Champ John L. Sullivan: 'Shake the Hand That Shook the Hand'

As “Gentleman” Jim Corbett walked down the steps toward the ring in the Olympic Club in New Orleans on Wednesday, September 7, 1892, he could see “The Boston Strong Boy,” John L. Sullivan, waiting for him. The smell of cigar smoke hung in the air as the supremely confident Sullivan, who was more public about his pride in his Irish ancestry than the equally Irish Corbett, strode around the ring in his green trunks. He reveled in the cheers and adoration of the crowd of over 10,000, nearly all of them men.

(Below: John L. Sullivan)

Sullivan, the Heavyweight Champion, was the first superstar of the sport of boxing in the United States. His name was known far and wide, not just in the United States, but around the world.

As Corbett walked down to the ring, Sullivan stood sweating in the sweltering Louisiana night, looking up at a cloud of cigar smoke hovering above the crowd, illuminated by the modern electric lighting of the arena. The atmosphere in the area was electric as well.

Glancing to the side of the ring Corbett nodded to the man he had selected to be his timekeeper for the bout, western legend “Bat” Masterson. As he climbed into the ring it was about 9 pm; he knew that when this night was over he would either be relegated to the obscurity of just being another man on the long list of “The Boston Strong Boy’s” vanquished opponents or celebrated as the man who took the title from the man who could “lick any man in the house.”

As they walked to the middle of the ring, the relaxed Sullivan had a smile below his signature handlebar mustache. Newspaper reports of the fight later noted that the 212 lb Sullivan, who was a month shy of his 34th birthday, looked far bigger than his just turned 26-year-old, 187 lb challenger. The referee, another Irishman, “Professor” John Duffy, went over the Marquess of Queensberry Rules with the two fighters. This was the first Heavyweight title fight in the U.S. under those rules.

(Below: "Gentleman" Jim Corbett)

As they returned to their corners, Corbett reminded himself of his plan. As he expected, “The Boston Strong Boy” charged out of his corner ready to overwhelm the younger, smaller “Gentleman” Jim in the first round. The far more mobile Corbett immediately let Sullivan pin him in the corner and wail away at his body. After letting Sulivan pound away as his body at bit he saw the “tell” that Sullivan was loading up a big right hand and spun out of the corner as the right whistled past his head. Corbett breathed a sigh of relief while Sullivan turned to look at his young opponent and realized it was going to be a long night, and that was not good for him.

As he stood in that ring trying to run down the fleet-footed Corbett, Sullivan was not just an international celebrity; he was a living legend. And he was a figure of great pride for the entire Irish-American community. By the later part of the 19th century, there were millions of Irish-born and 1st generation Irish-Americans in the United States. Most of them came to “Amerikay” with no education or skills beyond their ability to work hard for long hours. So most were doing menial labor jobs in factories, constructing buildings, roads, and bridges, digging canals, or working on the many railroads moving across the country. The Irish in America had been looked down on by establishment for many years, but in John L. Sullivan they finally had something they could take pride in.

John Lawrence Sullivan was born on October 15, 1858, in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. His father, Michael, was from Abbeydorney, Co. Kerry, and his mother, born Catherine Kelly, was from Athlone, Co. Westmeath. Both of his parents had experienced the Great Hunger in Ireland and no doubt many of their Irish neighbors had as well, so young John would have heard many stories of those horrors. By the time he reached adulthood, Irish identity was deeply ingrained in him.

Sullivan was a very good athlete as a teenager, as might be expected, but he was also a very good student. When an Irish son did well academically, he was often pressed by his parents to enter the priesthood. Young John entered the Jesuit run Boston College, often a precursor to entering a seminary, but he was lured away by the temptation of professional sports.

It was not boxing, however, that lured him away. It was baseball. Shortly after he started playing pro baseball it was rumored that the Red Sox offered him a $1500 a year contract. Sullivan had discovered another sport by then, however, and found that he was very good at it. Boxing, usually done then with bare knuckles, was outlawed in most states. The way it existed was by calling some bouts “exhibitions” and fighting others in secret locations.

(Left: John L. Sullivan in 1882.)

One night Sullivan was at the theater when one of these “exhibitions” took place. In this one, the professional boxer asked if there was anyone in the audience who thought he could last a few rounds. Sullivan, who had plenty of scraps growing up in his Roxbury neighborhood, stepped up and not only lasted the rounds, he also knocked the boxer out. John L. had discovered his sport, one which was dominated by Irish-born and Irish American boxers.

In one of these early scheduled “exhibition” bouts, the other professional boxer back out. The crowd began to boo, but John L. came out and quieted them and announced that “My name’s John L. Sullivan and I can lick any man in the house.” It was said that one brave soul took up the challenge and was knocked out of the ring with one punch. The retelling of that tale around Boston began to build his reputation, albeit just in the local area at that point.

Through 1879, he fought a number of these exhibition fights in Boston and began to make a name for himself. Two local Irishmen with connections in the boxing world, Jim Keenan and Tom Farley, took an interest in Sullivan. He later recalled that "It was through their efforts that I got a three-round exhibition against former champion Joe Goss on April 6th, 1880 and then knocked out George Rooke in June of that year. That was my first real fight".

Now Sullivan acquired a manager, Billy Madden, who was a much a promoter as a manager. He brought Sullivan to New York to introduce him to some of the big money boxing people. Madden also got some buzz going about his fighter by offering $250 (a huge sum of money a the time) to anyone who could last 4 rounds with Sullivan, now becoming known as “The Boston Strong Boy.

(Right: Billy Madden)

Madden began taking Sullivan all around much of the eastern US, fighting exhibitions and regular bouts. This spread Sullivan's fame as a boxer and also a drinker and barroom brawler. If anything, the drinking and bar fighting stories, many probably repeated with enhancements, only endeared him more to the Irish-American community. His official, non-exhibition, bare-knuckles fights continued to be illegal. On Christmas day, 1880, Sullivan and John Donaldson, who Sullivan had KOed in 10 rounds the day before, were arrested in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both were released two days later, but the days of bare-knuckles fighting were numbered.

In May 1881, Sullivan KOed John Flood in 8 rounds in a bout that was held on a barge in Yonkers, NY, to avoid police interference. In September a bout scheduled against Canadian George Godfrey, who was black, in Boston was stopped by the police according to some sources. Others said it was because Sullivan refused to fight any black fighters. Indeed, his records show no bouts against black opponents.

(Left: Paddy Ryan)

Through 1881, Sullivan attempted to get a fight with Paddy Ryan, who was born Thurles, Co. Tipperary Ireland, and was considered the heavyweight champion of the US. Ryan refused to give the up-and-coming Sullivan a fight, dismissively saying, “Go get yourself a reputation.” Sullivan did just that during 1881, fighting in New York, Philadelphia, Trenton, Chicago, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Cleveland, and New Orleans. Sullivan also made sure reporters got insulting quotes about Ryan at his stops, hoping to make Ryan angry enough to want to shut him up. With Sullivan’s fame soaring, Ryan finally relented and gave him a shot at the title.

The plan was for them to fight in New Orleans, but the police there prevented the still illegal bare-knuckles fight from being held there. On the morning of February 7, 1882, a special train left New Orleans for an unknown destination, filled with people who had tickets for the bout. Among the more famous passengers were Irish writer Oscar Wilde and the infamous outlaw brothers, Frank and Jesse James. Just two months later, Bob Ford would murder Jesse.

Their secret destination was the grounds of the Barnes Hotel in Mississippi City, Mississippi. Though there was no official “world champion” at the time, many considered Ryan to be the American champion and some considered him the world champion. One of Ryan’s backers was Richard Kyle Fox, the visionary Belfast-born publisher of the National Police Gazette. Fox strongly disliked Sullivan, some said because of some personal slight to him by Sullivan in a bar, so it may well be that Sullivan was drunk at the time. For many years, Fox would constantly be on the lookout to find a boxer to beat Sullivan and Ryan was one of them.

Both fighters entered the ring with members of their entourage holding up beautiful silk banners touting their Irish roots and their love of America. Ryan’s included an Irish Harp and in the right-hand corner a sunburst, the emblem of the Fenian Movement of which Ryan was a member. It also said “Paddy Ryan, Champion of America” in the center. Sullivan’s had both Irish Harp flags and American flags in the corners.

Rounds in bare-knuckles fights lasted until someone was knocked down, but under the rules, you were allowed to wrestle an opponent to the ground in addition to knocking them down with your fists. You could also basically “take a knee” and end a round. So many rounds were far less than the 3 minutes that would shortly become the standard under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.

So when we read of many bare knuckles fights lasting 50 or 60 rounds or more, we must remember that many of their rounds were shorter than 3 minutes. The first three rounds of the Sullivan – Ryan fight, for instance, lasted just 54 seconds. Sullivan quickly proved the stronger of the two fighters, battering Ryan over 8 rounds. Ryan failed to come out for the 9th round. One reporter wrote that Sullivan had “knocked out” Ryan, putting that phrase into the boxing vernacular.

(Left: Illustration of Ryan vs Sullivan fight.)

Some recognized Sullivan as the “World Champion” after that fight, but was in 1883 through 1884 that Sullivan really because a legend around the nation. Sulivan and his management began to promote himself in ways no fighter ever had before. In May 1883 he pitched for the New York Gothams to a victory in an exhibition game. The final score was 25-15, indicating it was not taken too seriously by the players. For his efforts, however, Sullivan got some serious money, receiving $1,595, half the receipts. But he and his team had a bigger stunt in mind.

That stunt was a whistle-stop tour by rail all over the country fighting exhibitions, some official bouts, and offering the local “tough guys” $250 if they could make it through 4 rounds with him. Most of these towns had nothing like the sports arenas of the modern day. So John L fought in theaters, dance halls, and armories and sometimes outside. Many of the men he fought were the local “tough guys” known for their fighting prowess or men like lumberjacks or blacksmiths, well known locally for their strength. Whatever the case might be, Sullivan dispatched all of them, and most very quickly, astonishing the locals. And on more than a few occasions, he did it while drunk. The tour began in Baltimore on September 28. By the time he had finished his 200 stop “I can lick any man in the house” tour, few in America did not know his name.

In his biography of Sullivan, ring historian Nate Fleisher wrote that "For the first time in their lives, Americans living in the sticks -- nearly four hundred thousand American farmers, miners, lumberjacks, artisans, and clerks -- laid down their hard-earned cash to see a real boxer in action. They loved it, and the effect of their gratification on the growth and spread of boxing is beyond calculation today."

(Right: One of the silk banners that Sullivan carried into "battle.")

Many incidents from these nationwide tours spread his legend far and wide. In Chicago, six-foot-tall railroad engineer Morris Hefey was knocked out in 30 seconds and said, “If you want to know what it is to be struck by lightning, just face Sullivan one second.”

In Memphis, it was said that he knocked out bricklayer William Fleming in two seconds and that the poor fellow was unconscious for 15 minutes. When he finally came to he said “When do me and Sullivan go on?” “You’ve been on,” he was told. “Did I lick him?” he asked. It’s hard to say how much of that is true, but it spread as truth.

During the tour stop in St. Louis, he once again took to the baseball mound, pitching 5 innings for the St. Louis Browns in an exhibition game.

In a story that would further enhance his renown in the Irish community, it was said that in a dinner in his honor in Victoria, British Columbia, he refused to stand for a toast to the health of the city’s namesake, Queen Victoria. He “hadn’t been brought up to seeing Irishmen drinking to the health of English monarchs” he informed the shocked dinner guests. Whether he had imbibed to excess before the dinner is open to debate.

Sullivan made a side trip to Tombstone, AZ by stagecoach in March 1884. To place this time in western history, it was just two and a half years after the famous “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Geronimo was off the reservation and nearby leading a large group of Chiricahua and could have made Sullivan’s stagecoach trip into or out of Tombstone very exciting, if not fatal.

(Left: Geronimo (on right) with three of his Chiricahua warriors.)

Sullivan was invited to Tombstone by Sheriff Ward to come and witness a mass hanging of five men convicted of murder. It was, sad to say, one of the big “events” in western towns. Ward actually took Sullivan to visit the condemned men in jail. After one asked him if he really could knock out any man in 4 rounds and Sulivan saying yes, one of them told Sulivan, “Well, I reckon I’ll have to take your word for it, for the chances are that I shall never have an opportunity to see whether you can or not.” With a few days to wait for the grisly affair, what else would Sullivan do but fight? He was said to have fought 5 one round exhibition fights at Schieffelin Hall.

Nothing eventful happened during those exhibitions except for the fact that he may have gotten into the ring with a black fighter for the only time in his career. Although no one is sure, one of the men he fought may have been James Young, a large, young black cowboy from John Slaughter’s ranch. Some reported that Young actually landed a good punch on Sullivan before being dispatched by “The Boston Strongboy.”

(Richard Fox, editor of the National Police Gazette.)

When the tour was through it had covered twenty-six of the country’s thirty-eight states as well as the territories of Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. It had made him America’s first real sports superstar. 

Nearly every bar in the U.S., especially the Irish run bars, would shortly have a picture or painting of John L. Sullivan, Heavyweight Champion, on the wall behind the bar. In Boston, where Hugh O’Brien was elected the first Irish-born mayor in 1884, Sullivan was a sports god. There was still no such thing as an official heavyweight champion, but most people did recognize Sullivan as the champion. “I have always believed what popularity I have today is due to that triumphal tour,” would say later in life.

In addition to reports of Sullivan’s heavy drinking, he also had a well-earned reputation as a philanderer. In May 1883, he married Annie Bates but by 1885 he was openly living with busty burlesque queen Ann Livingston. But none of that stopped the sporting public from loving him.

Over the years after Sullivan beat his man Ryan, Richard Fox of the National Police Gazette continued to search for someone to knock Sullivan off this pedestal. In May 1883, it was Charley Mitchell, called the British Champion by some. John L. dispatched him in 3 rounds in Madison Square Garden in New York. Undeterred, Fox brought in a giant Maori from Australia named Herbert Slade. He made it to the fourth round in August of 1883, also in Madison Square Garden. In November 1884, Fox brought in another Englishman, Alf Greenwood, but the result was no better. Sullivan beat him twice, once in Madison Square Garden and again in January 1885 in Institute Hall, Boston.

In late 1887, Sullivan had the only overseas bouts of his career, traveling through Ireland, England, and France. Everywhere he went, big crowds of well-wishers gathered, but none more so than in the home country of his parent’s native land. In Ireland, he fought exhibition bouts in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Belfast. The crowds were huge and enthusiastic all around the island. So tumultuous was his welcome in Dublin that the crowd unhitched the horses on his carriage and pulled it to the arena themselves.

Sullivan ended this European tour with what was billed as a heavyweight championship fight on Baron Rothschild’s estate at Chantilly, France in March 1888. His opponent was once again Englishman Charley Mitchell, whom John L. intensely disliked. Mitchell was said to have backed up and run around the ring for the entire fight. Each of the 30 rounds ended when Sullivan knocked Mitchell down, but then after some 3 hours, the referee was forced to halt the fight because of darkness and declare the fight one of the most lopsided “draws” in history.

Fox's next hand-picked opponent for Sullivan was Jake Kilrain, born in Greenpoint, New York. In December 1887, Fox declared Kilrain the “real” World Champion, though he had no authority to do so, and despite Kilrain not having a record to justify it. It was no more than a ploy by Fox to force Sullivan to fight Kilrain. Unfortunately for Fox, Sullivan returned from Europe in 1888 tired of training and of boxing and wanting to enjoy life. For Sullivan that meant eating and drinking to excess. He fought nothing but a few exhibition bouts for a year after getting back to the U.S. and was showing a prominent mid-section in the exhibitions he fought.

(Left: Sullivan vs. Kilrain fight poster.)

Sullivan finally could stand the claims of Fox’s usurper no more and agreed to fight him in the summer of 1889. Sullivan agreed that it would be a bare-knuckles fight. Knowing how hard Sullivan would have to train for this fight, Kilrain’s obvious plan would be to avoid Sullivan’s early assaults and wear him down. The time and location of the fight, July in the New Orleans area, was sure to provide them with intense heat to increase Sullivan’s fatigue. The exact location, as had been the case in the Ryan fight, had to be kept secret because bare-knuckle fights were still illegal.

(Below: William Muldoon)

Sullivan was in no condition to fight anyone when he signed to fight Kilrain. In desperation, he asked former wrestling champion William Muldoon to get him in shape. Muldoon, who would become a nationally known expert on training and fitness in the late 19th and early 20th century, agreed to take Sulivan on, but only if he would stick to Muldoon's training regiment religiously. It was a monumental struggle at times, but Muldoon took Sullivan to his farm in rural western New York to remove all the city distractions, something that would later become of tradition for many training boxers. There he melted some 30 lbs off the champion, down to his earlier career weight of slightly over 200 lbs. 

When Kilrain and his entourage must have been shocked when they got their first look at the "new" John L. Suddenly, their plan of wearing down an out-of-shape fighter for an easy victory would seem much more difficult than they thought. 

(Below: Kilrain's banner for the fight, declaring him the Police Gazette "Champion of the World.")

In the event, a heatwave hit the New Orleans area at the time of the bout. Temperatures of 100 or more were expected. Secret destination trains once again took ticket holders to the fight, which this time was held in Richburg, Mississippi, 100 miles north of New Orleans. In betting leading up to the fight, Sullivan was favored, but only slightly, unlike most of his fights.

It was reported to be 104 degrees at ringside during the fight. Kilrain did employ that delaying strategy to good effect. He stayed away and also employed wrestling tactics to bring Sullivan down several times, frustrating the “Boston Strong Boy.” Kilrain was so effective in avoiding Sullivan in the 4th round that it lasted 15 minutes and 21 seconds. At one point in that round, Sullivan stop in the middle of the ring and taunted Kilrain, saying, “Why don’t you fight? You’re the champion, eh? Champion of what?” Kilrain continued with his strategy, however.

The problem was that, for all his running, Kilrain was taking a beating whenever Sullivan could get close. As the rounds got into the 20s, Kilrain began to use the tactic of intentionally taking a knee. Finally, after the 44th round, Sullivan vomited causing a delay. Earlier in the fight, Kilrain might have thought if Sullivan could continue this was his chance to move in and finish him. Battered as he was, he was willing to offer Sullivan a draw. “No, you loafer,” was Sullivan’s reply, which could not have buoyed Kilrain’s confidence.

(Below: A photo taken of Sullivan and Kilrain in the ring.)

Finally, with both men bloodied and battered, but Kilrain, much more so, it was Kilrain’s corner that signaled their fighter was done. The two men had fought for two hours and sixteen minutes in 100+ temperatures. Sullivan, however, remained so full of fight that he went into Kilrain’s corner and challenged his archrival, Charley Mitchell, who was working Kilrain’s corner, to climb into the ring and fight him. It’s considered one of the epic battles of boxing history and was the last bare-knuckles heavyweight championship fight.

One of the reasons it was the last was that Sullivan was arrested later for fighting the bout and, though he was not convicted, his legal fees nearly wiped out his winnings from the fight. John L. was done fighting bare-knuckles.

The victory over Kilrain was the pinnacle of Sullivan’s career and probably should have been his last fight. His focus was going more and more away from boxing.  His heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore. He toured the country in a couple of plays, including one, “Honest Hearts and Willing Hands,” that was specially written for him by the playwright Duncan B. Harrison. He would fight exhibition bouts as part of the show. His acting was mediocre at best, but he made $1000 a week.

Sullivan spent money as fast as he made it, however, and always had; a habit that would plague many boxing champions since then. By 1892 he felt he needed to fight again and young “Gentleman” Jim Corbett was pressing him for a shot at the title. Corbett, whose father was born near Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, and mother in Dublin, represented a new wave of more scientific boxing brought about by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. He also represented a new wave of Irish-Americans, better educated and a bit more refined than the brawling, hard-drinking Sullivan.

(Left: "Gentleman" Jim Corbett)

Sullivan has once again gotten terribly out of shape before the Corbett fight. Some reports had him up to 250 lbs. The hype for the fight was incredible. Sporting Life magazine called it "the greatest carnival in the history of pugilism." Fox’s National Police Gazette, asserted that "the whole civilized world will await the result with interest." During the fight, reports of each round were telegraphed to New York and reported to crowds of people on Broadway. Sullivan went into the fight a 4 to 1 betting favorite, but Corbett was younger, taller, and a far better-trained boxer.

The fight would last 21 rounds, with Corbett having much the same plan as Kilrain, feeling Sullivan was not in shape for a long fight. But after mainly avoiding Sullivan for the first 2 rounds, in the 3rd he broke Sullivan’s nose with a left hook. With the broken nose restricting his breathing, the out-of-shape Sullivan quickly ran out of steam. “The Boston Strongboy” was still dead game and kept trying to catch young Corbett with one big right hand but to no avail and he took continual punishment as he moved in. As they watched their hero age before their eyes, the crowd urged him on, but in the 21st round Corbett stunned Sullivan with a combination and knocked him out.

After finally not being able to “lick any man in the house,” John L. took the defeat gracefully. Asking to address the crowd, he said, "Gentlemen, all I have to say is that I came into the ring once too often, and if I had to get licked I'm glad it was by an American.” It would be Sullivan's last fight, other than exhibitions.

(Right: An artist's depiction from Fox's Police Gazette of Corbett with the downcast, defeated Sullivan after the fight. Fox must have taken great pleasure in finally being able to publish this news.) 

It’s not surprising that Sullivan would balloon up over 300 lbs after he retired from the ring. He remained one of the most popular and well-known men in the country for the rest of his life. Because he was so famous and had traveled the country so extensively, for many years politicians and others who had met him (and probably some who hadn’t) would often tell people to “shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan.” There was even a song written celebrating the famous saying.

(Below: The elderly Sullivan at a Major League baseball game.)

Sullivan, along with a few baseball players, like Mike "King" Kelly, became the first real media superstars in U.S. history in the late 19th century. Vaudeville entertainers sang a song called, "Let me Shake the Hand that Shook the Hand of John L. Sullivan." He campaigned for his good friend, Teddy Roosevelt, and Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. There was a "John L. Sullivan" whiskey, no doubt the right product to name after him. Long after he was gone, Hollywood honored him with a movie of his life, titled, "The Great John L." His fame never waned throughout his life.

Following his retirement, Sullivan made a pilgrimage to his father’s birthplace in Abbeydorney, Co. Kerry. In 1905 Sullivan would “take the pledge” and never drink again. He even became a temperance lecturer. A few years after that he married his childhood sweetheart, Kate Harkins. The two lived for many years on a farm in West Abingdon, Massachusetts. Sullivan passed away there due to heart disease at just 59 on February 2, 1918, a victim of his lifestyle.

(Left: Sullivan's funeral procession)

Sullivan’s funeral was a national event. Jake Kilrain, who suffered the most significant defeat of his career at the hands of John L., was one of the pallbearers for Sullivan. John L. Sullivan was certainly a flawed man, but he was also one of the giants of sports history and probably did more to establish the sport of boxing in America than any other person. And for the Irish in America and at home in Ireland too, he was the living symbol that the Irish could leave their enslaved native land and “fight” their way to the top in the new world.


Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero” by Christopher Klein   

"Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator- The Autobiography of John L. Sullivan" by John L. Sullivan

"John L. Sullivan and His America" by Michael T. Isenberg

Nellie Bly Interview of Sullivan before Kilirain Fight

"The Great John L" (movie) Wikipedia

Flogging Molly - 'The Hand of John L. Sullivan' (Video)

"Gentleman" Jim Corbett Wikipedia

John L. Sullivan Wikipedia

John L. Sullivan: Bare Knuckle Champion (video)

In This Corner - John L Sullivan - YouTube

John L Sullivan vs Jake Kilrain July 8th 1889 (video)

Views: 2845

Tags: Athletics, Boxing, United States

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 23, 2021 at 1:34pm

Two posters for the 1945 movie, "The Great John L."

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 23, 2021 at 1:39pm

An ad for John L. Sullivan Irish Wiskey

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 24, 2021 at 3:03pm

An old poster of "The Champion of the World, John L. Sullivan, and his battles in the ring." (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 24, 2021 at 3:09pm

Souvenir program of the Sullivan - Corbett fight.  


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