World Heavyweight Champion: 1882-1892
John L. Sullivan was boxing’s first superstar. He dominated the heavyweight scene for 10 years, during the time when it emerged from the seedy world of bare-knuckle prizefights to become a mainstream sport under Marquis of Queensberry rules.
John Lawrence Sullivan was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 15 October 1858. His Irish father was small of stature but very handy with his fists. John L. inherited those skills in abundance. He scrapped his way through the best Boston had to offer, then became the state champion when he beat Dan Dwyer, the recognised holder of that title. It wasn’t long before this KO specialist from New England, nicknamed the ‘Boston Strong Boy’, was the talk of fight fans everywhere. He raised his profile even more when he met John Flood in 1881. Flood, who was known as the ‘Bull’s Head Terror’, was thought to be the man who could bring Sullivan’s inexorable progress to a halt. The two met on a barge anchored in the Hudson River. The contest was conducted under London Prize Ring Rules, which also allowed wrestling holds. Such contests were of unlimited duration, each round continuing until one man went down. A floored fighter had 30 seconds to ‘come up to scratch’. Failure to reach the mark within the specified time meant defeat. The Sullivan-Flood fight lasted 16 minutes, during which time the ‘Bull’s Head Terror’ had been put down on eight occasions. Flood’s seconds had seen enough and threw in the sponge.
After taking a few more scalps, Sullivan earned himself a crack at America’s recognised champion, Paddy Ryan. Ryan, a New Yorker who hailed from Tipperary, had won the title from Joe Goss in May 1880. The championship lineage of the previous 30 years hadn’t always been totally pure. Some of the title claims in that time had been questionable. Sullivan was about to change all that.
On 7 February 1882, he took the crown from Ryan, needing just 10 minutes to finish the job. Having put Ryan down a number of times already, Sullivan ended proceedings with a trip-hammer right, his greatest weapon. The title, and the $5,000 purse, were his. A new boxing era was born. Sullivan proceeded to milk his newly acquired status for all it was worth. An extrovert and a braggart, he toured the country, throwing down the gauntlet to anyone who fancied his chances of going four rounds with the champion. Some 50 men tried their hand. Only one is said to have claimed the $1,000 prize on offer, and he was a rugged pro who used his experience and every trick in the book simply to survive the allotted time.
Those vanquished by Sullivan during his travelling circus days do not feature in the record books. While his victims doubtless included many complete no-hopers, Sullivan must have faced the roughest, toughest bar-room brawlers each town had to offer. He can’t be accused of being a sleeping champion, not in the early stages of his reign, at least. John L. was soon the idol of the masses. His exciting, all-action fighting style, together with his charismatic personality, endeared him to a population only too keen to embrace a new sporting hero. By 1887, Sullivan’s popularity was at its height. Boxing was the number one sport, with Sullivan its undisputed champion and star attraction.
Battle of the belts
To coincide with his latest national tour, some of Boston’s prominent citizens and sports fans decided to honour their city’s favourite son with a trophy: a jewel-encrusted gold belt. It was inscribed with the words: ‘Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L. Sullivan, by the citizens of the United States, July 4, 1887’. This was not the only belt in circulation, however. Richard K. Fox, publisher of the Police Gazette, had also commissioned a belt to be made. This was awarded to his own heavyweight protege, a man named Jake Kilrain. Kilrain was a veteran prizefighter, one of the best men of his era, and Fox had issued a challenge to Sullivan to fight his man. When John L. turned him down, Fox responded by declaring Kilrain the champion, complete with new ‘championship’ belt. Understandably, there was considerable needle between the two camps. When Sullivan was awarded his belt, he praised its superior craftsmanship and beauty compared with Kilrain’s, which he disparagingly described as ‘a dog collar’.
The ill-feeling would rumble on for two more years before Sullivan and Kilrain could settle the issue inside the ring. First, there was an extended tour to Europe, where Sullivan had one man in particular in his sights: England’s Charley Mitchell. Sullivan and Mitchell had met before, at Madison Square Garden in May 1883. England’s top fighter had crossed the Atlantic, making it known that he had come with the express purpose of knocking Sullivan out. He couldn’t back up his words on that occasion, however. Mitchell had been knocked out of the ring in the second round, and floored again in the third, at which point the police intervened to prevent the challenger from taking further punishment.
The bad blood between the two men was still in evidence five years later, when they met for a second time. The rematch took place near Chantilly, France, on the estate of Baron Rothschild. Their first encounter had been a glove fight; this time it was’a bare-knuckle contest.
Mitchell did much better on this occasion, taking Sullivan 39 rounds before the contest was declared a draw. Both men claimed to have had the better of things, with Sullivan probably having the stronger claim. Mitchell had certainly avoided the champion’s heaviest punches, but his survival also involved underhand tactics. He had repeatedly gone to ground without being hit, frustrating Sullivan’s efforts to finish him off.
Back in the USA, Sullivan finally agreed to a showdown with his other big rival, Jake Kilrain. It took place in Mississippi, on a baking July day in 1889. It was a bare-knuckle contest fought under London Prize Ring Rules. It would be the last heavyweight championship fight conducted under such rules, and the two men made it a contest to remember. Two hours and 16 minutes after the protagonists squared up to each other, Kilrain’s seconds threw in the sponge. Their man was out on his feet at the end of the 75 rounds that the fight had lasted. The battle of the two belts had been decided in the champion’s favour, but it had been a bruising, attritional battle. It would be three years before Sullivan put his title on the line again. In that time, the champion lived life to the full, and also set a precedent that many of his successors would follow by taking to the stage. Apart from the boxing that was incorporated into his theatrical role, Sullivan fought only exhibition bouts during this three-year period. One of these matched him against James Corbett, the two men sparring for four rounds in full dress suits in May 1891. The following year, on 7 September 1892, they met again, this time for real. Despite being a month short of his 34th birthday, unfit and grossly overweight, Sullivan went into the fight as hot favourite. But his 10-year, vice-like hold on the championship was about to be broken by a man who was younger, fitter and who elevated ringcraft to a completely new level.
John L. Sullivan
Nickname: ‘Boston Strong Boy’
Born: Roxbury, Boston USA October 15 1858
Died: February 2 1918
Height: 5’ 101/4’
Champion of America: 1882-1892
Lost 1 Drawn 1
Boxing’s first superstar
John L. Sullivan became a national hero in the ten years that he dominated heavyweight boxing. A notorious reveller in his youth, Sullivan mended his dissolute ways in later life. He went on lecture tours of America, warning of the evils of the demon drink.