John Lawrence Sullivan – Boxer

John Lawrence Sullivan (1858 to 1918)

John Lawrence Sullivan (1858 to 1918) is generally agreed by boxing historians to be the first Heavyweight Champion of the modern era. He was the last bare-knuckles or London Prize Ring Rules-style champion, but later fought with gloves according to the Queensberry Rules, which made him the link between old style and modern fighting. Nicknamed the “Boston Strong Boy,” he was born in the Roxbury district of Boston of Irish immigrants. He developed a combative nature coupled with a fondness for alcohol much like his father, Michael, who worked as a construction laborer. John L. had attempted several times to learn a trade, but his ego and physical strength made him perfect for prize fighting.

His first fight occurred in 1878 and was little more than a barroom brawl. Sullivan was publicly challenged by a local tough while attending a benefit night hosted by the Dudley Street Opera House in Boston. At that time, Massachusetts law prohibited prize fighting; however, it did permit “exhibitions” of physical strength and skill. The organizers of the benefit accommodated both men, and Sullivan proceeded to quickly knock his opponent into the on-stage piano. By 1881, he had developed a reputation as being able to “lick any man alive,” frequently offering cash payments of up to one thousand dollars to any man who could last four rounds with him. During the 19th century, no formal boxing titles existed, but Sullivan, being quite the self-promoter and publicist, traveled the world, fighting anyone who would challenge him. He organized several coast-to-coast tours announcing that he would fight anyone under the Queensberry Rules for $250.00. He rarely had to pay out cash to any of his challengers. He preferred fighting with gloves because it was safer, prolonging his career and earnings potential.

Sullivan is considered the last bare-knuckle champion as no one after him fought in that manner. He actually fought bare-knuckle only three times but his image was created because his most famous fights up to the Corbett fight in 1892 had been bare-knuckle bouts. The celebrated Kilrain fight in 1889 is considered a turning point in boxing history as this was the last fight under the London Prize Ring Rules. That fight was attended by an estimated 3,000 spectators arriving by special trains to a secret location in Mississippi (Richburg, near Hattiesburg). In those days, prize-fighting was illegal in most locales, with many fighters being arrested and jailed following their bouts. They fought 75 rounds over nearly three hours before Kilrain’s manager threw in the towel.

Sullivan remained undefeated until his fight with “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in 1892, losing after 21 rounds under the Queensberry Rules. He “retired” after that fight but continued to appear in boxing exhibitions over the next 12 years in addition to side careers as a stage actor, orator, celebrity baseball umpire, sports reporter and saloon owner. During the height of his boxing days, most of his money was spent on travel, fines and alcohol, but he became sober in his later years, often supporting the temperance movement. He died of complications from his earlier active alcoholism at the age of 59 and is buried in Boston. Since prize fighting was illegal and was not well-organized in Sullivan’s era, the record-keeping is often inconsistent, but he will always be considered the first Heavyweight Champion of the World. He was selected as a charter member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 with a record of 35-1-2 (30 KO).

Information courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc.

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