John L. Sullivan

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John L. Sullivan
John L Sullivan.png
John L. Sullivan in his prime during the 1880s
Real name John Lawrence Sullivan
Nickname(s) Boston Strong Boy
Rated at Heavyweight
Height 5 ft 10 12 in (1.79 m)
Reach 74 in (188 cm)
Nationality American
Born (1858-10-12)October 12, 1858
Roxbury, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died February 2, 1918(1918-02-02) (aged 59)
Abington, Massachusetts, U.S.
Stance Orthodox
Boxing record
Total fights 44
Wins 40
Wins by KO 34
Losses 1
Draws 2
No contests 1

John Lawrence Sullivan (October 12, 1858 – February 2, 1918), also known as the Boston Strong Boy, was an American boxer recognized as the first Heavyweight Champion of gloved boxing, holding the title from February 7, 1882, to 1892. He is 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[1] neighborhood of Boston to Irish immigrant parents, Michael Sullivan from Abbeydorney, County Kerry and the former Catherine Kelly from Athlone, County Westmeath. 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.

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.

Paddy Ryan, 1887


A cigarette trading card of Sullivan produced in late 1886.

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,[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 fight

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 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.[2]

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 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.

Corbett licks Sullivan

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".[3]

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.


John L. Sullivan 1898

Sullivan retired to Abington 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 life long addiction to alcohol and became a prohibition lecturer.[citation needed]

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.


  • He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, as a member of the hall's original class.[4] 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, NY and is now a museum.[5]

Professional boxing record

40 Wins (34 knockouts, 6 decisions), 1 Loss (1 knockout, 0 decisions), 2 Draws, 1 No Contest [2]
Result Record Opponent Type Round Date Location Notes
Loss 40-1-2
1 NC
United States James J. Corbett KO 21 (?) 07/09/1892 United States 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.
Win 40-0-2
1 NC
United States Jake Kilrain KO 75 (80) 07/09/1889 United States Richburg, Mississippi, United States Last world title bout under the London Prize Ring Rules.
Draw 39-0-2
United Kingdom Charlie Mitchell PTS 39 (?) 10/03/1888 FranceChantillyFrance Defended the Bareknuckle Heavyweight Championship, London Prize Rules
Win 39-0-1
1 NC
William Samuells TKO 3 (3) 05/01/1888 United Kingdom Philharmonic Hall, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
Draw 38-0-1
1 NC
United States Patsy Cardiff PTS 6 18/01/1887 United States 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.
Win 38–0
1 NC
Republic of Ireland Paddy Ryan KO 3 (?) 13/11/1886 United States 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.
Win 37–0
1 NC
United States Frank Herald TD 2 (?) 18/09/1886 United States 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.
Win 36–0
1 NC
United States Dominick McCaffrey PTS 6 (6) 29/08/1885 United States Chester Drving Park, near Cincinnati, United States 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.
Win 35–0
1 NC
United Kingdom Jack Burke PTS 5 13/06/1885 United States Driving Park, Chicago, United States Sullivan vs. Burke.
NC 34–0
1 NC
Republic of Ireland Paddy Ryan NC 1 (?) 19/01/1885 United States 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.
Win 34–0 United Kingdom Alf Greenfield PTS 4 12/01/1885 United States 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.
Win 33–0 United Kingdom Alf Greenfield TD 2 (?) 18/11/1884 United States 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.
Win 32–0 John Laflin KO 4 (?) 10/11/1884 United States 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.
Win 31–0 Enos Phillips KO 4 (?) 02/05/1884 United States 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.
Win 30–0 William Fleming KO 1 (4) 01/05/1884 United States 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.
Win 29–0 Dan Henry KO 1 (4) 29/04/1884 United States Hot Springs, Arkansas, United States Part of world champion Sullivan's grand tour of the U.S..
Win 28–0 Al Marx KO 1 (4) 10/04/1884 United States 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..
Win 27–0 George M Robinson DQ 4 (4) 06/03/1884 United States 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.
Win 26–0 James Lang KO 1 (4) 06/02/1884 United States Seattle, United States
Win 25–0 Sylvester Le Gouriff KO 1 (4) 01/02/1884 United States Astoria, Oregon, United States
Win 24–0 Fred Robinson KO 2 (?) 12/01/1884 United States 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.
Win 23–0 Mike Sheehan TKO 1 (?) 04/12/1883 United States 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."
Win 22–0 Morris Hefey KO 1 (?) 26/11/1883 United States Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States Part of Sullivan's grand exhibition tour of the U.S.. Hefey was floored 3 times in 30 seconds.
Win 21–0 Jim Miles TKO 1 (?) 03/11/1883 United States 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.
Win 20–0 United States James McCoy KO 1 (?) 17/10/1883 United States 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.
Win 19–0 New Zealand Herbert "Maori" Slade TKO 3 06/08/1883 United States Madison Square Garden, New York City, United States Sullivan vs. Slade.
Win 18–0 United Kingdom Charley Mitchell TKO 3 (?) 14/05/1883 United States New York City, United States Mitchell knocked Sullivan down it the 1st round.
Win 17–0 P J Rentzler TKO 1 (4) 17/11/1882 United States Theatre Comique, Washington, United States
Win 16–0 Charley O'Donnell KO 1 (?) 30/10/1882 United States 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.
Win 15–0 United States S P Stockton KO 2 (?) 16/10/1882 United States Fort Wayne, Indiana, United States
Win 14–0 Henry Higgins TKO 3 (4) 23/09/1882 United States St. James A.C., Buffalo, New York, United States Part of Sullivan's nationwide exhibition tour.
Win 13–0 Republic of Ireland Jimmy Elliot KO 3 (?) 04/07/1882 United States 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.
Win 12–0 John McDermont TKO 3 (?) 20/04/1882 United States 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.
Win 11-0 Republic of IrelandPaddy Ryan KO 9 (?) 07/02/1882 United States Mississippi, United States For the Bareknuckle Heavyweight Championship, London Prize Rules
Win 10–0 United States Jack Burns KO 1 (4) 03/09/1881 United States 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.
Win 9–0 United States Captain James Dalton KO 4 (4) 13/08/1881 United States 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.
Win 8–0 Dan McCarty KO 1 (?) 21/07/1881 United States 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.
Win 7–0 Fred Crossley KO 1 (4) 11/07/1881 United States 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.
Win 6–0 John Flood KO 8 (?) 16/05/1881 United States 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.
Win 5–0 Republic of Ireland Steve Taylor TKO 2 (4) 31/03/1881 United States 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.
Win 4–0 United States Professor John Donaldson RTD 10 (?) 24/12/1880 United States 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.
Win 3–0 United States George Rooke KO 3 (?) 28/06/1880 United States 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.
Win 2–0 United States Johnny Cocky Woods KO 5 (?) 14/03/1879 United States Boston, United States
Win 1–0 Jack Curley KO ? (?) 13/03/1879 United States 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. Bly, Nellie (May 26, 1889). "A Visit with John L. Sullivan". New York World. Retrieved 2014-09-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. [1] Archived September 16, 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  4. "John L. Sullivan". International Boxing Hall of Fame. Retrieved December 13, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Ryan Whirty (October 20, 2010). "Belfast, N.Y., houses Bare Knuckle Hall". ESPN. Retrieved 2011-03-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • 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 links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Paddy Ryan
World Heavyweight Champion
1882 – 1892
Succeeded by
James J. Corbett