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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 lineal 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, being arguably the first boxing superstar and one of the world's highest-paid athletes of his era.

John L. Sullivan
John L Sullivan.png
Sullivan in his prime in 1882
Real nameJohn Lawrence Sullivan
Nickname(s)Boston Strong Boy
Height5 ft 10 12 in (1.79 m)
Reach74 in (188 cm)
Born(1858-10-15)October 15, 1858
Roxbury, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedFebruary 2, 1918(1918-02-02) (aged 59)
Abington, Massachusetts, U.S.
Boxing record
Total fights44
Wins by KO34
No contests1


Early lifeEdit

John Lawrence Sullivan was born in 1858 in the South End[1] 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 and performed well academically.[2]

Sullivan's parents aspired for their son to enter the priesthood as a Roman Catholic priest.[2] 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.[2] 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."[2]

Early boxing careerEdit

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.[3]

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.[citation needed]

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, and by the end of the bout, both men were unrecognisable, lost a ton of blood, and had suffered so much damage that neither could lift theirs arms up to punch. Both men couldn't continue 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,[citation needed] as bare-knuckle boxing was illegal in France at that time.[citation needed] 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 fightEdit

The Sullivan-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 was the last ever bare-knuckle heavyweight title bout. It was also 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 which included 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.[4]

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.[citation needed]

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 at first it looked like Sullivan was going to lose, especially after he vomitted during the 44th round. However, the champion got his second wind and was able to turn things around for himself. After a grueling beatdown, Kilrain's manager finally threw in the towel after the 75th round.

Today, a historical marker is located at the site of the fight, just off Interstate 59, and the fight is immortalised by the Sullivan-Kilrain Road which runs through the site of the event, at the corner of Richburg Road. The fight would change boxing history forever.

Later careerEdit

Sullivan as he appeared in 1898, late in his 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 9 p.m. 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 $141 to $422 in 2019 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 was then declared the new champion. When Sullivan was able to get back to his feet, he announced to the crowd the following: "If I had to get licked, I'm glad I was licked by an American".[5]

Corbett licks Sullivan.

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 being a 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.[6]

Death and legacyEdit

The effects of prize fighting along with him being overweight and unhealthy after a long life of overindulging in food and alcohol took its toll on the boxer. Like most boxers of the time, he did not live a very long life. Sullivan died at age 59 at his home in Abington, Massachusetts, supposedly from heart disease.[7] At the time of his death, Sullivan had a young boy named Willie Kelly in his custody. The priest of Sullivan’s church had brought Kelly, an orphan, to the front of the parish and encouraged anyone with the means to care for the boy to do so.[8] Sullivan is buried in the Old Calvary Cemetery in Roslindale, a neighborhood of Boston. He died with barely 10 dollars in his pocket (which is equivalent to almost $180 in 2018). According to the county where Sullivan died he had an estate worth $3,675.

Sullivan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, as a member of the hall's original class.[9] 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.[10]

Sullivan and Corbett's landmark 1892 fight is depicted in the 1942 Warner Brothers biopic Gentleman Jim, a fictionalized account of their relationship. Ward Bond portrayed Sullivan alternately as a fiery peacock of a heavyweight champion and, after his title loss, as a sweet, sentimental good sport. Sixteen years later, actor Roy Jenson played Sullivan in the 1958 episode, "The Gambler and the Lady", of the syndicated television anthology series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Stanley Andrews. In the story line, Sullivan in his tour of local communities across the country fights an exposition match against Buck Jarrico (Hal Baylor). When the prize money designated to refurbish the school goes missing, both the teacher, Ruth Stewart (Kathleen Case), and the gambler, Brad Forrester (Mark Dana), are falsely accused based on appearances.[11]

Professional boxing recordEdit

Professional record summary
44 fights 40 wins 1 loss
By knockout 34 1
By decision 6 0
Draws 2
No contests 1
No. Result Record Opponent Type Round, time Date Location Notes
44 Loss 40–1–2 1 NC   James J. Corbett KO 21 (?) 07/09/1892   Olympic Club, New Orleans, United States Lost lineal 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.
43 Win 40–0–2 1 NC   Jake Kilrain KO 75 (80) 08/07/1889   Richburg, Mississippi, United States Last world title bout under the London Prize Ring Rules.
42 Draw 39–0–2 1 NC   Charlie Mitchell PTS 39 (?) 10/03/1888  Chantilly, France Retained the Bareknuckle Heavyweight Championship, London Prize Rules
41 Win 39–0–1 1 NC William Samuells TKO 3 (3) 05/01/1888   Philharmonic Hall, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
40 Draw 38–0–1 1 NC   Patsy Cardiff PTS 6 18/01/1887   Washington Roller Rink, Minneapolis, United States Sullivan 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.
39 Win 38–0
1 NC
  Paddy Ryan KO 3 (?) 13/11/1886   San Francisco, United States In 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.
38 Win 37–0
1 NC
  Frank Herald TD 2 (?) 18/09/1886   Coliseum Rink, Pittsburgh, United States Sullivan 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.
37 Win 36–0
1 NC
  Dominick McCaffrey PTS 6 (6) 29/08/1885   Chester Drving Park, near Cincinnati, United States Won inaugural lineal heavyweight title
In 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.
36 Win 35–0
1 NC
  Jack Burke PTS 5 13/06/1885   Driving Park, Chicago, United States [12]
35 NC 34–0
1 NC
  Paddy Ryan NC 1 (?) 19/01/1885   New York City Both 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.
34 Win 34–0   Alf Greenfield PTS 4 12/01/1885   Institute Hall, Boston, United States In 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.
33 Win 33–0   Alf Greenfield TD 2 (?) 18/11/1884   New York City, United States The 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.
32 Win 32–0 John Laflin KO 4 (?) 10/11/1884   New York City, United States Hybrid 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.
31 Win 31–0 Enos Phillips KO 4 (?) 02/05/1884   Nashville, United States Part 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.
30 Win 30–0 William Fleming KO 1 (4) 01/05/1884   Memphis, Tennessee, United States Part 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.
29 Win 29–0 Dan Henry KO 1 (4) 29/04/1884   Hot Springs, Arkansas, United States Part of world champion Sullivan's grand tour of the U.S..
28 Win 28–0 Al Marx KO 1 (4) 10/04/1884   Grand Opera House, Galveston, Texas, United States He 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..
27 Win 27–0 George M Robinson DQ 4 (4) 06/03/1884   Mechanic's Pavilion, San Francisco, California, United States Robinson went down 51-66 times in 4 rounds until finally disqualified for going down without being hit.
26 Win 26–0 James Lang KO 1 (4) 06/02/1884   Seattle, United States
25 Win 25–0 Sylvester Le Gouriff KO 1 (4) 01/02/1884   Astoria, Oregon, United States
24 Win 24–0 Fred Robinson KO 2 (?) 12/01/1884   Butte, Montana, United States Robinson 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.
23 Win 23–0 Mike Sheehan TKO 1 (?) 04/12/1883   Davenport, Iowa, United States This 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."
22 Win 22–0 Morris Hefey KO 1 (?) 26/11/1883   Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States Part of Sullivan's grand exhibition tour of the U.S.. Hefey was floored 3 times in 30 seconds.
21 Win 21–0 Jim Miles TKO 1 (?) 03/11/1883   East St. Louis, Illinois, United States Part 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.
20 Win 20–0   James McCoy KO 1 (?) 17/10/1883   McKeesport, Pennsylvania, United States McCoy 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.
19 Win 19–0   Herbert Slade TKO 3 06/08/1883   Madison Square Garden, New York City, United States [13]
18 Win 18–0   Charley Mitchell TKO 3 (?) 14/05/1883   New York City, United States Mitchell knocked Sullivan down in the 1st round.
17 Win 17–0 P J Rentzler TKO 1 (4) 17/11/1882   Theatre Comique, Washington, United States
16 Win 16–0 Charley O'Donnell KO 1 (?) 30/10/1882   Chicago, United States This 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.
15 Win 15–0   S P Stockton KO 2 (?) 16/10/1882   Fort Wayne, Indiana, United States
14 Win 14–0 Henry Higgins TKO 3 (4) 23/09/1882   St. James A.C., Buffalo, New York, United States Part of Sullivan's nationwide exhibition tour.
13 Win 13–0   Jimmy Elliot KO 3 (?) 04/07/1882   Brooklyn, New York, United States Elliot 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.
12 Win 12–0 John McDermont TKO 3 (?) 20/04/1882   Grand Opera House, Rochester, New York, United States Part 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.
11 Win 11–0  Paddy Ryan KO 9 (?) 07/02/1882   Mississippi, United States Won Bareknuckle heavyweight championship, London Prize Rules
10 Win 10–0   Jack Burns KO 1 (4) 03/09/1881   Chicago, United States Part 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.
9 Win 9–0   Captain James Dalton KO 4 (4) 13/08/1881   United States This 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.
8 Win 8–0 Dan McCarty KO 1 (?) 21/07/1881   Philadelphia, United States This 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.
7 Win 7–0 Fred Crossley KO 1 (4) 11/07/1881   Philadelphia, United States This 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.
6 Win 6–0 John Flood KO 8 (?) 16/05/1881   Yonkers, New York, United States LPR bout with hard gloves, lasted 16 minutes total. Fight held on a barge six miles up the Hudson River.
5 Win 5–0   Steve Taylor TKO 2 (4) 31/03/1881   Harry Hill's, New York City, United States This is the fight that helped first establish Sullivan's reputation within the fight community of New York.
4 Win 4–0   Professor John Donaldson RTD 10 (?) 24/12/1880   Pacific Garden, Cincinnati, United States Scheduled fight to the finish. LPR rules with hard gloves. On the 10th round Donaldson was too much exhausted to come to the scratch.
3 Win 3–0   George Rooke KO 3 (?) 28/06/1880   Boston, United States The 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.
2 Win 2–0   Johnny Cocky Woods KO 5 (?) 14/03/1879   Boston, United States
1 Win 1–0 Jack Curley KO ? (?) 13/03/1879   Boston, United States Sullivan won this fight to the finish (likely LPR rules with gloves) in 1 hour and 14 minutes.


  1. ^ South End News: "Claiming John L.", Alison Barnet, January 19, 2012, accessed January 20, 2012
  2. ^ a b c d "The Champion Slugger: John L. Sullivan Tells the Story of His Life to a Denver Reporter," Denver Tribune, reprinted in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, Jan. 1, 1884, pg. 16.
  3. ^ "Tombstone, Arizona: Boxing In The Wild West (1880-84)". Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  4. ^ Bly, Nellie (May 26, 1889). "A Visit with John L. Sullivan". New York World. Retrieved 2014-09-08.
  5. ^ [1] Archived September 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "SULLIVAN ON TEMPERANCE.; Ex-Pugllist Says He Wasted $500,000 Through Liquor". New York Times. 1915-08-02. Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  7. ^ The Strong Boy Blog
  8. ^ [2]
  9. ^ "John L. Sullivan". International Boxing Hall of Fame. Retrieved December 13, 2011.
  10. ^ Ryan Whirty (October 20, 2010). "Belfast, N.Y., houses Bare Knuckle Hall". ESPN. Retrieved 2011-03-07.
  11. ^ "The Gambler and the Lady on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 4, 2018.
  12. ^ "John L. Sullivan vs. Jack Burke". BoxRec.
  13. ^ "John L. Sullivan vs. Herbert Maori Slade". BoxRec.

Further readingEdit

  • Isenberg, Michael T. John L. Sullivan and His America (University of Illinois Press, 1994.)
  • Pollack, Adam J. John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion (McFarland, 2015)
  • Reel, Guy. "Richard Fox, John L. Sullivan, and the rise of modern American prize fighting." Journalism History 27.2 (2001): 73+
  • Sullivan, John L. Article in The Washington Post, 30 July 1905. "'Your hands are too big; you'll never make a boxer,' was one of the bits of discouragement passed to me when I was beginning to attract notice as a puncher. That was the popular notion at that time, because Sayers, Heenan, Yankee Sullivan, and some other good men who had made their tally and passed up had small hands."

External linksEdit

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Paddy Ryan
World Heavyweight Champion
February 7, 1882 – August 29, 1885
Title defunct
London Prize Ring abolished
New title
Under Queensbury Rules
World Heavyweight Champion
August 29, 1885 – September 7, 1892
Succeeded by
James J. Corbett
Sporting positions
Preceded by
Nonpareil Dempsey
Oldest Living World Champion
August 29, 1885 – February 12, 1918
Succeeded by
Torpedo Billy Murphy