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The Great John L

Publish Date: 07/06/2024
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

“I can whip any son of a bitch in the house.” John L. Sullivan would bellow in many saloons across America.

For over ten years, he could.

Sullivan was intense, with eyes as black as night.

A playful side (especially when alcohol was involved) lurked inside him.

It took an upstart โ€œGentlemenโ€ from San Francisco to end his reign.

Being a boxer was akin to being a bum in Sullivan’s time. He changed that perception with his fists. Based on his early life, nobody would have predicted the legend heโ€™d create.

John L. Sullivan was born in Boston on October 12, 1858โ€“the son of immigrants. His mother wanted him to be a priest. He doted on her and tried to please her by attending Boston College. After dropping out, he worked as a plumber’s apprentice for a few weeks until an argument led to Sullivan slugging his boss. The future heavyweight champion enjoyed baseball. Sullivan was talented enough to be offered a contract by the Cincinnati Red Stockings but declined.

Being pugnacious came naturally.

With a short fuse and dynamite in his right hand, Sullivan fought bare-knuckle brawls in Boston bars, already issuing the soon-to-be-famous, “I can whip any son of a bitch in the house.โ€ Sullivan was barely 18 when he began boxing as an amateur. One night, he attended a show at the Dolby Street Opera House. Part of the entertainment was a fighter (named Scannell or Scanlon) who challenged any bystander to defeat him.

Sullivan, already known around town for his ability in street fights, was encouraged by the crowd to fight. He removed his jacket and stepped on the stage. Wearing boxing gloves for perhaps the first time, Sullivan walked to the center of the stage. Reports differ on what happened next. As Sullivan waited for the fight to begin, the other fighter either punched him from behind or, as Sullivan reached to shake hands, slugged him in the face.

What happened after was not debated.

An enraged Sullivan tore into his smirking opponent. The coup de grรขce was a ferocious Sullivan right that knocked his foe into the orchestra pit.The audience roared its approval.

John L. Sullivan had arrived.

After his destructive Opera House debut, Sullivan threw hands with Johnny โ€œCockyโ€ Woods. Woods had a solid reputation. Many expected him to give the Boston terror a good fight. Sullivan charged out of his corner as usual. Woods stung the youngster with a left. Sullivan ignored the blow and fired his right. It landed flush, dispatching the cocky one on the canvas.

Sullivanโ€™s name hit the New York Times soon after. He pummeled Joe Goss and later John Flood on a barge on the Hudson River near Yonkers, New York, wearing tiny gloves with no padding. After two more smashing wins, his supporters felt Sullivan had earned a title shot against bare-knuckle champion Paddy Ryan.

The title fight happened on February 7, 1882, in Mississippi City, Mississippi. Sullivan scored a knockdown in round one. (a round would end after a knockdown). Ryan threw Sullivan to the canvas in round two. An enraged Sullivan returned the favor a few minutes later.

Sullivan battered Ryan for the next several rounds, knocking him out in round nine. Sullivan, considered by most to be the world’s heavyweight champion, hit the road and fought exhibitions. He challenged any man to go four rounds with him and collect 1,000 dollars. Only Tug Wilson, clutching Sullivan and falling to the turf to avoid damage, went the limit. The fight drew 10,000 fans to the old Madison Square Garden in New York.

Back at the same venue a few months later, Sullivan fought British champion Charly Mitchell. Sullivan floored Mitchel twice in the opening stanza. Mitchell achieved some revenge a few minutes later when a wicked hook knocked Sullivan off his feet. Sullivan was up at the count of three and seeing red. He charged Mitchell and worked him over. In round three, his Sunday punch knocked Mitchell out of the ring and into the crowd.

Sullivan wasn’t much of a drinker yet. It all changed after his victory over Mitchell. Whiskey was his drink of choice. Heโ€™d drink it like water and not stop until he passed out. A rematch with Mitchell didn’t happen. Sullivan was too drunk to fight. In 1886, Sullivan fought former champion Ryan again in San Francisco.

Watching from ringside was an up-and-coming boxer named James J. Corbett. The youngster was building a reputation with an unparalleled boxing style. Sullivan paid him no mind. Sullivan fought Mitchell again (a draw). In 1889, he met challenger Jake Kilrain in his last bare-knuckle fight. His excessive lifestyle had ballooned his weight to 240 pounds. Sullivan knew that Kilrain was a tough fighter. He swore off the alcohol and lost 35 pounds. He worked harder than he had in years.

It paid off, as Sullivan and Kilrain battled for 75 rounds until Kilrain’s handlers waved the white flag. Sullivan was away from the ring for three years. He toured in a play and boxed exhibitions. One was with Corbett – in full evening attire. No matter, Corbett was sizing Sullivan up. His quickness and feints kept Sullivan off balance.

Corbett mounted a campaign for a real fight. Sullivan’s wasteful lifestyle forced him to accept Corbett’s challenge. The purse was 25,000 – winner-take-all all. His hunger for fighting was ebbing, but his pride was fully intake. Sullivan got his weight down to 212. The young buck and the old champion would fight on September 7, 1892, in New Orleans, LA.

Sullivan,33, entered the ring a 4-1 favorite over the 26-year-old Corbett. The Olympic Club, the site of the fight, was sold out. Sullivan’s popularity remained unparalleled. John L. was the people’s champion. Before the opening bell, he attempted to intimidate Corbett with eyes that blazed. This tactic had worked in the past, much like it would almost 90 + years later for Mike Tyson.

Corbett expected this and refused to make eye contact with Sullivan. He pointed and laughed instead. Sullivan was furious. All it takes is one, he was likely thinking to himself. After charging Corbett, Sullivan tried to land the one in the first round, but Corbett’s now you see me now you don’t style had Sullivan frustrated. He chased, to no avail. The pro-Sullvan crowd began to hiss Corbett in round two. The challenger assured the crowd that there would be a fight. In round three, Corbett stung Sullivan with a straight left – followed by a combination.

The crowd and Sullivan realized he was bleeding. Corbett had broken his nose. The dancing master continued to skip around the ring. Corbett had figured he could tire out the older man. His plan was working perfectly. Sullivan was slowing down. At one point, he yelled at Corbett, “Come on and fight.!”

Corbett got braver as the fight progressed. He snapped Sullivan’s head back with jabs and hooks. Sullivan labored after him – blood like raindrops dripping from his nose. Sullivan brought his fans to their feet when he landed his Susie Q right in round 17. Corbett felt it but recovered quickly.

Round 21 was the last round in the boxing career of John L. Sullivan. Corbett was fresh. Sullivan was weary. Corbett circled Sullivan in the opening minute. Sullivan swung and missed. Corbett stepped in and battered him with blows. Sullivan teetered. Corbett put all his 178 pounds into his right and let it fly. It crashed off the defenseless chin of Sullivan, who toppled to the canvas. He attempted to get up but could not.

John L. Sullivan was champion no more. He accepted the only loss of his career with grace in the ring, but privately, he wept. Sullivan had lost his title and identity. What would he do?

He toured in plays and boxed exhibitions. The money came and went. Drinking was his vocation now. It almost cost him his life on two occasions.

Sullivan shocked his admirers in 1905 when he announced his drinking days were over. He meant it. Still as popular as ever, he toured the country, warning others of the dangers of drinking. Sullivan died in 1918 at age 59 with his respect and dignity intact.

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