The Fighting Kerryman

Search County Kerry

John Lawrence Sullivan (October 15, 1858 – February 2, 1918), also known as the Boston Strong Boy, was recognized as the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing from February 7, 1881 to 1892, and is generally recognized as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring rules.

JOHN L was born in Roxbury Massachusetts, now a part of Boston, in October 1858 of Irish immigrant parents. His father Michael was from Abbeydorney, County Kerry and his mother Catherine Kelly from Athlone, Co.Westmeath.

He was the first American sports hero to become a national celebrity and the first American athlete to earn over one million dollars. Sullivan was As a youth he 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.

Early in his career John L also engaged in weightlifting exhibitions, sometimes throwing kegs of beer. He turned to boxing seriously when he was eighteen, engaging in three and four-round amateur bouts. His big break came when he went to the Opera House on Dudley Street in Boston in 1877.

One of the acts featured heavyweight boxer Tom Scannel, who skipped, shadowboxed and sparred with partners chosen from the audience. Often, the sparring partner was is in on the act and would box two furious rounds before succumbing in the third. This particular night Sullivan, urged by the crowd, climbed onto the stage to face Scannel. Tom offered to shake hands but suddenly slugged Sullivan instead. In return, the young John L blasted his opponent with half a dozen heavy blows and knocked him into the orchestra pit.

This launched Sullivan on his professional career. He made fast progress and in 1882 in a bare-knuckle fight in the ninth round he knocked out the American heavyweight champion Paddy Ryan, from Thurles, Tipperary, with a powerful right to the chin. His 75-round knockout of Jake Kilrain at Richburg, Miss., July 8, 1889, was the last heavyweight title bout under (bareknuckle) rules. In 1879, when he challenged anyone in America to fight him for $500, Sullivan had won over 450 fights in his career.

John L was now considered the world champion, although there was some disagreement among British and Australian followers of the sport that had their own contenders.

Depending on the modern authority, Sullivan was first considered 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.

When the modern authorities talk of the heavyweight championship of the world, they are probably 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, Mitchell knocked down Sullivan in the first round, but John L got back up and the police intervened in the third round to save the Englishman from taking unnecessary punishment.

Their second meeting took place in 1888, Five years later 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 unrecognisable 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.

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. The center of activity 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.

Rochester reporter Arch Merrill commented that occasionally Sullivan would "escape" from his guard, and the cry was heard in the village, "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.

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 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.

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. 

In an interview in his retirement years he recalled: “When I was beginning to attract notice as a puncher, I was told that I would never be a boxer because my hands were too big and that I was wasting my time and everybody else’s by even trying. 

Big hands was the popular notion at the time because fighters like Toni Sayers, John C Heenan and Yankee Sullivan and some other good ones had small hands. But I succeeded.” 

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 Mattapan, now a neighborhood of Boston. He died with barely 10 dollars in his pocket. As champion he earned more than $1 million but squandered it. 

Have You Found What You Are Looking For?