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John Lawrence Sullivan

by Angelica Coleman

John Lawrence Sullivan, born October 15, 1858, was the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing from February 7, 1881 to 1892 . He is also recognized as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing. Sullivan was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts to Irish immigrant parents. At a young age he was given the nickname “The Boston Strongboy”and was arrested several times for fighting where the sport was outlawed as he would go around offering people money to fight him.

Sullivan went on a coast-to-coast tour by train in 1883-1884 with five other boxers. They were scheduled for 195 fights in 136 different cities and towns over 238 days. During Sullivan’s days, no formal boxing titles existed. After he defeated Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City on February 7, 1883 he became a champion. In Boston on August 8, 1887, Sullivan was presented with the championship belt which was inscribed “Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L. Sullivan, by the Citizens of the United States.” Its centerpiece featured the flags of the US, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Sullivan was the first American sports hero to become a national celebrity and the first American athlete to earn over one million dollars.

His most career changing fight happened on July 8, 1889 when an estimated 3000 spectators gathered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The fight began at 10:30 the following morning and after 75 rounds of fighting, Sullivan defeated Jake Kilrain. The Kilrain fight is considered to be a turning point in boxing history because it was the last world title bout fought under the London Prize Ring rules and therefore the last bare-knuckle heavyweight title bout. It was also the first American sporting event to receive national press coverage.

Sullivan retired to Abington but continued to apear at several exhibitions over the next 12 years. He died at age 59 on February 2, 1918 and is buried in the Old Calvary Cemetery in Mattapan, a Boston neighborhood. In 1990 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.