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Boxers of Yesteryear: John L Sullivan

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John L Sullivan

"The Boston Strong Boy"


was the first gloved Heavyweight Champion and the last
of the bare knuckled fighters. History will forever remember him
as the first great American sports idol and for his link
between bare knuckles and glove fighting

John L. Sullivan became a legend in his own time. He had won the Heavyweight Championship title in 1882 and had successfully defended it for 10 years. He was the last of the bare-knuckle champions who pounded each other without gloves for hours in marathon matches that lasted for as many as 75 rounds. Sullivan rose to the pinnacle of his profession at a time when many states and local jurisdictions outlawed boxing matches giving the sport a status that lay somewhere between marginal respectability and outright criminal behavior. Nonetheless, Sullivan's championship matches attracted thousands.

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).

Sullivan was born on October 15, 1858 to Irish immigrant parents, Michael Sullivan from Abbeydorney, County Kerry and the former Catherine Kelly from Athlone, County Westmeath / County Roscommon.(and passed away on February 2, 1918, at the age of 59) he was also known as the Boston Strong Boy and not only is he recognized as the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing from February 7, 1881 to 1892, but he is generally recognized as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring rules.

Sullivan as a youth was arrested several times for participating in bouts where the sport was outlawed, and he went on exhibition tours offering people money to fight him. In 1879, when he challenged anyone in America to fight him for $500, Sullivan had won over 450 fights in his career.

In 1883 - 1884 Sullivan went on a coast-to-coast tour by train with five other boxers. It was scheduled to comprise 195 performances 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. The ‘Boston Strong Boy’ is considered a champion on the merit of defeating Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City, near Gulfport, Mississippi on February 7, 1882. (Bare Knuckled) Boxing historians have retroactively labeled Ryan the "Heavyweight Champion of America", after he defeated ‘Joe Goss’ on May 30th 1880 - A claim that is hotly disputed because Ryan an Irish American does not seem to have a record to support this claim. However it should be noted that in 2003, Joe Goss was admitted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Pioneer category.

Other historians consider Sullivan as becoming world heavyweight champion, either in 1888 when he fought Charley Mitchell in France, or the following year when he knocked out Jake Kilrain in round 75 of a scheduled 80-round bout (Bare Knuckled).

Charley Mitchell came from Birmingham, England and fought John L. Sullivan in 1883, knocking him down in the first round. Their second meeting took place in 1888(Bare Knuckled) on the grounds of a chateau at Chantilly, France in driving rain. It went on for more than two hours, at the end of which both men were unrecognizable and had suffered much loss of blood; neither could lift his arms to punch and the contest was considered a draw.

The local gendarmerie arrived at this point and managed to arrest Mitchell, who spent the next few days in a cell and was later fined by the local magistrate, boxing being illegal in France at that time. Sullivan managed to evade the law, swathed in bandages, and was taken back across the English Channel to spend the next few weeks convalescing in Liverpool. Mitchell acted as Sullivan's corner man for many years after.

(2/7/1882) Heavyweight Champion Paddy Ryan vs. John L. Sullivan (Location: Mississippi – bare knuckle bout).

Round 8:Irish Champion beaten and exhausted – attempts defense and backs – challenger chases, throws wild punches – most miss – pushes Ryan against ropes and lands right to jaw. Champion clinches American around head – with all his force, wrestles and pushes challenger back – Sullivan shakes loose – Ryan steps forward – challenger lands hard open hand right slap near left ear – Champion drops to ground.. Crowd is roaring – Ryan cannot rise – bout over – KNOCKOUT!……. It is technically listed as ‘KO-9’ because the knockdown ends round eight – and Ryan had thirty seconds to rise. Round nine is ordered to begin – Champion cannot stand and fight – as this officially ends the bout).

John L. Sullivan became a celebrity as the challenger in 1882 and was one of the the most famous man in America by 1889.

The last Bare Knuckle fight in the United States, happened on July 8, 1889

John L Sullivan vs Jake Kilrain

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 American sporting events 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. Governor Lowry of Mississippi had forbidden the fight in that state. Telegrams were dispatched to the participants, warning them not to travel to Mississippi in order to fight.

Governor Lowry is aware that he will be defied, and on the day of July 8th, 1882, has 1000 Mississippi State troops searching in an unsuccessful attempt to locate and stop the illegal bout.

The fighter’s managers and backers organized a special train for the event and plans were laid out to thwart the authorities. The Western Union had refused to let the way station wires be used for press news, so reporters would have to go to New Orleans to telegraph the conclusion of the fight.

Sullivan was a people’s hero and this was a fight that everyone wanted to happen, the Governor with his state troops stood little chance to stop the fight as even the railroad company entered into the conspiracy. Lowry was furious when despite all his efforts he failed to stop the fight and orders the arrest of John J Sullivan and all those involved.

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. On private land owned by Charles W. Rich.

The fight began at 10:30 the following morning, 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.

ROUND 45: Sullivan grabs Kilrain in clinch – both wrestle a moment until they are on ground… 10 second round… Sullivan rises and knees Kilrain to head – a foul. The crowd boos Sullivan. Referee Fitzpatrick regains control. Note: Kneeing to the head under ‘London Prize Fighting Rules’ was not only forbidden but considered a crime, however Police present did not intervene.

ROUND 75: Kilrain slowly backs – Champion musters the energy he had preserving as he charges forward and lands hard left to body – follows with his famed right to jaw – challenger knocked to ground. Corner men step inside ring and drag their pugilist to his area and tell him it is over. Kilrain no longer knows who he is or what is happening – a total state of delirium – insists that he can still win and wishes to continue. A corner man throws the surrender towel inside the ring.

Both Sullivan & Kilrain are eventually arrested along with the other officials of the fight. Judge Terrell is representing Mississippi. Money, heavy fines and legal maneuvering allowed John L. Sullivan and Kilrain along with the rest to wiggle out from legal incarceration. But what ensued in the little town courtroom (in the Barbers shop) of Judge Terrell in Purvis, Mississippi, would seal the faith and end bare fist fighting.

Undefeated at that point, Sullivan did not defend his title for the next four years.

Sullivan agreed to defend his title in 1892, against challenger "Gentleman Jim" Corbett. The match was on 7 September in New Orleans, Louisiana. It began at 9PM in the electrically illuminated Olympic Club in the city's 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, faster and his boxing technique enabled him to dodge Sullivan's crouch and rush style. Sullivan was counted out in the 21st round, 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".

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.

Sullivan is reputed to have earned a million dollars through out his career. In 1989 in an interview with American pioneer female journalist, Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran), Sullivan put his earnings at around 500 to 600 thousand dollars. However the “Boston Strong Boy” was a spender, a gambler and a soft touch for anyone needing a handout and as a result was always financially broke.

Overweight and unhealthy from a long life of overindulging in food and drinks as well as from the effects from prizefighting, Sullivan died in 1918 at age 59, with only 15 dollars in his pocket and is buried in the Old Calvary Cemetery in Mattapan, now a neighborhood of Boston.

He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, as a member of the hall's original class. He had a record of 35 wins, 1 loss and 2 draws, with 30 wins by knockout, though many sources disagree on his exact record.

Sources: Wiki, Britannica Encyclopedia, Cyberzone, Eyewitness History, YouTube, a number of unknown writers and contributors.

The New York Times

July 8, 1889

The First ‘Title’ Fight

NEW ORLEANS-Never, during even a Presidential election, has there been so much excitement as there is here now, even when the brutal exhibition is over and it is known that John L. Sullivan was successful and that seventy- five rounds were necessary to "knock out" Jake Kilrain. All the streets and vacant spaces around the Northeastern Railroad Station were crowded until the last train got away, at 2:25 this morning, and before daylight the streets in front of the newspaper offices were crowded by people waiting for the bulletins that never came.
Before the last excursion train left the city it ceased any longer to be a secret that the fight would take place at Richburg, Miss., a small station on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, 104 miles from New Orleans. The ring was erected by pine torchlight during the night on the highest of hills in the rear of Richburg. In the fourth and fifth rounds Kilrain made Sullivan run around the ring after him, falling when he got too near him. After running about the ring for a while in the tenth round, Kilrain fell to avoid being hit. He pursued the same tactics in the next one, until Sullivan cried out: "Stand up and fight like a man; I'm no sprinter! I'm a fighter!"
This sort of procedure went on for a long time, Kilrain running and dodging and Sullivan calling on him continually to "fight like a man." But Kilrain insisted on fighting or, rather, running as "Charlie" Mitchell, his trainer, directed. In the thirtyninth round Sullivan asked the referee to make his opponent "stand and fight," and made a claim of a foul, which the referee refused.
In the forty-fourth Sullivan became sick, but even then Kilrain was afraid to venture near him. He asked him to make the fight a draw, but Sullivan refused, and emphasized the refusal by knocking Kilrain down. He was angry now, and in the next round he not only knocked Kilrain down but he stamped upon him, which prompted a claim of foul from Kilrain's friends. This was not allowed, and it was repeated in the next round, after Sullivan had thrown Kilrain and fallen upon him. The crowd was now satis- fied that only chance would enable Kilrain to win, and it jeered him for his Fabian tactics.
In the sixty-seventh, sixty-eighth, sixtyninth and seventy-first rounds Sullivan managed to catch his fleeing antagonist and each time knocked him down. Each of the next four rounds ended by Kilrain falling to avoid being knocked down. At the end of the seventy-fifth the referee cautioned Kilrain not to repeat his tactics, but it was seen that Kilrain was in no condition to continue. Kilrain was frightfully bruised and bled profusely. Sullivan was but little marked. The official time of the unofficial fight was 2 hours 16 minutes and 25 seconds.  

As a professional online poker
guide we are naturally interested in boxing.
We find invaluable when finding out which fighter has the
best stats and toughest chin. The indepth articles that are available are
both knowledgeable and informative" pokerlisti



Sullivan in 1898

Sullivan 1872 @ 18 Years of Age

Cigarettes Card of Sullivan

Building the Ring for Sullivan vs Kilrain

Building the Ring for Sullivan vs Kilrain July 1889

Sullivan,  Billy Jordan  @ Johnson v. Jeffries 4 july 1910

Sullivan Ring Side @ Johnson v. Jeffires

Sullivan circa 1915


This is a special supplement to the New York Illustrated News dated July 20, 1889.jpg


As a professional online poker
guide we are naturally interested in boxing.
We find invaluable when finding out which fighter has the
best stats and toughest chin. The indepth articles that are available are
both knowledgeable and informative" pokerlisti


History of the Ring

As a professional online poker
guide we are naturally interested in boxing.
We find invaluable when finding out which fighter has the
best stats and toughest chin. The indepth articles that are available are
both knowledgeable and informative" pokerlisti