Boxing World Lost John L. Sullivan – “I can lick any son of a bitch alive” – John L. Sullivan
On October 15th, 1858 John L. Sullivan was born in South Boston. Sullivan holds a special place in boxing lore, as he is considered to have been the Heavyweight Champion of the World in the 1880’s when the existing London Prizefighting Rules started to give way to the Marquis de Queensberry rules. For the laymen, Sullivan, known as “The Boston Strongboy” was champion before there were gloves, and then after there were gloves in boxing he was still Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Sullivan’s first credited fight occurred in 1879, and his known record sits at 38-1-1, with the defeat coming in his last fight when he famously lost his title to the younger, fitter James J Corbett on September 7th, 1892. But those dates and numbers fail to tell the full story of Sullivan, who became one of America’s first true media darlings from the sporting world and is reported to be the first athlete to have earned a million dollars.
Sullivan was born in extreme poverty to Irish immigrants in Massachusetts, and from an early age he was known as a trouble-maker. Drinking, women and fighting all piqued young Sullivan’s interests, and all three became lifelong pursuits for ‘The Strongboy’.
Which Sullivan story is the one that stands out the most? Certainly around Boston, tales of his numerous bar fights buoyed his reputation. When he was 19 years old, he is said to have accepted the challenge of a grown man and professional boxer at a ‘boxing demonstration’, which ended when Sullivan sent the boxer through the ropes and crashing into a baby grand piano.
Sullivan naturally gravitated to the world of prizefighting, and many of his bare knuckle fights fell under the label of “illegal”, such as the time he fought John Flood for 16 minutes on a barge floating on the Hudson River. Sullivan won that one by KO.
Sullivan’s reputation and exploits caught the attention of the media, and he became a star. Sullivan embarked on three national tours of the United States with a boxing exhibition, taking on all comers and that certainly served to put and keep him in the public eye. The saying ‘Shake the hand that shook the hand of John L Sullivan’ was widely used, as Sullivan visited approximately 40 states in his tour. Sullivan is said to have fought close to 500 exhibitions as he criss-crossed the United States with his traveling road show. The stories of taking on local tough men, wrestlers, cheaters, professional boxers or just the local low-life abound from Sullivan’s years on the road. That the exhibitions made all the local papers when the ‘Strongboy’ was in town made him a household name.
By 1889, Sullivan was a grizzled veteran that was universally considered the undisputed champion of the world. Really, there was not any real structure to prize fighting, as there were no weight classes and very little law except the old London Prizefighting Rules. Sullivan met Jack Kilrain on July 9th, 1889 in Richburg, Mississippi in what is a historic bout. The match was scheduled for 80 rounds, and Sullivan, already a veteran of his hard living lifestyle, was fading as the match entered the 40th round, and it appeared only a matter of time. Sullivan, who was known to drink whiskey between rounds, is said to have come over to the ropes and thrown up sometime around round 45, which appeared to inspire him the rest of the way. Sullivan kept his title and undefeated record intact with a KO in the 75th round.
In retrospect, this fight is credited as being the last World Title fight held with bare knuckles and the match was one of the first events of this type covered by the American press as a sporting event rather than as a criminal act. The fight and the fighter were also helped by the growing national railroad system, as a great deal of the audience of over 3,000 traveled to southern Mississippi via the rails to see the fight. John L. Sullivan was at the center of America’s industrial revolution, and his hard living, braggart ways were idolized because he could back it up. This dirt poor son of Irish land farmers went on to capture the imagination of the nation, and to call President Theodore Roosevelt friend.
By the time the late 1880’s rolled into the 1890’s Sullivan had slowed down his fighting pace and he had not fought in years when he took the challenge of James J Corbett on September 7th, 1892 in New Orleans. The fight was also historic, as both men wore gloves. Sullivan, now in his thirties, is said to have lost 40 lbs in trying to condition himself for the fight, but his years of hard living meant the now 34 year old ‘Boston Strongboy’ was not what he once was. By the twenty-first round, Corbett, younger and better conditioned, was able to score the KO that ended Sullivan’s career.
Once defeated, Sullivan retired to a celebrity life, where he toured giving exhibitions and speaking engagements. He also had a vaudeville act and set up a bar, and he would eventually retire to a Massachusetts farm where he died on February 2nd, 1918. Certainly, the sport of boxing would not be the same today if it was not for the towering, iconic presence of John L. Sullivan, ‘the Boston Strongboy’ who took prizefighting out of the dark ages and into the mainstream more than 125 years ago.
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