A Brief History
On February 7, 1882, John L. Sullivan became the last of the bare-knuckle boxing champions with an eighth-round knockout of Paddy Ryan.
Digging deeper, we find Sullivan, known as “The Boston Strong Boy,” fighting his way across America challenging any man any time any where!
His victory in Mississippi over Paddy Ryan, the man recognized as the heavyweight boxing champion of America, if not the world, made Sullivan the last of the bare-knuckle champs and the first of the gloved boxing champs.
Sullivan fought all comers, including Europeans, giving him legitimate claim as “world champion.” Fighting with or without gloves, in a ring or in an alley, Sullivan once fought a major bout on a barge in the Hudson River to prevent interference from authorities after bare-knuckle boxing had become illegal.
A hard fighter, Sullivan fought many fights with no limit on the number of rounds or on the length of time. He once fought as many as 75 rounds to win one fight! That fight, in which he outlasted Jake Kilrain, was the last major bare-knuckle fight in history.
After blasting his way to a record of 39 wins and one draw, in 1892, Sullivan finally lost a fight to a much younger “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. (Sullivan had actually won about 450 fights in his career, only 41 of which are “official.”) This fight was fought with gloves and more or less under the rules we have today. Sullivan was sort of an unpolished wrecking crew with an incredible ability to take punishment, while Corbett’s style was more of the modern cat and mouse, jab and dance style that we see today. Corbett’s youth and speed took a toll on Sullivan and “The Boston Strong Boy” was knocked out in the 21st round.
Saying that he was glad that it was an American who finally beat him, Sullivan never boxed again. The 5’10” 190 to 205-pound fighter then turned his talents to acting in a touring troupe. Having sworn off drinking, he even lectured on the evils of alcohol. He died in 1918 at age 59.
A last bit of history is that while he was playing semi-pro baseball in the Boston area, Sullivan had been offered a contract by the Cincinnati Red Legs to play major league baseball. Sullivan turned that down, probably thinking he could make more money boxing, which he did, earning around a million dollars during his career, but like so many boxing champs after him, Sullivan squandered his money and died broke.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever boxed? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read…
Bishop, James, John L. Sullivan, et al. Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator – The Autobiography of John L. Sullivan. Promethean Press, 2008.
Klein, Christopher. Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero. Lyons Press, 2015.
Pollack, Adam J. John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion. McFarland & Company, 2006.