John L. Sullivan

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Name: John L Sullivan
Alias: The Boston Strong Boy
Birth Name: John Lawrence Sullivan
Hometown: Roxbury, Massachusetts, USA
Birthplace: Roxbury, Massachusetts, USA
Died: 1918-02-02 (Age:59)
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 179cm
Reach: 188cm
Pro Boxer: Record
Bare Knuckle: Record


John L. Sullivan was a boxing immortal, the link between bare knuckles and glove fighting, and the first great American sports idol.

From an early age, Sullivan showed great proficiency with his fists. As a teenager, he would fight in Boston barrooms, issuing a challenge that he “could lick any man in the house.”

In 1882, Sullivan fought Paddy Ryan, the American Heavyweight Champion, in Mississippi City, Mississippi. It was a bare-knuckle contest. Sullivan dominated the fight and won by a ninth-round knockout. Sullivan reigned as champion for the next ten years, but he refused to fight any black boxer and drew what came to be known as boxing's "color line." Sullivan said, "I will not fight a Negro. I never have, and I never shall."

In 1892, Sullivan faced James J. Corbett in New Orleans. They fought under the Queensberry Rules and wore five-ounce gloves. The contrast in styles was obvious. The powerful, steadfast Sullivan had little use for ring trickery or defense, while Corbett was known for his peerless boxing ability. Young and agile, Corbett outboxed Sullivan, who was out of condition as a result of his indulgent lifestyle. Corbett stayed clear of the champion for twelve rounds and by the seventeenth, Corbett’s forays were wearing Sullivan down and he had a clear advantage. Corbett knocked out Sullivan in the 21st round.

Sullivan never fought again. He did some acting and, surprisingly, swore off alcohol. Previously known for his prodigious drinking, Sullivan became a temperance lecturer. He retired to a Massachusetts farm, having depleted most of the $1 million he had earned in his public career.

Sullivan died from a heart attack on February 2, 1918. When Sullivan was buried, the ground was frozen so hard that they had to blast out the grave with dynamite. Jake Kilrain, who served as a pallbearer, said, "Old John L. would have approved."

Sullivan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, as a member of the hall's original class.

In an article run in the San Francisco Call June of 1905, Sullivan claimed the only man to knock him down in the ring was one Jack Hogan, a former blacksmith, in a fight in Providence, Rhode Island. He declined to mention the date.

Bare-Knuckle & Exhibition Record

BoxRec does not include bouts under the rules of the London Prize Ring in its database. Sullivan had hundreds of exhibitions and barnstorming matches. Below are some of his fights under the bare-knuckle/London Prize Ring rules:

  • 1882-2-7, KO 9 Paddy Ryan, Mississippi City, MS. Sullivan claimed the American Heavyweight Championship.
  • 1882-7-17, W 4 Tug Wilson, New York, NY. Wilson went to the floor 24 times to avoid being knocked out.
  • 1888-03-10, D 39 Charlie Mitchell, Baron Rothschild's Training Groung, Chantilly, Oise, France. Referee: Bernard J Angle. Stakes: £1000. Some sources report this bout as a World Heavyweight Championship contest.
  • Jake Kilrain vs. John L. Sullivan: 1889-07-07, KO 75 Jake Kilrain, Marion County, MS. This would be the last time that a bare-knuckle title was on the line. The battle was Sullivan's greatest accomplishment in the bare-knuckle world. Sullivan stopped the outmatched wrestler in the 75th round. In the opening frame, Kilrain ended the round early by throwing "The Boston Strong Boy" to the ground (according to the London Prize Fighting Rules, which they were using, wrestling and throwing was allowed and the first time a fighter went to the ground, regardless of a punch or throw, the round would end). Though Kilrain drew "first blood" in the seventh round, class was beginning to show and Sullivan's experience and cobalt-breaking power were becoming a little to much for the game challenger. Kilrain resorted to running from his feared opponent, though when Sullivan got near Kilrain, it usually resulted in a knockdown. Sullivan was becoming very frustrated by his opponents survival tactics and even asked the referee to force Kilrain to "stand and fight". It didn't come off. After the seventy-fifth round ended, the ringside physician told Kilrain's corner that "Kilrain will die if you keep sending out there". The fight was stopped and Sullivan retained his Bare-knuckle Heavyweight Championship. It was a great finale to bare-knuckle championship boxing. Sullivan, already a Marquess of Queensberry Heavyweight Champion (Marquess of Queensberry rules are very similar to the rules that are used today), had closed the book on bare-knuckle boxing and in his very next bout, he closed the book on his career when he was knocked out by James J. Corbett.

For a more detailed view of Sullivan's record, go to Cyber Boxing Zone.

Professional record

Championship Record

  • May has defeated 1 opponent (0 by KO) for the World Heavyweight Title.


Sullivan married Annie Bates Bailey, a chorus girl, on May 1, 1883. A son, John Jr., was born in 1884, but the child died of diphtheria in 1886. John L. and Annie separated in 1885, but were not divorced until 1908.

According to the February 2, 1908, edition of the Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA, USA), Sullivan had secretly married Miss Nellie Revelle of Chicago several weeks previously. She was the drama critic for The Show World and a vaudeville actress.

After Sullivan renounced liquor, he began spending time with a woman named Katherine Harkins. They married on February 7, 1910, and moved to a small house twenty miles south of Boston. According to wire reports, she died of cancer at Abingdon, MA, on May 29, 1916.

External Links

Preceded by:
Inaugural Champion
World Heavyweight Champion
1885 Aug 29 – 1892 Sep 7
Succeeded by:
James J. Corbett