14Win14–0Henry HigginsTKO3 (4)23/09/1882 St. James A.C., Buffalo, New York, United StatesPart of Sullivan's nationwide exhibition tour.
13Win13–0 Jimmy ElliotKO3 (?)04/07/1882 Brooklyn, New York, United StatesElliot was a former claimant to the Heavyweight Championship of America. Elliot was floored twice in the opening round and once at the close of the 2nd. At the opening of the 3rd, a blow to the throat put Elliott down for the count.
12Win12–0John McDermontTKO3 (?)20/04/1882 Grand Opera House, Rochester, New York, United StatesPart of Sullivan's tour of the Northeastern U.S.. McDermont did well to last into the 3rd round, mostly by keeping his distance from Sullivan, who had to take breaks to catch his breath. Eventually, Sullivan knocked him out, to the boos of his audience.
11Win11-0Paddy RyanKO9 (?)07/02/1882 Mississippi, United StatesFor the Bareknuckle Heavyweight Championship, London Prize Rules
10Win10–0 Jack BurnsKO1 (4)03/09/1881 Chicago, United StatesPart of John Sullivan's 1881 tour of the Northeast. Burns fashioned himself the Michigan state boxing champion and was both taller and heavier than Sullivan. However, Sullivan made short work of him. Down within 20 seconds, Burns rose shakily to his feet but a blow to the mouth sent him careening into the audience below.
9Win9–0 Captain James DaltonKO4 (4)13/08/1881 United StatesThis fight took place during Sullivan's tour of the Northeastern U.S.. Dalton survived into the 4th round, longer than any of Sullivan's previous opponents on the tour. Still, Sullivan dominated the action and dealt Dalton a severe beating until the tugboat captain collapsed in the 4th.
8Win8–0Dan McCartyKO1 (?)21/07/1881 Philadelphia, United StatesThis was the second fight of Sullivan's tour of the Northeastern U.S.. The fight did not last a round, with an early punch to the neck sending McCarty sprawling to the floor.
7Win7–0Fred CrossleyKO1 (4)11/07/1881 Philadelphia, United StatesThis was the first bout of Sullivan's tour of the Northeast, arranged by his manager, Billy Madden. The fight proved a horrible mismatch, with Sullivan forcing an already bloodied Crossley to flee to his corner and quit in the opening round.
6Win6–0John FloodKO8 (?)16/05/1881 Yonkers, New York, United StatesLPR bout with hard gloves, lasted 16 minutes total. Fight held on a barge six miles up the Hudson River.
5Win5–0 Steve TaylorTKO2 (4)31/03/1881 Harry Hill's, New York City, United StatesThis is the fight that helped first establish Sullivan's reputation within the fight community of New York.
4Win4–0 Professor John DonaldsonRTD10 (?)24/12/1880 Pacific Garden, Cincinnati, United StatesScheduled fight to the finish. LPR rules with hard gloves. On the 10th round Donaldson was too much exhausted to come to the scratch.
3Win3–0 George RookeKO3 (?)28/06/1880 Boston, United StatesThe bout was officially labeled a boxing exhibition under Marquess of Queensberry Rules to please local authorities, but the fighting was serious. Sullivan used his size advantages to score 3 knockdowns in the opening 3 minutes. During the 3rd round, believing the action too "realistic," police stopped the match to save Rooke, who may have been drunk, from further punishment.
2Win2–0 Johnny Cocky WoodsKO5 (?)14/03/1879 Boston, United States
1Win1–0Jack CurleyKO? (?)13/03/1879 Boston, United StatesSullivan won this fight to the finish (likely LPR rules with gloves) in 1 hour and 14 minutes.