John Sullivan

By Gayne C. Young

His parents wanted him to be a priest.

He spent his life beating the hell outta people with his bare hands instead.

John Lawrence Sullivan was born in South Boston in 1858 to Irish immigrant parents who wanted nothing more than for their son to enter the priesthood. Ever the dutiful son, John enrolled in Boston College in 1875 to study for such a career but soon gave up on being extremely godly and began playing professional baseball instead. Sullivan soon gave this up as well and turned to boxing.

And the world became a better place because of it.

John had proven himself a fighter and had always carried a hair-trigger temper. An example of this came when the 17-year-old Sullivan worked at a factory: When he returned late from his break one day, his boss gave him grief. Sullivan responded by breaking his boss’s jaw with one punch and then sending him through a glass window with another. John also liked to frequent bars where he’d get smashed, promise the crowd he could “kick the ass of anyone in this room,” then take them out in the alley to prove it. When he wasn’t beating the snot of folks in the bars, he was throwing kegs in them. Sullivan was a competitive keg-tosser, a sport that sees men throwing full kegs as far as they can.

John Sullivan was the best in Boston.

Not bad for a guy who stood only 5’10” and weighed 196 pounds.

Sullivan directed all this rage and bull strength into boxing, which in 1882, was illegal in most of the U.S; it had few rules where it was legal, and there was no such thing as boxing gloves. John “The Boston Strongboy” Sullivan became what has been retroactively known as the “Heavyweight Champion of America” when he defeated Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City. Some boxing historians claim this win made John “world champion,” but as Paddy had never fought internationally, most simply credit Sullivan with the “American” title.

In 1883 and 84, Sullivan went on a coast-to-coast tour with five other boxers. He helped promote the tour by announcing that he’d fight anyone under the Queensberry Rules for $250. 

He knocked out 11 men on the tour.

Sullivan had his most epic fight July 8, 1889, when he took on Jake Kilrain. This fight has become historic for several reasons. First, it is considered to be the last bare-knuckle heavyweight fight and the first fight to receive pre-fight coverage. Most of this coverage consisted of reporting how the two fighters trained, where the fight would actually be held (again, boxing was illegal in most of the U.S.), and how John’s trainer William Muldoon had a terrible time keeping his fighter out of the bars. 

The fight was held in an outdoor ring on a farm in Richburg, MS. Over 3,000 people attended the illegal-but-sanctioned bout. John and Jake took to the ring when it was a sweltering 103 degrees and gave it their bare-knuckled all. Most thought John was on the outs when he vomited during the 44th round, but he rebounded. Jake’s manager threw in the towel following the 75th round. The fight lasted just over two hours and 18 minutes.

John didn’t fight again for three years, at which time he defended his title against “Gentlemen Jim” Corbett. The fight was held at the electrically illuminated Olympic Club in New Orleans on September 7, 1892. Over 10,000 people attended. Although the fight was held under Marquess of Queensberry Rules, it was not the first title fight to use boxing gloves. The two men beat the ever-loving hell out of each other until Sullivan went down to a left that newspapers declared was “audible throughout the house” in the 21st round. When John got back to his feet he declared, “If I had to get licked, I’m glad I was licked by an American.”



John retired from boxing shortly after his fight with Gentlemen Jim. Although he fought in a few exhibition rounds afterward, most of his time was spent acting and serving as a celebrity baseball umpire, sports reporter and bar owner. Toward the end of his life, John gave up booze and began lecturing publicly about the evils of alcohol. Those events were not nearly as popular as his fights were. Sullivan succumbed to heart disease at his home in Abington, MA in 1918. He was 59 years old. Jake Kilrain was one of his pallbearers.

During his 14 years as a professional boxer, John was simultaneously champion for seven years as a bare-knuckle fighter and seven years as a gloved fighter. His official record as a fighter was 38-1 with 33 KOs. Unofficially, he won more than 450 fights in his career. 

John was truly an American badass.