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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Looking back – September 7, 1892 – John L. Sullivan fights James J. Corbett

Looking back – September 7, 1892 – John L. Sullivan fights James J. Corbett

Publish Date: 09/08/2023
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

The great John L.

The Boston Strong Boy. 

The first American boxing superstar. Coined the phrase, “I can lick any SOB in the house.”

And he COULD.

When Sullivan met the dandy former bank teller, James J. Corbett, on September 7, 1892, he had re-portably engaged in 38 fights. (mostly bare-knuckle) winning them all while scoring 32 knockouts.

Loved by almost all and considered indestructible, Sullivan could also be a bully, braggart, and boozer.

None of it mattered to his many fans.

“I was always strong with the people,” Sullivan said, “because they knew I was on the level.”

Born to refugees living in Boston, MA, Sullivan loved sports. He played baseball – ultimately being offered a professional contract. His first fight was in 1879. He won by knockout and fought the next day, scoring another stoppage. He fought in barrooms, sparking out opponents with a heavy right hand.

The “Boston Strong Boy” nickname came first. Sullivan stood 5’10” inches tall and weighed a rock solid 190 pounds.

Some say Sullivan captured something akin to a heavyweight title in 1883. Or 1885. His knockout over Paddy Ryan convinced many he was the champion.

In 1889, his bare-knuckle fight with Jake Kilrain lasted 73 rounds.

Sullivan was on top of the world. He hit the stage and was advised to keep his day job. But his popularity won out. Fans flocked to see the champion in person. Sullivan, now 33, drank to extreme and gained weight.

When he signed to fight Corbett, his weight had ballooned to over 240 pounds.

Boxer Corbett was his opposite in the ring. He moved (something unique at the time) and boxed. See The Sweet Science. 

Outside of the ring, similarities existed. Both Sullivan and Corbett were Irish Catholics and sons of immigrants. Neither liked school but did like to fight. (Corbett got the boot) Sullivan was the drinker, but Corbett enjoyed frequenting saloons. Both could play baseball.

Corbett learned to box at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, CA.

The future champion took a whipping on his first day at the club but came for more the next day. Corbett watched and learned to use feints and clinching tricks. The lateral movement came naturally to Corbett.

Corbett fought several exhibitions against more experienced and bigger foes. He beat them all – even winning the Olympic Club’s heavyweight title, though he only weighed 160 pounds.

His first big professional fight was against fellow San Franciscan Joe Choynski. Corbett and Choynski had brawled as kids. Choynski could punch. He knocked out Jack Johnson in three and battled another future champion, James J. Jeffries, to a draw.

Corbett and Choynski met in Fairfax, CA. The local police intervened and stopped the fight.

The rematch went down less than a week later on a barge opposite Benicia, CA. Corbett knocked out Choynski in the 27th round of a brutal and bloody fight.

Corbett next fought fellow contender Peter Jackson in San Francisco. Jackson was the betting favorite, but after 61 rounds, no winner was declared. The draw was beneficial to Corbett’s reputation as a contender.

Sullivan had drawn the color line on fighting Jackson – so Corbett raised the money to secure the match. Sullivan wasn’t concerned.

No former bank clerk and clotheshorse could defeat him. Corbett had eight professional fights under his belt.

The purse was 25,000 dollars – winner, take all.

Corbett and Sullivan had spared in 1891 at the Grand Opera House in San Francisco. Sullivan insisted on big gloves and formal clothes. Corbett acquiesced.

The four rounds were friendly. Corbett measured Sullivan’s timing and reflexes. He was whistling after the exhibition concluded.

Sullivan and Corbett threw hands on September 7, 1892, at the Olympic Club in New Orleans. Sullivan was favored by as much as 4-1.

In the early going, only Sullivan threw punches. None landed as Corbett ducked and weaved and moved. He finally landed a straight left and a combination in round three. Sullivan went back to his corner with a broken nose.

Corbett’s plan was working. The older and heavier champion was slowing down. Corbett, in great shape, bounced and moved – frustrating Sullivan to the point he bellowed, “Come on and fight!”

As the rounds continued, Corbett took more chances. He cracked Sullivan with hooks and straight hands. Sullivan landed his Sunday punch in round 17, bringing his fans to their feet. Corbett was soon back in control.

Round 21 was more of the same. Corbett was impressed that Sullivan could take so much punishment and remain standing, but the end was near.

Corbett hurt Sullivan with a barrage of blows. Sullivan teetered. Corbett braced himself and put all his 178 pounds into his right hand. The punch was clean – cracking Sullivan on the chin.

The once and future legend went down on his face and did not move.

James J. Corbett was the new heavyweight champion of the world.

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