The Boston Strong Boy: John L. Sullivan

By Robert Ecksel on April 5, 2012
The Boston Strong Boy: John L. Sullivan
“Well,” said Sullivan before he fought Kilrain, “championships won by wind are frail honors.”

“If you can visualize a Mike Tyson/Floyd Patterson, a guy who was very fast, who had two-fisted punching power, very aggressive, that was John L. Sullivan…”

John L. Sullivan was America’s first sports celebrity. During his decade-long reign as heavyweight champion of the world, from 1882 to 1892, Sullivan was iconic, larger than life, a touchstone embodying excellence in a sport and nation just beginning to manifest its destiny in the ring and on the world stage.

Sullivan was a pivotal figure in the history of the fight game. He started fighting while boxing was illegal. He was the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion. He was also the first heavyweight champion to fight with gloves under modern-day Queensberry Rules.

John Lawrence Sullivan was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, on Oct. 15, 1858. His father Michael was from Abbeydorney, County Kerry, Ireland, and his mother, the former Catherine Kelly, hailed from Athlone, County Westmeath/County Roscommon. Michael Sullivan, like many Irishman before him and since, was a tough guy with an attitude. He was, however, only 5’3” tall, whereas John L.’s mother, at 5’10” and 190 pounds, was built like a battleship.

John L. Sullivan took after his mom and his dad.

Honoring tradition, and at his mother’s insistence, young Sullivan decided to enter the priesthood. He gave it his best shot, but saving men’s souls was not to be. His size and strength, not to mention his rowdy disposition, earmarked him for a life more competitive than contemplative.

John L. worked for a time as a hod carrier, assistant plumber and tinsmith. If these jobs sound unsatisfying, they were. But they gave Sullivan a few dollars to pursue some of the things he loved best, like drinking, carousing and fighting.

Sullivan had prodigious strength and prodigious appetites and swaggered and blustered with the best of them. But he wasn’t just a brute. He was also athletic. Sullivan played semi-pro baseball in Boston and was offered a contract by the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the nascent major league to play pro ball. But John L. had other things in mind.

Sullivan began a fledgling career as an amateur fighter, while giving boxing, wrestling and weightlifting exhibitions on the side. But he was still unknown, a nobody on the fringe of nowhere, a roustabout with power, a hardnosed, hard-fisted, hardheaded young Irishman still finding his way in the world.

Fate intervened in the life of The Great John L. in 1877, at Boston’s Dudley Opera House during an evening of light entertainment. The stage show featured a sparring session where a boxer named Tom Scannel challenged all comers in the audience, daring anyone to climb onto the stage and try to last three rounds with him. Most of the men who volunteered were shills who were in on the ruse. That was not the case with John L. Sullivan.

At the urging of the audience, Sullivan stood, removed his jacket and tie, rolled up his sleeves, and strode up the steps up to the stage. According to legend, John L. walked over to Scannel for a collegial handshake—when Scannel reeled back and sucker-punched Sullivan with a left to the cheek. Sullivan countered with a right to the jaw, knocking the duplicitous showman into the orchestra pit. According to Sullivan, “I didn’t know the first thing about boxing then, but I went at him for all I was worth and licked him quick. It wasn’t much of a fight, and I done him up in about two minutes.”

Sullivan had his first recorded professional fight on March 13, 1879, against Jack Curley in Boston. It was a fight to the finish, lasted one hour and 14 minutes, and Sullivan was awarded $250 in prize money.

The career of John L. Sullivan was finally underway.

In 1880, Sullivan fought Professor John Donaldson under the London Prize Ring Rules, but with gloves, for $150 plus expenses at Pacific Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to the Kansas City Evening Star, “On the 10th round Donaldson was too much exhausted to come to the scratch.”

John Donaldson wrote that Sullivan knew nothing about boxing but “was the most savage fighter and hardest hitter that ever lived.” Sullivan “scorned to study the methods or copy the style of anyone. He had a natural genius for fighting. He never stepped back.” Donaldson compared being hit by Sullivan to “being kicked in the head by a runaway horse.”

John L. Sullivan fought seven fights and 18 exhibitions in 1881, including a fight with gloves under the London Prize Ring Rules on May 16 that lasted all of 16 minutes against a New York thug and enforcer named John Flood, aka The Bull’s Head Terror, on a barge anchored in the Hudson River near Yonkers. Sullivan floored Flood eight times en route to an eighth round knockout.

“When I started out boxing,” Sullivan wrote many years later, “I felt within myself, as I do now, that I could knock out any man living.”

In 1882 Sullivan had eight fights, all of them with gloves, fought 16 exhibition bouts, and had five fights scheduled that failed to materialize. In those days, boxing was always one step ahead of the law, unlike today where boxing is a law unto itself.

All John L.’s victories were by early stoppage, and among them was a fight with bare-knuckle champion Paddy Ryan on Feb. 7, 1882, in Mississippi City, Mississippi. In front of 2000 spectators, Sullivan controlled the action and knocked out Ryan with a right in the ninth round. “When Sullivan struck me,” said Ryan, “I thought that a telegraph pole had been shoved against me sideways.”

The Great John L. Sullivan was declared new American and world heavyweight champion.

“They said I was only a glove fighter and I was afraid of the bare knuckles,” Sullivan stated. “For that reason I consented to fight Ryan as I did. I think I have proved that I can fight with my knuckles, and now anyone who wants to tackle me will have to do it in my fashion. I will not fight again with the bare knuckles because I do not wish to put myself in a position amenable to the law. Fist-fighting days are over with me. I have introduced the new rules of fighting to this country and I intend to stand by them.”

Over the next six years Sullivan only participated in fights under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules.

In late 1883-1884 Sullivan went on a coast-to-coast tour by train with five other boxers. The tour-de-force was scheduled to comprise 195 performances in 136 different cities and towns over 238 days. Sullivan generated over $150,000.

Sullivan went on a European tour in late 1887 and toured England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Wales. Because Europeans only recognized London Prize Ring Rule fights, Sullivan agreed to fight in only his second bare-knuckle fight, against Charlie Mitchell in Chantilly, France, on March 18, 1888, on the rain-soaked estate of Baron Rothschild. The two men fought under the provisions of the London Prize Ring Rules to a 39-round draw over three hours and 10 minutes. Sullivan was still the champ.

On July 8, 1889, in Richburg, Mississippi, Sullivan met Jake Kilrain, who was backed and recognized by the National Police Gazette as the real champion of the world, in the last bare-knuckle heavyweight title fight in history. “Well,” said Sullivan, “championships won by wind are frail honors.” The temperature that day was 108 degrees, and after 75 rounds, in a fight that lasted two hours and 16 minutes, with John L. taunting, “You’re a champion, eh? Champion of what?” Kilrain could take no more. Sullivan retained his crown, if not his dignity.

When he was awarded the belt, Sullivan said, “I wouldn’t hang that thing around the neck of a goddamned dog.”

The next day the New York Times ran a headline which blared THE BIGGER BRUTE WON. Sullivan countered by saying, “If Kilrain had stood up and fought like a man I think I could have whipped him in about eight rounds.”

John L. Sullivan was now more famous than fame itself. The man who used to stride into taverns boasting “I can lick any man in the house” now crowed “I can lick any son of a bitch in the world!” His every utterance, from the most banal to the most profound, became fodder for a hungry public. They could not get enough of John L. and Sullivan played it to the hilt. Stardom agreed with him and he made the most of it by drinking, gambling and whoring to his heart’s content. John L. also took a three-year hiatus from fighting. Instead of defending his title, he defended the theater in plays called The Paymaster and Honest Hearts and Willing Hands, tearjerkers at which some jerks actually shed tears.

“I don’t want to sound egotistical,” Sullivan said at the time. “But I hope someday to be as great an actor as Booth…I’ve just begun this business now and of course I’m not up on all points. But they’ll come along, all right…None of the great actors had to study much.”

Sullivan was mistaken. Actors study. As do prizefighters. And one of the game’s great students was an athletic young bank clerk from San Francisco named James J. Corbett.

Sullivan and Corbett’s first informal meeting was at the Grand Opera House in San Francisco while the heavyweight champion was on his theatrical tour. Corbett responded to a public challenge and the men engaged in four polite rounds of gloved sparring in eveningwear before a select audience. It was, needless to say, more of a demonstration than an actual fight, but it was a taste of things to come.

Top contenders had been challenging Sullivan to a real fight for years to no avail. Gentleman Jim had proven himself in the ring in his 61-round draw with Peter Jackson, but as far as John L. was concerned, it was like a fly pestering a colossus at the stroke of midnight.

Sullivan finally agreed to defend his title and met Corbett on Sept. 7, 1892, in New Orleans. The men wore gloves, in accordance with the Queensberry Rules, which would henceforth be the norm. The good life agreed with John L. more than it agreed with boxing, and against Jim Corbett, one of the sweetest sweet scientists in the game’s history, the diminished Sullivan’s lumbering charges and roundhouse blows were readymade for the fleet-footed, defensive-minded sharpshooter. In the fifth round Corbett broke Sullivan’s nose, which bled for the rest of the fight. Thereafter Gentleman Jim jabbed and danced, jabbed and glided, feinting, sticking and moving, scoring combinations to Sullivan’s head and body for round after round.

In the 20th round Corbett badly staggered a weary Sullivan. In the 21st Corbett finished him with a fusillade of blows, ending with a right which dropped Sullivan for the count. The Great John L. had suffered his first and only defeat. The new heavyweight champion of the world, Gentleman Jim Corbett, had toppled a legend. 

“The old pitcher went to the well once too often,” said Sullivan after the bout, “but I’m glad the championship remains in America.”

That was The Great John L.’s last hurrah as a pro. He quit the game and resumed his acting career, gave occasional boxing demonstrations, and eventually stopped drinking. Sullivan used his fame and notoriety to become a lecturer on the temperance circuit, where he spoke to prim and proper ladies, teetotalers and dry drunks about the evils of demon rum.

On July 30, 1905, Sullivan penned a piece for the Washington Post. He wrote about his career and the discouragement he received when he was a young man starting out. “‘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.”

John L.’s big hands, big heart, and big punch served him well. He retired to his farm in Massachusetts, penniless but content, and died peacefully on Feb. 2, 1918.

The lessons Sullivan learned in life are summed up in his memoirs and are as applicable today as they were a hundred years ago: “It is very much better for the young, as well as the old, to possess the knowledge of the manly art of self-defense than it is to have them resort to knives and guns.”

Because none of Sullivan’s fights are on film, and the few photographs of him in action distort as much as they reveal, I contacted Adam Pollack, author of John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion, to get a more thorough take on John L. the fighter.

“From what I can glean” Pollack told me, “if you can visualize a Mike Tyson/Floyd Patterson, a guy who was very fast, who had two-fisted punching power, very aggressive, that was John L. Sullivan. He weighed about 200 lbs. when he was in his best shape, but was still a monster even when he wasn’t in his best shape, because he mostly fought four-round fights. So he could have a little bit of a belly, it wasn’t a big deal. Like George Foreman, he was a little overweight but still a powerful man.”

Most of the names of the men Sullivan fought are as meaningful as names picked at random from a telephone book. But he fought everyone, as long as they were Caucasian, because he was certain that he would win.

“He was willing to fight anyone back then,” said Pollack. “He boxed whoever was out there, any top fighter who was willing to fight him, anyone who had experience fighting, with or without gloves, if he could obtain some financial backing. At the time Sullivan was considered unbeatable. They weren’t as formalistic about titles back then as we are today. Richard Kyle Fox, who was the owner and editor of the National Police Gazette, designated Paddy Ryan the World Champion and the American Champion and was more than willing to put up the money to back Ryan. He thought Ryan was the best bare-knuckle fighter in the world until Sullivan beat him.”

Because Sullivan was the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion and the first man to win the heavyweight title wearing gloves, he was a transitional figure in the best sense of the word. I wondered if John L.’s style changed substantially between those two eras.

“Sullivan actually preferred the Queensberry Rules with the gloves,” Pollack replied. “But because the London Prize Ring Rules were the traditional rules of fighting and Queensberry Rules were something new, purists wanted to see how he did under the London Rules before they would really give him credit as a true champion.”

There were significant differences between the London Prize Ring Rules and the Marquis of Queensberry Rules by which boxing is ruled today. With the London Rules the fights were bare-knuckle. One could hold their opponent. One could hold and hit. One could pick up their opponent, as long as one grabbed them above the waist, and throw them to the ground. Greco-Roman wrestling moves were legal, and fights were to the finish. A round could end in an hour or it could end in a few seconds, until someone was either thrown down or punched down, and the fighters had 30 seconds to rise and another eight seconds before continuing or “coming to scratch.”

“But Sullivan was pretty much a killer regardless,” continued Pollack. “Some might say he fought a more patient fight against Charlie Mitchell and with Kilrain in ’89. Perhaps Sullivan was less aggressive when fighting under the London Prize Ring Rules. You had to pace yourself, rather than wear yourself out trying to knock an opponent out, which was harder to do with London Rules. That was another reason Sullivan didn’t like the London Prize Ring Rules. He didn’t think he could determine in a quick and entertaining way who was the better fighter. Plus, such fights could earn him a prison sentence.”

When Corbett defeated Sullivan, it was more than a changing of the guard. It opened the door for the scores of master boxers who followed, including the likes of Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Pernell Whitaker, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. But as Pollack pointed out, “There were scientific boxers in the bare-knuckle era too. Famous British London Prize Ring fighters were considered very well schooled. Fighters like Mitchell, McCaffrey, and Kilrain were considered stick-and-move fighters. So Corbett wasn’t the first.”

But Corbett was the man who beat the man who beat the man. I was under the impression that Sullivan had an inkling of what he was in for with Corbett and went out of his way to avoid him. But Pollack disabused me of that notion.

“I don’t feel he ducked anyone in particular. After 1889, he had enough of boxing. He had been dominant and had made a fair amount of money in the game, and he just basically got sick of it. He was making good money in plays without having to train and without having to get hit in the head. He just grew just disinterested in the fight game. Since the Kilrain fight in July of ’89, he hadn’t fought in over three years. So he was avoiding everyone. It was because he didn’t want to fight. He was 30 years old and had de facto retired. The championship was in a state of limbo. He still called himself the champion, but he wasn’t active as a fighter. But at the same time no one was going to be recognized as the champion until he beat Sullivan. His argument was if they offer me a bundle of money I’ll come back and fight again.”

Eventually someone did offer Sullivan a bundle of money, enough money to climb back into the ring after three long years of inactivity.

“He knew it was a fight to the finish, so he had to train for a fight that could potentially go on for a long time. He also knew that Corbett had gone 61 rounds, in a fight that lasted over four hours, with Peter Jackson in 1891, who at that time was considered the most feared man in the division. Sullivan was a pretty confident guy, so I can’t imagine he went in there with a lot of fear. In fact there’s a quote from him where he says, ‘I’ve never gone into the ring with fear. I’ve never feared anyone. I don’t even know what it feels like.’ I think he had a sense that he could knock anyone out—he’d been doing it for 10 years—but at the same time he must have known that this was a guy who could fight, because Corbett had beaten a lot of tough guys and a lot had been written about him as being very clever and scientific and hard to hit.”

We know of Sullivan’s legend, but his knockouts are very much blasts from the past. Before I let Pollack go, I saved the ultimate question for last. Why is The Great John L. Sullivan relevant today?

“He was the one that started it all,” Pollack emphasized. “He’s the one who made boxing a popular national and international money-making enterprise. He put gloved boxing on the map. Before Sullivan, it was more of a fringe sport. During Sullivan’s reign, boxing became a sport anyone could do, and you could make really good money at it, regardless of class or education. Baseball was bigger and more popular. But boxing made the participants more money. Boxing became popular because Sullivan was a star. You don’t start something and make it huge unless you have star power—and Sullivan had star power because he was that good.”

“If you think of any sport today, what makes that sport super popular is that one person who, when you see them, you’re just in awe and dying to see them again. Word spread quickly about how great Sullivan was. People were skeptical until they saw him and then they were like, ‘Oh wow. What they’ve been saying about this guy is true. He is that good.’ Sullivan was the first real true sports icon. John L. Sullivan revolutionized boxing. The people who ended up making big money because of boxing owe him a thank you.”

(More information on Adam Pollack and the books he’s written is available at

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett and James J. Jeffries

Historic Fighters: John L. Sullivan

John L. Sullivan Congratulates Gentleman Jim

In this Corner - Boxing's Legendary Heavyweights (Documentary)

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This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Michael O'Connell 03:05pm, 01/05/2016

    I once saw an excellent documentary on John l. Sullivan on pbs. Does anyone know of such a film and where to buy it on dvd ? Thanks in Advance mike O’Connell

  2. Lee 04:40pm, 10/21/2012

    The writing on this site is timeless, and far surpasses anything currently to be found in printed media or indeed on any other site. the contributors have placed themselves firmly in the tradition of Liebling, Schulberg, Mullan et al

  3. John 02:10pm, 10/20/2012

    As a mythic figure who gave our favorite sport world wide recognition, Sullivan can be lauded.

    He was however, a racist. Not only in theory, in practice. No man can say they are the toughest man alive when he flat out refuses to fight someone of another ‘race’.

    John L. was the champion of the Anglo/European/American version. A world champion ? Not in this fight fan’s eyes.

    Great writing, however. Thank you.

  4. russ williams 05:15am, 04/11/2012

    You outdid yourself in this story of The Great John L. I see a lot of work here—just for one article. I have been fascinated with Sullivan since my grandfather, Patrick McCarthy from County Cork Ireland told me these stories of Sullivan he read from the old Police Gazette while still a boy in the 1890s. I also read Pollock’s book in 2000 and devoured every new, unknown detail—congratulations!

  5. the thresher 09:58am, 04/10/2012

    Sorry but not all that impressed with Adam Pollack’‘s work

  6. FrankinDallas 07:20pm, 04/07/2012

    That movie with Ward Bond as John L and Errol Flynn as Corbett was actually a pretty good flick.

  7. mikecasey 02:07am, 04/06/2012

    Well said, boys. This is a gem from the Ed. Good to see that in recent years the great John L has been re-assessed as the formidable fighting machine he was in his prime rather than the tired and ill-conditioned veteran who lost to Corbett. Very interesting when you track back to the twenties and thirties and read the views of old boxers and trainers on Sullivan and Jeffries. Many say that John L would have taken Jeff in terms of strength and hitting power - and Jeff was a colossus himself in those categories.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 07:31pm, 04/05/2012

    The hits just keep coming…seems like all the writers on this site including the editor have got big time chops!

  9. the thresher 07:13pm, 04/05/2012

    A marvelous essay. I’m starting to get the sense that the writers on Boxing. com are raising the bar with each new piece. And that makes it tough. Kind of like a high quality catch 22.

    If there is better writing on any other site, I’d like to know where it is.