John L. Sullivan, better known as “the Boston Strong Boy,” was the last bare-knuckle boxing champion and the first gloved-boxing world champion. Besides boxing, the Boston Strong Boy liked “recreational fighting,” and he wouldn’t go a day without a fight. He would challenge any man to fight him, and celebrate with a bottle of Jameson’s. Sullivan was seen as a troublemaker who knuckled punches anywhere at any time. One might say he saw the world as a Fight Club. Whether in street fights or in the sport of boxing, he was unbeatable.
Sullivan was born to Irish immigrants in Massachusetts in 1858. His family hoped he would become a Roman Catholic priest, but as we already know, he wasn’t fit for that calling. Although he did well at school and enrolled at Boston College, he gave up any further schooling for sports. He first tried professional baseball and was paid decently, and then he found his passion in boxing. He always loved fighting and was arrested a few times for causing trouble. He was known for challenging anyone he would find in a bar and for his excessive drinking. Also known for breaking his boss’ jaw at a job he had when he was a teen.
He became the first World Heavyweight Champion in 1882 when he defeated Paddy Ryan. Although Ryan was called an American heavyweight champion by the media at the time, he was never officially recognized as such because no formal boxing titles existed. However, due to the international fame of Sullivan, the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association recognized Sullivan as the first official World Heavyweight champion.
In 1883-84, when he was 25, the Strong Boy from Boston went on a coast-to-coast boxing tour by train, joined by five other boxers. Although Sullivan liked to fight bare-knuckled, during the tour he fought under the Queensberry Rules, which required gloves. The touring group had 195 fights scheduled in 136 cities in less than 250 days. No rest and all fighting made Sullivan a happy man. Promoting the tour, he fought with anyone for $250. He won each fight and knocked out 11 men.
In 1889, he was challenged by the American boxer Jake Kilrain in a fight that is officially the last world heavyweight championship prizefight with bare knuckles, fought under the London Prize Ring Rules, in history. The match was a nationwide popular event covered by the media, with newspapers reports on the fighters’ training. Sullivan won–becoming the last American Heavyweight Champion in bare-knuckled boxing. He kept the title for 10 years but refused to defend it when challenged by African-American boxers, saying, “I will not fight a Negro. I never have, and I never shall.” His attitude reflected unfortunate racial prejudice of the time.
The Boston Strong Boy could endure hard drinking and hard fighting in his youth, but the lack of discipline put him out of shape. The Champion finally agreed to defend his title when he was challenged by “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in 1892.
Despite the expense of the tickets, the electrically illuminated Olympic Club in New Orleans was filled, with 10,000 people following the match. Corbett was in his prime. Younger, faster, more disciplined, fresh out of training, while Sullivan was barely a few days sober and struggled with his rush style. After the 21st round, Corbett knocked out his opponent, becoming the new World Champion. When Sullivan got back to his feet, he said: “If I had to get licked I’m glad I was licked by an American.”
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John Sullivan won more than 450 fights in his career, and after losing the title of World Champion, he retired from boxing and worked as a bar owner, sports reporter, speaker, and even a stage actor. Eventually, he gave up drinking and became prohibition advocate. He died in 1918, at the age of 59, with barely 10 dollars in his pocket.