John Lawrence Sullivan (1858-1918), American boxer, who claimed he could "lick any man on earth, " was the last bare-knuckles heavyweight champion.
John L. Sullivan was born in Roxbury, Mass., on Oct. 15, 1858. His father was a pugnacious hod carrier, 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds. His mother stood 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 180 pounds. John inherited his father's temperament and his mother's physique. Though his mother wanted John to become a priest, he left school in his middle teens and spent over a year as an apprentice tinsmith. He then joined his father "in the masonry trade, " while earning extra money as a talented baseball player. He always insisted he could have been a professional in that sport.
In 1877 Sullivan had his first important boxing encounter at Boston's Dudley Street Opera House. Accepting Tom Scannel's challenge to fight anyone present, Sullivan knocked Scannel off the stage in the first round. Two years later Sullivan was champion of Massachusetts and seeking to develop a national reputation that would provide him a chance at the American title. Because boxing matches were illegal in most cities, various ruses were employed to circumvent the law. When Sullivan was arrested in Cincinnati after having knocked out a challenger, he was found innocent on the grounds that he had participated in a foot race which his opponent lost.
Called the Boston Strong Boy, Sullivan met Patty Ryan, the titleholder, in Mississippi City, Miss., in 1882; Ryan lasted through nine knockdowns before giving up. Now known as the Great John L., he became the most popular and flamboyant champion in boxing history. He fought under the London Prize Ring rules with bare knuckles, defending his title innumerable times, notably against Charlie Mitchell in Europe; Herbert Slade, the Maori Giant; and, in 1889, Jake Kilrain in the last fight under the London rules. Henceforth, under the Marquis of Queensberry rules, all fighters wore gloves and fought 3-minute rounds instead of "coming to scratch" after each knockdown.
Sullivan was not a giant: just 5 feet 10 inches tall and about 190 pounds. His skill consisted in "hitting as straight and almost as rapidly as light" and in overwhelming his opponent. This technique made him vulnerable to the scientific fighter, who could manage to stay away and rest every 3 minutes under the new rules. In 1892, after 21 rounds, Sullivan, soft and wasted from drinking and an undisciplined life that left no time for training, was defeated by James J. Corbett.
Wisely, Sullivan never staged a comeback but sustained his popularity on the vaudeville stage and, after reforming in 1905, as a temperance lecturer. He died in Abingdon, Mass., on Feb. 2, 1918.
Further Reading on John Lawrence Sullivan
Sullivan's own Life and Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator (1892) is rare and almost certainly ghost written. Donald Barr Chidsey, John the Great (1942), is an excellent portrait placing Sullivan in the panorama of his time, as does Nat Fleischer, John L. Sullivan: Champion of Champions (1952). For a good short history see Fleischer's The Heavyweight Championship (1949; rev. ed. 1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Isenberg, Michael T., John L. Sullivan and his America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.